by Nick Winges-Yanez
kin · song: ode to disability ancestors opens by building unease. A song pulsates as performers gesture. A voice narrates their movements: “Find shoulder, eyes ahead, left arm across chest, extend, pull close, extend, carve a diagonal.” Throughout the video, the movements repeat, made different by performers’ distinct bodyminds. Haunting puppetry made of paper cut-outs appears with a narrative overlay that speaks to the mismatch between disabled and nondisabled experience.
Conceived and directed by Alexis Riley, kin · song emerged from her dissertation research. Described as a cybernetic seance, it was “crafted by disabled and non-disabled artists and mounted during the pandemic…provid[ing] an opportunity to reflect on the histories of isolation that permeate disability history” as well as the way theater and other performance spaces contribute to inaccessibility. For those who are part of disabled spaces and/or experience disability, this performance was revolutionary.
In one excerpt, a twisting leafless tree appears on screen with performers speaking: “We do not say the tree is broken, so too is it with you. Remember, you are a child of the tree, the wisdom of the tree moves within you.” Moving across different earthly elements such as rocks, river, and tall grass, our disabled kin are reminded of their connection to one another and to the earth. Again, a feeling of unease erupts, but then is soothed with this existential reminder.
Four performers walk the original layout of the Austin State Hospital, repeating gestures in sync with one another while the present day construction of new restaurants and condos fill the background, willingly ignorant of this violent past. Historical headlines fade in and out of screen, at times hailing the “new” State Hospital as a model for other institutions, at times decrying staff shortages and rampant, unchecked “illnesses” within ASH. Eventually, headlines of mystery gravesites on the Hospital campus fade onto the screen, the inevitable tragedy of institutions across the nation.
kin · song is a reflection, a memory, a dream, nightmare, meditation, a representation of collective unconsciousness. Performers’ movements play backwards, forwards, repeated and overlaid, creating dissonance mitigated by a soothing, haunting, continuous melody.
Throughout the piece, a unified feeling or singular experience is explicitly eschewed for a multitudinous galaxy of understandings. These understandings hold the performance together, embracing the curved, sharp, porous worlds of disability. In this deliberate disorder, disabled bodyminds touch, collide, and dare to flourish.
To learn more about the piece, check out the companion website: https://kin-song.com/.
Nick Winges-Yanez is the coordinator of the Critical Disabilities Studies program housed at the Texas Center for Disability Studies and an Assistant Professor with the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. She is a queer crip feminist activist-scholar interested in critical discourse analysis and how language, signs, and symbols create and perpetuate our realities. Her work also interrogates histories of disability in relation to sexuality and citizenship.