Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was Kept in a Box' by Mat Fraser at The Royal College of Physicians, 20th January 2014

The Royal College of Physicians reeks of power and importance.  Walk through the doors and you're judged by a jury of dead men; wigged, white and well-bred they gaze sternly down from the walls at you - the accumulated history so powerful you half expect a lacily cuffed Georgian hand to land firmly on your shoulder and ask just what a person like you is doing here.

The answer, unfortunately for them, is to smash down centuries of entrenched discrimination, to rattle these dusty walls as we dissect the the history of disability - a topic on which the medical establishment doesn't exactly come out of smelling of roses.  Our guide is Mat Fraser: actor, performance artist, musician and activist. Born a thalidomide baby in 1962 he's got first hand experience of the social consequences of living with disability; ranging from fear, anger and bullying through to pity, curiosity, condescension and, most relevant here, the misplaced, messianic desire to 'cure' him.

At the heart of the evening is a tug of war between 'normal' and anomalous.  Mat argues that the way different societies treat the disabled functions as a Rosetta Stone of their deeper psychologies and ethics.  The lecture is inspired by his research of artefacts, specimens and documents held in the collections of the Hunterian, the Science Museum and the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physician .  At the outset he explains that prior to this research he'd intended to come at this from a wryly comedic angle, but quickly became engulfed in a rather depressing tidal wave of history - realising that you just can't be lighthearted about a lot of this stuff.

Mat's obviously sincerely emotionally invested and this transcends a mere history lesson, easily entering the realm of performance - with video interludes, songs and moments that become quasi-cabaret.  Though he always treats the subject with respect he's a natural stand-up comedian, so the lecture is dotted with the odd cheesy joke and sarcastic aside - a pressure valve that allows the audience a much needed opportunity to exhale.

The basic structure is a chronological history of disability, beginning with Victorian freak shows, progressing through the industrial revolution, the post-war period and to the modern day. Fleshing out this skeleton is an explanation of three 'models' of disability; medical, charity and social - each of which roughly map onto various periods of history.  Layered on top of that is a specific focus on how museums and educational institutions represent disability through history and how they can improve.

As an artist who uses his disability as a central part of his performances, Mat shows a clear affection for the carnival world of the Victorian freakshow.  At first this seems surprising; films like David Lynch's The Elephant Man portray these shows as treating the disabled essentially as animals, beaten and whipped for the amusement of chortling crowds.  But there's a slightly warped sincerity to these shows.  From a young age children are told "it's not polite to stare", yet this smokescreen of manners reveals a wider truth - we want to stare - it's natural to be curious.  Mat tells us about his own experiences exhibiting his body to crowds, explaining that if audiences want to gawp at him they're going to have to put up with him talking to them as well - forcing them to acknowledge his personality and politics.

As we reach postwar Britain, the mood of the talk becomes much rawer and personal as Mat talks about medical and social reactions to the Thalidomide scandal.  He talks about his own experiences as a child with disability and how fortunate he was to have parents and doctors who didn't try to crowbar him into some warped idea of normality.  In the most disturbing part of the night he tells us of people who had their limbs operated on to make them more pleasing to the eye, with the side effect of rendering them useless - or worse, amputating them completely.  

Terry Wiles
This is the sharpest criticism of the medical model of disability, which takes the able body as a blueprint and futilely tries to make the patient conform to it - hammering a square peg into a round hole.  In impossibly creepy footage from 1965 we see Terry Wiles strapped into a monstrous gas-powered full prosthesis.  Last week Mat spoke to Terry on Skype about this, and we hear this over the footage.  He vividly recals his distress, fear and confusion at being placed into this contraption.  Though constructed with the purest of motivations, this device is the only truly warped example of humanity we see this evening - a Cronenbergian tangle of child and machine.  What we quickly realise is that this prosthesis isn't for the benefit of the person inside it, it's for our benefit - a way for those looking at Terry to ignore his disability and pretend that everything is hunky dory.

Mat explains the residual guilt of the medical establishment for allowing Thalidomide to be prescribed, outlining experiences with doctors who assure him that nothing like this could ever happen again.  Even now, when attending a GP for something that has nothing to do with his disability they often apologetically ask to feel the bones of his arms, their academic curiosity perhaps understandable, though the effect being to reduce him to his disability minimising him as a person.

It's this throughline of regarding the disabled as a person in their own right rather than just a medical condition that drives his desire to improve disabled representation in museums.  All too often exhibits about disabled life merely feature conditions rather than people - their personalities effectively erased from history.  It's this that Mat rails against, convincingly arguing that museums wield immense educational power, their innate authority meaning that their version of history becomes the accepted narrative. 

Changing perceptions in society can seem like an impossibly complicated job, yet if you pick your battles you can gradually erode the mountain rather than smash it down. Museums thus become a pressure point, where change can not only be easily made, but has the potential to ripple through culture for years to come.  For all the power and passion, this philosophy boils down to simply treating people as people, appreciating their personhood with empathy rather than with sympathy or a detached scientific curiosity.

This is one hell of a lecture, conveyed with such power that it repeatedly strays into performance.  Given the subject matter it feels a little strange to say that I enjoyed it or was entertained, but, well, I did enjoy it and I was entertained.  There's a few musical numbers, Mat variously singing and rapping - the highlight being a heartfelt and ragged rendition of Somewhere from West Side Story set to a slideshow of disability through the ages.  Mat's an excellent and charismatic speaker, totally avoiding even a hint of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness, leavening seriousness with humour but never trivialising.  Tickets for this are going to be hard to get hold of, but I'd highly recommend trying.

Mat Fraser will present three further performances of the show at:

Embrace Arts at University of Leicester on Thursday 23 January - Tickets
The Science Museum, London on Friday 31 January - Tickets 
Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London on Wednesday 5 February  - Tickets

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