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»… Consistently Abused and Forced…«

Kati Kroß

Christoph Schlingensief's »Freakstars 3000«
»… Consistently Abused and Forced to Portray Disability!«

PDF, 20 pages

In light of a long-standing voyeuristic tradition, theater and film projects involving people with disabilities are often facing allegations of manipulation and exploitation. On the basis of Christoph Schlingensief’s film Freakstars 3000, this essay examines opportunities to break out of traditional patterns of (re)presenting disabled people and to endorse subversive differences in conventional ways of staging. It further asks whether it is possible to interfere with traditional representations of (non-dis)ability. By way of comparison with the staging strategies used in Jerome Bel’s Disabled Theater, a social relevance is highlighted which far transcends the objects analyzed, and focused on, in this contribution. In Freakstars 3000 and Disabled Theater, the difference from the common performance standards of (dance) theatre and popular TV formats are the surplus that is added to the ›unmarked norm‹. In both works, actors barely visible outside the deficit-oriented discourses are put in the limelight. Their appearance on famous theater stages, in cinema or television gives people with disabilities a visibility that is usually denied to them in these places.

When non-disabled artists such as Jérôme Bel or Christoph Schlingensief in their productions work with actors who, in hegemonic discourse, are referred to as disabled, they almost invariably face criticism over the exploitation and voyeuristic exhibition of these people. Bel’s Disabled Theater anticipated such reservations and took a good deal of wind out of its critics’ sails by having the performers themselves raise these issues on stage and report on their families’ reactions to the piece. Nevertheless, the question whether Jérôme Bel was showing up his actors was an inevitable topic in newspapers and on critics’ panels—even though, in view of the overall press reviews and the relatively small number of hatchet jobs, it seemed as if some critics only used these objections as alibis for legitimizing their respective point of view, their voyeuristic curiosity, or the work of the successful artist Jérôme Bel. The majority of reactions acquitted Bel and Disabled Theater of these charges or at least acknowledged that the performance was treading the fine line between presenting and exposing its performers, thus highlighting the intricate problem of (re)presenting disability.1

The relatively moderate tenor of the debate around Disabled Theater is a far cry from the reviews of the film Freakstars 3000 by German theater director, filmmaker and performance artist Christoph Schlingensief. Schlingensief’s previous projects had been described by the press as scandalous provocations and, depending on the respective viewpoint, were either labeled acts of tasteless impertinence or avant-garde art. The media attention which Schlingensief, who died in 2010, had attracted since the end of the 1990s was increased, among other things, by the impetus of his films, theater and TV productions, operas, performances and actions to challenge and undermine socially established status quos and different stereotypes.2 Concentrating on particularly sensational and polarizing aspects, the media often overlooked the complexity and ambiguity of his projects. Indeed, Schlingensief’s works lacked finished solutions or arguments and had no ambition to moralize; they addressed politically, culturally and socially controversial issues and conflicts, on which they focused and looked at from different angles. Schlingensief himself called the questioning and explorative dynamism of his sometimes contradictory positions the principle of self-provocation. As from 1996, he worked together with a relatively stable group of people—the Schlingensief Family3which from the beginning included people with disabilities.

The casting show Freakstars 3000, which Schlingensief organized in 2002, exclusively featured candidates commonly labeled as disabled or cognitively ill. Compared to public reactions to Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater a decade later, the media coverage triggered by Freakstars 3000 was significantly sharper and more vehement in tone. However, the discussions about Schlingensief’s film were sparked by the same, or similar, questions as in the case of Disabled Theater: have the performers been exposed? Have they been declared incompetent, or ridiculed?

Freakstars 3000 shows the stages of casting a band from the first audition to its final performance as Mutter sucht Schrauben (Mother Seeks Screws) at Volksbühne Berlin—including vocal training and dance coaching sessions, qualifying rounds and sample recordings at the studio. Next to protestations in the press that the film’s actors were not in danger of being exploited or shamelessly exhibited4, there were other newspapers that called the film a disease-infected zone, saying that it portrayed a Germany that did not exist and that nobody wanted.5 Statements in the guest book on the official Freakstars 3000 website accused Schlingensief of violating human rights, denouncing his “piss-take of people with disabilities” and their degrading exhibition, and eventually calling for a ban on the film. Other bloggers, however, celebrated the Freakstars project as a platform that finally gave the disabled a chance for true integration.6 The focus of these debates was the fundamental question as to whether people should be allowed to do such things. And although the afore-mentioned hatchet jobs and eulogies articulate extreme positions in the public debate about Freakstars, they, no less than the controversy surrounding Disabled Theater, bear witness to the fact that the (re)presentation of disability remains a disputable issue.

The adequate portrayal of people with disabilities is by no means a problem specific to Freakstars 3000 or Disabled Theater but has increasingly been the subject of public discussions since the emergence of the disability movement in the 1970s. In tandem with their criticism of the negative image of people with disabilities, activists and artists attempted to create alternative (re)presentations. Stereotypical presentations, e.g. as a poster child7, were to be replaced by experimental approaches. Conventional patterns and practices of showing people with disabilities as passive objects of the medical gaze, as pitiful and needy problem children, or as super cripples overcoming their disability were criticized as incapacitating or compensating attitudes.8 Two major trends emerged in the struggle for other (re)presentations: on the one hand, expressions and portrayals with negative connotations were categorically rejected in favor of positive terms and forms of (re)presentation; on the other, there was the strategy to subversively re-appropriate and re-articulate repressive names and images so as to affirmatively uncover their arbitrariness and change them by differential repetition. Just like the term queer, once a carrier of predominantly discriminatory connotations, was invested with a number of new meanings in the process of an affirmative re-signification9, certain linguistic usage and traditional types of (re-)representing disability were to be modified.

The methods of re-appropriation and re-signification received important momentum from Disability Studies. Contrary to essentialist definitions and their naturalization of physical or cognitive impairments, Disability Studies looked at disability in terms of social difference, i.e. as a product of historically and culturally variable discourses,10 to be examined as dependent on discursive practices, institutional contexts, media representations as well as historical patterns of perception, thinking and acting.11 Other than the medical perspectives, disability is here not attributed to ahistorical, ontological characteristics of the body. Consequently, what is criticized is the attempt to discursively naturalize disability so as to make it look like a biological property. Instead, the materiality of bodies signified as disabled is to be conceived as the productive effect of power and the materialization of the regulatory discourse: matter is always something that has become matter.12 Similar to its deconstruction of disability, Disability Studies also denies the affirmation of a natural border between non-disabled and disabled, postulating the basic contingency of this dichotomy. How and where is the demarcation line between disability and non-disability drawn?

The theoretical point of view established by Disability Studies—with obvious reference to Michel Foucault as well as Judith Butler—is the discursive production of disability. According to this point of view, people who are classified as disabled cannot be understood independently of their variable historical and cultural representations which, in turn, are interspersed with historical ideas, knowledge contexts and value judgments that shape the motif they represent. Based on these premises, I shall in the following examine the way in which the freak stars are staged in Schlingensief’s film, by what patterns of perception their representation and reception is framed and in what way this interplay of representation, staging and perception serves to constitute them. Occasional comparisons with Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater or references to issues similar to those addressed here are used to highlight the fact that the problems have a relevance which goes beyond the object of the present analysis.

Schlingensief cannot escape the central cultural distinction between non-disabled/disabled, but neither does he normalize the protagonists or exclusively define them as disabled. The film self-reflexively addresses the practices of staging people with disabilities and refers back to the discourses that determine the perception and constitution of deviant bodies. Its subversive impetus originates in the differential re-appropriation of representational conventions. Both ironically and cynically it alludes to cultural practices of (re)presenting disability and to the patterns of perception that shape the representation and significance of embodied differences.13 For example, Schlingensief in a short interview sequence asks Achim von Paczensky whether and where he is disabled. Paczensky impatiently and irritatedly replies: “Well, at the doctor’s.” In contrast to Disabled Theater, where the actors, asked to identify their disability, mainly use the well-known deficit-oriented classifications and descriptions, von Paczensky’s reply is an unpretentious and obvious hint at the medical discursification of certain bodies that deviate from the norm as disabled. The reference to another discursively powerful mode of (re)presentation and perception, made in the following conversation, is clearly more emphatic: “I’m working in a company where chickens are slaughtered. Their legs are tied to a chain … then they’re put on a hook … beheading machine … shunted through the plucking machine … and then they’re sliced up.”—Christoph Schlingensief (stands behind him, thus appears before the camera): “Confess!”—Achim von Paczensky: “Yes.”—“The Workers’ Samaritan Federation wants you to slaughter chickens?”—“Yes.”—“But you’re being abused here, correct?”—(Unmoved, looking into the camera): “No.”14

The reference frame for this scene is the representation of people with a disability as working individuals, who despite their disability serve general prosperity and whose moral integrity and ethical evaluation is bound to the work they carry out.15 Von Paczensky’s vivid presentation hardly reflects the common understanding of protected working conditions—but the point of this sequence is a different one. Schlingensief anticipates one of the most frequent accusations contemporary art is rightly facing in view of the long history of voyeuristic exhibitions of people who would be categorized as disabled today. By contrasting the generally accepted and publicly funded work in so-called sheltered workshops with von Paczensky’s artistic participation in the film project and immediately confronting this participation with the popular allegation of abuse, Schlingensief makes it clear that judgments as to what kind of activities are meaningful and useful for people with a disability are usually passed by the non-disabled majority, that is to say, independently of the disabled. In this, von Paczensky and Schlingensief invoke a conventional pattern of (re)presentation; but they add a supplement to it. For here, in contrast to what usually happens, it is the disabled person that is allowed to speak (last). Regardless of whether his response is directed at the intentions of the well-meaning helpers’ organization, it is he who decides whether or not he feels abused. Nevertheless, Christoph Schlingensief at the end of the take leaves the formal staging pattern of the interview behind. For one thing, by stepping in front of the camera, he demarcates the characteristic structure of the TV interview format. For another, this break could be interpreted as countervailing the interviewee’s appropriating self-assessment. Also, one might surmise that Achim von Paczensky did not understand Schlingensief’s questions and their meaning, which would amount to his being exploited for making a political statement or legitimizing the Freakstars project. To be sure, such a suspicion is not completely unjustified—especially since a whole number of scenes in Schlingensief’s film could be interpreted this way. However, it is based on the biased assumption that people with learning difficulties are not able to understand complex contexts such as this.

Freakstars 3000 criticizes the infantilization of persons with disabilities in the bath lift scene, where Achim von Paczensky plays a patient who with the help of technical aids is capable of taking a bath. The structuring principles and commentating of the scene bring to mind Die Sendung mit der Maus (Mouse TV), a well-known German children’s television series:

This is Achim, and that is Yvonne. Achim heaves himself onto the bath lift and Yvonne pushes him to the bathtub. Now Yvonne can use the bath lift to lower Achim into the bath, gently and slowly, so as to avoid splashing. And now the bathing fun begins. And if you’re lucky, you’ll also get a hair wash.

The exaggerated and satirizing staging of the rough hair wash the protesting von Paczensky gets in Schlingensief’s film highlights the innumerable practices of incapacitating disabled people in all sorts of welfare institutions. The allusion to the children’s series displays this practice in a formally excessive way.

Next to such critical references, however, it is the popular media model of the casting show that provides the central frame of Freakstars. The mimicry of this prototype makes the specific and familiar staging practices tangible as a media-mediated vocabulary. Accordingly, the short interviews in which, for example, freak star Bernhard Krüger explains why he was so upset at the beginning of the casting, or where Kerstin Graßmann tells the audience she is still schizophrenic, can be recognized as dramaturgical means of personalizing the protagonists16 and endowing them with recognizable traits that are typical only of them. However, the emphasis of the actors’ special characteristics most often results in their being stereotyped.

Sabrina Braemer’s support for Werner Brecht’s singing, for instance, is ramped up into an act of solidarity among candidates by a voice-over commentary and by inserting shots that show the jury members ostensibly touched. In the further course of the film, Braemer’s kindness is repeatedly shown in such a manner that her representation is almost exclusively reduced to this stereotype.

Another factor strongly linked to the personalization of the candidates is the emotionalization of the action,17 one of the fundamental presentation modes of popular TV formats, which is used to create suspense and to emotionally involve spectators. Close-ups of Bernhard Krüger, Christoph Schlingensief and Mario Garzaner which show them excited, touched and proud, respectively, as well as voice-over statements, canned fanfare music, specific camera angles and the high number of cuts are likely to evoke emotional effects such as admiration, sympathy, dislike, etc. The dramatization of the filmed events plays an equally fundamental role in this context.18 As with all casting shows, it reaches its peak at the points of decision. Will the candidate be admitted to the next round? What will the jury decide?

Although Schlingensief in his film employs all of these methods—that is to say, emotionalization, personalization, dramatization—he is not interested in producing an exact copy of a casting show. On the contrary, by citing the essential staging strategies of this TV format, he reveals the manipulation used in it. For example, when the jury, after the appearance of the stout and stammering Werner Brecht, say they are impressed or that Mario Garzaner’s improvised presentation was so impressive that his name will not soon be forgotten, then it is less the content of these verbatim repetitions of TV phraseology that matters but their constitutive role in the making of a star. At the same time, the pattern of a casting show is thwarted by the differences that become obvious when comparing Freakstars with the broadcasts of private TV stations. With a fair amount of black humor and ambiguous wit, Schlingensief’s shrill version of a casting show—by the deviating appearance of its candidates and the makeshift scenery used in it, if not for anything else—undermines the media aesthetics of the TV prototype and its iconography of young, healthy-looking and perfectly-styled bodies within the glamor world of show business.

Contrary, however, to what the press wrote19, what manifests itself is not the authenticity and immediacy of the actors. The axiom of the supposed authenticity of disabled people, on which also many of the reviews of Disabled Theater are based, naturalizes the difference personified in these actors by passing it off as a pre-discursive, quasi-natural and immediate quality. Just like the actors in Disabled Theater, whose dance solos—by dint of the selected songs, the choreography, their respective physicality and fitness, their movements and sequences, etc.—diverge from the conventions of dance theater and from models of popular culture, thus evoking only the effect of authenticity, the songs performed in Freakstars 3000, the untrained, snarling, humming and screaming voices, the sometimes unusual behavior of the participants, their textual improvisations and newly-invented melodies convey the impression that the candidates’ appearance is particularly authentic. This effect, however, is due to the perceived difference from the original. The emphasis that Schlingensief places on using the dramaturgical, formal and stylistic means of the casting show makes it clear that the film’s intention is to expose the freak stars as a result of the way in which they are being presented. This intention is supported by references to other modes of (re)presentation that are significant for people with a disability. By using existing media formats, Freakstars 3000 brings home the fact that the portrayal of disabled people depends on the form of their staging. The reference to the supra-individual framing is important inasmuch as the conventional and stereotypical narratives often portray disability as an individual fate or a personal tragedy instead of highlighting its discursive character.

In addition, the self-reflexivity of Freakstars accentuates the function of the jury as a constitutive element of the casting show. The fact that all of its members are non-disabled demonstrates the ideological mobilization of the binary opposition disabled/non-disabled. Similar to Disabled Theater, where at first only seven of the eleven actors were allowed to perform a dance solo, in Freakstars 3000, too, the representatives of the hegemonic system decide which of those deviating from the norm make it through to the next round. And while the film, by re-staging the casting procedure, calls to mind the social practices of selection and exclusion, actor Gianni Blumer in Disabled Theater explicitly criticizes Bel’s choice, who in turn also allows the other actors to dance their solos at the end of the performance.

The casting show format is not the only frame of reference important in Freakstars. The very title of the film, Freakstars 3000, provides a tangible link with the 19th-century freak discourse. In the highly popular freak shows of the Victorian era, people with extraordinary bodily features were shown to a paying public. The freaks on display were the results of specific practices and manipulations undertaken to increase their respective entertainment value and to capitalize on their presentation. By using the model of a casting show (i.e. a format highly profitable for television channels) and by naming his film Freakstars 3000, Schlingensief opens up a whole field of associations, highlighting an intricate aspect of (re)presenting disabled people, namely, their exploitation for publicity purposes and profit maximization. In this context, the marketing of the Freakstars project in cinemas, on television, the internet, etc. is redolent of the extensive commercialization of traditional freak shows.20 The Victorian freaks earned their living by being exhibited. Without idealizing the then practice of exhibiting, the freaks were involved in their (re)presentation to a greater extent than in the medical discourse of the time, and they were remunerated for it. However, the title of Freakstars 3000 focuses attention not only on the economic aspects of the freak show business but also on the various deviations (physical, cognitive, psychological, etc.) of the casting show participants. The film shows people that do not conform to the established standards, and turns them into show pieces. Disabled Theater evokes similar associations. Here, a translator is present on stage and informs the audience of the instructions Jérôme Bel gave the actors, who are, for example, supposed to look at the audience for a minute each, tell their name, age and occupation, identify their disability, perform a dance solo, etc. These actions do not take place in parallel. The performers are called individually, step forward and perform according to the instructions they have been given.

Freakstars 3000, with its sometimes unmediated editing of shots, also refers to the cinema of attractions21, e.g. in the scene in which the corpulent Werner Brecht uses his fingers in an extremely awkward manner to break up a melon, which then slips out of his hands and splashes to the ground.

Similar to the freak shows, films produced in the early years of the cinema aim at stimulating the viewers’ visual curiosity rather than providing them with narrative pleasure. The mode of reception they are supposed to evoke in the viewer is a gaping and voyeuristic gaze full of admiration and fascination for the attractions presented to him. Not only was the audience allowed to watch, be amazed and stare; targeted strategies were used to stimulate this perception. Schlingensief’s Freakstars 3000 continues this tradition in deliberately exposing the protagonists’ eccentricity as an attraction. Apart from the style of editing that is borrowed from the cinema of attractions, Schlingensief uses shots that explicitly draw the attention to the embodied difference of the actors. Participant Eberhard Karst, for instance, after his appearance lapses into an incomprehensible babble and Gabriele Dulling’s reactions to the jury are screams of excitement and fluttering arm movements. Contrary to the conventions of political correctness and their ban on staring at people with disabilities, these images satisfy the voyeuristic gaze of the spectators. Jérôme Bel, with Disabled Theater in mind, straightforwardly put it as follows: “If you don’t go to the theater to be a voyeur and see what you’re not allowed to see, I don’t understand why you go.”22 The general suspicion of voyeuristic exploitation which hovers over Disabled Theater usually turns a blind eye to the fact that there is no such thing as a theater without voyeuristic and exhibitionist acts. Jérôme Bel’s performance concept concentrates on the essential factors and elements of theater and emphasizes, amongst other things, these practices as constituents of theater.

Gaping at people, despite its objectifying qualities, is a mode of reception facilitated by both Freakstars 3000 and Disabled Theater. The moot point in the aforementioned debates of the question as to whether people are allowed to do this was the violation of the cultural, political, and social taboos on perception, which is countered by film and performance with opportunities—if not imperatives—of perception. Doris Kolesch argues

… that sweeping statements such as “theater must not do this”… only bear witness to the general reluctance of engaging with an aesthetic perception and to the recourse to a supposedly tolerant and liberal moral code which, by invoking the existence of seemingly intangible abstract values (such as equality, equal rights, etc. ) only serves the purpose of avoiding experience. In fact, such a statement, no matter where or when it is pronounced, reduces disabled persons to their disability.23

In the debates surrounding Freakstars 3000, the advocates of this kind of morality felt provoked by Schlingensief’s work and vehemently demanded a ban on the film. Disability was here only seen as a deviation from an idealized, fantasmatic norm, a lack or a defect—not, however, as a special quality void of negative connotations. On the one hand, the Freakstars project undermines the deficit-oriented visuality of disabled persons in the reductionist discourses of medicine and pedagogy; on the other, it counters the visual absence of these persons outside of the said contexts. In addition, Schlingensief manages to modify the objectifying perspectivation of people with disabilities in favor of a more differentiated representation of his protagonists—highlighting, and legitimizing the subjectivity of the latter: the freak stars stare back!24

Exposing the staging practices and patterns used in Freakstars by the self-referential citation of the corresponding TV formats, Schlingensief represents the protagonists of his film in the context of the production that constitutes them. Accordingly, also the post-production emphasizes the staged character of the representations by repeatedly inserting shots of the freak stars at the control desk—that is to say, of images which usually remain invisible in film and TV. And even though the images shown do not document the actual editing of

the film and the freak stars have no apparent influence on the post-production (which denies them the crucial authority to control their representation), the film nevertheless reveals the camera’s allegedly authentic representation of them as illusory, which makes it clear that it is the representation that constitutes the freak, and not vice versa. In this context, participant Helga Stöwhase’s wish to shoot the film all over again, because she does not want to see it broadcast the way it is, is unmistakably a self-reflexive scene that simultaneously emphasizes the performers’ dramatic competence and their active participation in the film production.

It is not merely the disabled actors that Freakstars 3000 captures on film. On the contrary, many shots also focus on the filmmaker himself, whose visibility as both jury member and project organizer—i.e. as judging spectator and producing director—reflects the relationship between disabled and non-disabled people. And there is yet another relationship that, to no lesser extent, becomes the object of attention in Disabled Theater: the translator is on stage for the entire duration of the production; informing the audience of the instructions that Jérôme Bel gave the actors, she acts as the non-disabled choreographer’s representative. In this way, Disabled Theater makes transparent the power relations prevailing in a hierarchically organized discourse. Schlingensief slightly modifies the structure of this constellation by choosing low-angle shots for the candidates and high-angle ones for the jury. Also, the freak stars for the most part stare directly into the camera, which makes for a reversibility of gazes: the eye of the spectator meets the glance of the protagonists. That such a confrontation might irritate the established conventions and potentially holds a high degree of disturbance is something the spectators of Disabled Theater learn right at the beginning of the piece when the performers, one after the other, come to the front of the stage and stay there for a minute or so to look at the audience. The actors are thus endowed with a subject status which opposes the perception of their staged self-representation to the voyeuristic contemplation that turns them into objects. In terms of the traditional visual matrix, the way in which Freakstars 3000 and Disabled Theater (re)present people with a disability is at least unusual.

But does this re-vision and restructuring of dominant constellations of perception have a critical potential? A transformation of the common order of things is indicated in the opening credits of the film, where it says:

Dear movie lovers!

Here, you can watch hip young people who use their talent and their absolute dedication to make their dreams of a great career in music come true. You can listen to German originals who, in just passing by, singing, point out the great problem of the non-disabled. During the shooting, actors were consistently abused and forced to portray disability. Each fit and every collapse is therefore 100% authentic and unrepeatable.

As Catherina Gilles has correctly pointed out, what is at stake here are not the problems of disabled people but the problems the non-disabled experience with them.25 The ironic aspect of these introductory words a priori invalidates the educational effort of reproaching Schlingensief for exploiting his protagonists. The deficit-oriented focus on people with a disability is thus inverted right at the beginning of the film. The work of a non-disabled director postulates that it is through people with disabilities that the “great problem of the non-disabled” is brought to our attention. Apart from the intricate interdependence of perspectives, the announcement made in the credits not only asserts the disabled actors’ ability to act; the irony of the statement is intended to be noticed, too. It presupposes a communicative framework within which its ambiguity is perceived. This framework is the traditional perception of people with disabilities, a perception that is responsible for their being standardized, classified and considered a problem. Schlingensief’s inversion of the polarized opposition of non-disabled/disabled and of the value judgments associated with it brings home the hierarchical relationship between people with disabilities and those without. The binary opposition itself and the belief in its biological, pre-discursive categories, however, are not fundamentally questioned, let alone jettisoned. The statement that the actors were forced to portray disability could be read as a reference to the performative character of identities judged disabled. However, such a statement entails the risk that disability will continue to be perceived as a secondary phenomenon derived from something original or primary, namely, from the non-disabled, normal body. Just how much this is taken for granted becomes clear from the preferred and highly successful casting of disabled roles with non-disabled actors.26 Conversely, casting non-disabled roles with artists who are disabled or cognitively ill remains an exception. It is for this reason that Kerstin Graßmann’s, Horst Gelonnek’s or Axel Silber’s portraits of, respectively, a famous pop singer, the German defense minister and a well-known TV host are so controversial: the categories abnormal/normal and disabled/non-disabled here enter into a tense and mutually destabilizing relationship with each other.

Graßmann, for example, in her portrait of pop singer Nana Mouskouri shows qualities and traits that are characteristic of the non-disabled singer. She wears a brown, long-haired wig, a knee-long elegant black and white summer dress, and a pair of glasses with a very conspicuous frame. In her right hand she carries a bright ladies’ handbag that harmonizes with the color of her clothes. Formulating well-phrased sentences she tells the spectators in a calm and controlled voice that she is from Athens and lives in a nice cottage by the water in the woods. She then takes a megaphone, through which she sings a well-known song by Mouskouri, while walking through a green space reminiscent of a park. Participants of the Freakstars project are visible in the background, enthusiastically swaying to the music. Now and then, advertisements in the style of home shopping channels providing information on the singer’s complete works appear, with a voice-over encouraging viewers to buy.

Thus, the film sequence repeats attributes, activities and narratives otherwise known from the singer’s self-presentation, of which the scene is, however, by no means an exact copy. The use of the mega

phone, Graßmann’s voice and her enthusiastic audience are the most noticeable differences of a performance whose citational character in terms of action, biographical detail and dress (or dressing up) are only too obvious. What is more, the scene can be interpreted as a reference to the citational character of the star’s identity, which is considered theatrical anyway. And yet, the actress portraying this non-disabled singer is labeled schizophrenic in medical discourse.27 In contradistinction to Disabled Theater, where Julia Häusermann’s imitation of Michael Jackson (when dancing to his song “They Don’t Care About Us”), generates an authenticity effect in many viewers, Graßmann’s impersonation of the pop singer is rather received as a dis/ability masquerade. In the cultural distinction between non-disabled/disabled, the identity she represents occupies the primary term. Her performance presents non-disability as a constructed category of identity. That is to say, that an identity claiming normalcy for itself can be experienced as the product of a staging process. In a system characterized by asymmetric, hierarchical relationships between the identity categories non-disabled/disabled, these scenes from Freakstars 3000 have the potential to unfold a subversive dynamic.

Schlingensief’s subversion of the conventional categories of identity implies a system-immanent criticism. Located within the binary matrix diabled/non-disabled, his re-articulation of this principle demonstrates the modification potential thereof. Freakstars 3000 has no intention to normalize the actors or to reduce them to their disability—although both tendencies repeatedly impose themselves. The achievement of the film is that it disables the traditional representations of non-disability while introducing a difference in the conventional (re)presentations of disability. As the title of Disabled Theater programmatically suggests, the disabling of non-disabled standards is a central motif of the piece. The performances of the disabled actors are supposed to disrupt the smooth functioning of the seemingly self-evident targets and expectations that (dance) theater is supposed to fulfill. The difference of Disabled Theater and Freakstars 3000 in relation to the popular performance standards of (dance) theater and the TV formats of popular culture, respectively, is the surplus added to the unmarked norm28. Also, actors who are barely visible outside the deficit-oriented discourses are put in the limelight in both works. Their presence on famous international theater stages (in the case of Disabled Theater) and in cinema and TV (in the case of Freakstars 3000) gives visibility to people with a disability in places where they are usually denied it. At the same time, this emancipatory act highlights the exclusion mechanisms constitutive of the established order of things.

In spite of all their subversive and emancipatory potential, however, both Freakstars 3000 and Disabled Theater continue one specific aspect of traditional theater practice. People exposed to incapacitating and discriminatory processes are presented on stage by artists who are not only successful in the established art world but are also considered non-disabled.29 And although the disabled actors in Freakstars 3000 and Disabled Theater had clearly more influence on the way in which they were presented than in other discursive formats, both Schlingensief and Bel carry on a powerful tradition that revitalizes the hierarchical dichotomy of non-disabled/disabled in favor of the first term. Schlingensief emphasizes this problem in the scenes that show the freak stars at the control desk. Obvious though it is that they have no direct influence on the editing of the film, Schlingensief develops a vision in which actors labeled disabled powerfully occupy this position. From this perspective, productions of disabled artists such as Mat Fraser’s30 Beauty and the Beast or the performance Regie—a joint project by Theater Thikwa Berlin and the performance collective
Monster Truck31 where three people with Down’s syndrome are in control of what happens on stage—would be rewarding objects for further research.


1 See, for example, Tanja Stelzer, “Julia Häusermann: Ihr behindert mich!,”; Jeremy M. Barker, “Jérôme Bel/Theater HORA’s ‘Disabled Theater’ at Festival d’Avignon,”; Roberta Smith and Siobhan Burke, “Performance Art That Looks a Lot Like Theater,”; Laura Cappelle, “Disabled Theater, Centre Pompidou, Paris,” 2012,–11e2–9ac6–00144feabdc0.html#axzz3BZmjgEJp; David Velasco, “Behaving Badly: Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater,” Parkett 91 (2012), pp. 221–224; Adrian Anton, “Speziell: DISABLED THEATER von Jérôme Bel auf Kampnagel,” Flüstern und Schreien, 2013, (all retrieved: August 14, 2014).

2 Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer, “Background, Inspiration, Contexts,” Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer, eds., Christoph Schlingensief. Art Without Borders, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 5–22, p. 5.

3 Among the permanent members of the “Schlingensief Family” were Achim von Paczensky (who died in 2009), Kerstin Graßmann, Helga Stöwhase, Horst Gelonneck (who died in 2013), Mario Garzaner and his parents, Diedrich Kuhlbrodt, Werner Brecht (who died in 2003), the Fassbinder actresses Irm Hermann and Margit Carstensen and dramaturge Carl Hegemann. Von Paczensky, Grassmann, Stöwhase, Gelloneck, the Garzaners, Brecht and Hermann also contributed to the Freakstars 3000 project.

4 Die Tageszeitung, for example, wrote: “In comparison to Bohlen’s RTL, where young people are constantly under pressure to succeed, Schlingensief’s circle of disabled people hangs loose until the end. No one here is being proctorized on their way to becoming a junior entertainer, no one is promised a career, no one is even interested in what will happen when the first appearance in front of an audience is about to begin … The action has been turned into a platform of what once, with regard to the 1968 student revolt, was a little pathetically referred to as living a self-determined life.” Harald Fricke, “Die hohe Kunst der Vermischung,” Die Tageszeitung, 2003,,1518,274587,00.html. spiegel online, in turn, emphasized that the actors were not forced into anything but obviously participated in the film with joy and commitment: “In contrast to the original, the candidates—inhabitants of a Berlin home for cognitively and physically disabled people—here actively, creatively, blaringly and happily intervene in the process of a TV production.” Johanna Straub, Schlingensiefs Freakstars 3000: Wir sind alle krank, 2003, (both retrieved: June 10, 2014). In her discussion of Freakstars 3000, Catherina Gilles also explicitly invalidates the accusation that Schlingensief exploits “the disability of the disabled for his own artistic purposes.” See Catherina Gilles, Kunst und Nichtkunst: Das Theater von Christoph Schlingensief, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008, p. 68.

5 (retrieved: October 13, 2014).

6 (retrieved: November 8, 2014).

7 “The phrase poster child refers to a child with a disease or disability whose picture was used on posters and other media in the campaign for a particular charity to encourage the people to give.” Robert Bogdan, Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012, p. 44.

8 See, for instance, Carol Poore, Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009, p. 298.

9 See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York and London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 223–242.

10 “Impairment, in other words, is a product of discursive practices; like sex is an effect, rather than an origin, a performance rather than an essence. The reiterative power of discourse perfects the performance so that the body not only becomes the materialization of its diagnostic label, but also its own set of constraints and regulations. In this poststructuralist view, impairment is no longer a biological fact, but a discursive product.” Bill Hughes and Kevin Paterson, “The Social Model of Disability and the Disappearing Body: Towards a Sociology of Impairment,” Disability & Society 12, (1997), pp. 325–340, p. 333.

11 Markus Dederich, Körper, Kultur und Behinderung: Eine Einführung in die Disability Studies, Bielefeld: transcript, 2007, p. 41.

12 See Butler, Bodies that Matter, p. 10.

13 In Disability Studies, the expression embodied difference has become a topos emphasizing that disability, as a differential phenomenon, is always identified by looking at physical expressions, forms, movements, etc. From this perspective it is then possible to focus so-called physical as well as cognitive, mental and psychological disabilities.

14 Gilles, Kunst und Nichtkunst, p. 68.

15 See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, New York: Vintage Books, 1988, pp. 46–58. According to Foucault, work became an ethical force of separation in the 17th century. Work and idleness mark a central boundary in the bourgeois order of things. The internment of the insane in the first phase of industrialization coincided with a moral enchantment of work, which was the effect less of its productivity than of its discursification as an unfailing panacea that would eliminate any form of misery. The positive association of work and social identity shaped the representation and perception of disability well into the 20th century. It was a nexus that served as an axiomatic condition for the therapy and social rehabilitation concepts, rehabilitative pedagogy and the prosthetic medicine that emerged after the end of World War One. In the post-war years, for example, there were numerous graphic representations of people with a disability performing some kind of work, which evidently they were capable of performing only because of the progress in the field of prosthetics.

16 See Elisabeth Klaus and Stephanie Lücke, “Reality TV – Definition und Merkmale einer erfolgreichen Genrefamilie am Beispiel von Reality Soap und Docu Soap,” Medien und Kommunikationswissenschaft 51, no. 2, (2003), pp. 195–212, p. 208.

17 Ibid., pp. 208 et seq.

18 Ibid, p. 210.

19 See, for instance, Johanna Straub, “Wir sind alle krank,” 2003,,1518,274587,00.html; Harald Fricke, “Die hohe Kunst der Vermischung,” 2003, (both retrieved: November 26, 2014).

20 However, the implementation of the Freakstars idea was rejected by the ZDF (state-owned German TV station) Program Board, because “the submitted concept offers no prospect of a satisfactory audience response and a corresponding market share.” Quoted from the ZDF Program Board’s letter to Christoph Schlingensief and Achim von Paczensky, 2001, (retrieved: May 12, 2014).

21 The expression was coined by Tom Gunning who, in his essay The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectators and the Avant-Garde, defines this early form of the cinema as follows: “The cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle—a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. The attraction to be displayed may also be of a cinematic nature, such as … early close-ups, or trick film in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty. Fictional situations tend to be restricted to gags, vaudeville numbers or recreations of shocking or curious events.” Tom Gunning, “The cinema of attractions: Early films, its spectators and the avantgarde,” Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker, eds., Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: British Film Institute, 1990, pp. 56–62, pp. 58 et seq.

22 20theater%20-%20marcel%20bugiel%20and%20jerome%20bel (both retrieved: August 15, 2014).

23 Doris Kolesch, “Imperfekt: Zur Ästhetik anderer Körper auf der Bühne,” ed. Jörg Huber, Einbildungen, Interventionen 14, Wien/New York: Springer, 2005, pp. 193–206, p. 199.

24 See also Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring, How We Look, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, or Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Dares to Stares: Disabled Woman Performance Artist & the Dynamics of Staring,” Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, eds., Bodies in Commotion, Disability & Performance, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005, pp. 30–55.

25 Gilles, Kunst und Nichtkunst, p. 66.

26 Here are just a few examples of non-disabled actors who were awarded or nominated for an Oscar for their representations of disabled characters: Dustin Hoffman in the role of the autistic Raymond in Rain Man, Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in the eponymous film, and Sean Penn as Sam Dawson in I am Sam.

27 In the hegemonic discourse, where the individual or social disability model predominates, chronic schizophrenia is usually classified as both a disease and a mental disability, for it is expected to entail long-term physical, psychological, cognitive, etc. impairments which, in conjunction with attitudinal and environmental barriers deprive the affected persons of using their fundamental rights.

28 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 40.

29 It is a criticism that could be legitimately leveled at the present analysis, too. As a non-disabled author, I am writing about a stage production that involves people who, in terms of the hierarchically organized dichotomy of not-disabled/disabled are labeled with the latter term. In science, there is a long-standing fatal tradition of this kind of practice. As non-disabled scientists’ objects of research, people with a disability have not only been deprived of their subjectivity; unfortunately, also their voices, as researchers or as discursively powerful agents, only too often remain a desideratum.

30 In Beauty and the Beast, musician, actor and performance artist Mat Fraser performs on stage together with Julie Atlas Muz. Fraser is one of the most famous British artists with a disability; Muz is a prominent performer from New York’s burlesque scene.

31 The German performance collective Monster Truck works in the fields of performance, video, and visual arts. All members of Monster Truck perform on stage, direct and develop the concept of the piece themselves. Regie (2014) is a co-production of Monster Truck and Theater Thikwa, described by its makers as a social and artistic experiment. Actors both with and without disabilities perform at Theater Thikwa. Official website of Theater Thikwa: Official website of Monster Truck: (both retrieved: November 26, 2014).

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Sandra Umathum (ed.), Benjamin Wihstutz (ed.): Disabled Theater

Benjamin Wihstutz (ed.), Sandra Umathum (ed.)

Disabled Theater

Translated by Christoph Nöthlings

Softcover, 248 pages

PDF, 248 pages

Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater, a dance piece featuring eleven actors with cognitive disabilities from Zurich's Theater HORA, has polarized audiences worldwide. Some have celebrated the performance as an outstanding exploration of presence and representation; others have criticized it as a contemporary freak show. This impassioned reception provokes important questions about the role of people with cognitive disabilities within theater and dance—and within society writ large. Using Disabled Theater as the basis for a broad, interdisciplinary discussion of performance and disability, this volume explores the intersections of politics and aesthetics, inclusion and exclusion, and identity and empowerment. Can the stage serve as a place of emancipation for people with disabilities? To what extent are performers with disabilities able to challenge and subvert the rules of society? What would a performance look like without an ideology of ability?

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