A portrait of a young man as the (disabled) artist
Tim Jeeves questions the label disability artist in the light of his current work.
I like art a great deal. It is very important to me. It lasts as long as memory, yet begins to fade as soon as it is created. It takes pride in its movement, its constant state of change, it is full of life, and though, through advertising and propaganda, it can be manifest as a force for evil, in its purest form, it's one of the goodies.
It's the thing that makes most sense in my life; it seems the most valuable way to spend my time. Earlier on in my career, when I had fewer opportunities to put my work out to the public, I was very much the frustrated artist. That's said with a sense of embarrassment.
I've often pondered why that was the case; what it is that has left me so desperate to make work. Could it be that it's just a case of ego - a desire for attention?
I've decided it's not, I couldn't bear to be with myself if it was. Of course it's part of the reason, but not the dominant one. Another possibility is that it is just something inherent in me, like the fact that I don't like nuts. But I also thinkthat art has become central to my life because I saw a lot of people die when I was still a teenager. I look on it as a worthwhile way to spend my life and thus it justifies the fact that I survived and a lot of people that I knew didn't.
I was diagnosed with cancer of the lung, legs and liver when I was eighteen; I had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and a bone marrow transplant; I had a relapse within a week of the completion of my transplant; and I spent, for some eighteen months, more time on a Teenage Cancer Trust ward than I didn't.
The treatment I had has left me prone to crippling bouts of ulcerative colitis when torrents of blood will literally shower out of my arsehole; whilst the steroids I take for the treatment of the colitis have left me with a crumbling kneecap and a need to walk with a stick on my not so good days.
Whether this, and the fact that some of the work I make is concerned with this aspect of my life, makes me a disability artist, I don't know and, to be honest, really couldn't care too much about.
Categorising such as this and the labelling of my work as live art as opposed to visual art, or new theatre, are useful for purposes of funding brackets and little else. If saying I am a certain type of artist means that I can get money for making the work that I want to make, then I am happy to prostitute myself to some degree, and adopt the label.
What I wouldn't do, and would fight tooth and nail to avoid doing, is change the work to fit the label; or make a new piece with such brackets in mind.
But my work, under the influence of artists such as Marina Abramovic and Carolee Schneemann, will sometimes be concerned with my self, and a cathartic exploration of certain aspects of my being. I suspect that making this work has, in the past, provided me with a vehicle to express that which I have had very little opportunity to otherwise articulate. As I have grown more accustomed to accepting who I am, accepting that my body is a part of me, and not something to resent or resist the influence of, so has my work grown less concerned with expressing this frustration.
Singapore Fringe Festival 2007
I'm going to Singapore in February to perform my piece Should i be in my bodi? at the Singapore Fringe Festival which this year has the theme of Disability and Art. When I was first accepted, I found myself confused about what this meant to my identity.
I had never considered myself a disabled artist before that point. I had been very ill in the past, and had some lingering problems that came along and prevented me doing certain things now and then, but I wasn't disabled.
Disability seemed a badge that I wasn't entitled to wear. I had had some contact with the world of disability art through working for Graeae Theatre Company on a number of occasions; but that had always been from the other side - both in terms of responsibility for the creative process, and with regard to the disabled/non-disabled boundary.
To be applying for funding to go to Singapore, to be paid by the festival, to be received as a guest in that country under the auspices of being a disabled artist was something that I felt uncomfortable with and slightly fraudulent about doing. My disability is chronic rather than acute. On most days I have few difficulties - I can't run for a bus, I go to the toilet more often than most people, but they're not exactly major problems to overcome.
I felt awkward calling myself a disability artist because I felt awkward calling myself disabled; but having reflected on it over the last few months, I have decided that it is social pressure that demands that someone is either disabled or not, whereas disability is a process, constantly in flux. Everyone has more or less able days, hours, moments, and it is inevitable that their disability is going to play a different role at different times. When a person in a wheelchair is writing a letter, their disability is not affecting their ability to perform the action.
I have made two pieces concerned with my medical history, The Last Days of Mourning; a durational piece performed over five days to mark the end of five years remission from cancer, and Should i be in my bodi? (the piece I am taking to Singapore), which explores the conflict I have felt between the false dichotomy of self and body.
I cannot predict the future, but I anticipate that these will be the last pieces I make concerned solely with disability and illness. Just as I no longer feel the need to oscillate between perceiving myself as disabled or not, so will my work reflect that. I am Tim Jeeves, and I am everything that goes with being that person.
See also: Tim Jeeves: On Catharsis