By Molly Joyce
Perspective is an ongoing multimedia project that features disabled participants worldwide and asks what access, care, interdependence, and more mean to them. The project began in a dialogue with legendary disability activist Judith Heumann, known for her contributions to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and foreign service with disability rights. In our conversation, Heumann asked why I refer to my left hand as “weak.” My left hand was nearly amputated in a car accident, and it took twenty years to identify as disabled and embrace my experience. Therefore, this question struck me personally and almost politically, and it became clear that I was categorizing my disability within narrowly defined social definitions of what weakness can and should be.
In response to Heumann’s inquiry, I wondered if rethinking this terminology could foster a broader understanding and interpretation of “weakness” and related terms, specifically, terms central to disability culture yet relatable to all, disabled or nondisabled. I aimed to explore this by asking what these terms meant to disabled colleagues with varying impairments and experiences, to highlight the diversity and plurality of the disability community, and ultimately reframe collective perceptions about disability overall.
Below are the 8 questions that I asked for the first iteration of the project, which features twenty disabled interviewees worldwide, and is featured in this volume of Spark:
- What is access for you?
- What is care for you?
- What is control for you?
- What is weakness for you?
- What is strength for you?
- What is cure for you?
- What is interdependence for you?
- What is assumption for you?
The concepts were conceived from independent research in disability studies and personal frustrations as a disabled individual myself. Access, care, and interdependence are touchstones of disability culture, whereas the question of “cure” is often viewed as controversial. Additionally, control and assumptions about my disabled body have consistently frustrated me. Very often, I do not feel in control of my body and experience pain resulting from the overuse of one side. With assumption, I often navigate ableist assumptions about disabled bodies, such as the notion that disabled people cannot perform specific actions and the notion that disability overall is a negative rather than a neutral or positive asset.
With each question, I left the option to participants to choose whether or not they would like to answer in case they felt uncomfortable with specific topics. I thought this may be especially pertinent for questions such as, “What is cure for you?” However, in this first iteration, all twenty participants chose to answer each question, representing the importance of these concepts to individuals with various disabilities and different experiences.
The twenty interviewees all identify as disabled, and their disabilities span physical, intellectual, visual, and auditory impairments. Other identity markers vary as well, including race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, and backgrounds, which includes veterans, academics, activists, and pageant models.
I engaged the interviewees throughout a year-long fellowship at Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, DC, from 2019–2020. Most were from the DC area, and I met several through artist residencies worldwide, including in Canada, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Most of the interviews were in-person, and I recorded their answers on my phone. Additionally, several interviews were conducted over Skype, for which I recorded the audio through my computer. Virtual connection is a longstanding value of disabled communities, often due to mobility and physical impairments, and it was imperative to implement this value and accommodation.
Artistic process and musical content
Once the interviews were completed, I uploaded the recorded audio into Logic Pro software, a digital audio workstation I use for audio editing and processing. I first minimally edited the interviews to exclude my questions and extraneous dialogue. From there, I selected what I considered the “highlights” of each response. Starting this process was incredibly exciting yet, at times, uncomfortable, as I knew that I was editing the audio from my subjective opinions on what I viewed as intriguing or not. Although I believe every interview is interesting in and of itself, I sought to edit the material to a shorter length (twenty to twenty-five minutes), as the first iteration was envisioned for an in-person installation. Therefore, I hoped visitors could listen to the entire work in one visit within twenty to twenty-five minutes.
Once I selected highlights for each question, I arranged the responses in a temporal order that responded to or contrasted with my musical underscoring. Each section begins with my recorded voice asking the related question and then proceeds with the interviewees’ responses. Additionally, I chose to juxtapose divergent responses to highlight the nuances of these concepts and the diversity of answers. For example, in the “Cure” section, one respondent states, “I hate that word,” followed by another expressing, “I would love a cure.”
Once I completed the editing and ordering, I added my musical underscoring that involved my voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic processing of both sources. This aural combination is a common facet of my practice. The toy organ is well suited for my physically-different hands and has been a critical vehicle for artistic output, exploring disability as a creative source. This process was also delicate as I knew that the musical content might suggest particular interpretations of the questions and interviewees’ answers. Periodically, I tried to lean into this discomfort and play into it with the musical material. For example, in the “Cure” section, there are fast, arpeggiated C-major and A-minor chords. This arpeggiation suggests a fantasy-like land, as if a “cure” is an impossible-to-reach destination. Furthermore, the “Weakness” section features a meandering vocal line with a static higher-pitch drone above it. This suggests the inevitable fragility of weakness and ultimately giving in to its feeling and experience.
I prioritized accessibility as a core aesthetic driver from the project’s conception, and it was necessary to incorporate several accessible, multi-sensorial outputs. I have continually headed toward this direction in my work by seeking creative ways to implement open captions in music videos and providing visual and image descriptions for artist talks I have given.
The project was envisioned as an in-person installation as part of Halcyon’s By the People Festival in June 2020. However, once it became clear that this was not feasible due to COVID-19, I shifted efforts toward producing high-quality sound mixes and open-captioned videos of the content that could be shared virtually. Through this process, I hoped that my desire to create multi-sensorial outputs of the artistic content, namely with the aural output with the interviewees’ voices and my musical underscoring, and visual output with their response displayed layer as text/open-captions in the videos. This open-caption idea was from project curator Sandy Guttman (current doctoral student in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago and former Assistant Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Guttman introduced the idea of open captions as the only visual output, specifically by placing the question for each respective section at the top of the video frame and interviewees’ responses at the bottom. This choice gives a black void in the rest of the frame, which leaves the rest of the visual output up to the viewer’s imagination.
Regarding crediting the interviewees, I kept them anonymous in the videos to focus on the insights they were sharing rather than specific/recognizable names. However, I share their names with project publicity and related talks, such as on the project webpage on my website. Additionally, the project will be released as an album on New Amsterdam Records in October 2022, celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month. With the album release, I plan to create a dedicated project webpage on my website and include the interviewees’ bios, photos, as well as full audio and text transcriptions for the full interviews I conducted with them.
I hope that Perspective represents a unique approach and outlook for new artistic works conceived with disability viewpoints and accessibility at the start rather than end of the work. Within the arts, accessibility and disability are often relegated to forms of compliance and accommodation. Perspective was conceived by a disabled artist with a disability-centric standpoint, using disability-motivated questions as the starting ground for interviews with disabled contributors, as well as disability-based production in promoting access as aesthetic. Therefore I hope that Perspective shines a light onto the crucial voices and viewpoints of the disability community, literally and figuratively, and for all to cherish and learn from these perspectives.
To access the video playlist on YouTube, click the image above or click here.
Molly Joyce has been deemed one of the “most versatile, prolific and intriguing composers working under the vast new-music dome” by The Washington Post. Her work is concerned with disability as a creative source. She has an impaired left hand from a previous car accident, and the primary vehicle in her pursuit is her electric vintage toy organ, an instrument she bought on eBay which engages her disability on a compositional and performative level. She is a current doctoral student at University of Virginia in Composition and Computer Technologies.