In anticipation of “Art of the Lived Experiment”, Amanda Cachia, co-curator of the exhibition, interviewed Laura Swanson about "Uniforms", the new work she is contributing to the show, and her thoughts on art and disability. “Art of the Lived Experiment” is on view at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan from April 10 – July 31, 2015.

Digital collage of the "Uniforms" (2014) drawings

Amanda Cachia: Can you describe the work you are contributing to ALE – the conceptual background, and the material and theoretical aspects?

Laura Swanson: I am contributing “Uniforms”, a two-part work consisting of new portraits and sculptures. The work actualizes a series of drawings I made in 2014 of seven uniforms being worn by a short-statured female. The sculptures are seven four-foot mannequins wearing custom and ready-made uniforms that were altered to fit my body. Accompanying the sculptures are seven studio portraits of me wearing the uniforms in front of digitally composited backgrounds of photos found online.

Conceptually, “Uniforms” explores a desperate aspiration for agency and privacy, but also the idea that a thing commonly thought of as useful or sacred can be stripped of its purpose and exist as theatrical amusement if made smaller. I’m interested in uniforms that cover the body to protect it from harm, like a beekeeper’s or welder’s. I’m also attracted to the serious and sacred connotations of cultural and spiritual uniforms, like the burqa or mourning dress. While this work considers an imaginary desire to wear these garments in order to be fully concealed, it also asks the disheartening questions: If I wore these uniforms, would people think I had a useful profession or sacred subjectivity? Or, because of my size, would it actualize a detrimental spectacle?

Cachia: How do you feel about the title and theme of the show – “Art of the Lived Experiment”?

Swanson: Well, the title, the theme of the show, and the artists I’m showing alongside are the main reasons I decided to participate in ALE. In the past, I’ve declined to be in shows that did not talk about disability in new or complex ways. I felt they were using artists with disabilities as the main draw, almost like a freak show, rather than the quality or ideas in the work. ALE takes more of an intellectual approach by questioning simplistic notions about disability by going beyond it and focusing on the risks artists take by experimenting with the ideas that compel them to make work.

Cachia: What does “experimentation” mean to you, both within your art practice and your life in general?

Swanson: Experimentation is an intricate part of my practice and everyday life but I have never labeled it as such. Having lived in a society that is dependent on rigid classifications and structures made for the average citizen, I had to figure out ways to adapt and surmount obstructions, physical or philosophical, early in life. So experimenting, questioning, transforming are all second nature to me. When the rules don’t apply to you, you can find yourself in a position of frustration. But on the flipside, you have freedom from expectations. Being an artist allows me to imagine what is possible and build my own world with my own rules.

Cachia: Based on the above, how do you feel that “Uniforms” might contribute to this exhibition?

Swanson: “Uniforms” looks at what happens when expectations are challenged. In their respective contexts, like an adult male welding in a workshop or an adult woman wearing a black dress and veil at a funeral, would anyone question the utilitarian or cultural value of their uniforms? So if a short-statured adult, such as one with dwarfism, was seen wearing the same uniforms, does it transform into a humorous costume? I find it compelling that a simple shift of scale could change something from serious and significant to entertaining and illogical.

I am often asked why I don’t incorporate performance in my practice, as many works could easily be used as such. For example, people ask why I don’t actually live in “Homemade Bull” when it’s shown. And I explain that it is a performance, but not in the way people might expect. With “Uniforms”, even though I’m actually wearing the uniforms in the portraits, I hope the addition of unusual ones, like the Plague Doctor or Fencer, and conspicuous superficial backgrounds, signal an imagined, idealized reality. To me, the performance is played out in psychological ways, for the viewer and myself, by imagining what would happen if someone was confronted with this situation in everyday life. How would one react if this were real? And more generally, why is it that art, more often times than real confrontation, allows people to think differently about the way they view others?

The "Uniforms" sculptures lined up in the studio, March 2015

Cachia: How do you feel about participating in a disability arts festival?

Swanson: I am happy to participate as an artist in ALE, which is one of the exhibitions that is a part of DisArt. I’m thankful that I was commissioned to make an ambitious work for it. I’m also glad that there is more public-facing programming that promotes the work of artists who happen to have disabilities. As an artist, I try not to have too many activist or politically-related ambitions for my work, or really in my everyday life, because it can feel disheartening at times. So many things need to change that I don’t have control over. But what I do have control of is the work I make and I’m happy the meaning of my work can be translated for many progressive initiatives, such as ALE and DisArt. That being said, I admire those who do take more of an activist role and I’m happy to be a part of a collective of artists that assists in this.

Cachia: What does the term “disability” mean to you?

Swanson: I try to avoid using terms that identify the differences of people, as they are often burdened with assumptions about the capability or quality of that person, which can result in bias and discrimination. ‘Disability’ and ‘dwarfism’ are only two examples of the many words that can be misconstrued in negative ways. But for the sake of interviews like this, lectures, and other times I’m asked to talk about my work, I need to use these terms in order to put my ideas into a theoretical context. But out in the real world, the careless use of terms affects the quality of life for many people. So while it’s necessary to talk about, it’s also quite complicated.

Cachia: Do you respond to disability in a political way through your work?

Swanson: As I mentioned earlier, I don’t consider myself an activist or try to be political through my work. My earlier work was a bit more politically motivated, especially the “Sitcoms & Romcoms” and “Canonical Portraits” series. It made me feel uncomfortable to have work out there that could be misunderstood as exploitative, too didactic, or too easy for the viewer to agree with. I was also concerned that I was sacrificing the enjoyment of making for the sake of a strong message. So when the work started illustrating my observations of social behaviors and the psychology behind looking at difference in abstract or fantastical ways, I felt a lot happier with the work in the end. It is my hope that if the process of making work is compelling for me, the ideas I’m presenting or the questions I’m asking in the work will be compelling for the viewer.

Cachia: Do you think it is important for audiences to consider art within a disability arts framework, such as this exhibition and the DisArt Festival more broadly?

Swanson: What I have found interesting about participating in exhibitions that draw attention to the work of artists with disabilities is that there are many artists with disabilities that participate in the art world at large. Some are highly regarded and represented by well-known galleries and have shown in major museum exhibitions. In some cases their disability is not made obvious. And I think that is fine depending on what the artists want for themselves and their work. However, there are some artists who make work about their disability, experience difficulty with showing their work, and subsequently feel unwelcomed by the art world. To me, I think the hesitation that some places might have in showing work about disability is possibly due to not having the language or knowledge to promote and support this work. So I hope that initiatives like ALE and DisArt expands a dialogue that leads to more opportunities for artists to share their work with a broader audience.

Cachia: What do you hope to achieve through contributing “Uniforms” to ALE?

Swanson: Mostly I am excited and thankful to have the opportunity and support from ALE and the UICA in making and exhibiting this new, ambitious work. I haven’t created a new series of photographs since 2009, so I’m eager to see how my thoughts about portraiture have changed after working with installation and objects for several years. I don’t have any major aspirations for the work other than that I hope it asks questions, provokes contemplation, and simply that people enjoy looking at it.


Art of the Lived Experiment” is on view at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan from April 10 – July 31, 2015.