- Difference on Display: Diversity in Art, Science and Society
In 2002 Tom Shakespeare and Nick Watson declared disability to be the “quintessential postmodern concept”; it defies classification because it is “so complex, so variable, so contingent, so situated” (19). Difference on Display: Diversity in Art, Science and Society exalts this postmodern view, offering the reader a complex and varied response to the shifting frontier between disabled and non-disabled. The book was devised to accompany Niet Normaal: Difference on Display, an exhibition of new and existing artworks by international and contemporary disabled and non-disabled artists, designers, film-makers, and their collaborators. Niet Normaal was conceived in the Netherlands, originally exhibiting in Amsterdam. The exhibition came to the UK in Liverpool as part of the DaDa Fest and the Olympic Games Cultural Programme for London 2012. The result is a book that is part exhibition catalogue and part visual treatise on the ambiguity of the human condition in high modernity. Importantly, the book is also an artefact, a physical object evidencing a world at the margins of media and discourses. As Editor-in-Chief, the activist and curator Ine Gevers states that the artworks depicted express a “visual and non-discursive discourse” (24). This “non-discursive discourse” identifies the process of manifesting what is unsaid in its “brute being” (Foucault 131). Accordingly, diverse cultural products that examine normalcy are gathered to establish a new perspective on the self in society. In this way, Difference on Display asks “what is normal” and “who decides this” from a variety of angles, supplying a welcome resource to viewers/readers across disability studies and related disciplines.
In an interview, Fulya Erdemci, director of SKOR, the Foundation for Art and Public Domain, states that the Niet Normaal exhibition could be summed up in two words: “plurality” and “polyphony.” Likewise, the book of the exhibition is marked by this plurality and polyphony. More than 90 artworks are represented across the book’s 400 pages, including works by familiar and acclaimed artists [End Page 348] such as Marc Quinn, Gillian Wearing, Louise Bourgeois, and Mat Fraser alongside an eclectic and global collection of works including adverts, fashion documentary, and photo essay. Each piece is accompanied by a short introductory text written by one of a team of more than 20 contributors. These artworks and texts are themed across four sections: “Perfectibility and Perfection,” “Norms and Difference as Commodities,” “Humans and Technology,” and “Practices of Democracy.” Each section is curated rather than tightly defined, punctuated and framed by an additional 12 commissioned and collected essays by writers such as Tom Shakespeare, Ingunn Moser, and Donna Haraway. In this way, Difference on Display explores norms and difference from multiple perspectives by incorporating literally hundreds of voices, with a powerful accumulative effect.
The book’s scope is ambitious. Essays and polemic on freakshow reclamation, big pharma, the biologizing of criminality, genetics, disability-selective abortions, biopower and the “leaky” distinction between human and machine (Haraway) rub shoulders with first-person and biographical accounts of traversing the norm. Artworks, installations, films, and multimedia reference subjects as diverse as pharmacopeia (the art of preparing drugs), beauty, prosthesis, cognition, eating disorders, illness, consumerism, mortality, and sexuality (among others) are explored to probe the norm, the aesthetics, bio-politics, and economics of the niet-normaal, or the extra-ordinary. Importantly, content is not exclusively cerebral. Among the polyphony there is playfulness. Many works are humorous, and the humour expressed within them exploits the subversive qualities of comedic principles to transport the viewer/reader to more transgressive places: the website of the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, Job Koelwijn’s Boys and Girls, Bob and Roberta Smith’s I Was Up All Night Making This, and the dancing of Emery Blackwell offer a clutch of examples that expresses this vivid, satirical, and exuberant streak.
However, Difference on Display is a precarious collection. It is a rich and “thick” text that presented a...