When disabled artists stretch boundaries using their bodies as artistic tools, the Live Art Movement becomes reinvigorated… Jo Verrent explores
18 February 2012
In 2009, Rita Marcalo who has epilepsy, gained national media attention with her performance piece entitled Involuntary Dances, in which she attempted to induce a seizure with the use of strobe lights, fasting, sleep deprivation and raising her body temperature.
As her Wikipedia entry states: "She stopped taking anticonvulsant medication during November 2009 in preparation for the show on 11 December. The show was scheduled to last for up to 24 hours, and members of the audience, who must be over 18, were encouraged to film using their camera phones, if a seizure occurred."
Disability charities and the tabloid press turned on the piece and its creator, branding both it and her irresponsible. However, the Live Art Movement embraced it – and Rita – immediately understanding its drive and potency, connecting through it to a new way of receiving work made with the disabled body that has implications across their sector as a whole.
At the heart of Rita’s piece is the concept of inducing a seizure, allowing her to capture what she herself has never witnessed – her body moving involuntarily.
8.35am "Just had a chat with Rita. She’s frustrated and disappointed. Why has her body not done what she imagined it would? How will people respond if ‘it’ doesn’t happen? … She’s never seen herself as she seizes. She only has the witnessing of others. This would be her chance to have the experience recorded on film, her cameras and the mobile phones of others…"
Jo Verrent quoted from www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk
As a dancer, for whom movement is central and whose traditional dance training focused on examining how her body moves, this is rich territory. And richer still when one examines the skein of fascinating threads spiralling out from it – the fact that there are videos posted on YouTube of people seizing (taken and posted without their subjects consent), the fact that someone with epilepsy traditionally takes considerable steps to avoid having seizures, the historic viewpoint of the seizure indicating demonic possession, the volume of charities in existence supporting treatment and, the often ‘hiddenness’ of epilepsy… and so on.
Many welcomed the work:
"… I think what she's doing is terrific – well-conceived, witty and thought-provoking. Marcalo is drawing attention to the fact that on YouTube (and elsewhere) it's easy to find mobile-phone footage of people having fits – mostly taken without their consent. Curious, isn't it, that controversy should arise when a person with epilepsy consents to being filmed?... Rita Marcalo is an artist doing what artists are supposed to do: creating work that is surprising, challenging, transgressive and exciting. The point she is making, and her manner of making it, is unfamiliar; she is breaking all the rules: drinking alcohol and coffee, eating dark chocolate, smoking cigarettes, coming off her medication and going without sleep. Things that we epileptics are not supposed to do."
Allan Sutherland quoted from the Guardian November 2009
Equally, many criticized it. A review on the piece for Disability Arts Online drew strong debate with contributions, some calling it ‘a horrendous act of exhibitionism’, others attacking the Arts Council for funding the work, the Health and Safety implications (although ironically, Rita’s risk assessment was one of the strongest the Arts Council had received from any artist).
For me, the piece was astounding, not so much for the ‘will she/won’t she’ aspect, but for the way in which it made me examine my role as ‘audience’. What was my motivation for attending. Was I there as a witness, a voyeur, a supporter, as a member of a dance audience, as a member of a disability arts audience? The piece made and asked questions – not just about disability, but about art and its boundaries.
9.10am "Is it art? Many artists have focused audience attention on the human, the spectacle of ‘the normal’ (Kafka’s story ‘The Hunger Artist’, Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of Beckham sleeping at the National Portrait Gallery). This is different in that there is this thread of anticipation, therefore the spectre of disappointment. At this point, it seems to matter less. It is enough to be here. Art should challenge, make you think and rethink, give you new insights and this does…"
Jo Verrent quoted from www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/marcalo_involuntary_dances