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G-Sync: DisArming stereotypes with art

Grand Rapids has often been referred to as a "beta city," transforming our reputation in the process. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen discovers how the Grand Rapids debut of the DisArt Festival in 2015 will once again capture the nation's attention.
If you do not believe that a news headline created locally can travel farther than our state's boundaries and impact a person's perception of our region, then you have not been paying attention to Michigan's current lame duck session being played out in headlines both here and across the nation.
But the silver lining headline among all the negative things happening in Lansing is the news that the new, international DisArt Festival will be coming to Grand Rapids from April 10-25, 2015.
What began as a thoughtful conversation between KCAD's then-president David Rosen, Disability Advocates of Kent County's Executive Director Dave Bulkowski, and Chris Smit, Calvin College associate professor of communication, quickly blossomed to the formal announcement at a press conference held on Wednesday, Dec. 10 at UICA that this multi-venue public art festival will be made possible in the city of Grand Rapids, with public and private art galleries, theaters, and our local university and college educational spaces all signing up to be a part of this historic event.
"At the start David Rosen held the belief that if we were to move forward on this topic, then we had to somehow involve the art world and their ability to filter complex topics via their creations," says Smit, who is also now the festival director.
Smit regularly attends the Bodies of Work festival – a smallish disability art event held in Chicago. It was while he was attending one year that he met Ruth Gould, who was then the director of the biennial Liverpool, UK's DaDaFest and would later become its artistic director.
Six months after meeting Gould, Smit received a call from her saying that DaDa Fest had retained Amanda Cachia, an independent curator from Sydney, Australia (now living in San Diego), to work with Bluecoat gallery and their curator Aaron Williamson to bring the Art of the Lived Experiment (ALE) exhibition to the States in the spring of 2015. (Cachia will be adding to the ALE exhibition by inviting eight American artists and producing an American version of the exhibition catalog.)
Sensing that Grand Rapids would indeed be a great place to host this event, Smit got on the telephone and within two hours our local leaders agreed this was doable, then set out to meet with area arts organizations and leaders.
Besides the obvious hurdle of securing the necessary funding to mount such an undertaking, DisArt was recently awarded am impressive Art Works grant enabling the team to bring the ALE exhibition to the United States from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In addition, funds have been raised by Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University as well as the Wege Foundation and a host of other private individuals and family foundations.
Almost from the start, the newly formed festival began to collaborate with local organizations as well as add numerous programs to the festival, including a DisArt Film series program curated by Drs. David Mitchell and Sharon Schneider of George Washington University in D.C., who are the leading experts in the area of disability cinema.
And while DisArt is the only U.S. stop for the Art of the Lived Experiment exhibition, this festival also affords us an opportunity to showcase the talent of our region's artists; a series of art programming from fine art to dance to music will be organized around the festival's themes of celebration, investigation of what disability means, and how we honor the creativity, disability, and identity matters surrounding a complex topic. 
The result of nearly two years of work even resulted in the extending of an invitation for Smit, the newly hired DisArt Festival director, to speak to DaDaFest International Congress on Disability Culture and Human Rights on the topic of "The festival of change: towards a dialogical understanding of disability."
When Smit and I sat down to catch up about the trip, he and his wife, Elizabeth Van Arragon (Calvin College's associate professor of art history), were fighting off the jet lag but still beaming from the excitement of having seen the artwork firsthand. Smit, already familiar with art and culture as the author of two books exploring the topic, shared insights from being a child and observing the world from the perspective of his chair as he walked me through works that included art on paper, ephemera, and even videos such as a 30-minute performance piece by artist Katherine Araniello whose work "Walking: Liverpool 2014" illustrates the artist trying to navigate her power wheelchair in the rain on cobblestone streets as people walk past with a sense of indifference.
As Smit shared another rather bizarre performance work of a person walking in a room filled with wall-to-wall rubber duckies while wearing high heels, Smit said, "We talked about this video for a while in Liverpool as I came to believe that it is symbolic of what I imagine my first steps would be like if I were to walk."
I asked Van Arragon for her thoughts on the show and how it fits within art history or history in general. "For too long we have not really acknowledged the 'disability' aspects within a work of art," says Van Arragon. "History shows us that artists like Eve Klein, while seen as a contemporary, was indeed one who would fall under this other category. But as we all know that life is really about chance; it is arbitrary; and the role of the body and how we interact with the world is not just something the artist experiences and responds to but we do as well at various point of our lives."
History, according to Van Arragon, is about moments of ability and disability – a fact I am reminded of as I rebuild upon my post-2006 auto accident and recreate a new life with the ability in me. (I profiled Mary Free Bed in "The Road Taken" and came out about my injury publicly and the changes I have made as a result.)

"Right before we were entertained with a Krip Hop Nation performance showcase of hip hop artists with disabilities, we were invited to a private tour of the ALE exhibition," says Smit. Leaving their travel itinerary behind, they had been awake for 24 hours and Smit was running on the fumes of the Coke he had just drank because he wanted to stay awake.
"As I entered the space and saw this giant gold Invacar hanging there, a wave of emotion came over me," says Smit of the Invacar, a small car that the UK issued to disabled people in the 60s and 70s and created as an effort to provide some form of modality freedom for the wheelchair-bound.
At ALE, Tony Heaton's "Gold Lamé" is a take on the Invacar, which is transformed into an art object that is deceptively beautiful and yet scary as it hovers overhead.
Unfortunately, this single person "invalid car" -- as it would become referred to in society -- would later go on to be known as a death trap, as it had near zero safety features and resulted in the unnecessary deaths of so many people.
"I had written about this deadly part of our history, and here I was alone with it for the first time," says Smit. Since the ALE show is focused on the broad topic of transformation, something that is truly connected to the art movements of Dada and Surrealism (a fact his wife confirms), it's no surprise that Smit was moved as he shared story after story related not just to the car suspended above but of real-life stories associated with his life in his own chair.
And this is where the transformational power of DisArt Fest begins for me. I am reminded of a comment I heard early on from a member of our committee looking at the potential impact for good in our region: "ADA is just the bare minimum one needs to comply;" it is the very least a building can get away with in creating access. We know now that shining works of progress, like that gold car hanging by a string, might be an example of progress at the time, but they are by no means a perfect solution. We now know of a host of other items we can begin to install that will make us more welcoming. And the imagination, where art's source resides, is where we begin.
And this is why, in my opinion, while Lansing's electorate continues to fight over cutting off access, it is local events and big ideas like DisArt Festival that result in the headlines that we can all be proud of -- and hope will carry on over the state lines, showcasing what is possible here.
The Future…..yes, it still needs all of us.
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! has only two more issues this year. Get your weekend plans in order here.
Editor's Note: Many of the images presented here are courtesy of DisArt Festival and include an exclusive first look at some of the images the envoy from Grand Rapids recorded at Liverpool's DaDaFest. For more on the venues and programming being hosted at the 2015 DisArt Festival please visit their Facebook page.  
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