Maeve Hanna on The Invisible Artists Carnival
Wrapped in the warmth of a blanket my grandmother knitted, a cup of steaming ginger tea in my hands, and a heating pad against my raging gut, I watched shaky cellphone videos of a dress rehearsal for The Invisible Artists Carnival. The Other HeArts performance collective shared with me the first footage they had on hand after performing their fluid, ever-changing, shapeshifting show in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Mi’kma’ki. I had written them to inquire whether there was any video I could see, and they gladly supplied me with what they had. While it’s an imperfect way of seeing a performance, this small act allowed me to have my own experience of their work.
With my dog Salem by my feet on our giant burgundy couch, I smiled, giggled, and gazed with rapt regard as collective members in their circus personas Patches T. Barker, Applique von Battenburg, and Buttons, along with Queer circus artist and Disability Justice advocate Erin Ball, and Halifax MAD and Disabled artists Riley Reigh, seeley quest, and Lexi danced, spun, sung, and turned their way around Alderney Landing in Dartmouth. Their small gesture of trust to make the performance accessible – more than most are willing to make – turned against conventional expectations and ways of experiencing art. My computer screen became a portal to another world, I could feel the palpable joy of the work that love and support created, and I felt seen in my own illness on the other side of my screen even if I wasn’t physically seen at all.
Organized with Eyelevel Gallery and in partnership with Shakespeare by the Sea and Halifax Circus, The Invisible Artists Carnival was presented during Nocturne, Halifax’s all-night art festival. The multifaceted performance art piece-cum-circus act was created by the Toronto-based collective and Ball. It acts as a summoning ritual for the invisible artist, the artist unseen in society who identifies as non-white, non-cis heteronormative, gender non-conforming, Queer, MAD, disabled, neurodivergent, SICK or CRIP. Consisting of many elements – sound, projection, theatrical performance, aerial silks, song and dance, and invitations for consensual audience participation – the performance culminates in a joyful and pride-filled parade. For each iteration of the Carnival, Other HeArts collaborates with local community members, allowing the piece to flow, change, and be as mutable as the diverse lives and experiences they seek to highlight and uplift.
Each show includes an accessibility team who manage different audience needs such as live description and ASL interpreters. These needs can and often do shift with each performance. Of late, accessibility has become a hot topic in the mainstream, but the problem remains that it is an imperfect blanket term. In the able-bodied community, it may not be understood that access for some can be a barrier for others – a fact that is frequently overlooked if not neglected altogether. The team at Other HeArts, Erin Ball, and any artists they work with always allow for flux, adaptability, and change within the show, finding ways to modify it in order to include access needs that may not have been previously addressed or even necessary. This allows for a truly human experience, ethos, transformation, and evolution to occur within the parameters of the work, no matter how messy or challenging.
Embracing circus arts in The Invisible Artists Carnival is a reclamation of the traditional sideshow act, which thereby tears apart the historically abject associations made between circus shows and disabled and neurodivergent performers. The performance and the artists involved upend and “blow open” these stereotypical associations, turning their focus to the joy and pride associated with a circus arts practice. In learning and incorporating circus into their work, the artists are creating an abundant, safe, and loving space for community engagement, for making every body visible, for celebrating each lived experience and demonstrating the level of generosity and mutual care that exists within the disabled community. This work, like all work aligned with Disability Justice (a movement that emerged in 2005 through the work of Sins Invalid) was made so folx could connect, survive, and engage. As artists, we know that art creates community engagement, and here more than ever it’s clear this art saves the practitioners who build it and those they invite in to engage with it. At the root of this ethic is radical kindness. As stage manager Senjuti Sarker elucidated, radical kindness is simply kindness period. She further stated that to enact radical kindness is to show up and treat folx in the way you would hope to be seen and treated rather than following social scripts that outline and attempt to stipulate what that looks like. Other HeArts member, co-founder, and co-director Harri Thomas added, “Kindness is punk as fuck.”
I miss that level of community. I miss the ability I once had to engage much more thoroughly within communities. My body has betrayed me in ways I never anticipated as a young woman. Even in the imperfect moments of meeting with these artists over Zoom and email, texts, and small handheld video snaps, I felt validated in my messiness, in my limited ability to be present, my limited spoons of the day or week or years. Imagine the possibilities for healing the world if every body was affirmed and validated in such a bountiful and welcoming way.
Maeve Hanna (she/her) is a Queer, neurodivergent, MAD writer grateful to be living and writing in Agg Píktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia), the traditional and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq, lands and waters protected under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1760).