Patty Berne is a co-founder and executive director of Sins Invalid (sinsinvalid.org), a disability justice based performance project centralizing disabled artists of color and queer and gender non-conforming artists with disabilities. Berne’s experiences as a Japanese-Haitian queer disabled woman provides grounding for her work creating “liberated zones” for marginalized voices. Her professional background includes offering mental health support to survivors of violence; advocacy for immigrants who seek asylum due to war and torture; support work for the Guatemalan democratic movement and within the Haitian diaspora; work with incarcerated youth toward alternatives to the criminal legal system; advocating for LGBTQI community and disability rights perspectives within the field of reproductive and genetic technologies and cultural activism to centralize marginalized voices, particularly those of people with disabilities. Berne’s training in clinical psychology focused on trauma and healing for survivors of interpersonal and state-sponsored violence. She is widely recognized for her work to establish the framework and practice of Disability Justice.
Neve Be(ast) aka Lyric Seal is a multi-disciplinary resistant performance artist, sex worker, disability justice activist, and punk scholar. They are a staff writer at Harlot Magazine (harlot.media), a columnist at maximumrocknroll, and have also written for Curve Magazine (issue out now) and Everyday Feminism. Neve Be works with Sins Invalid as a leader in development, writer, and performer, and co-founded the Blueberry Jam, a feminist dance lab for women and queers. Lyric is a porn star, alt burlesque performer, author (Coming Out Like a Porn Star) and advice columnist (Slumber Party). They are currently at work on their third erotic dance on film collaboration with Nikki Silver and a book, Taking it Lying Down/ Crawling Like an Animal. Neve currently resides in Oakland, and is moving to Seattle this summer. littlebeasthood.tumblr.com
Patty Berne: So we’ve come up with some questions that we will be reading and answering together –
Neve Be(ast): (Laughter) – it’s kind of a mutual interview.
PB: So, Beast, how do you identify vis-a-vis normative understandings of gender, race, sexuality, ability and artistry?
NB: I distinctly do not identify vis-a-vis normative understandings… I identify as multi-gendered, which for me is under an umbrella of genderqueer and trans. I identify as a trans person, not as a trans man or trans something, I’m female assigned and I identify as many genders and one of my genders is woman. I feel resistant to asserting “I am a woman” because people don’t have very much problem only seeing that. I am mixed black – Creole, Guinean French, Chickasaw Indian, Sudanese and Italian/German. I’m disabled and use two different kinds of wheelchairs, and I also crawl around a lot. And I’m queer, specifically multisexual. I’m a writer, poet, journalist, critical theorist, performance artist, dancer and a porn performer.
Patty, how do you identify vis-a-vis normative understandings of gender, race, sexuality, ability and artistry?
PB: I get read as female although as a person with a disability, I’m fairly gender non-conforming. I’m queer. I’m a mixed-race person of color, of Haitian and Japanese descent. In terms of ability, I identify as having a mobility impairment. For me, artistry, that’s the hardest identity to discern. In my role at Sins Invalid I am a contributing writer and the Artistic Director. I’ve struggled with how to identify, or even whether or not to identify, as an artist most of my adult life even though I’ve engaged in creative expression most of my adult life.
NB: I hear you. Can we start unpacking the phrase, “women in the arts” a bit?
PB: I believe that it’s important to acknowledge the layered identities within the construct of “woman” – to not acknowledge other identities and forms of institutional power essentializes gender as the only fulcrum of power in a relationship – which is rarely the case, right? For example, for women of color, being racialized has a huge impact on how our genders are read, and disability certainly impacts the way our genders are read, if they’re read at all! And this isn’t just interpersonal, right? Individual oppressive biases combined with historical material forces create institutional oppression… But to take a step back, I think we need to acknowledge that ideas of gender are complex, they’re not a “given” or biologically derived or tied to bodily characteristics at all, they’re created within the gender binary, within patriarchy, within white supremacy, and ablebodied normativity and heteronormativity. What are your thoughts about the phrase “women in the arts”?
NB: I have so many thoughts! I think talking about feminism, misogyny, misogynoir (misogyny directed at Black women), and transmisogyny are extremely relevant – and also really relevant to highlighting “womanhood” as a point of experience and of resistance!
PB: YES! So now that we’ve disrupted the question a little (laughter) let’s go into another piece of this conversation… our personal experiences, of course, impacted by the political! (laughter)
So, what have been your most robust or fabulous opportunities for making work?
NB: I love the words “robust” and “fabulous.” Well, some have been finding Sins Invalid artists and working together! Seeing what was happening with Disability Justice and performance when I was first coming to the Bay in 2010, and then interning with the organization in 2011 opened me up to thinking more deeply about the work I was doing, what I was trying to make and what I was trying to make work about. And then going on tour with Mangoes With Chili, and feeling that I wanted to make a piece that I actually wanted to repeat every day for the next two weeks. I grew up dancing in Harlem and I was always performing someone else’s work, I really like being choreographed and directed. It’s a completely different experience being an independent artist, it’s a little lonely to be trying to make your own work and to be wondering if it’s relevant. It’s very overwhelming. So I like being in other people’s shows a lot as an individual artist, I like the mixture.
In Mangoes With Chili—the first and only QTPOC floating cabaret—I created and performed a piece that spoke to some gross and complicated aspects of myself that I hadn’t shared in a performance context…A lot of my prior work had the intention of being appealing, trying to be palatable, and trying to make my aesthetic like aesthetics I had seen. But in Mangoes With Chili I both danced and did a spoken word monologue called “Bar Dragon,” about being someone who hangs out in a bar and waits for someone to come and they never come – but as a dragon. The piece was about feeling gross and feeling predatory as a queer person and as a disabled person and as a person of color in my sexual experiences, speaking from a point of power but not necessarily from an “empowered” position. That was a really amazing, challenging and exciting piece to do over and over and over again. I met a lot of different kinds of audiences on the tour, and a surprising number of people responded, “I totally get the dragon metaphor. I’m really into it, I relate to it.” I thought, “Great, I thought it was just me over here feeling like a lizard queen [laughs].” So that was a very robust and fabulous opportunity.
What have been your most fabulous opportunities for making work?
PB: [long pause] Sins Invalid [both laugh].
NB: Yeah. Makes sense.
PB: In Sins Invalid, we create space that can hold work that challenges both the artists and the audiences, a place where we were centered as disabled artists of color, as queer and gender-non-conforming artists with disabilities. I think in order to make relevant work it’s critical for there to be a dialogue. Like you were saying, making it in a vacuum is like a ping-pong ball bouncing around inside of your head – at a certain point it’s not a fun game. I think it’s great to engage in dialogues about the kind of work we want to play in.
What’s been great about this work is that because of the dialogue, it’s generated relationships and community, which honestly makes the process so worth it – even if other people don’t resonate with it. But what’s proven consistently true is that people really, really resonate with it—not just people with disabilities, but people that are non-disabled, people that are white, or straight or whatever—I mean, people in bodies resonate with what it means to love, to be in conflict with one’s body, in conflict and in love with the world, which is at the end of the day what we all experience. So I’m very grateful for this space.
NB: Yeah. Me too.
So what’s been hardest for you, or most problematic about making work?
NB: Aaaaaaah! [both laugh] One thing is moving outside of very affirming bubbles to continue my work and make connections. After working with Constance Valis Hill and Chris Aiken and a lot of other world-respected dancers and scholars of dance, and having a dance background as a child, I definitely felt like, “Okay, I’m going to go out into the world now.” But the world is not physically integrated for dance. People are shocked by seeing a visibly physically disabled person in a dance classroom, a lot of able-bodied dance teachers are really shocked. Another supportive community AXIS Dance Company, in their dance intensives I was supported to make my own work and to make work with other people and to work with different kinds of bodies, and there was an accessible space to do that – incredible. Incredible.
But it’s really hard to even find teachers to help me get better at what I want to do. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that disabled artists working in any discipline find: having not just role models and people to look at to reflect yourself back to you, but even just instructors who have an understanding of what your differences or experiences might be and that are like, “Yes, I am going to help you get better at this in this way that is you getting better and not an able-bodied person getting better.” Finding teachers, finding spaces, finding room to rehearse and room to make work, those have been the biggest challenges for me.
As a concrete example, I applied and got a dance residency at a highly regarded resident artist workshop program, and in the middle of my rehearsal times the elevator broke. There was resistance from the building owner about who should pay for the elevator to be fixed, and it cut into at least half of my artist-in-residence, and we were getting closer to the performance date. And when I was considering giving up the residency, the program was indifferent.
NB: Later I was contacted by the person who runs the residency, and he wanted to show the Sins Invalid movie, and wanted me to be on the panel, and I told him there needs to be ASL interpretation, education and enforcement of fragrance-free practices, clear paths of travel, a working elevator, etc. And since he was doing a series of community performances, I suggested that it be a part of that. His response was “I think we can get ASL. How much does that cost?” And then he said: “I wasn’t really picturing this being a disabled event.”
So, he didn’t want there to be disabled audience members? I mean, what is a “disabled event?” Who did he think was in his community? It was such an illuminating moment for me, for him to say, “Well, I really pictured this being a community event.” Clearly, we’re not in his community. You know? [pause] So a challenge would be —
PB: Would be ableism.
NB: Vehement ableism. What was hard too was that he kept suggesting it to me over and over, and I was like, “You can’t keep offering the same inaccessible thing and then it becomes my problem when I keep saying no.” His conclusion was “Okay, well, thank you, let me know if you ever want to perform here in the future, because it’s always open to you. I feel like we both did our best.”
PB: That’s frustrating. Yeah, I feel like both ableism and misogyny have been really difficult when making work. For example, as the organizational director, witnessing my colleagues get their voicemails returned but not mine by several males across the country when we are setting up a touring performance.
The first performance in which I was directed was by a director with a huge name. After warming up she called all of the performers up onto the stage, and there was a flight of stairs between me and the stage. Was I invisible? What did she expect me to do? From there on, it was really clear that I was not who was pictured as a part of that world as a performer. Thanks but no thanks, I don’t need to be told that my community doesn’t matter.
Honestly, that speaks to another challenging piece of making work, internalized ableism and internalized patriarchy. If we are constantly given a narrative that our lives don’t matter—as people of color, or as people not in a dominant gender, or as people with disabilities—maintaining the drive and clarity to create work can be hard.
That’s why community is critical, to encourage and push us to do our work. Even when I’ve wondered about the relevance of my work, I witness the beauty and the struggle of my disabled sisters and brothers and I know, I mean, I know, that who we are and what we offer is powerful and gorgeous and I get clear. We need to be each other’s point of reference.
PB: Related to that, it’s really a challenge to ensure that we can be sustained by our creative work. Artists’ labor has value, and regrettably, we’re in a capitalist society, and in a capitalist economy value is reflected in compensation. It costs money to live!!! So I don’t want any of our artists to create work and perform for free. What we contribute is life-saving work, and it deserves to be compensated. Because of the uniqueness of our work and the really good relationships we’ve developed, we’ve been able to maintain funding, but it’s a constant struggle to ensure our sustainability. In my role, that’s also been challenging to my making work – having to consistently focus on funding.
NB: I went through a brief period of time after college when I was concerned that being a working artist who demanded to
be paid was antithetical or in contradiction to being anti-capitalist. I feel like that that’s changed – I’m still an anarchist, but growing up.
PB: I’m still anti-capitalist, and in capitalism, art isn’t valued so it isn’t well funded, so we could say actually demanding just compensation is an anti-capitalist act! [both laugh]
That brings us back to the most problematic part about making work is… oppression!
NB: Yeah! [both laugh] Oppression. Capitalism.
PB: Yeah. Those are real struggles when making work.
PB: You had a great question to contribute – How does Disability Justice subvert the idea of a career expectancy for people in the arts? Tell us!!
NB: When I was six years old, my mom was like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I was like: “I want to be an actor,” picturing a ballerina. And I performed my bizarre version of Swan Lake for my mother in the living room with my walker and a stuffed swan, because I thought that the story of Swan Lake had to do with a girl whose swan is sick and she had to take care of it. It was a very cripped-out Swan Lake on many levels.
Anyway, in ballet, it’s over by the time you’re 22 or 23. And for a lot choreographers in other genres, as they get older, they’ll have stagers come in and teach their work for them because they have stopped dancing what they created due to age – and disability-related reasons. So their work lives in repertoire, lives in canon, and it lives being taught by other people – which is fine, if you choose to do that and you want to do that. But the confines of ableism in dance and performance can age out people who are innovative and want to make work, based in the idea that “I can no longer perform my own work because I am disabled or old, so I must pass it on to younger, able-bodied, spry people who can perform my work.” And I wonder – Why? Why can’t you simply make a different kind of work that is for the body that you have now? I think that Disability Justice has the opportunity to really subvert that idea that you could age out of being for the stage.