Our bodies are the manifestation of knowledge: on Crip Epistemology

Written by Hung-Fei WU

         Dear Friends, your love is persistence in living. Your love refuses closure. Your love reveals plurality and opens portals. Your love claims the broken beautiful as a site for freedom beyond able-bodied supremacy. Your love shifts paradigms. Your love works with plants. Your love creates the condition of possibility for making the world anew. In the absence of official records, your love remembers.── A Decolonial Feminist Epistemology of the Bed

Building on the previous writing that explored non-linear, heterogeneous, and fluid imaginings of time through rest, this opening invites the reader to once again touch down, returning to the abode of our dreams and rest. Let our bodies, lying askew on the bed, create wrinkles in the sheets. Pay close attention to this vessel that houses all our sensations—our bodies. Within this world of the bed, where tiredness, illness, joy, vulnerability, desires, and various emotional wisdom reside, everything is candidly revealed on this island-like bed.

The collaborative work of Tala Khanmalek and Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, titled “A Decolonial Feminist Epistemology of the Bed,” is an evocative dictionary of terms related to sick and disabled queer (SDQ) experiences. Rather than a traditional dictionary, it might be better described as a collection of poetic verses and letters. It includes the establishment of knowledge around sixteen terms such as “Blur,” “Chronic,” “Isolation,” “Playfulness,” and “Memory.” This knowledge is rooted in the life experiences of the two authors, transcending and stitching together the divisions between the personal and the political, the private and the public.

Khanmalek and Restrepo Rhodes emphasize that this dictionary not only disrupts linear reading as a disturbance to patriarchy and racism but also showcases its core concept of disabled time. It highlights that it is precisely because of being entangled with illness that different and diverse forms of life become possible.


Crip Time

          The order of the day is to understand the vulnerability of our bodies as something constitutive. It is our vulnerability that makes us sensitive, perceptive, and different from one another. ── exhibition statement of ‘Crip Time’

The exhibition “Crip Time” held at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt at the end of 2021 can be considered a comprehensive institutional exhibition that explores the concept of crip time. It brought together the works of more than forty artists and invited the audience to reconsider the notion of individual independence and imagine a new societal relationship based on interdependence. This relationship is built on shared needs rather than an ongoing measure of ability. 

In 2018, American artist Carolyn Lazard created “Crip Time,” a work that neatly arranges a variety of pills in a seven-day pill organizer, divided into morning, noon, and evening compartments. The video has a duration of ten minutes, condensing the weekly experience of a chronically ill patient. Lazard’s work provides a glimpse into the daily routines and management of medication that people with chronic illnesses undergo.

Last year, at the Venice Biennale, Lazard presented an exhibition from the perspective of being bedridden for an extended period. This transformed the way they imagined the fantastical relationship between the home space and objects within it. For example, the sink became a television, and the artist worked on a laptop while connected to the internet from their hospital bed. A time-measuring funnel on the wall, however, collected toxic dust in industrial workplaces experienced by Black communities. 

Judith Hopf is known for using everyday materials to reveal hidden social meanings in her art. Her famous sheep sculptures are made by filling cardboard boxes with concrete and attaching them to slender steel rods with cartoon-like facial expressions. The juxtaposition of robust materials and the apparent fragility of the seemingly lame and docile sheep reveals the power of interdependence among individuals.

One of the most captivating pieces in the exhibition is her early video work from 2006, “Hospital Bone Dance.” In this video, nameless patients and injured individuals dance in the hospital corridor, expressing the various pains that hospitals cannot neatly categorize and treat. Faced with the precariousness of life on the brink of collapse, people who suffer but cannot speak dance a surreal dance, collectively bearing the unbearable weight of the world.

When ableism establishes the value of a life based on the normal functioning of the body and mind, it constructs a society characterized by relentless toil and exhaustion, deeply rooted in colonialism and capitalism. In this system, minority genders, ethnicities, and disabled individuals often find themselves collectively oppressed. Guadalupe Maravilla brings forth a sculpture series titled “Disease Thrower,” which combines found objects, medicinal herbs, plants, musical instruments, and spiritual therapy rooted in ancient Central American myths and rituals. The artist, who fled his homeland of El Salvador during the civil war as a child and later battled colon cancer in his youth, firmly believes in the interplay of trauma and illness. For Maravilla, art has become an inescapable path to healing, and he actively resists the deeply entrenched violence of the immigration system through teaching and community actions.


The Glory and Solidarity of Disability and Madness

          You don’t need to be fixed, my queens—it’s the world that needs the fixing. ──Johanna Hedva

Here are just a few insights that I gathered during their European travels last year, from various festivals, institutional exhibitions, and biennials, regarding the resonances surrounding crip epistemologies. Despite being scattered, marginalized, and unable to be systematized, in a world overshadowed by crises like conflict and pandemics, these insights may be faint but continue to reverberate.

The publication “Crip Magazine” from the Istanbul Biennial is edited by the artist Eva Egermann who brings together articles and interviews from artists, writers, scholars, and activists. The choice of “Crip” (a reclamation of the term “crippled”) as the magazine’s name is meant to liberate bodies from the confines of capitalist frameworks. The magazine’s cover features a drawing of chamomile flowers by Yevhen Holubientsev, a Ukrainian artist with Down syndrome, created during the Russian bombardment. Inside, you’ll find photos documenting artist Jo Spence’s journey in battling breast cancer, tributes to the late autistic blogger Mel Baggs, and many texts that speak of pain, pride, and even a death petition from artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, who sought to exchange her life with a stray dog.

At the “Change” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna (mumok) at the end of last year featured a publication called “Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice,” edited by Carolyn Lazard. This publication, commissioned by the New York-based artist organization Reccess, serves as an accessibility guide for small non-profit organizations with a comprehensive list of reasons why disabled individuals may be excluded from cultural spaces and offers possible solutions to address these issues.

The “Unlimited Festival,” which has been held at the Southbank Centre in London since 2012, is another example of an open interpretation of a disability-inclusive society. It invites artists with various disabilities, including different levels of disabilities, deafness, neurodiversity, and those who have experienced chronic illnesses and mental health issues, to participate. Through numerous online and live performances, music, and screening programs, the festival encourages the general public to gain a better understanding of these marginalized communities, with a strong emphasis on education.

Artangel, a globally acclaimed art organization known for its long-standing promotion of public art, launched the exhibition “Directors” in September 2022, focusing on raising awareness about schizophrenia. In this exhibition, artist Marcus Coates created a work of the same name, where the actual directors became actors, and five individuals with schizophrenia were handed the camera. Coates, a.k.a the actor, endeavored to perceive various narrative situations that fell outside of what is conventionally considered “rational,” emphasizing an alternative notion of reality. These five short films were screened in various urban spaces in London, turning both the artist and the audience into learners of alternative knowledge. It served as an opportunity to learn empathy for seemingly impossible experiences and different ways of measuring reality and constructing the world.

On this rich journey of learning and exploration, the scenes from “Directors” serve as a constant reminder that those who speak often hold some form of privilege. However, prominent advocate Talila A. Lewis defines it differently: “You don’t have to be disabled to understand ableism.” Through active empathy, creating spaces for discussions on various forms of oppression becomes possible – and in times of crisis, these spaces are even more critical. That lonely bed that embraces pain and chaos may transform into a constellation of islands because someone picked up a camera, wielded a pen, or edited a publication, that makes a shared future of pride and solidarity goes beyond mere daydreams.