access embodiment

access/embodiment is a devised public performance that emerged out of research for my dissertation/current book project, Mad Memory: Performance and Disability After Institutionalization. Throughout the process of conducting archival research for this project, I often found myself sitting with difficult primary source material, unsure of what to make of the records of psychiatric violence–and violent erasure of disabled perspectives–I held in my hands. In response, I collaborated with choreographer and performing arts librarian Molly Roy and composer Ali Pappa to create a practice-as-research project that put these questions into action. By entering into embodied conversation with archival documents, we found ways of using the body to access historical information, to, as Ann Cooper Albright writes, “touch history” in the present moment.

Here, you will find more information about the project, as well as plans for future development.

Research Questions

Our work on access/embodiment revolves around two central questions:

  • How do we as academic researchers respectfully engage disability archives, particularly those associated with medical incarceration? Do we reproduce those archival images, and expose past injustices? Or in doing so, do we further exploit those who were photographed in state hospitals?
  • How do we center disability arts and culture values throughout the practice-as-research process? How might we develop a poetics of accessibility, one that does not simply tack on access features to a completed performance but, rather, understands access features as creative strategies in their own right?

Source Material

To answer these questions, we first composed a bibliography.

For primary source material, we turned to Mary Ellen Mark and Karen Folger Jacobs’ 1974 book Ward 81–the subject of one of my dissertation/book chapters. To create Ward 81, Mark, a photographer, and Jacobs, a sociologist, lived for several weeks in the high-security women’s ward at Oregon State Hospital, documenting their experience through photographs and prose. You can access a digital version of Ward 81 online–although, please note that some of these photographs contain graphic images of violence and self-harm.

Ward 81 is a challenging piece. In one sense, it documents horrific practices of disability incarceration, practices that emerge from scientific racism and state violence. Engaging and sharing these photographs in academic research risks reproducing that violence, extending it into the present. In another sense, these photographs serve as an important record, not only of harmful practices but also embodied practices of resistance. Dispersed throughout the more disturbing images, select photos depict people engaged in acts of kinship, celebration, and defiance–acts that are too often overlooked within the historical record.

To navigate this tension, we turned to secondary sources, drawing on research by scholars who engage archives of disability and medical incarceration, as well as work by scholars grappling with archival erasures and the ethics of reproducing violent images. Some of these sources include:

Burch, Susan. Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and Beyond Institutions. UNC Press Books, 2021. – Dolmage, Jay. Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2018. – Imada, Adria L. An Archive of Skin, an Archive of Kin: Disability and Life-Making during Medical Incarceration. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2022. – McKittrick, Katherine. Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. – Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

“Here, in the case of the images I am discussing, I will suggest that not wanting to reproduce difficult, disturbing moments and images is part of the way that we might allow dominant narratives of colonialism to endure. What does it mean that disability is being erased from history, being made in-visible? And what tools do we have as disability historians and cultural critics for carefully relocating disability at the center of not just the ‘visible’ record but also history and culture?”

— Jay Dolmage, Disabled Upon Arrival, quoted in access/embodiment

A green chalkboard covered in notes.

Devising Process

Throughout our process, we devised movement, dialogue, and music.

To create movement, Molly and I began experimenting with ways to incorporate image descriptions into the process of devising choreography. We started with exercises like Simone Fortier’s “talking while moving,” creating moments of relation between the bodies in the photographs and our own dancing bodies. Additionally, we worked with over 150 students at UT Austin and Texas A&M who participated in guest lectures and workshops on incorporating accessibility into performance creation. These early experiments, as well as our own needs, pushed us to reimagine accessibility as it manifests in performance. For example, one of our collaborators is going blind. How do we think about creating access not only as responsive act but also as a preparatory act, as a process of what Alison Kafer terms “welcoming the disability to come”? Or, alternatively: another collaborator identifies as disabled, however, the access barriers they face are not related to sight. How might we augment image descriptions with other features, decentering sight as a primary mode of perception while drawing attention to the kinetic, the haptic?

To create dialogue, we drew heavily from our primary and secondary source material, often presenting quotations as conversations between two characters. We then arranged the movement and dialogue into several moments, each belonging to a particular track:

  • The Archive: where “the researcher” combs through an archival copy of Ward 81, pausing to offer relevant citations from secondary sources
  • Ward 81: where “Mary Ellen Mark” and “Karen Folger Jacobs” recount their experiences at various points in their visit to Ward 81
  • The Seminar: where two academics ask the audience to weigh in on the appropriate presentation of Ward 81 photographs
  • The Clinic: where a doctor/performance critic analyzes a patient’s movement, searching for signs of pathology
  • The In-Between Space: where a dancer moves freely

We then wove moments from each of these tracks together, toggling back and forth between body and archive. Composer Ali Pappa improvised live music to underscore the entire piece, allowing for flexibility as audience members interacted with the work.

“If you forge past the more difficult medical surveillance photographs, you will see incarcerated people bestowing care upon one another and taking their own sorrowful and funny photographs. They posed with pets, friends, and lovers with wit and humor.”

— Adria Imada, An Archive of Skin, An Archive of Kin: Disability and Life-Making During Medical Incarceration, quoted in access/embodiment.


We offered an initial performance and talkback to audience members in November 2022. This showing functioned as a kind of embodied peer-review, and we were grateful to receive thoughtful and encouraging feedback from those who attended. Audience members discussed ideas for further building accessibility into the performance event, strategies for creating space to process the material, and methods for uplifting subaltern knowledges in performance.

The discussion that arose completely reoriented the project. As audience members reflected their experience back to our ensemble, I began to realize that the questions I had asked through the production were not, in fact, my research questions. My own unease around reproducing these archival images had taken over the entire piece. As a result, I had minimized my own (at the time undetermined) perspective, all while pushing responsibility for deciding how to engage these difficult materials onto the audience. Fortunately, our audience pushed back!

As we talked, several people noted that the most effective moments of the piece were the movement sequences–sequences that emerged out of my own disability experience and the sensations I felt when viewing these photographs. What I perceived in these images (and what audience members perceived during these movement sequences) was agency on the part of the people in the photographs; the way they seem to direct the camera, posing in ways that cite, play on, and subvert cultural images of disability through self-referential tableaux.

Future Plans

These ideas–inspired by our audience–have become central to our thinking. I am currently thinking about how we might center the subaltern knowledges present in these photographs, arguing that attention to embodiment allows us to perceive the way people held in state hospitals metaphorically speak through the archive through embodied performance. In addition to documenting kinships amongst historical disability communities, I am also interested in the way these photographs can be understood to document kinships amongst transhistorical disability communities. How might our understanding of our present struggles against disability incarceration change if we have access to the embodied acts of resistance recorded in Ward 81? What affective and embodied responses do these photographs elicit from contemporary disabled people, and how might those bodily responses serve as resources for future anti-oppression work?

Molly, Ali and I are still trying to answer these questions. At the moment, I am simultaneously working on script revisions and book chapter revisions, engaging in a symbiotic exchange in which research nourishes practice, and practice nourishes research.

In addition to regular meetings to review script changes, Molly and I also continue to offer workshops on Accessible Performance Creation for various university courses. Further, working through my own academic research through performance as research has strengthened my commitment to practice-as-research, and while I have always structured the courses I teach around student projects, I am excited to more intentionally incorporate practice-as-research methods and assignments into my classes. Currently, I am designing a syllabus for a dream course tentatively titled “embodying research, researching embodiment,” which addresses these themes.

Our deepest thanks to the Rude Mechs, dis/located theatre, the UT COFA Fine Arts Diversity Committee, and the UT Performance as Public Practice Program for their generous support, as well as to those who offered (and continue to offer) feedback on the performance at various stages of development.