Layla Josie Wortley speaks to Laura Lulika about their recent project ‘Body Builder’ (2021), part of the Intertwined online exhibition. The exhibition is the culmination of the recent June 2021 online residency of artists Laura Lulika, Linda Stupart and Seo Hye Lee hosted by Vital Capacities.
[LJW] Throughout your previous work you have spoken about internalised ableism, both in society and within yourself, which seems to be little discussed in the arts. When it comes to the representations of the body in your current project ‘Body Builder’, are they/is this a creative response to the societal belief that disabled people will only be seen and perceived as disabled and nothing more or less?
[LL] In my practice, I am interested in the body as a performance and an open possibility. Ableist, capitalist structures dictate that sick and disabled people need to be fixed or cured, and that should be what we want for ourselves so that our existence quantifies to some worth through labour. There is also a very limited perception of what a sick or disabled person looks like. In reality, I don’t want to be cured, to be able; I want to be accepted as part of the rich diversity of life and to be welcomed with accessibility and care. I also want to smash through ideas of what a disabled person looks like and how we are supposed to act. It is incredibly rare that sick and disabled bodies are presented in mainstream media as playful, sexual, angry, political, magical and powerful without being used as an inspirational fetishised figure.
I enjoy adopting other performative bodies which are influenced by nature, sci-fi, cartoons, animals or any other such physicality that I want to escape into to understand myself and my existence in different ways. The bodies that appear in ‘Body Builder’ are all versions of my body, representing a tension between how I’m seen and how I feel. For example, the ghost-like figures we see in painkiller adverts or the smiling thin white women with perfect makeup and slick back pony-tails demonstrating different pain aids, reveals how repulsed a capitalist society is with actual sick people. We must be hidden or disguised in other more palatable bodies, even in the adverts that are aimed at us. While the car body or the muscle suit represents other performative physicalities I want to try on temporarily, literally everything about existing and our bodies is temporary so why not have as much fun as you possibly can with it, when you can.
[LJW] When recording the visuals and the audio, was there anything in particular that inspired their tone, as some of the humour and characters are quite similar to what you’d find on adult swim or other popular comedy shows of the last 20 years such as The Mighty Boosh, Black Books or even Fleabag? With such a surreal and almost avant-garde theme to both language and visuals, would you say this is to find light in the daily struggles and negative stigmas around chronic pain, therefore inviting other people with disabilities to explore more unconventional coping mechanisms?
[LL] I have always been attracted to dark comedy. Being in a body is a simultaneously macabre and hilarious experience and one that everyone can relate to because we all have one and they are not always as cooperative as we would like. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, as they say. I don’t think I want to make light of our struggle, but more celebrate the in-jokes of our community. And as a community, we have very little joyful or genuine representation of our experiences and I want to make space for that and see more of it.
I had no access to a community of other sick and disabled people for a long time. We experience the world and exist differently to abled people and I think there is much to learn from the ways we share information and resources. We have to be creative to find ways to survive and develop coping mechanisms like you say, to manage our conditions under capitalism, without access to the healthcare or care we need.
[LJW] With that being said, despite the mature implications and mundane atmospheres, such as the pub and use of medical terminology, is the tone of your work designed to reach a younger demographic, say early teens? The overall character of the exhibition is almost child-like in terms of storytelling; with detailed descriptions, stimulating visuals, and avoidance of complex words. So would you consider the exhibition, if not some of it, accessible to a younger audience?
[LL] I have worked a lot with young people and children in creative community projects and I have just become a parent recently. I have always been drawn to the unfiltered honesty, curiosity and unpretentious ways children and young people communicate.
And ironically, at the same time, my personal work is often questioned regarding its suitability for children. I won’t name the gallery but the board of a pretty big gallery in the UK had an argument over whether a film of me doing a medical catheterised injection treatment was pornographic or not and whether it should be censored. It wasn’t on both accounts.
I find the practice of over-intellectualising in the arts, especially in relation to issues which concern marginalised people, very unappealing and not particularly helpful. Although I had access to higher education through American bereavement benefits, I found academia to be a very classist and ableist experience. I am influenced by punk, by the DIY activist movements I have been involved in and by my working-class community. Of course no space or work, digital or physical, can be accessible to everyone but at the very least, I want everyone to feel welcome.
I also wanted the integrated access streams to be fun and to fit with the work and the research I had done into mainstream media and pop culture. I want accessibility to be more than an afterthought and separate. I know that I have a lot of work to do to find more creative and exciting ways to integrate access into my practice and I’m grateful to Vital Capacities for encouraging that out of me.
[LJW] Your opinion of academia as an ableist and classist experience is quite specific, and those aspects seem to be a reoccurring issue amongst people who are considering further education. In light of this, what advice do you have for emerging disabled/LGBTQ artists, or even just young adults who want to pursue an academic future in the arts, but want to be socially and politically conscious?
[LL] It’s difficult to offer general advice to marginalised people who have very diverse needs. The advice I would give to my younger self is to find ways to move past feelings of fear and shame, state your needs and expectations and don’t be afraid to ask for support or guidance from those that you think can help you. Connecting with others and building support networks has been invaluable to me. I wish I had learnt sooner that teachers, academics and other institutional folk are just people with opinions like you. Their authority is synthetic; education should be an exchange of experiences and knowledge. I am encouraged to see that more creative institutions and organisations are becoming aware of Access Riders/Documents. I don’t know how commonplace they are in universities but they should be! If you need support developing an Access Rider, you can find examples at accessdocsforartists.com
I also wouldn’t recommend art school or academia to everyone. I know some great artists and creatives that have thrived and prospered without it, instead, finding the right mentors and guidance for them along the way.
[LJW] I’m glad to hear that there are options outside of the restrictions found within educational institutions, and that there is access to likeminded people and creatives elsewhere too. As a final question to tie in all that we’ve spoken about, I think it would be important to discuss why your project is digital rather than a physical exhibition? People often prefer physical exhibitions due to the opportunities they present for networking, or for the personal and transparent experience with the art itself; do you feel that digital art also holds these possibilities?
[LL] Digital exhibitions offer access to those who are not able to attend in person. That isn’t to say that digital spaces offer perfect accessibility. Many marginalised groups don’t have access to computers or the internet.
During the pandemic we relied on digital spaces and many of us in the sick and disabled community are wondering whether this access will continue to be available as restrictions are being lifted. We are watching to see if all of the institutions, organisations and curators who are suddenly very interested in sickness and care as topics, have actually done any work to learn about accessibility and put it into practice. To me there is no doubt that digital artworks and exhibitions contain the possibility of meaningful and moving experiences, as well space for connection and networking. Look at memes or videogames for example. They provide both for many and involve a huge amount of artistry.
I would like it if we could start considering digital accessibility as an ‘AND’ and not an ‘instead of’ or ‘in replacement of’. Both the digital and irl can exist simultaneously, in a way which is complementary to each other. I would also love it if we could find more inventive and creative ways to present work online, rather than it being a direct recording of something happening irl. So many of the digital platforms we use are very inaccessible, they are made for capitalist purposes and not for softness or collectivising. I want to see and create more digital softer spaces that give the sensation of being together or experiencing a space. Marginalised people are experts in digital closeness and support.
To be honest, I’ve always hated exhibition openings, including my own. I don’t want to shuffle around a cramped space trying to experience the art while everyone loudly compares their intellects. I’d rather go on a quiet Tuesday morning or even better, watch it from bed. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the power of live art, performance or the irl experience of an artwork or installation. I just think that we are still very much in the process of figuring out how these mediums can be presented accessibly, online or irl. And I hope to be there when we do.
‘Body Builder’, part of the online exhibition Intertwined can be found here, and information about the Vital Capacities accessible, purpose-built online residency space can be found here. More information about Laura Lulika can be found here.
Layla Josie Wortley is a writer, poet and researcher in performance art and Greek mythology, based in Cheshire.
This interview is supported by videoclub; Vital Capacities is a videoclub project.