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Access Praxis 2023

On April 18 2023, a small crowd gathered under the many glowing lamps and hanging planters of the  MCA’s Commons for the second iteration of Access Praxis. The two-hour event was the culmination of a more than year-long collaboration between the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a part of the “Cripping the Arts” project. The collaboration of five artist-researchers (3 from Chicago and 2 from Urbana-Champaign) brought together a virtual artist residency exchange, called the Crip* x BOW Fellowship.  

The five artist-researchers –Alana Ackerman, Stephanie Alma, Tommy Carroll, Justin Cooper,  and Nic Wyatt – were seated in a half-circle at the front of the Commons, bookended by Bodies of Work Co-Director Carrie Sandahl from UIC on one side, and Liza Sylvestre, co-founder of   Crip*: Cripistemology and the Arts from Urbana-Champaign on the other. They were gathered to view and discuss the outcome of the Crip x Bodies of Work Fellowship, a short film in which the artist-researchers place-based narratives of disability were interwoven, using a combination of still images, video, text, and sound. 

In the film, Justin Cooper’s voice repeats the refrain “How I got here… Well, it's complicated,” as he recounts his experiences of being isolated and confined after his powerchair breaks unexpectedly, this isolation and confinement is emphasized by his photography on the screen,  white sailboats popping against the vast, vibrant blue of Lake Michigan. Stephanie Alma recounts a trip to Cafe Mustache on jazz improv night, surrounded by the “atomic blobs” of other people, feeling both out of place and completely at home as she takes the stage behind the drums. Tommy Caroll explains how he understands the physical world through vibrations, and people too, reading their vibrational energy to understand who is safe and who is not. Nic  Wyatt’s bright pixel portraits of people in their lives are the visual backdrop for Nic’s reflection on autistic joy, visibility, and hope. Alana Ackerman ruminates on conditional access, framed by her trips to a community pool, where their body moves in gradual undulations under the light blue waves of chlorinated water. The film explores how each artist-researcher experiences space,  their own body-minds, and others. It also explores what it means for access to become part of the artistic material itself. It reflects realities of both otherness and also connection in everyday crip existence.  

Following the screening, the artists discussed – among other things – the many generative aspects of disability. (ie: Access intimacy, a deeper understanding of self, and the beauty to be found in interdependence, the unique way of knowing life as an outsider, softness, openness to other ways of being, seeing unexpected possibilities, the satisfaction that comes from learning what works for your body-mind, and being surrounded by and learning from other amazing disabled people in community across difference).  

The discussion concludes with an invitation to create their own site-specific narrative that reflects their own experiences of their body-mind in the world. The audience prompt asks, “What are you experiencing in the space? What sensory experiences are you picking up on? What senses do you use to navigate this environment and to interact with other people there? What might be unique to your experience due to how you use your body, mind, senses, background,  and prior experiences? What does this space make you think about?”

I take a picture of the prompt, bookmarking it to do later. For now, I’m tired. It’s been a long day, but still my body thrums with possibility and warmth, a somatic experience I’ve come to associate with being in the same room as people who “get it,” people who can articulate in words, images, sound what it means to be disabled in a world that seeks to invisibilize and flatten our experiences. On the way home, despite my weariness, I find myself more aware of my body and the world as I move through it, the honking of horns as three lanes of traffic merge into one, the red of brake lights coming through the windshield, the soft hum of my heater, the rattle of wind through new spring leaves. I usually rush through the world, bouncing from one urgent task to another, moving through space on auto-pilot, ignoring the sensations of my body. Tonight, I linger. 


Beth Bendtsen (they/them) is a graduate student at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work. Their interests include models of community care and cross-community solidarity and the creation of disability art as a form of resistance and reclamation against dominant narratives rooted in ableism, saneism and other forms of oppression.