In Sensation of Motion in Time (2000), Japanese performance artist Erika Matsunami created a public event at a gallery opening with two performers of the Theater Thikwa in Berlin, Germany, a well established disability-focused theatre group. Matsunami and her two performers, both of whom have Cerebral Palsy, performed task-based actions among spectators in the Kunstlerbahnhof Westend, an old train station re-functioned into an art space. In the show, they walk or slither closely by their audiences: some spectators decide to move, making way for the performers taking space, others seem to enjoy the close contact, the permission to stare and to see in close-up. At times, Erika Matsunami, Martina Nitz and Tim Petersen are noticeable in unison: with Matsunami’s (who is non-disabled) ‘normate’ motion in a form of echo or counterpoint to Nitz’s spastic impulses. The ‘rawness’ of huddled spectators sitting on concrete benches and on stair steps, watching the writhing of Nitz on the floor at their feet, is off-set by large video projections on the top floor of the old railway station. These projections present the performers in a more ethereal light, giving an aesthetic frame to their unfamiliar physicality. The video projections allow for a different perspective on both Nitz and Petersen: not as live presences of disabled bodies in a public space that isn’t designed for them as valid citizens (the stairs are a constant reminder of this), but as signs of beauty, shapes and lines in movement. With this, the presentation sets different sets of understandings of disability in tension: As Overboe reminds us, The identity of disabled people who experience cerebral palsy is reduced to their appearance that is, according to Young (1990: 124), the antithesis of the controlled being associated with rationality, linearity, productivity and normality. (Overboe, 1999: 18) Here, the appearance, the visual encounter itself is manipulated, creating a temporal difference that translates that what appears uncontrolled into an elegiac dance – mediation, difference, the space between performer and spectator becomes visible as it doubles up between live performance and video. The space between projection and live presence allows for many details to emerge: different rules of visual engagement apply to the two forms of communication. The video presents Nitz in slow-motion, with beautifully colored tones, and the spectator can gain a different relation to Nitz’s see- through shirt showing off her muscular upper body and allowing vision of her breasts, and to her private and triumphant luxuriating smile at the execution of her movements. In the live action, the same kind of ‘aesthetic’ appreciation becomes more complex through the abrupt quality of Nitz’s movement, more ‘alien’ to many observers, and her position at the feet of most spectators, echoing uncomfortable social realities rather than ‘value-free’ art spaces. Energy, circulating clearly like shocking currents through the three different live performances, is transformed into a more elegiac and expansive pace in the interaction between camera and bodies captured on the screens. But the quality of energy as motion binds all elements of this site-specific work together: spectators and performers, architecture and videos. The train station is a place of coming and going, of traversal lines, of lines shooting off to elsewhere. Train time tables and the geometries of railway lines create striations in a field of reverberating departures and arrivals. The movement energy creates smooth pockets of encounters, where the directions of erotics and fascination, disgust and upset are arrested and set into ‘tactile relations among themselves’. Beyond the visual distance between extraordinary and normate body, the eye itself has a haptic, nonoptical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline nor form nor center; there is no intermediary distance, or all distance is intermediary. (Deleuze and Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus, 494) The happening doesn’t model a larger social homogenisation, or a carnival celebration of shared space. But it focuses attention on the living quality of encounters, on the quality of disabled bodies as carriers of live energy, and as engaged in a journey between life and mediation, art and everyday. The vulnerability of the body is present, and pressing onto the sensibilities of the spectators so close in contact with bodies usually held at bay through the ‘disabled’ label. But the vulnerability (imagined and otherwise) pairs with strength and resistance as presence. I am not sure whether I should read the performer’s presence in their bodily difference as openings into the possibility of sharing social space, or rather as monsters, as Lingis’s sharks that destabilize vicariously the ‘normate’ nature of non-disabled viewers. I want to read the immersion into an ocean of bodily difference in the tank of the train station as a moment that can overwhelm the escaping striations of categorisation into an encounter with smoothness .
(“Bodies on Edge” Petra Kuppers, London and New York Routledge Academic Press, 2003 )