As the first day of I Wanna Be With You Everywhere began, an excited nervousness filled the air as the anticipation for this precedent-setting gathering began. The festival—organized by Amalle Dublon, Jerron Herman, Carolyn Lazard, Park McArthur, Alice Sheppard and Constantina Zavitsanos in their collective voice—was “to focus on making a space where we could all be together while highlighting disability, art, and aesthetics.”
As Zavitsanos explained, the aim is “to get disability communities together, specifically around sharing our art. A lot of times there will be group gatherings or meet-ups in the blind community, deaf community, or mobility-related disabilities community. Sometimes, of course, we have friends who bridge those communities. But as a whole community that’s open to the public for sharing work, it’s not often that such a cultural cross-disability event happens.”
This festival—made possible with the collaboration between the organizers and Arika (supported by Creative Scotland), Performance Space New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art—spanned three days and allowed artists whose work is in conversation with one another to be viewed together.
While gathering to enter the theater for the festival’s opening, guests waited in a quiet space filled with books, earplugs, art supplies, legos, and giant cushions. The atmosphere was moderately lit, and the ambiance created a feeling of relaxation and safety as you fall into the comfort of the couches and beds provided. A sign read “Whiskey or Tea, take what you need.”
The first performance began with artist Johanna Hedva’s “Black Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House,” commemorating the first anniversary of her mother’s passing. The pairing of her verses with electric guitar created an emotive explosion of despair, anger, sadness and closure. The set ended as guitar chords were layered and looped on top of one another. The vibrational resonance filled the space and created a cleansing effect—a sound bath, washing over the audience. Beneath the expansive noise, Hedva recited the Hail Mary prayer.
On the second day of the festival, the Whitney Museum hosted an intimate gathering to bring together artists, writers, curators, academics (with and without disabilities) for a day of conversation, community-building and exploration of disability artistry and aesthetics.
The next day began with “Nearly Sighted / Unearthing Dark” by Kayla Hamilton. As it commenced, the audience erupted with smiles. The dance—verbally explained and described for those with vision loss—signaled a shift in the festival’s energy.
Sheppard’s “Where Good Souls Fear” followed this performance—her work continuing the legacy of her late mentor Homer Avila, and answering her question to him, “Can you be a disabled dancer with integrity?” Sheppard traversed the space—spinning and gliding, using crutch supports to propel her momentum. Pausing to read an excerpt from E.M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” Sheppard then introduced the audience to memories of her childhood.
I know how blackness, queerness, and disability reside in me and each other. I know the rules of the world, and I have found ways to live.
“I was 16,” she began, “It was in that awkward teenage phase you remember. Learning your gender, your sexuality, your body, and I was a social oddity by race with a passion for classical music and love of literature. The bullying in school, it stopped. The terms of the deal were quite clear. They would leave me alone, and I would not stick my head up far enough to draw their attention… Forster was required reading in school, not the explicitly gay Forster of course. But the classiest, racist and, yes ablest, colonial Forster whose high dramas and stories of inappropriate romance taught me the invisible rules of the world… I know who I am now. I know how blackness, queerness, and disability reside in me and each other. I know the rules of the world, and I have found ways to live.”
She continued her dance while a video of Sheppard crossing parts of NYC‘s infrastructure projected onto the back wall of the stage. Her movements synchronized with the rhythm of the music as she used the wheelchair and crutches as extensions of her body—commanding them not only support her, but also move in accordance with her will.
Herman’s dance “Relative” ended the night. In his words, it was “A dance party love letter to our community. Here, to express the joy of relation in the abstract and through actual physical proximity.” Herman choreographed the audience into his dance and referenced the sociality of a club environment. Following this performance, audience members and artists joined him on the stage floor for a dance party.
After a conversation with Herman, Jordan Lord invited the audience to follow his journey through open heart surgery. His video work “After…After…(Access)” presented the experience as he read the captions during. The video acted as a tender showcase of dependence, love and care. Lord allowed viewers to see intimate moments—resulting in immense empathy.
After the festival interview, Zavitsanos had this to say: “Disability is a framework that goes way beyond access. The framework of ableism is actually prohibiting work from actually being experienced.”
This statement underscores the necessity for cross-disability cultural events. He concluded, “So what does an artist do if part of their work uses access materials as a material, and they go to a place, and there is no access? How do they do their work? They either can’t get in, literally being structurally barred or some layer or concept to their work. The power of their work is lost. It’s not ever seen or heard or understood because the frame of how the work is displayed has prohibited it.”
Hero image of Alice Sheppard from solo work Where Good Souls Fear is by Lisa Niedermeyer