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Lesson 2: Vulnerability

This lesson deals with more responsive and responsible forms of perception, which help reflect on artworks and ourselves through the shared experience of embodied vulnerability.

The questions in this lesson are based on the essay Vulnerable Looking written by Jules Sturm. To read the essay, click here.

How do art, disability and vulnerability productively relate? How can ‘disability’ change not only the way we feel but also the way we look at others, ourselves, and the art we produce? How can the concept of vulnerability be a useful tool for practicing artists, and how can we rethink human embodiment and envision it differently?

In this lesson, by Isis Freitas Vale Germano, you will be introduced to the concept of vulnerability as a tool for practicing artists.
The concept of vulnerability: a tool to re-engage (or practise differently) our ways of looking at human embodiment.
Vulnerability is characteristic of all human embodiment and social life, yet should also be viewed as inherent in every form of embodied cultural practice, such as speaking, listening, reading, looking, and art making.
Jules Sturm

To do A

The appearance of disability is chaotic, beautiful, enigmatic—a force that changes the history of art and our perception of the world. Disability is an aesthetic value in itself.

Quote: Tobin Siebers, ‘Disability Representation and the Political Dimension of Art,’ DESIGNABILITIES. Design Research Journal for Bodies, Things & Interaction (2014).
Search Google for images of ‘disability’. Copy-paste them to a document, or print them out and cut them out with scissors. Create a collage based the qualities mentioned in this quote (‘changes our perception of the world’ and ‘an aesthetic value in itself’).

Walk into a cafeteria or any other public place. Ask random people to describe in three words how they feel about and in their own bodies when they look at your collage.

Set a timer for 3 minutes. Race to make a poem from the words you have collected.
Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005-2007, London.
Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005-2007, London.
Referring to Marc Quinn’s sculptures of Alison Lapper (see image), Jules writes:

[these] sculptures dispute social agreements about what type of art is tolerable to be shown publicly.

To do B

The performance Ceci n'est pas… (2013) by theater maker Dries Verhoeven was an installation that placed various people in public space in a glass box for the audience to look at. The choice of bodies, and the text placed next to it, challenged the public to think about ‘what type of art is tolerable to be shown publicly.
Look at images of the work here:

Search (on the web) for articles discussing this art installation to see how it was received.

How do you view this artwork? Can this be tolerated? Should this be shown in public or not? What do you think about this work ethically? Discuss with others how you feel about these questions.
My analysis, therefore, aims to reveal how we can productively participate in aesthetic practices that challenge the belief in embodied difference as deviance and instead treat it as variation of human nature.
Jules Sturm

To do C

Jules Sturm writes:
My analysis, therefore, aims to reveal how we can productively participate in aesthetic practices that challenge the belief in embodied difference as deviance and instead treat it as variation of human nature.

Sturm asks the question whether the sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant does more than merely represent a disabled pregnant woman: does it also challenge our conventional ideals and ways of looking at disabled bodies?
Self-inquiry: check in with yourself to question how you look at disabled bodies in public. Think of looking as an act: as behavior. What is your perceptive behavior when you encounter someone who is visibly disabled? What are your feelings, impulses and thoughts?

Compare the train of thoughts Jules Sturm shares here with public discussions about obesity and body positivity. Women who are fat and show their bodies in a positive way in public (think singers, entertainers, and fitness or yoga instructors) have been criticized for ‘promoting obesity’.

Try to take the position of someone vehemently opposed to a sculpture of a disabled woman's being displayed in public: what arguments might people have to argue that disabled bodies should not be displayed in public in a positive way? What could be against seeing disability no longer as a deviation from human nature, but as a variation? Try to understand as best you can what fears, beliefs, and ideals support such a view.

To do D

Jules Sturm writes:

… vulnerability becomes constructive only, when or if it elicits an experience of receptivity and responsiveness—which brings us back to art: in the (sensory) encounter with disability art, vulnerability can unfold its ‘promise’ through the art work’s demand not to look away and to relate with art’s own representational and material exposure to risk, destruction, decomposition, transformation, and potential misrecognition.
Choose one of your favourite works of art. Look at it (or at a representation of the work in a photo, on your screen, or in a drawing you make).

In what ways do you see the quality of 'productive vulnerability' in this work, in the way Sturm describes this concept?

How (or not) is the ‘mode of perception' that the work evokes in you, a 'vulnerable mode of perception’?
Breath (2012) by Marc Quinn.
When watching Breath inflate to its full size within less than two minutes on a huge stone platform on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, one cannot avoid feeling touched by the immense sculptures fragility, aliveness, softness, and fleshliness.
Jules Sturm

To do E

‘Or, in other words: specific art objects have the capacity to influence how we look and what we perceive by appealing to the viewer’s own bodily involvement in both processes.’

Listen to the following audio fragment of an interview where Jules Sturm talkes about:

art representing art

According to Sturm's analysis, Quinn's inflatable Breath is not a representation of a disabled body, but in fact a representation of a representation (the former marble sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant). She shows how the inflatable artwork therefore draws the viewer's attention to the incongruity between actually disabled bodies and their representation in culture.

Moreover, the vulnerability of the making process and the material of the inflatable sculpture makes this work of art an example of 'productive vulnerability': it invites us to participate in a more vulnerable mode of perception that allows us to ‘rethink human appearance'.

How would you like to ‘rethink human appearance’?

for this exercise, we invite you to come up with a concept for a work that uses the power of disability aesthetics. Search for images of ‘human appearance’ that you think we should change. Using this image or these images as a basis, draw the outlines of a work that, like Quinn’s Breath, reworks that representation in a way that changes our mode of perception, from a detached observer to a vulnerable subject looking.
During this reading group Jules discusses the vulnerable body in art. How is this body represented? And how does looking at the vulnerable body in works of art affect the experience of your own body?
ArtEZ Studium Generale and platform for contemporary art P–OST organized an evening on 13 April 2022 with writer and performer velvet leigh (ArtEZ DAI Art Praxis), and theorist and educator Jules Sturm (Zurich University of the Arts).

Lesson 3: Representation