An embodied Manifesto: Disabled bodies liberating the arts, Christopher “Unpezverde” Núñez
April 14, 2022
(b. Costa Rica, Garífuna descendant) Christopher “Unpezverde” Núñez, is a visually impaired choreographer and Accessibility Consultant and a 2021-2022 Renewal Residency artist at Danspace Project. His artistic work embraces aesthetics and experiences of disabled people in accessibility practice:
“While traditional approaches to audio description involve a sighted person describing the dancers’ actions for a visually impaired audience, I became interested in performing the audio description myself as I performed. Rather than describing what a sighted person would see, my audio description centered my own low-vision perspective. I use my own voice as a tool to highlight my cultural, gender and disability identities that are audible in my speech, my accent, my word choice and my bilingualism,” he writes.
For this issue of Danspace’s Online Journal, Núñez proposed that he and his collaborators would create a “Manifesto,” that could uniformly state the intentions of their work—to always center the perspectives of visually impaired people in audio description practices. Please listen or read, below, to find out how this Manifesto ultimately unfolded into something quite different.
It was one of the first dance workshops I attended in the US. Everyone, except for me, was white, non-disabled, and a native English speaker. The aim of the workshop was to delve into our practices separately and share them with the group at the end of the class.
My practice is deeply rooted in care and access for visually impaired and blind communities. I’m interested in dance beyond and despite its visual content. Audio Description is at the core of my choreography.
At the end of the workshop I shared my work with the group. I explained code-switching (alternating between two or more languages) and my experimentation with abstract communication systems, such as speech sounds and phonemes, to describe what happens on an emotional and psychological level when dancers perform.
There was silence in the room.
One of the participants breaks the silence to say that she liked my practice, but if I keep working on my English, my accent would disappear and my communication with the audience would be more “efficient.” Everyone in the space nodded in approval. And once again, there was silence in the room.
I felt how the temperature in my body dropped.
I know this feeling. It is the first physical sign of shame.
I took the pencil with my cold hands and wrote “efficient communication” in my notebook. I was in shock, aware and ashamed of myself.
I felt something was off but I didn’t have the words to describe it, neither in Spanish nor in English. The “inefficiency” of my communication was not a language issue. It was my condition as a disabled human that they took issue with.
I prioritize my feelings over reasoning. Feelings are difficult to explain rationally, so I always thought of myself as a critical feeler, not a critical thinker.
As a disabled child, who grew up surrounded by violence and abuse, I learned to survive by bottling up all of my emotions without manifesting them in ways that were discernible. I was prevented from clearly communicating my emotions to the world. I was never encouraged to take up my space. This condition was imposed on me through a complex system of oppressive, ableist, structures—systemic structures that intentionally undermine and patronize disabled people.
As a disabled child, I felt everything around me and kept it inside. That was, until my first encounter with art.
Art became my way of communicating with the world: abstractly, in mysterious ways, indiscernible for some, fragmented for others. Never following rules of efficiency, clarity or productivity. This was the space I had claimed as my own, the only space where I felt free to be myself.
I didn’t appreciate being patronized by a non-disabled person here. To become more “efficient” meant to erase my identity and conform to their privilege. The privilege of moving to the pace of the hyperproductive, classist, ableist, capitalist dance.
It took me a moment to understand that the comment was xenophobic and ableist.
It took me a moment to understand that I shouldn’t be ashamed.
It took me a moment to understand that I should take up my space.
Some Americans lack empathy for immigrants in the same way that they lack empathy for disabled people. Black and brown immigrants in the US are required to adapt to the colonizer’s culture and language, at the ruthless pace of capitalism. We get daily reminders that if we don’t adapt this way, then we are inefficient. In this sense, immigrant and disabled identities share similarities. Not learning a new language fast enough or having a strong accent, for example, is also perceived as a weakness as it relates to a learning disability or a speech impediment. And disability—within the hyperproductive, classist, ableist capitalist culture—is related to inefficiency.
Back in the space of that workshop, I raised my hand to respond to the “efficiency” comment.
I told the participant that the capitalist notion of “efficiency” was the reason why disabled people are excluded from accessibility processes in the arts. That my practice aims to center the visually impaired experience.
The participant reiterated that if I was not going to describe the visual world what was the point of having Audio Description?
I replied: Audio Description, imposed by non-disabled people, focuses on the visual content only and that approach is to describe “what blind people are missing.” This assumption that disabled people are missing out on something, because they are disabled, is ableist. Disabled people do not miss out on anything because of our disability. We just appreciate the world in different ways.
The participant reiterated that only sighted people should practice Audio Description.
I felt how the temperature in my body rose.
I know this feeling. It is the first physical sign of anger.
And anger in disabled people is always used against us.
I ended my argument by pointing out that I was not responsible for educating people, particularly in confrontational and unsafe spaces for disabled people. I told the workshop facilitator that “all bodies welcome” should not be included in their workshop description.
Over time, I have reflected on how the emotional labor of navigating ableist dance spaces has remarkable consequences on my mental, physical, and spiritual health. One form of healing was community. Collaborating with other artists who are actively working to dismantle ableism. Creative, innovative, empowered, beautiful disabled artists!
When Danspace Project offered me the Renewal Residency, I knew this space would be the perfect opportunity to have important conversations with other disabled artists and allies.
Michelle Mantione, Krishna Washburn, Marielys Burgos-Melendez, and I had expansive and powerful conversations. I felt that this group of incredible humans had come to revolutionize the arts! Our meetings began to feel like an avant-garde movement from the XX century. The word “Manifesto” echoed in my head—a common practice among these groups of artists and a way of making public our intentions to decolonize disability culture from discriminatory practices that have permeated the arts, in which disabled artists are excluded from contributing creatively or innovatively in accessibility processes. I realized that we were manifesting our desire to generate a new movement in the arts: One led by and for disabled people. At the end of the meeting I did a basic Wikipedia search: An art manifesto is a public declaration of the intentions of an artist or artistic movement. Drafting a Manifesto seemed like a step in the right direction. I shared my idea with my collaborators. Everyone in the space nodded in approval. For the next 5 months, there was silence in my brain.
Drafting the Manifesto has been impossible. Every time I’ve tried, the critical feeler inside of me takes me on a fun ride in an emotional rollercoaster. This task has become impossible to materialize. Writing a Manifesto was, in a way, trying to communicate my dreams “efficiently.” Involuntarily, I had become that workshop participant. I wanted to ask other artists to be efficient in decolonizing access artistry and disability culture.
I took a step back. Eight years after arriving in the US, I had become an efficient and productive artist who flirted with capitalism and monetized my trauma through bios and statements, Manifestos, and workshop descriptions that invited “all bodies.” A dangerous practice disguised with good intentions. I gave up the Manifesto idea.
Disabled people don’t need to understand each other clearly. We need to understand each other deeply. As a disabled critical feeler, my intentions rest in my body. I don’t need to articulate a Manifesto because I am a living and active intention. I’ve embodied an art movement.
Artists in the US have learned to be efficient in order to survive this brutal capitalist system and I don’t blame us for that. But we, the disabled artists, are leading the path to liberation into new, exciting and magical places that are abstract, mysterious and indiscernible for the most efficient critical thinkers.