Rethinking time and space: a conversation with Caspar Eric and Bjørn Hatterud
As part of Oslo Internasjonale Teaterfestival 2022, Black Box teater's programming dramaturg Elin Amundsen Grinaker met with Danish poet Caspar Eric and Norwegian writer Bjørn Hatterud for a conversation about disability, language and power. At the heart of the matter lies the question: Can art be an agent of change in a society in which the value of a body is measured by its productivity? That is: can art change how forms of embodiment are valued and perceived, and the social structures in which our bodies and minds are embedded?
Moving between levels of lived experience and critical analysis of disabling cultural and economic systems, the conversation touched upon the temporalities of pedestrian crossings, the invisible work of navigating inaccessible public and social spaces, and the stress and burnout associated with the ever-increasing demand for hyper-productivity in the modern labour market.
Caspar Eric made his literary debut with 7/11 in 2014, closely followed by Nike (2015), Avatar (2017), Alt hva du ejer (2018), Jeg vil ikke tilbage: digte fra dage med Covid-19 (2020) and Vi kan gjøre meget (2021). He has hosted and appeared in several podcasts and radio shows, most notably Det vi går rundt med, and Uden titel (both on Danmarks Radio, DR), where he meets with various guests to explore questions relating to embodiment and art, respectively. Mixing self-examining personal narrative, biting social criticism and pop culture references, he has explored a variety of topics – disability being one of them.
Bjørn Hatterud has figured as art critic, curator, writer and experimental musician, alongside working with the Norwegian Cultural Council (Kulturrådet) to establish a trainee program for disabled people in the cultural sector. He has written extensively on art and culture, sexuality, disability and class. In his auto-biographical books Mot normalt (2018) and Mjøsa rundt med mor (2020), he reflects on (among other things) his experiences growing up queer, disabled and working class on the Norwegian country side.
Disability versus handicap
When asked to define the concept of ‘crip time’, Caspar Eric commented on the absurdity of “[...] a Danish person explaining an English word to a Norwegian audience”.(1) But then, language that deals with disability is often riddled with approximations, false starts, and linguistic intricacies that shift across time, space and contexts. And language is, as we know, deeply political, yet also intimate and personal; the words we use to describe and identify ourselves need not be the words we use to describe others, and the vocabulary we use in one space is not necessarily easily applicable in others.
Caspar and Bjørn both locate disability in social structures and environments that are hostile and inaccessible to people with impairments, contesting the depoliticized biomedical understanding of disability as a characteristic of individual bodies. But Elin notices some differences in terminology. Caspar has referred to his works as ‘handicap poems’, Elin notes, and self-identifies as ‘handicapped’, while Bjørn uses the Norwegian equivalents of ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’(2) – ‘impairment’ referring to physical or psychological phenomena and ‘disability’ pointing to the aforementioned social aspects.
While the term ‘handicap’ is often associated with the biomedical understanding of disability, it is in more common (and perhaps less stigmatizing) usage in Denmark than in Norway. Furthermore, Caspar intends it to be understood as a verb, as something being done to you, substituting ‘disability’ as it is defined above. At the same time, he is not necessarily consistent: he will use all sorts of words, he says, but with an openness to discussion and negotiation in everyday interactions.
Bjørn believes that many non-disabled people are afraid of using the wrong terminology. Therefore, he sees using impairment/disability as a strategic choice. In addition to being a valuable political tool, it provides a simple vocabulary for people to adopt and use:
BH: Disability is located in those stairs over there, that are difficult for me to use. They make me temporarily disabled, they give me a ‘handicap’, to use that word [...] When interacting with people who possess some form of power, this is very clarifying. You can ask: ‘Ok, where is the problem located?’ and it’s rarely (or never) the person’s body. Yes, the person has an impairment, but the problem is the staircase.
Still, he is sympathetic to exploring the more controversial and forbidden words in artistic and literary contexts. The history and connotations of the term ‘handicap’, for instance, could perhaps provoke some productive discomfort and useful reflections, he argues. He reminds the audience that one of the largest disabled people’s organizations in Norway is still called ‘Norges Handikapforbund’ (Norwegian Handicap Association). Weighing in on the subject of subversion, Caspar reflects on exploring the word ‘spasser’, a highly offensive slang term derived from the Danish word ‘spastiker’, which translates to ‘spastic’(3):
CE: If I were to call my upcoming book ‘handicap poems’, that would be a bit kitsch […] too pop-ish, in a way – and not really that provocative. But ‘spasser’ is. I have a hard time with that word. But I want to write about it, because people have called me that word – and I want people to remember it. I want them to know that… however harsh that word feels today, it always felt like that to someone with Cerebral palsy. Always did.
Who can allow themselves to be late?
For Alison Kafer, who has written extensively on the subject, crip(4) time describes both the fact that disabled people often need extra time (to arrive somewhere, to finish a sentence…), and the understanding that the “[...] expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular bodies and minds”(5). Within this understanding lies also a challenge to normative time frames. As Kafer puts it: “Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds”(6). In a sense, crip time is prescriptive as well as descriptive.
An everyday example of normative time frames can be found in pedestrian crossings, Caspar argues. As soon as the red man turns green and the clock starts ticking, you have a certain amount of time to cross, modelled on an imagined ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ body. Needless to say, this time frame doesn’t fit all bodies, which means that some people have to choose between disrupting the traffic and feel like a bother, or learn to walk into the road before everybody else, Caspar says. He argues that this acknowledgement can be extended to society as a whole, from the structural demands of the labour market to the logistics of ordering a coffee or catching a plane:
CE: My girlfriend laughs at me for always leaving early for the airport. But the reason I do that, is that I don’t want to be late, because the handicapped who is late is way too late, and they are late because they are handicapped. So to me, that also has something to do with crip time: who can allow themselves to be late?
In the aforementioned examples, the normative time frames are not ‘just’ normative: they are woven into the wiring of traffic signalling technologies and the tight schedules and distances of airport logistics – the consequences often direct and non-negotiable: the traffic light flicks back to red/the WALK sound makes an abrupt stop, and the aeroplane departs without you, whether you like it or not. In explaining the concept of crip time, Bjørn points to its kinship to queer time, the “[…] the strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices”(7) that accompanies/constitues queerness. This aspect of crip time is connected to cultural narratives and expectations, extending throughout our personal biographies:
BH: Maybe you don’t get married when everyone else gets married – that is: heterosexual and non-disabled people – maybe it takes longer for you to find a partner […], or maybe you need more time to finish your education, so that you end up ‘out of sync’ with the normative life course.
Neither Bjørn nor Caspar are familiar with any Norwegian or Danish term(s) that covers the same ground, and neither can remember seeing the concept discussed in public conversations about disability. In this way, Caspar reflects, it has its own temporality; the concept itself is slow.
In 2015, the Oslo City Council voted to make parts of Oslo car free. For a long time, Bjørn struggled to find accessible parking when he had meetings in the city centre. To begin with, he started heading out early to make it on time, driving around for 30, 35, 40 minutes with no luck. After a while, though, he thought ‘Ok, finding a parking space is supposed to take 10 minutes’. He started adhering to that ideal time frame, planning for the time that it should take:
BH: I began arriving 45 minutes late to my appointments, explaining the lack of parking. Because why should I spend 35 minutes driving around in my car looking for parking without anyone knowing? If you don’t say anything, nobody will know.
This anecdote showcases not just the lack of attention to accessibility in the implementation of the car free inner city, but also the connection of crip time to invisible work. The term ‘invisible work’ was coined by feminist scholar Arlene Kaplan Daniels(8) in the 80’s to describe the unpaid and often unrecognised domestic, reproductive, and emotional work primarily performed by women. It has later been applied to other types of work, most notably (for our purposes) to the various forms of labour performed by disabled and chronically ill people. Elin mentions the contribution of Norwegian author and professor of sociology Jan Grue, who has addressed the topic both in his latest book(9), and in the longform essay “The high cost of living in a disabling world”.
The ‘invisible’ part of invisible work might be a case of ‘if you don’t have to do it, you don’t know about it’, Bjørn argues – and when people don’t know about it, they show little understanding for those who do. The combined workload of everyday tasks relating to different forms of bodily care and administrative tasks that many disabled people have to perform, requires a lot of time and energy, Bjørn says, likening it to running a medium sized business – and that is on top of all the other commitments and roles one might have. Aside from the administrative and logistic aspects, there is also the emotional and relational work involved:
CE: Every day I have to go through things in my mind: ‘What kind of situations might I run into today?’ and ‘How do I want to handle those situations?’. And I will try to visualise them, like those people who think they can get money just by thinking about it […] Then, when the situation arrives, there is a stronger possibility that I will handle it the way I want to handle it.
Bjørn suggests that the pandemic might have given non-disabled people a tiny glimpse of the invisible work that he, Caspar and other disabled people are well used to. Having to remember to bring and wear a facemask, disinfecting one’s hands every ten minutes, handling the disappointments of cancelled events, and having to be constantly aware of one’s movements in public spaces are examples of extra work demanded of us in response to Covid-19. Caspar reflects on the experience of standing at the Copenhagen train station, listening to people complain about itchy face masks:
CE: I’m happy to listen to it, but I never want to hear a single interview where someone says the sentence ‘Why don’t you just stop victimising yourself?’ I’ve heard that sentence so many times, and been on the receiving end of it. As soon as someone points to some systematic injustice done towards their bodies, there it is: ‘If you just stopped thinking about it so much, if you just stopped putting yourself in a box, you would be more normal’. You get labelled ‘the bad handicapped’, right. So to me, the pandemic has shown us how incredibly non-adaptable the so-called normal people are.
Who gets to be in the grind?
Adaptability has, in fact, been the tag-line of the labour market the past 20 years, Caspar argues: in every job ad they want leaders who are able to keep a cool head inside of a burning building. He points to the idealisation of stress and demand for hyper-productivity associated with grind culture. Being in the grind means being in a state of always working, always pushing to accomplish more, constantly overwhelmed and constantly on the edge of what you can handle: if you’re not at least a little bit exhausted, you’re not working hard enough. This mentality is detrimental to everybody, he says, suggesting that life under neoliberal capitalism can itself be conceptualised as a crip time, pointing to the proliferation of burnout, stress related illness and mental health issues. We have to ask ourselves who gets to be in the grind? Caspar says. Which bodies and minds are able to keep up, and what happens to those who can’t?
CE: I don’t understand how the job description is not ‘You should be able to stand inside a building and predict how to make sure that it doesn’t burn in the first place!’ What we want is to build some buildings that don’t burn, man. That shouldn't be too hard. How is that not what we strive for?
Bjørn agrees, pointing out that there seems to be an issue of conformity at play as well. Stress has become a badge of honour, he argues, and relaxation has no value anymore: holidays and free time have become areas of performance, something to be filled with high status activities and carefully documented for online audiences. Giving off an appearance of success requires more and more work, he says, making it even harder to keep up. From this perspective, the demand for productivity and performance occupies not just the labour market, but our entire lives. If you find it hard or impossible to tick off all of the boxes, Bjørn says, you might as well give up:
BH: That’s how the story of the ‘loser’ is born – those who fall completely behind. [...] For society, it’s most comfortable if they are invisible, that they stay hidden in social housing complexes, for everyone else to belittle.
Art as an agent of change
At this point in the conversation, a need for a profound rethinking and transformation of the cultural and economic structures that shape our lives has been identified. Circling back to the beginning, Elin asks what the role of art is and can be in this respect? What, if anything, can books and poems do? Nothing, Caspar says. At least not directly:
CE: That is why, on an artistic level, I find the notion of ‘handicap poems’ interesting. Because in this sense, poems actually are handicapped; there are things they cannot do. Change can always happen when someone does something – change is an action to me – and what instigates that action could very well be a poem, or a poem can come in after the action, or it can change you in some way, while the action comes years later. As an artist, I have to believe that. But I think that the idea that art can, in and of itself, create political change, is dangerous. […] To me, the interesting part is what happens next.
Bjørn questions the idea that the goal of artistic endeavours should or must be political. Sometimes, art is just art, he says. But that is not to say that art that is not overtly political is a-political. He reflects on the reception of his critically acclaimed second book, Mjøsa rundt med mor (2020). While the book is – on the surface level – a travel memoir, it is also deeply informed by queer theory, disability theory and other critical perspectives, expressed in relatable and accessible language. He points to the potential for micro-level impacts on an individual and attitudinal level, of reaching people who identify with his story, or people who would otherwise not be exposed to certain ideas and perspectives:
BH: I got a message from someone saying that her grandmother – who was in her nineties – read in that book every evening before bed. There are some pretty graphic descriptions of anal sex between men in that book, but this ninety year old woman still loved it.
Art can also, it is argued, help make visible that which is (often) not, like the realities of crip time and invisible work. An audience member picks up on this notion. He doesn’t subscribe to the optimism of visibility, he says. He would rather hide the invisible work that he performs, than let others see it and risk being misunderstood. Is visibility really enough, he asks? Does it really change anything?
Caspar states that if he feels anything resembling optimism, it would be connected to the potential of what comes after. He argues that naming and conceptualising the previously unspoken and unseen, can help to establish these things do exist in the first place. That is just the beginning, though. We also need to look at the political implications, he says, pointing to Universal Basic Income as an example of where the acknowledgement of invisible work might take us. Bjørn is also interested in the possibility of Universal Basic Income, commenting on the stigma of social service provisions:
BH: The irony is that if I receive a payment from the government and it’s labelled ‘grant’, it has much higher status than when it’s labelled ‘benefits’, even though the amount and the source is essentially identical.
He emphasises that visibility does not have to mean talking about the private affairs of our bodies and minds on a daily basis. He does, however, believe that highlighting the knowledge and skills of planning, problem-solving, creativity and know-how that many disabled people develop through the unpaid and invisible work of everyday life could be re-conceptualised and acknowledged as valuable and valid forms of competence that should be taken account of in hiring processes. In this respect, he says, he is optimistic.
Change is rarely a simple and straight-forward affair. Norms and systems of valuation are embedded in social institutions and physical environments, lingering even as cultural perceptions start to shift. Conversely, increased accessibility does not automatically equal changes in perception. Art can start conversations and keep them going, but in the ‘what comes next’ – after the applause, the award ceremonies, the enthusiastic reviews and good intentions – there is plenty of work to be done.
1Danish and Norwegian speaking people have a notoriously hard time understanding each other, despite their languages being practically similar in written form.
2. ‘Impairment’ and ‘disability’ corresponds with the Norwegian terms ‘funksjonsnedsettelse’ and ‘funksjonshemming’.
3. From Oxford Learners Dictionary: ‘spastic’ (noun) [medical, old-fashioned, offensive]: a word for a person who is affected by cerebral palsy that is now considered offensive.
4. ‘Crip’ is an abbreviation of ‘cripple’. The term is controversial, but some disabled people both outside and within academia are reclaiming the term as an act of resistance.
5. Kafer, Allison. Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013: 26
6. Ibid: 26
7. Jack Halberstam, referenced in Kafer, Allison. Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013: 34–35
8. Daniels, Arlene K. «Invisible work». Social problems 34, no. 5 ( 1987): 384–90
9. Grue, Jan. Hvis jeg faller: En beretning om usynlig arbeid. Oslo: Gyldendal, 2021. (Not yet translated to English).
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