Rolling (the gaze)
The Rolling Exhibition began as a simple photograph taken while Kevin Connolly was skating down a backstreet in Vienna some time ago. Kevin kept travelling balancing his torso on a skateboard, and now, after rolling through the streets of 31 cities in 15 countries, he exhibits what he collected: the stare.
The stare, or ‘the gaze’, the expression of social power, which normalises and disciplines populations of our times, according to Foucault and other scholars, has captivated and excited – with its conceptual potency – our understanding of society and self.
What is the power relationship here? It is between able-bodied and non able-bodied people as social actors. What does this mean in actual terms? In brief, that the different power these groups have, and had in recent centuries, has heavily influenced and crystallised, or ‘naturalised as they say in sociology, the way that we see or know things. Social norms are constructed, and made to appear as natural, pre-existing our societies; which then used to discipline those who deviate, assumed to breach the ‘natural order’, but also used to regulate all of us.
And any kind of natural and normal able-bodiedness is of course just and only an assumption. That people must have a particular bodily and mental structure, that there is something called ‘normal humanity’ or ‘normal human body’, let’s say something which requires to have two legs, is just the effect of theological, social, political and economical discourses which forcefully and violently have achieved this to be seen as ‘truth’. In brief, any idea of what is a ‘natural human body’ is a result of social processes, not of any natural norms. And to claim the opposite, that yes there is a natural biological body does not stand well to criticism. Not historically (because it changes meaning through time and space), or logically (the metaphysics of western reason), or empirically (the social normalisation of any difference involves, for example, even such practices as those by doctors who surgically shape new-born babies’ genitalia to ‘appropriate’ form, if these do not conform to the dualist social norm male/female).
So, Kevin Connolly has turned the gaze back, he is taking the photos of his viewers. From an object of the gaze – and devaluation – he becomes the active subject. He seems to want to record but also to make people think and narrate the content of their thoughts. Constructing the narratives, approaching the origins of their stories, the viewers -those who were photographed or us who view the photos- may become able to encounter and question one of the deepest and most hidden socially constructed identities, one which people who are entitled to they never even use it to identify with: being ‘able-bodied’.
You might remember an earlier post here presenting a text by Susan Sontag: “Photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself.” Kevin Connolly’s photographs is an attempt to introduce a new and different way of seeing.
So, how is this all responded to? I can speak for one source found through Kevin’s website, an article in the ABC News website (1/1/2007): ‘Man without legs harnesses public gaze‘
Pardon? Something is deeply wrong in this article and can be sensed even from the title! Although, it tries hard to leave behind the traditional melodramatic ‘tragic but brave’ attitude to disabled people (oh, how heroic that he can take a photograph!), in the end it sinks deep in the same boring and stereotypical presentation of disability.
Instead of going through an analysis of the photographs and the involved meanings, it focus on the photographer. Certainly, the low viewpoint that characterises Connolly’s photos does not provide much to analyse in terms of originality in abstract, it is all of course in the context that which matters.
But the article fails to talk about this context. It fails to talk about the subjects of the photographs and their projections… or any challenging implications… or the meanings we have analysed above… or how the writer/viewer feels having to identify with the gazers (is this guilt and anxiety coming through?)… or even how ‘lucky’ Kevin is to be able to have access to a photographic project because he actually can use a tool (skateboard) made for able-bodied people… Instead, it talks only and about the photographer, his medical record, his upbringing, his customs, how he deals and manages with his condition etc.
In other words, despite what Kevin Connolly tries to show with his work, the stereotypical response of the media is to refuse the re-arrangement of the stare, and politically return the gaze back!
In all its naivety the article just briefly talks about the viewers’ stares as an example of ‘human nature’ (a concept often used in order to disguise the lack of social analysis), whilst describing how cultures approach him differently, from beggar to holy man. This is something not surprising at all! Actually it confirms how tied is any, changing understanding of ability and disability with its particular society of making (not the human nature).
One final note. I felt very happy to see Kevin Connolly rejecting prosthetic legs and any other forms of normalisation. It speaks something loud and emotive. to me personally and I hope all those currently removing disabling physical barriers from all areas of social life. It’s about how agency and personal ideas, and of course difference, must be accounted and accommodated, for the potential of any new adaptations to ever become effectively enabling.
Here, at left, maybe relevant in its assumptions of a standard uniform body, Le Corbusier’s modular man. It was used as a measuring device for his architectural work and reflects his understanding that ‘man is a geometrical animal’ based upon the conception of a normal biological body. Physiological difference and diversity were simply absorbed into a system of fixed and universal standards of function and performance (Rob Imrie, 2006).