Yesterday I attended a panel of artists who’s work intersects with activism and social change. The panelists included Heidi Latsky, a choreographer who works with dancers with disabilities, Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub, Channon Judson, co-artistic director of Urban Bush Women, Jessica Bauman, a theatre director who works with refugees, and Taylor Mac, theatre artist extraordinaire. After introducing themselves, the artists began to speak on how they came to the work they do and their respective engagement with the communities their work represents.
At the beginning of the event, Heidi Latsky showed a video of On Display, a project that, “turns a cast of diverse and extreme bodies into a sculpture court where the performers are the sculptures.”
With that, things became very complicated for me. On one hand, many participants in this international project proclaim that it allowed them to be truly seen, creates a space where societal conventions are cast aside, where a marginalized group of people take center stage. And yet, my feelings are conflicted. These persons with disabilities become the art objects of Latsky’s (who does not have a disability) work.
So I asked a question: “For those of you who’s art activism engages with issues outside your own experience, what are the challenges you face with community engagement?”
Latsky became defensive, which makes sense because her work has received a healthy dose of criticism over the past decade. Whenever accused of exploitation of the disabled community for artistic gain, she asks the dancers and people she works with if they view her actions as such. Regardless of their answers (which she assures the audience are in her favor), that methodology fails to take into consideration the point of view or people in the disabled community with whom she doesn’t work. I haven’t formulated any opinion other than acknowledging that the situation is nuanced and very complex, but Latsky’s response didn’t inspire confidence on my part.
And then Taylor Mac chimed in: “Sometimes you fuck up. And then you say, oh I fucked up. And then you commit to not fucking up in that exact way next time, but you’ll probably fuck up in some other way. It’s not that hard. Just acknowledge it and move on.”
I think that speaks for itself.