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Alive: An Exhibition of Artistic Work and Performance By Persons With Disabilities

Editor's Note: Catherine Frazee is a former Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and is currently Professor of Distinction, Ryerson University School of Disability Studies, in Toronto.

Photo: Posed shot of Catherine Frazee

April 7, 1997

When the shutter clicks, in that instant which is measured in fractions of a second, it all comes together. The artist, the idea, the execution--click.

Done. The image is recorded; the statement is made. A bit of time in the darkroom, a bit of chemistry, and we have our finished product.

Or so it seems.

When the final touches of paint are dried, when the work is stretched and matted and mounted and framed and titled and hung, it is complete. The artist has done what she or he set out to do.

So it seems.

When the punchline is delivered, when the final chorus is sung, when the last chord dissolves to a hush, when the dancer's body relaxes into a slow, deep bow, we clap our hands in appreciation. We are sorry that it is over, but we understand that the performance has come to an end.

But upon closer reflection, what seems like completion is actually a beginning. This exhibit is not the harvest, but rather the sowing of seeds. The artists have brought us rich material to work with and without even knowing it, we are now engaged in a process perhaps as creative as the art and performance we came to view.

For it is in the sharing of art that culture is built.

The meaning of any artistic work is never complete. The meaning and value of artistic work evolves through a dynamic exchange with its audience. The meaning emerges from the links, observations and emotional charge which we, the audience, contribute. Through this contribution, we assist in the construction of culture.

On this particular occasion, we have the opportunity to participate in the formation of a radically new culture--a culture rooted in values which are fundamentally different from those historically associated with the terrain of disability. Nothing about this event invokes those tired old images of the "tragic but cheerful" victim of disability.

Instead, what is happening here, to paraphrase Alice Walker, is the affirmation of disabled people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so many of the messages conveyed by our mainstream media.

What is happening here is disabled people not as object of pity or charity or stereotype, but as subject, as agent, as creator--disabled people not on the sidelines or at the margins, but at the centre of that expressive moment when the shutter clicks--disabled people who are unashamed, confident and even proud. What is happening here is disabled people in command of the media--artists declaring who they are with no apology, not as persons who have triumphed over disability, but as persons who have mastered the fine art of living with grace and vigour and disability.

What is collected here is a body of work in diverse media by various individuals with different styles, perspectives and aspirations. What ties it all together, on a subtle but critically important level, is that each of these individual artists shares with all of the others the experience of disability. That experience, to a greater or lesser extent, informs the work of each artist. That experience is a more or less integral part of the identity of each artist. And that shared identity is what renders the whole, in an exhibit of this nature, so much greater than the sum of its individual parts. The whole begins to give definition to a contemporary culture of disability.

And what is our role, as audience, in the emergence of this culture?

Almost by definition, art evokes response. The sounds and images of this exhibit do not pass through us like white noise. They touch us, stir us, intrigue us, amuse us, transport us, provoke us. And it is incumbent upon us to respond. To reflect upon what we see and hear, to interpret, to consider, to discuss, to participate.

As participants in this landmark event, it is incumbent upon us not only to be entertained, but also to work a little at making the connections, at drawing inferences, at pulling upon the threads that weave together to make this a coherent whole. We can and will admire the form, but we must also grapple with the content. We can and will marvel at the technique of individual artists, but we should also explore the possibilities of a unique aesthetic speaking from the work as a whole. As witnesses to the emergence of this radical new culture of disability, we must be actively involved in promoting discussion of this work and we must mobilize the resources which are within our sphere of influence to seek more venues and greater opportunity for this kind of important exhibition. We can and should enthusiastically acknowledge the talent of the artists represented in this exhibit, but beyond that we can and must affirm what is undeniably evident in this collected body of work--that is, the creative power of the disability experience itself.

And why must we do all of this? What, after all, is the significance of that creative power? Of what relevance are the arts and entertainment media, in the face of the enormous barriers to the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in Canadian society? In what way will our struggle for economic, political and social justice be advanced through the cultivation of a culture of disability?

The answer is as mysterious as the process itself, but the answer has to do with the transformative capacity of art. As we explore the creative power of the disability experience, we have the opportunity to expand our consciousness beyond the issues, beyond policy, beyond what takes place in the legislatures and the courts to the essence, to the core, to what takes place in our neighbourhoods, our homes and our innermost selves. We have the opportunity to change how we feel about disability rather than simply what we think.

And as that creative power is manifest, as disabled people give expression to our experience, as we communicate our perspective--speaking from the subject

"I"--our voices become increasingly strong and clear and sure. Through image and gesture and word, through those revolutionary decisions of how to point the lens and when to click the shutter, disabled artists will fuel the quest for equal rights and opportunity with the full passion of our shared humanity.