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Issue 135

nurture dance: a love letter to conversation and friendship in art
by jes sachse

I roll my suitcase into the room and am immediately confronted by the ignited gaze of Toronto’s skyline, like a reticent ex-lover.

I haven’t been back to the village since the trans march last weekend, I realize. The hotel room looks like an affluent gay man’s condo. I approach the windows of a door-locked balcony and can feel my heart start to race. Staring up at me is the sprawling appliqué of rainbows across the commercial pave of Church Street, lingering from the festivities of the past week, leading my gaze with large colourful indifference into the horizon.

“Where’s the bed?”

I’m searching a room that becomes larger and larger at each glance. Closet. Closet. Closet. Bathroom. Oh my god there’s a bedroom?

I text three different friends at once. A asks if I have oil money. M says “omg send me a selfie vid.” I take out my computer and log onto the hotel’s Wi-Fi to make sure I have access to NOVA. After two failed attempts I see that I’m connected.

I said yes to this jury invitation even though I was already working too much. I knew how to respond to them this time. This wasn’t 2016. If an arts council or arts organization emails you, you reply right away before their outbox has even exhaled to say thank you for thinking of me this is a confirmation of my interest please let me know what else you need from me. Tip: it’s a massive train and you must already be at a run.

I didn’t know this in 2016 and I thought it was a personal invitation and was very touched and took three business days to respond to the train. The train was deeply apologetic but had already invited someone else. I’m a little embarrassed but I called the train and cried on the phone (you never cry to the train it will rust). I can forgive myself for crying though, it was June and I was hungry and horizontal.

I call my brother N and say I don’t know why I’m anxious. I say maybe it is the money making me anxious. Maybe it’s how high up I am.

I asked for what I needed this time. I asked for this hotel room near the office so that 9-5 two days back to back would not also include the arduous hour of transit from Parkdale on my body. I knew the train had funding and bylaws and I said disabled and access a bunch of times. It’s like needing the password. Sure there are forums and research and policies and officers but none of that matters if you don’t say the magic words even if you are famous for being disabled the train will assume you are also a train. The train will always assume.

N tells me to try and just sit with the fact that rooms like this exist and money exists and I don’t need to feel shame for not fitting I can just be aware. He starts talking about the Holocaust and how Carl Jung was ostracized in the wake of the war crimes for warning against condemning fascist leaders as extreme evil, as though there isn’t a collective container that contributes to mass suffering. I am not sure how we got to this topic so quickly but that is because I am probably dissociating. He talks about dad. I don’t hear that part. I hear my stomach and my kidneys.

I end the call by deactivating all my social media and taking my phone apart into pieces. I feel crazy. You are crazy. Look at these three gratuitous luxury pillows what is wrong with me why is my skin on fire.

It isn’t until I take the elevator from 26 in the air all the way down to the street walk to O’Grady’s order weird mac n cheese in two ball shapes and a beer and stare for an hour that I remember: the trans march. The large man in the grass stomped on your ribcage.

***

My name is jes sachse and I spent most of last year in self isolation, hyper-vigilantly reading about gaslighting on the internet. Also sleeping. Also drinking red wine. Also doing community care. Also doing administration. I don’t really remember because all of a sudden it was this year and something in my head somewhere said “wake up.”

I made myself very visible for a very long time because I cared deeply about disability and justice. I can’t tell you at precisely what moment I got lost, but I surrendered myself fully into a thesis I never completely understood.

In 2007, I was reading about disability and queerness on the internet. Also sleeping. Also drinking Pepsi.

I read a burgeoning theory then that donating my self portraiture to the movement was going to lead to freedom.

It led instead to a living performance of my identity. Disability studies academia, as it was then, a byproduct of post-modern feminism’s urgency, plucked my yearning and groomed me for a decade of mined creative labour abuse.

“Arts-based research.”

What did I sign? For how much? For how long?

I created in myself a feebly intersectional artistic prop that comforted and cosigned. I accepted any work I was offered. I thought that by serving those with power, that I was being considered, was being cared for, was even perhaps accomplishing something; that being repeatedly called upon despite little remuneration meant that I was successful.

The forcibly inherited weight of ongoing expectation that my work remain the same in its representation of my particular bracket of marginalization would be demanded of me again and again, readily and freely proliferated without me, because of the marketability of my marked visual oddness and palatability of my whiteness.

It is painful to be now able to acknowledge the strong-armed bequeathing of so much deeply personal creativity at the hungry hands of coercive and suffocating power. A bequeathing that is irretrievable; consent a conversation of erroneous ache. The MRPs are on shelves, the digital stories are disseminated, the blog posts collated on syllabi, the textbooks in circulation. But within that long stretch of denial too lies my privilege to say anything at all, and benefit in any way now.

Artists with disabilities are some of the most poorly compensated, often paid a small fraction. Especially when disability is in the title. A deceptive and enticing vulnerability; bodies and their performance a pedagogical tool owed.

“It’s the difference between representing yourself and being a representation of yourself.”1

Francisco-Fernando is sitting across from me on the tenderly languid Tuesday patio of the Cadillac Lounge. We’ve been in conversation for most of this summer, working and fostering mentorship after a recent artist residency.

We share light beer and a complicated acknowledgement of the visibility of the artist: how there is no righteous benevolence of giving up your self-platform, rather, to engage in an act of affirmative sabotage.2

Regret diminishes survival and dodges the responsibility of the present. Leading up to this summer, I made the choice to engage in a voluntary eight week protest installation in the atrium of The Museum because I was mad that the so-beloved adaptations for accessibility and universal design do not involve nurturing a care for or conversation with those very bodies.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing when I started showing up on the Wednesday free evenings, signing out a wheelchair (by turning over my I.D. & perhaps a small piece of my dignity), and pushing it in a circle for an hour at a time. I only had a sense of indignation about what I perceived as a right to take up space there.

The work of pushing in public was perhaps a simultaneously naïve and re-traumatizing approach to start actually talking to myself, but the work of pushing for private apologies is less safe, in my experience. Too much time travel.

I did learn that marble can actually be very calming to look at for two months of hour-long circular traces on hard tile. Colluded procession of sediments, sneakily eroded skeletons of the sea. It’s hard to think about marble as part of the legions of the once-living when a circling security detail makes a fortress of its forms. But the limestone and dolomite of quarries are ancient sea life resurrected, I found out on Wikipedia.

When individuals or organizations ask me for free labour in the form of answering questions and giving advice on access, they usually want to know who the bad ones are, so as to be awarded endorsement due to their shock, and to permanently escape any future liability. The quickest sound bite on accessibility I can offer is: just go to people, talk to them, ask what they need and be prepared to mess up, listen, don’t make them do the work. Don’t be more afraid of the appearance of making a mistake than you are of a body being harmed. This response most often sends administrators into confusion and panic.3

Institutions in colonized Canada reflect white supremacy. Whiteness is the definition of gaslighting. If I understand anything about navigating these institutions now, it is that I must be accountable to their violence even when/if I too feel it in my body.

I owe the beginning of this conversation to my friendship with artist Joshua Vettivelu. I didn’t want to go to Toronto Pride last year. After nearly a decade of trying to fit into Pride, it was going to be my first refusal™.

But then came Josh’s email invitation, with a recipient list so thoughtful and long, asking if I would be on a float of community and wear a t-shirt with text bravely starting a conversation with those in the very towers that continue on undismantled, inflicting pain on those most marginalized.4 “How Foolish It Feels To Take These Steps Thinking You’d Protect Us. A message to those at the tops of towers,” my shirt read, as the large pine flat-bed turned onto Yonge.

“Wow, everyone can see me,” I turned sheepishly to Josh. I had been so excited to be elevated out of the stomped-on ribcage of the crowd that I had forgotten about this part. I think that’s when I started returning to poetry in my work, which now marries itself into still-emerging explorations of large-scale sculpture & installation.

***

It has been 24 hours since the panic attack that put me to sleep my first night in the fancy gay man’s condo hotel room. I was sipping a glass of white wine when JPKK arrived with the sweet offering of a cupcake in her hand.

I have been long been afraid of large bodies of water. As a tiny person, that includes public pools. After the cupcake we went excitedly down to the lobby, crossing in front of the immaculate front desk in our matching neon swim palettes toward the pool. With JPKK standing near me wading, all of a sudden my body took a run and leaped far in.
I never jump. I always take 10 years to go down two steps. But hitting the water felt cooling. Like an exhale.

Her cellphone vibrates.

“It’s J! They’re asking if we want Pizza Pizza or Pizzanova?”

“Pizzanova!”

I feel a bit erratic still remembering I have another long day tomorrow but there is now more than just me in the room. There is a kindness. And soon J. And a pizza.

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