The invalided body is read as different from the norm, read as abnormal, sick, traumatic, foreign, stigmatized. It is exaggerated in its deficit or in its superfluity. In the past it was often quite unacceptable, or acceptable only in special circumstances (the jester, the circus, the freak-show), when it was marked as monstrous or comical. A disabled body is also subject to biases about its lack of productivity, its reduced productivity, i.e., its reduced capacity to contribute to the (economic or social or…) community, as well as its incapacity for jouissance. The social position of such bodies is inscribed in the language for the Latin invalidus means feeble, incapable, poor. Disabled bodies show that the social ‘manufacturing’ of the body can be subordinate to biological givens and hence to discrimination. “The presence of a person with special needs is problematic in many social situations: it threatens a change in the status quo, a momentary vision of one’s own body or self as potentially different, since the person is brought up share against what is ‘disturbed’”, observes Petra Kuppers in the book Disability and Contemporary Performance. Social concern for unusual and extravagant bodies has developed in the last, perhaps, forty years in the direction of greater social and cultural sensitivity to difference and the production of diverse social and institutional frameworks that raise the quality of life for people with disabilities. Disability thus is not just a medical condition related to an individual person, but is primarily a social issue, concerning the inclusion and integration of these people into society.
Disabled bodies are understood as dependent, those that need special attention, that move in a different time and with a different tempo. Their aesthetics is subject to a different canon of beauty. One of the well known art works of the 1980s, by Irish performance artist Mary Duffy, Cutting the Ties that Bind, takes up the set of issues. Mary Duffy was one of the thalidomide children, victims of the drug that was prescribed in the 1950s and 1960s for morning sickness. The best known anomalies of the extremities that this drug produced were Amelia (lacking one or more limbs) and phocomelia (coming from the Latin for “seal”, in which some of the limbs are abnormally short). Many children were born blind, deaf, with abnormalities of the heart, kidney, genitals, nervous system, digestive system, or dies soon after birth. Mary Duffy was born without arms. Classical sculpture is often found handicapped today – without arms, legs, even heads. But while it still excites admiration and is held to embody the classical canons of beauty, real bodies without limbs excite shudders, are considered imperfect and un-beautiful, traumatic. The fact that there is a different and an other, which mainly relates to the body, excites negative identification, social sidelining, fear and hatred.
Ignorance concerning and abhorrence at such a topic are a stimulus for it to be considered through the field of art. The different, the extravagant body of the disabled became the point of departure for the creativity of artists presented at the international festival of contemporary art entitled Extravagant Bodies, which only the strongest-hearted can face. It is the site of the establishment of identity which is traumatic for ‘others’, but does work. Extravagant Bodies deals with the policies of the ‘normal’. What is considered normal (and what is not so considered) is ideologically founded and deeply impressed in society. Authors who take part in the festival are members of minorities, that is, they are disabled persons who with their works deal precisely with what makes them different from others, taking up and placing in the centre of interest their own difference, unfazed by social criticism and condemnation. The focus of the works then is the critical questioning of the social, political and cultural positions and identities of disabled persons. In this case, showing, looking and staring are not taboo, rather, they are allowed, and the voyeuristic quality that the works incite possesses its own cathartic power.
Neither visual nor performance arte, nor the art of the moving picture has in Croatia really touched on the topic of disability, not even after the Homeland War, when, in fact, the victims were paradoxically tabooed. We hold it is exceptionally important that in a culture in which corporeal difference is swept under the carpet and disputed, in which almost no building is constructed according to standards that enable the unhindered movement of disabled people, and in which it is possible to count in the fingers the cultural organizations or individual artists that deal with the topic of disability in their work, an event should take place that will bring people face to face with the problems and issues of persons with disability.