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Anne Teahan: Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility - disability arts online
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Anne Teahan visits the Kennedy Center to interview artist Michelle Lisa Herman. / 12 July 2010

photo of an installation with test tubes set out on a table in the middle of a gallery with turqoise walls

The installation is ART (Applied Research & Technology) - multi media installation 2008. Photo by Michelle Herman

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Sue and I are standing inside the Hall of Nations entrance to the Kennedy Center, looking up.  High above our heads hang parallel rows of national flags; under our feet a long red carpet recedes into a distant vanishing point.  Is there a throne somewhere at the end?

I have come to interview Washington-based artist Michelle Lisa Herman, who works here for ArtsEdge as a media designer.  But Sue and I are early and have a little time to explore the building.  There is hardly anyone else around: the security lady, some catering staff, but no other visitors yet. 

I think about equivalent spaces in London and how the Barbican, also huge, seems cluttered in comparison. Even Tate Modern’s gigantic Turbine Hall, with its grand industrial past, keeps clear of overt expressions of national pride.  Banners outside, but flags inside?   Never, except as an ironic part of an artwork.

So here we are in the Hall of Nations, two London visitors, awestruck and out-scaled by American confidence.

With a spare half hour, we take the lift to the roof terrace to see a stunning, panoramic view of the Washington skyline.   We only have a few days. From here we can at least admire from a distance what we won’t have time to experience directly.  The city is full of memorials and monuments in all forms: white stone domes and columns emerge from green spaces below. 

And in the middle of the Potomec River which runs alongside the Kennedy Centre, a dense area of greenery turns out to be a conservation area and island memorial to the 26th US President who loved natural history. And somewhere out there, much further down river according to my map - is the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial.  My guidebook calls it a ‘focus for activists for disabled citizens’. 

But my research has turned up a more complex story about the difference between ‘for' and ‘of’. Fifty years after his death, a proposed statue of President Roosevelt became a symbol of disability politics and fierce argument: should his wheelchair be represented? He himself, in the 1940s, concealed it. So out there, among all the Washington memorials and monuments, there are now two statues – one concealing and one revealing the wheelchair of the 32nd US president. If I had a few more days here and a little more energy, I would visit the memorial and follow the story through…

After the roof terrace, I return to the Hall of Nations to meet and interview artist Michelle Lisa Herman. Her multi-media installation for the ‘Revealing Culture’ exhibition remains fresh in my mind. Her installation is magical:  A semi-darkened space merges scientific equipment  (test tubes, petri dishes, microscopes) with the visual delight of coloured lights and liquids. And a filmed projection shows a unique kind of action painting: ink drops on water, bleed and spread, like a magnified cellular growth.

Michelle is the first artist I interview for my ‘Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility’ project and I am a little nervous: will the technology work – (a tiny digital voice recorder) and will my voice work well enough to be understood both during the interview and afterwards? And most importantly, will she feel comfortable with my questions and happy to expand and develop her thoughts? My project aims to understand how artists see their practice in relation to their disability and how British and American approaches compare.
 
Michelle is very positive and clear in discussing her work and ambitions for its development. She describes how disability acts as a creative inspiration and drive. I am completely engrossed by the interview. We cover many areas and questions which will be further explored as my project develops. But one particular idea surfaces above all others. 

Michelle talks about EEC (Ectrodactyl Ectodermal Dysplasia & Cleft Palate Syndrome) a systemic condition she has managed since birth, which has had a complex effect on all aspects of her life. EEC is the result of a rare genetic mutation. For Michelle, a chance cellular event has determined the shape of her life and her art. So Michelle’s artistic take on the role of 'chance', has a profound resonance that other artists  – who have never had cause to consider their existence in this way – may lack.

And this conversation clarifies something for me about Art and Disability in general. It strikes me that the concept of Disability Arts just doesn’t feel quite right here. Art is not an exclusive ghetto. It deals with universals, and it's because of disability that Michelle's artistic  exploration of Chance has universal resonance. 

Disability may fuel Art in all sorts of ways (as a powerful drive, as subject matter, as a way of slicing mainstream clichés) but Art will be the outcome:   sometimes ‘Disability Art’, sometimes just Art. At least that’s my thought for today, but I may think differently by the end of the project…..

After an hour or so we finish. I feel very lucky. I have been given some digital gold dust. And with 'chance' in mind (this trip has been full of  mishaps) I check and double-check that my digital recorder plays; I check I can unravel every spoken word, including my own whispers and vocal spasms, and I make sure there is no possible chance of pressing Erase by accident.

For more of Michelle’s work visit www.michellelisaherman.com/

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