Weaving Different Perspectives: Class, Disability, and Community Art

Brooke Leifso and Nataša Vukajlović weave a conversation around accessibility and community engagement within artistic and cultural productions. With her background as a disabled/Crip artist, and academic and expressive arts practitioner, Leifso shares methods for community engagement and her thoughts and questions around the topic of arts, income, and labor. Leifso and Vukajlović discuss how a working-class background influences their practices and what other forms of work play a role in being an artist.

This interview was recorded and is available on SoundCloud.

Brooke Leifso in conversation with Nataša Vukajlović — Jun 12, 2024

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Nataša Vukajlović: Hi, my name is Nataša Vukajlović and I am speaking to Brooke Leifso today. This is an audio interview for the Digital Solitude blog here at Akademie Schloss Solitude, where we are both fellows at the moment.

Before we start, we will give a brief audio description. I’m a tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed, white woman in my thirties, pronouns she/her. Today, I am wearing black pants and a gray blazer over a white T-shirt.

Brooke Leifso: Hello, my name is Brooke. I use she/her pronouns but I’m super cool with they/them, and I am a petite white woman in my mid-thirties with short brownish-blondish hair, blue eyes, and glasses. Today I’m wearing a dark green striped shirt.

Nataša: We started by describing ourselves, which is a method used to make talks and discussions more accessible to the blind and visually impaired communities. The question of accessibility plays a big role in your work as an academic and expressive arts practitioner, as well as in disability arts. Can you describe your practice?

Brooke: I often speak in metaphors regarding my practice: I’m weaving a tapestry or braiding different ropes together. Each comes with its own set of questions, ethics, and approaches. For example, my academic practice is shaped by asking questions to further knowledge in a particular way for the general group. It requires care with the community I’m working with. And that is true for all of my practices. I’m currently interested in how these areas specifically weave together by asking: How do you create art for and by and with communities that it is for and by and WITH those communities? Although it is an excellent luxury to just create art for yourself as well. Right now, I am particularly interested in methods. How do we create art that can be used as a research tool? Or share research with the general community?

Nataša: What does it mean to create art for and by and with specific communities? Theaters are one space where you’ve been working – can you give us an example method within your braid of accessible consultancy work?

Brooke: Yes, and I would say my work has really leaned this way in the past five years. So, I’ve moved out, or, you know, again, weaved in and out. And right now, I’m in a deep vein of doing accessibility consultancy work. I want to separate talking about accessibility for performance and with the audience because they are quite distinct. And I’d say most of the world is still just thinking about accessibility for audiences as opposed to performers, although they run the same.

Firstly, I start with a series of questions. Who is your art for? Not all art is for everyone and that’s okay, but to at least begin to think about that. For example, if you only create music and you’re asking people to use that faculty, you may not have an instant deaf audience, because this is not the community you’re creating for.

So that’s the first question. After you know who your community is, a set of general methods comes in: engage with that community and learn their social norms, learn their specific needs. However, there are some best practices emerging that work for a variety of needs and communities.

For example, one of my favorite accessibility tools is captioning. There is open captioning and closed captioning. People can access closed captions by using an app on their phone. With that, they can follow along while something is happening. And that can either be done through automation, through AI, or with a live captioner who comes to your event. Open captioning means it’s projected on a wall. And the reason why I adore captioning is, it hits so many access needs. It supports neurodivergent people who don’t process quickly auditorily, hard-of-hearing folks, and language learners who may not know the language well and can read along.

Nataša: Thinking about which communities have access to certain spaces, and which lack sufficient representation in the cultural as well as academic sector, is another topic I would like to bring or »weave« in. One of our first conversations emerged around the question of class, and specifically class in arts and culture as it overlaps in both our experiences studying and working in this field with a working-class background. It’s often overlooked in the discussions around social diversity in the sector. 

On the one hand, we asked ourselves, who is visiting cultural institutions as an audience? On the other hand, who can allow themselves to work in precarious working conditions that are quite characteristic of the cultural field and for artists? With that come factors like socioeconomic support from a well-situated family or a partner, and responsibilities for caretaking of elders and children, for example. I would like to ask what sparked your interest in investigating this topic. And further, try to explore the relationship between artists’ income and labor.

Brooke: Thank you for asking. I think a lot about this and I’m very passionate about it. Class definitely influences my work. Placing myself in class narratives is difficult, traditionally my family is rural and either farmed or became schoolteachers. I’m the first generation to move to the city out of high school and get a liberal arts degree. No one in my family knows what I do. My dad asked me recently if I knew Chinese! But it’s larger than them. I live in a province where men make big money in tar sands or gas plants from the age of 20, and the goal is a house and a wife by 25. Part of my choices are due to disability, which broke the mold for me and allowed me freedom. I have never fit into their world.

Collage image: colour photo of collage woven paper collage piece. Horizontal woven image is a large photocopied image of the Canadian oil sands, vertical woven intersection of the checkboard weave show text about class. Random words stand out but full sentences are not present. Woven collage stops half way through on the right hand side between the horizontal part says in hand written caplocks: how does it all fit? Who gets to be where? Why?

Brooke Leifso, »How does it all fit? Who gets to be where? Why?«, collage. Color photo of collage woven paper collage piece. Horizontal woven image is a large photocopied image of the Canadian oil sands, vertical woven intersection of the checkboard weave show text about class. Random words stand out but full sentences are not present. Woven collage stops half way through on the right hand side between the horizontal part says in hand written caplocks: »How does it all fit? Who gets to be where? Why?«

Then I go into spaces with people from different perspectives. Coming back to the braiding metaphor, I would say that I’m migrating one perspective into another world, which in that case means I’m migrating a working-class mindset into the world of academia and art, where I often feel it’s missing. Thereby asking how I can migrate back and forth in these particular worlds. And what can these two worlds learn from each other? Because I think there’s a lot of learning that makes both worlds and perspectives accessible. For example, social justice principles came from both academia and activist spaces but have now migrated into all avenues of mainstream society under a lot of different names. People, the men I went to high school with, don’t know the theoretical background and can feel alienated. But this is a much larger topic.

I want to stress that I don’t have any definitive ways forward concerning the question of arts, income, and labor, but I can share some of my thoughts. Firstly, it can be said that around the world, people don’t want to spend a lot of money on arts and culture. And then we have these interesting divides between high art and low art. High art means the art that the state pays for. We are not talking about Netflix streaming; we are not even talking about the films that get made through funding bodies such as Polish Film or Telefilm in Canada. So, there’s a particular type of art that we’re thinking about that the average citizen – I often think about my parents – doesn’t feel is for them and they don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars to see it.

And further, I wonder about content creators. So, there is a divide in art production, too. I think we have a distinct idea of making it in high art and making it as a cultural worker without acknowledging all these other ways that art is made.

With that, I then begin to ask: Who gets to be an artist, as opposed to a content creator? What is the role of the mainstream? What is the labor, and who gets to do it? How does art get separated by labor? And should it be? I swim in these thoughts further, asking how education and class play into this, coming back to my parents, who don’t get this art world.

Nataša: It’s similar to what I also experience when creating programs. I always ask: how can I explain to my family what I do? How can I explain this project to people from a similar background? Who are we excluding from programs and who are we including? My way of thinking and working within the cultural sector is very much influenced by being aware of that.

Brooke: Yeah, and I don’t have any definitive answers around it. What I desire for myself and for others is to let go of this tension that I should be a professional artist. And this failure that I have felt, and other people feel, when they need to dip in and out of the arts and cultural sector. Or like there is often this idea that theater is a bad boyfriend – and it is. It doesn’t treat you well, it’s deeply precarious, and you’re only as good as your next gig … but what kind of world could we have if you could be a trained lawyer and an actor?

Nataša: Right, or if you could just work in these institutions and be an artist without worrying about how you move through the year and sustain yourself? Not being pressured by the constant demand of production and looking for the next residency, for example, or having to be prepared to write an application with a short deadline, which is also very often just unpaid work.

A recently published study from AIR InSILo, an artist-run independent initiative in Austria, investigated artists’ wages and working conditions. One part examined unpaid work hours for application processes and showed that male artists spend 290 hours on writing applications per year whereas female and gender-diverse artists spend one hour per day writing applications (366.6 hours per year). What else can be considered unpaid work?

Brooke: I love that you bring this up. Often administration and grant writing are not seen as the »real work.« And often in art production, the care work of any kind is very undervalued and underpaid. Women often do this work – the invisible labor of keeping offices friendly, keeping coffee stocked, and the mugs clean, for example. Traditionally, men across cultures are not taught to notice this labor or to learn how to do it and take it on. I recently read in an article about the glass escalator, that men are given leadership roles faster and are less likely to take on unseen, ungratified labor.

Nataša: Absolutely. In the study that I mentioned, there is another question that they posed to the participants: How radically could it reshape your artistic practice if you had unrestricted, unlimited access to artistic materials and resources? I would like to ask you the same question, also adding: How does the residency here at Akademie Schloss Solitude influence your practice?

Brooke: For the first time in a long time, if ever, I have a lot of space to think, but I’m still in this machine of trying to create some kind of products. Ironically, I did keep my job part-time, so I’m still part-time working here and living that manifesto as well. Everyone should have a bit of time to really craft their approach, and their methods, to be able to read, to not have the pressure of constant products, and I desire that for everyone.

Headshot: photo credit by Behdad Esfahbod, black and white photo of Brooke Leifso, a woman in her mid 30’s with short hair, glasses and holding a grey cat. Brooke wears a noticeable knit patterned sweater

Headshot: photo credit by Behdad Esfahbod, black and white photo of Brooke Leifso, a woman in her mid 30’s with short hair, glasses and holding a grey cat. Brooke wears a noticeable knit patterned sweater

Brooke Leifso is a disabled/Crip artist, academic, and expressive arts practitioner. She has made artwork with youth, disability communities, communities in conflict, and professionally through collective creation and as a solo performance/theatre artist. To find out more about her work, see @brookeleifso, www.brookeleifso.com.

Nataša Vukajlović’s interdisciplinary background is shaped by her work at the intersection of the production, curation, and communication of artistic and scientific projects.