How Do I Look?

Intended to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Mary Duffy’s performance art, this thesis examines her renowned live work ‘Stories of a Body’ and pioneers the critical discourse concerning her debut piece ‘In Celebration of Awareness.’ While international performance examples help to position Duffy’s practice in the global and political sphere of disabled performance art, conversations with the artist and theoretical discourse combine in this effort to isolate both how the disabled body looks and how it is looked at. Distinction between the stare and the gaze, two contemporary modes of observing disability, provides a theoretical framework for discussing ‘Stories of a Body’ and the deeply political nature of looking. Michel Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic exposes the medical practice as a key informant to contemporary perceptions of the disabled body while Duffy’s adaptation of the object-subject visual exchange encourages audiences to reflect on how they engage with disability.

Consideration of international examples, both individual and collective, help to establish the cultural context in which Duffy’s body is portrayed. While the prevalence of the ‘norm’ culture that emerges is inherently destructive to the disabled body, the potential of an ‘ideal’ world whereby all bodies are ‘lacking’ to some degree lays the foundations for a debate around the interchangeability of dis/ablement. The reversibility of such terms as ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ is manifested further in ‘In Celebration of Awareness’ where Duffy’s body, by meeting the requirements of ableist criteria, is ultimately transformed into and interpreted as, an able one. The performativity of ability that is embodied in Duffy’s work necessitates a rejection of ‘ableness’ as constituting ‘sameness.’ It requires audiences to re-imagine habitual methods of perceiving dis/ability and this thesis concludes by proposing a ‘ground-up’ approach as an alternative and more appropriate means of looking at an individual’s ability.