Sign in a green space advertising no limits festival, Berlin

Bondage duels and vanilla spacetime: No Limits Festival Berlin

Unlimited Trainee, Sarah Thewlis, visited No Limits Festival last month, an international festival of art and performance by Disabled Artists in Berlin, Germany. This year’s festival was co-curated by Michael Turinsky. Here, Sarah reflects on the experience and the themes that ran through it.

 

I hate the word crip. Not in principle – it’s a powerful slur for us to have reclaimed as a community. I only ever hear it used with defiance and pride nowadays, it’s just that my own intrusive thoughts and internalised ableism don’t seem to have got the message. Have to use the lift? (My mind goes ‘crip. crip. crip.’) Need to lie down? (crip. crip. crip) – annoying as a leaky tap and seemingly unfixable. Attending No Limits Festival and its ‘Disability Art & Crip Spacetime’ Symposium I then, unsurprisingly, came across it a lot. I never quite lost the urge to call a plumber, but that confused simultaneous ideological approval and instinctive discomfort was, it turned out, pretty emblematic of how I would experience the festival as a whole.

With Michael Turinsky co-curating the festival programme, the very first disabled artist to do so, it was advertised as explicitly focusing in on ‘bodies’ and how they can be “exposed to the gaze of others, utopian, stigmatized, countered and racialized, poetic and political, sensitive to pain and vulnerable, headstrong, monstrous […]”. Whereas I am used to framing disability very much in terms of barriers rather than bodies à la social model, the programme celebrated, explored and exploited the corporeal, often in ways that would be unthinkable were they not disabled-led.

Out of context the first show we saw, Randen Saft Horror, could be seen as horrifically ableist: Referred to as monsters, visibly disabled performers are ordered to attack and wrestle each other to the soundtracks of various different horror films. Choreographed by the brilliant Tiziana Paglia, however, it anarchically toys with the (sometimes literal) demonization of the disabled body within the genre (both historically and sadly ongoing) – visible difference and/or neurodivergence being almost prerequisites for chasing American teenagers around forests or whatever. I was uncomfortable definitely, but still captivated by the raucous, bloody nightmare-scape providing a take-down of dehumanisation even as it enacted it. It was exciting to see disabled artists address the darkest ways in which they’re perceived and yet have such weird macabre fun whilst doing so. (One of them had spoons attached to each of his fingers the whole time, it was great)

Across the acts that I was able to catch, similar reclamation gymnastics seemed to be happening – even combined with actual gymnastics in the case of Silke Schönfleisch and Dasniya Sommer’s Bondage Duel. Like it says on the tin, alternating between being subjugated and subjugator, the two performers face off, sometimes violently, sometimes tenderly, utilising rope and garish latex tape. In the light of anecdotes from the Symposium about being either infantilized or fetishized as a visibly disabled person, it seemed to integrate and subvert both. The decision to have Schonfleisch, a performer with dwarfism, ride out on a miniature tricycle maybe hinted at the latter, but it proved to be her source of power in the duel – as when she used it to circle Sommer like a kinky maypole, wrapping her in rope from head to toe.

‘Why are you afraid to tie me up? Is it because I’m disabled?’ was a line from the piece that stood out. Seeing Schönfleisch be manhandled, tied up and ultimately suspended from the ceiling was, again extremely uncomfortable to watch, particularly because of how the audience became complicit in her humiliation. Having strung her up to a pole, Sommer climbs atop Schönfleisch’s bound body, using it as a tyre-swing and posing triumphantly as an audience-member is instructed to take a picture. What felt revolutionary about it, however, was its assertion of disabled people’s right to play with stereotypes and represent themselves in ways that aren’t, on first sight, empowering. That our bodies are fetishized and subjugated shouldn’t preclude also being into BDSM, that being demonized needn’t rule out having a great time pretending to be an actual demon.

Though I missed it in person, Noemi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia, programmed earlier in the festival seems like an iconic illustration of these contradictions. Bound, suspended and immobilised for 10 hours, in some ways it is the ultimate depiction of a disabled body as powerless, as objectified – and yet it is still a thoroughly awe-inspiring feat and so utterly spectacular. It is quite the achievement to integrate such disempowering perceptions of the disabled body, perhaps even perceptions that a disabled person has of themselves, and still come out on top (quite literally given that she’s suspended from 20,000 helium balloons).

Where the wider festival dealt explicitly with the body, the Symposium shifted the focus more onto the world it moves through. Where subjugation, demonization and humiliation were represented and subverted very tangibly by the performers I’d seen, here the question was how to take the oppressive forces of time and space, and flip these round to our favour.

‘Deviant bodies, deviant modes of perception’ had been highlighted as themes by Michael Turinsky at the outset and it struck me how much the very word ‘deviance’ is linked with disgrace. Celebrating kinks, relishing transgression had created powerful moments of defiance within the confines of the shows I’d seen, but in the more sombre discussion space we were faced with the conundrum of how to unshackle ourselves from the everyday internalised shame it is all too easy carry around with oneself as a disabled person.

In a panel addressing ‘Embodied practice in liminal and crip spaces’, filmmaker, writer and performer Alexandrina Helmsley spoke of the ‘shame of absenteeism’ whilst Claire Cunningham introduced the concept of ‘the floor as a place of shame’ for a lot of disabled people – particularly problematic in her art-form as the typical response from non-disabled choreographers was “it’s contemporary dance, of course we use the floor”, enforcing what Cunningham termed a “hierarchy of verticality”.

Delving into this can often get too much for me – I’ve more than once hidden my face in a beanbag and had a cry at disability arts events because the topics are almost always dark and close to home. But this wasn’t a normal disability arts events – we’d been told from the start that we were operating within Crip Spacetime, and it was Crip Spacetime that seemed to hold the key of how to rid everyday experience as well as creative practice of stigma and shame.

In their welcome address moderators Noa Winter and Nina Mühlemann had provided the following definition of the concept, taken from Alison Kafer’s book ‘Feminist, Queer, Crip’:

“Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies…Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds”

Though it is usually painful to have to acknowledge that time and space make things harder for me, here that acknowledgement is key to setting up an alternate and destigmatizing system of time and space. The Symposium had the effect of positioning customisable, pick-and-mix laws of physics as default – so that it is not disabled people who are deviants, but rather normative spacetime that is too vanilla.

With Alexandrina Helmsley questioning how we ‘become complicit in each other’s realities’, Claire Cunningham’s description of her universe provided a great example of how to begin reframing mine. “I read distance in terms of energy”, “I read space in terms of hazard” were some of her alternative metrics, and where typical units of measurement were irrelevant she instead described space as “that’s 2 crutches long, that’s 5 crutches high”.

A point that stood out for me particularly was when the conversation casually turned to crawling, and having to use it as a way to get around sometimes – something I relate to but that is tied up in moments of extreme powerlessness and humiliation, such that I’d never dream of bringing it up even among friends. In Crip Spacetime, however, it was clear that this is just another mode of ambulation, and I could instead frame it as: I live in a world where sometimes the sky gets lower, where streets stretch or contract depending on the day and there’s pretty much always a blizzard (visual snow is fun..).

Crawling, being a monster, being bound and gagged were all not only re-claimable but potentially empowering at No Limits and within the world of Crip Spacetime. So maybe, just maybe I can get on board with the word ‘crip’…