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Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She leads The Olimpias, a performance research collective. She is also a professor of English, women’s studies, theatre, art and design at the University of Michigan. Her most recent monograph, Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape (Palgrave, 2011, paperback 2013) explores The Olimpias’ arts-based research methods, and won the Biennial Sally Banes Prize by the American Society for Theatre Research.
PhD in Performance Studies and Feminist Theory, Falmouth College of Art
MA in Germanistik, Cultural Anthropology, Theatre, Film and TV Studies, University of Cologne
MA in Film Studies, University of Warwick
Areas of Expertise
Interdisciplinary Arts, Community Arts, Community Performance, Community Media, Dance, Performance Art, Disability Culture, Practice-Based Research, Creative/Critical Writing Hybrids
I am a performance maker and community artist, a witnessing critic and theorist, an educator and a disability culture activist. My journey as an artist emerges from a passionate exploration of performance ethics and community building.
What we call ‘art’ is up for grabs, needs to be re-thought, re-created, every time we step into the river of practice. I know this because as a disabled dancer living with pain and fatigue, I have to subvert the ordinary, have fun in unusual spaces, and find time out of time. For over twenty years, I have engaged community participants gently and with thought in process work. Some of these workshops happened in women’s centers, some in hospices, in mental health self-help groups, with youth groups, with traditional Weavers and Knitters Guilds, with politicians, with people labeled as ‘developmentally disabled’, with cancer survivors, in National Parks, in abandoned buildings, on the beach. In these art journeys, we use what becomes important to us: dance, theatre, poetry, video, mark-making, sculptural attention to material and space, sound art, installation and live presence. Together, we change the world, and create a more inclusive future.
These experiences, and teaching community arts in Wales, England, New Zealand, the U.S. and Australia, created many questions and ideas, which I collected in a how-to tool-box, the book Community Performance: An Introduction (Routledge, 2007).
I am the Artistic Director of The Olimpias (www.olimpias.org), an artists’ collective. We create collaborative, research-focused environments open to people with physical, emotional, sensory and cognitive differences and their allies. In these environments, we can explore pride and pain, attention and the transformatory power of touch. Olimpias artists have deep insight and creative ability, but they might not be able to attend rehearsals regularly and extensively, and they cannot guarantee their presence at any one performance. We make this difference into a virtue, querying art and performance paradigms, and use new media and alternative performance structures to allow for an open work process. We film our process creatively and use multi-channel video installations or telematic approaches to have virtual if not always live presence.
We use presence, slowness, pedestrian movements, a poetics of words and bodies, and the deep affective register of touch to share our beauty and our critique. In most Olimpias sharings in the last year, we invited the audience members to sit in a circle with the performers, to physically engage. To give the gift of closeness, to be near someone whose embodiment is wholly different from yours and to be so in a playful way: that’s what we offer our audiences.
There’s tensions in Olimpias projects such as Anarcha (http://liminalities.net/4-2), an exploration of black culture/disability culture issues, medical ethics and the lasting effects of slavery medicine and racialisation; or Tiresias, a project based around issues of sensuality and sexuality. These tensions of identity and difference emerge in many identity politics and minoritarian art projects, and I am looking forward to fruitful and respectful exchange about art making, cultural identity and poetic politics with students and faculty at Goddard. The Olimpias call for disability culture while we are aware of the limits of this term, of the disconnect between individual experience, historical oppression and the cultural formations we speak into being.
I am a non-native English speaker, a first generation college student with a strong commitment to working class issues, and a feminist. I have lived in cultures where mythological connections to the land and multiple language communities have strong presence in everyday, political and art life. Fractured storytelling, willful mythmaking and an attention to the materiality of meaning-making are part of my creative attention to life.
I bring my attention to process, environmental location and ethical engagement to my pedagogy. My hope is that we can create journeys together towards personal and artistic growth. I see my teaching at Goddard as part of an artists’ conversation, giving and receiving, paying attention. Let us develop attention to the deep patterns that shape our desire to create art. Let us enable an exploration of the influences that shape the art maker and their cultural, historical and political embedment, in order to carry art practice into the future.
My art work, pedagogical labor, activism and critical writing are all part of a continuum. I believe that writing about art extends the circle of art’s reach and political vibrancy, and so I have published widely in journals such as TDR: The Drama Review, About Performance, Liminalities, Afterimage, the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and differences. My books include Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (Routledge, 2003), The Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art (Minnesota, 2007). I have also published a book of performance poetry, co-written with performance artist Neil Marcus and with photos by Lisa Steichmann, Cripple Poetics: A Love Story (Homofactus Press, 2008). In 2011, I published a book about the Olimpias arts-based research practices, charting our processes: Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape (Palgrave), and the book won the biennial Sally Banes Award from the American Association for Theatre Research. I’ve also collected many artist voices on the poetics and politics of embodiment in Somatic Engagement (Chainlinks, 2011).
Beyond my work at Goddard, I am a faculty member at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I teach in performance studies and disability studies. I spend summers in Berkeley, California, and perform or run workshops internationally.