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  • Writer's pictureErin Clark

Visual Pleasure | an aerial dance and disability arts lecture

This is my favourite photo from visual pleasure. Visual pleasure is an aerial dance and disability and arts lecture combined. My friend Jeff and I, both disabled wheelchair users, created this performance art piece that we are currently performing.

a dancer crawling across a shiny cement floor during performance. more detail in the post itself.
disabled dancer crawls across the floor during her performance. Photo by Bizz Varty

I am on my stomach, horizontal on the floor, in the mid-lower third of the image. All the lights in the room have been angled to meet at this spot, I am the brightest thing in the whole room. I  crawl across the shiny, cement gallery floor moving from right to left. My hips are low, legs splayed. I press up on one arm while keeping my elbow bent and flush with my ribcage, biceps flexing, staying low and pushing foward. The other arm reaches above my head, forearm pressed into the floor, fingers splayed, pulling my body. When that arm reaches my ribcage, the other arm will reach forward. This push pull of my arms means my legs don't have to provide much force at all.

My hair falls to the floor, obscuring my face. I face down, as if I must make my way across the floor by feel. The floor is cold, hard, grey. We see the shadows of the rig in black lines bisecting the floor and going up the back wall in a series of triangles. Pools of light reflected in the floor's sheen, wet-like.

I am heated from exertion, my skin is pale but warmer toned than the white walls and grey floor.  I am wearing dark pink tights and light pink shorts and top. 

I am under the light and the edges of the image, and the people sitting in the audience wear dark clothes (unplanned) and, recede in the shadows. A woman in hijab stands near the back left leg of the rig and therefore catches some of the spotlight. She's one of the volunteers who was tasked with 'guarding' the stage that day. Health and safety were very concerned people would wonder into me while I was dancing. She wears a white sweatshirt and clasps her hands in front of her waist and looks toward Nathan, who straddles the back right leg of the rig also in the light. The three of us create a triangle. 

The cable tugs at my straps creating another triangle, this one tiny, and very pale pink. The pink of my straps is so pale in the spotlight the shape is barely visible, trace evidence of resistance. The line goes all the way to to the top of the rig and back down along one of its legs at the back right. Nathan leans his chest against the rig’s leg, his legs splayed to brace as he pulls the cable taught as I move. He wears a pink hoodie, as I asked him to be “part of my garden.” .

This kind of rigging support would typically be done backstage, out of sight. But in a show about visibility, disability as a 'novelty act' and playing around the nature of gazing on those we are intrigued by —even the rigger becomes performer.

There is also symbolism in the way access support is depicted. My wheelchair is not in the shot, I’m crawling as much because I can’t walk as because it was choreographically relevant. Many parts of the show express the blurred lines I experience (as an aerialist and a performer) between disability and ability, accessibility and barrier, mobility device and apparatus, art and novelty, persona and personhood.

Nathan and I are both in very active poses. Almost mirrored positions articulated on different planes --Nathan upright and my belly to the floor. Like me, his one arm is bent, elbow tucked against his side anchoring the cable. And his other arm is outstretched reaching for the cord above his head, ready to pull it in tight. There is a literal and deliberate tension between us (via the cable), and through that tension we stay connected. He has to give me enough slack that I can actually move, and I need to move at the right pace so that he can maintain tension.  we feel each other on either end of the cable acutely.

There is a poster hanging from an elastic gallery fence in the front centre. Very perfectly aligned just under my hand in the image. The background on the poster is a closeup of pink peony petals shot by me and it reads: please do not cross the barrier. Another requirement by health and safety to prevent anyone from absent-mindedly walking under the rig while I performed. But it is also an effective reversal of inaccessibility. I cross the barrier multiple times throughout the show. Sometimes easily, sometimes I struggle with it. A few times, someone nearby assisted me in getting past it when I got stuck.  I am the barrier's privileged occupant, and I transgress the confines at will, but I'm not it's authority. It was imposed on me, and as with most limits not intrinsic to my disability, my relationship to it is complicated. I interact creatively out of necessity.  I appreciate the unintended symbolism it provided, I am considering imposing it on myself in future shows, and it was unnecessary and in my way. 

The “stage” is lined with pink fabrics. The tulle at the top of the image is dark pink and then light pink but in reverse of my costume. the photo was snapped at the exact moment my hips  lined up with the point at which the tulle changes so that i'm dark pink where the tulle is light and vice versa. The lower part of the frame is lined with a hot pink silk. This creates four horizontally sequenced streaks of pink from the centre line to the bottom of the image. Tulle, Erin, 'dont cross barrier' poster, silk. The alignment alone is very visually pleasurable to me.  It oddly reminds me of the lines in a ruled notebook. Odd because I exclusively write in blank notebooks. But, in a sense, my job as the artist is to provide some invitation to 'write' your own 'text' and provide the prompts.

All this pink reflects the peonies in the self portraits hanging on the gallery walls. The peonies are there because I like them. It is something simple, imitable, that reflects me from my own perspective. Peonies being something I like. Because I take so many selfies with them over the years, I can be easily represented by them. But they don’t come loaded with the weighted sentiment  a wheelchair does —something else I can be identified with. So I turn my wheelchair into a peony and crawl across the stage I set by fluffing all the pink I could get my hands on along it's edges, imposed and natural. 

The 'natural' stage, in this case, is created by a giant aerial dance rig. It’s made of black metal and is 20ft tall and 20 square feet at the base. If you're having trouble picturing it, imagine a giant, indoor swing set with a single point of attachment at the top from which I can hang different aerial apparatus.

A wheelchair is like a stage, if you stretch the metaphor a bit. It is like a stage we don't choose. We don't choose the script that plays out in people's minds when they see us. We don't chose the spotlight of attention on us when we're in public. It's also made of black metal and is somewhat square shaped.

When I am in the centre of the rig, I am there to perform what I created, to express myself. When I sit in my chair, an audience of strangers watches me --staring at times--  expressing to me, through interaction,  what disability means to them.  Under the rig, I have more influence on what people perceive.

At least, I feel like I do.

The reality of who perceives what and who projects onto who is that I have very little control over these things. Accepting that gives me more access to what I want to express, letting my body move the way it does, going between it's natural movements and  skilled aerialist movements. I feel more present in the performance. And less concerned with what people are (or are not) picking up on or assuming. I'm hoping to create space for what we feel and project with my body as the catalyst.

The edges of the image are scattered with audience. Someone is sitting on the floor and leaning forward on one arm --as if about to crawl toward me. Others are sitting on the benches in each top corner of the frame. One is standing against the wall and taking photos.  A camera is set up against the wall on the left, aimed toward me and Jeff (who is out of frame but is behind me in the room).

Visual Pleasure is available to perform - learn more HERE

During a performance in a large art gallery, a 20ft aerial rig erected in the centre of the room. Erin is sitting in her wheelchair while a pink ombre aerial silk is slowly lowered over her, the fabric draping and covering her and her wheelchair entirely, leaving a visible contour of wheels and one of her outstretched arms. Audience is standing and sitting along the walls, some filming her performance.
an aerial silk slowly covers and drapes Erin Clark during a performance of Visual Pleasure. She is sitting in her chair creating a sculptural effect.

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