Artistic Research – New Pathways to New Knowledge? A conversation with Mira Thompson

photography: Jonne Bruinsma

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It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this seventh episode in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with jazz singer and activist Mira Thompson, a member of the Embodied Knowledge in Theatre and Dance research group within the ATD Lectorate.

Part 7: Mutual dependence

Mira Thompson: Last year, Carly Everaert invited me to teach the second year Scenography students – the teaching block I was involved in was about getting certain kinds of activism to permeate into the arts. I was invited as a disabled person with knowledge on Disability Theory. My story was about ‘access intimacy’, a term coined by the American-Korean writer Mia Mingus for ‘a hard-to-describe feeling’, an experience of intimacy that comes out of another person truly understanding your need for access. In most cases, it involves an interdependent situation.

The example I gave was something that happened while I was on holiday in the south of France with my best friend. We were at a public swimming pool and I really needed to pee but the toilet wasn’t accessible for me. My friend said ‘Come on, I’ll help you’. The two of us barely fitted in the toilet stall – we almost couldn’t get the door closed, it was sweltering and the sweat was pouring off us. Then we got the giggles. In the end it was me almost carrying her. As well as being really funny, it was a very intimate moment, a sort of merging. It touched on the awareness that we’re all just muddling through in life, and that we all depend on other people.

I asked the Scenography students to come up with a comparable experience in their own life. What was great about them was they caught on right away and came up with very personal experiences of painful or awkward situations suddenly turning into something beautiful.

What effect did it have on the students, do you think?

When you start talking about accessibility and dependence, you’re opening up a whole new area for most people. Dependence is a topic we don’t really want anything to do with, but in my personal life I have to think about it. You could even say it gets people thinking about their own mortality. Maybe that sounds a bit far-fetched, but I think that’s the reason they have difficulties with people who’ve got a disability; why they think they’re scary, weird, unpleasant. I believe that subconsciously they’re sensing their own mortality.

So, accessibility is about everyone. It’s about something much broader than removing steps: it’s about all of us, all of our bodies. It’s an awareness that can add something to our perception of the world, and of the arts. Now I’m working with Carly Everaert to look into how we can introduce the access intimacy class I gave in Scenography more broadly across the school. The ATD Lectorate has given us a grant to carry out further research and develop the idea. The other people in the research group are Jacqueline Kool, a researcher and adviser on Disability Studies; the disability activist Hazar Chaouni; Alexa Mardon, who’s doing their Masters at DAS Choreography; and Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, the Lector and Head of DAS Graduate School.

Disability Theory is based on two models: one medical and one social. They’re both defining for how society regards people with a disability. People use the medical model to ask, ‘What kind of disease have you got?’ The social model is about how society makes us disabled because things aren’t as they should be. It poses this question: ‘What can we do as a society to become accessible for everyone?’ It would be wonderful if the arts adopted the social model and took a leading role in this matter.

What might be the outcome of that?

In the first place you’d get a lot of new artists, because you’re missing out if you make spaces inaccessible. I think it would give rise to different sorts of art, even if only because the spaces were arranged differently. The meetings of the Access Intimacy research group are dream encounters for me. We’re all pretty radical thinkers, and we can choose to look at anything that might be possible around the subject of accessibility, without it needing to become a reality.

What sort of things are you thinking of?

The first thing I see in my mind’s eye is a futuristic world in which all sorts of disabilities have been integrated into society. Take the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, for example, the former Gemeentemuseum. There’s a little lift next to the entrance – actually it’s steps that turn into a lift. The steps join together as they rise up: the first step takes the second one with it and the second takes the third. That’s the world I want to be living in, where accessibility is fully incorporated. Architectural exclusion is such an aggressive act. Like the EYE Film Museum has got that magnificent, gorgeous staircase, but if I want to enter in my wheelchair I need to go in via a side entrance, through the offices. That really brings out my rebellious streak: I’d rather just not even buy a ticket.

You describe yourself as an activist.

I do, but I also feel ambivalent about it. I don’t really think I’ve got a choice. If you want a life that goes anywhere as someone with a disability you need to speak up – for yourself at the very least. Where the activism lies for me is in reading and writing. There are already lots of people engaged in all sorts of hard activism, and that’s necessary, but I think alongside that it’s important to think about what lies beneath and behind.

Does singing have a part to play in your activism?

I sometimes miss the sense of connection with singing as an art form. I’m always focused on the intellect because my body is so medicalised. Singing is liberating for me – it’s vital. You use your whole body when you sing: you’ve got no choice but to use your whole body and it’s wonderful to discover what a rich experience that can be.

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to combine my intellectual side with my singing. I’m very interested in language and the written word and what they can make happen – I write my own songs. Right now, I’m studying Cultural Studies and next year I’ll be doing literature at the Open University. Before the pandemic I was working on a funding application for a multidisciplinary show; I love the visual arts and I like working with people from other disciplines. I prefer to convey what access intimacy is really all about in a poetic way.

To find out more, register to join us for an online panel on accessibility, disability justice and the arts as part of the ATD Research Month on May 25th, 18.00-19.30 with presentations by Mira Thompson, Jacqueline Kool and Hazar Chaouni

Text and interview: Hester van Hasselt