Radio LUMI

141: Artist Spotlight - Jessica Watkin

October 17, 2021 Luminato Festival Toronto Season 1 Episode 41
Radio LUMI
141: Artist Spotlight - Jessica Watkin

Radio LUMI producer, Dev Ramsawakh (00:00):

Welcome to the Radio LUMI Artist Spotlight series. These spotlights are meant to highlight Luminato artists and the work they've contributed. You'll hear them describe themselves and their art in their own voices. Coming up is Jessica Watkin. This spotlight was recorded as part of a much longer conversation with Radio LUMI host, Christine Malec, who will introduce Jessica.

Christine Malec (00:23):

Jessica is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at UFT. She studies disability and performance. How are disabled artists creating and getting support? She's also an artist and consultant in Canada, and she has a collection of disability plays from playwrights press coming out this fall.

Jessica Watkin (00:51):

So I am a white settler, female presenting human being. I have one green eye, one blue eye. Sometimes they match. Sometimes they don't. One of those eyes is fake. I wear cat eye glasses. I have light brown hair that is about to be cut today. So right now it's quite long because of the pandemic, but will eventually be shorter. And I'm wearing a little witch shirt today. I'm wearing a graded flowy arm dress because it's bookie season and I'm nestled into my little office. I have a little pandemic home of cozy books and yarn. So that's where I'm sitting today. I love working with disabled artists. That's like the first and foremost. So any opportunity that I get to learn from and learn with and make change with disabled artists is an opportunity that I'm going to jump at.

Jessica Watkin (01:45):

And when Cathy Gordon approached me about the Access Advisory Committee, we were having conversations about ways to create more accessible Toronto theater and use different techniques that are being used both across the city, but also across the country. And I have been consulting, individually, either as a blind consultant for specific theater organizations or as a disability consultant for six years now, since 2015, since I moved here and I've always worked on my own. And I was really interested and intrigued by this idea of having a committee specifically talking about artistry and access and working together as an interdependent collective really intrigued me to see how we were going to impact change, how Luminato would receive our feedback. Even though it's been a hard turn for everybody in the pandemic going online, it's been really exciting to see those challenges come up and people rise to those creative problem solving techniques that come out of that kind of committee.

Jessica Watkin (02:47):

So I honestly rose to the challenge as an excited member of the community, excited to work on dismantling ableism in different ways and working in conjunction with other people, and it's been such a beautiful process. The beginning of the pandemic brought a lot of isolation and terror, I think, from disability communities around world and the artists that I work with, myself included, kind of the ways that we independently... and when I say interdependence, I mean work together, rely on one another, those processes that disabled artists are accustomed to being disrupted entirely by not being able to be near people. And so it's been really interesting to watch the artists that I work with pause to survive. Academia hasn't had a pause. There wasn't a pause. I'm known for my email responders because they're not my... it's an automatic response, but it's like me being like you deserve to sleep.

Jessica Watkin (03:40):

I think maybe just people are excited, but I'm like I'm resting, so maybe you should also rest too. I put on an email responder through the pandemic that was like, "Just in case you forgot, it's a pandemic still." And I was literally thanked by academics who got that email, because they were like, "Thank you for acknowledging that there's still crisis happening." Because in the fields that we roll through, but both the arts industry and the one that I roll through, academia, haven't... everyone's really trying to push forward and move forward. So I've been really interested in the ways that actually artists, disabled artists in particular, have taken a pause. Of course we have to work to pay our bills, and right now that kind of survival is really integral, but actually taking a moment and going, "Look, I don't have to create right now because there's something bigger." I have to find a way to move through this world and survive.

Jessica Watkin (04:29):

And so it's actually been a really interesting moment because the art that's being created, it's out of necessity to connect. I'm happy everybody's just focusing a little bit more about taking care of each other. so accessibility design is not necessarily like TM trademarked. It's not in the dictionary, you know? It's not fully formed as a full concept, but what we say accessibility design, we're working towards a way of planning accessibility. I feel like that's the easiest way to explain it is that to curate accessibility with intention and design, not just being like, "Oh, okay. A deaf person, someone who can't hear might come to this, let's add on ASL two weeks before opening." It's sitting down at the table, read, it's sitting down at programming moment and thinking, "What kind of accessibility, what kind of communities do we want to invite into this space into this story and how can we create a design?"

Jessica Watkin (05:26):

Marjorie Chan said this to me in a meeting recently. And she said, "Accessibility deserves our artistic attention." How do we design your designs? Lighting designs, set designs, stage designs, theater designs with accessibility in mind? I did my entire masters when I started grad school about blind performers and why do we create a performance space that is entirely inaccessible to me as a performer? I can't perform confidently if the bright lights are all shining on me, but that creates the best access for the audience. How can we create a playing space, a performing space that also is accessible to the disabled performer? It opens up the possibility of what we can do both on stage with the stage and the performers.

Jessica Watkin (06:14):

Blind imagining is this non-visual performance technique. When you bring an audio description, so you have somebody who cannot see a stage, and then you have audio describers who are describing to you what's happening in the action on stage that you cannot access as the non-sighted person. To me, in that positionality as a blind person, the audio description is still telling me that the physical visual action on stage is the only way to receive the narrative. We're still valuing the visual. And so what we're trying to do with blind imaginings, how can we conceptualize and even think about making a performance where you don't have to see the visual to understand what's happening?

Jessica Watkin (06:56):

So what we're looking at is centering the non-visual experience, the feelings, the experience of being in the room. And sometimes that means indicating when there's something visual, but actually it's more about the storytelling. What's exciting about it for me is that we're able to think about performance in a way where I'm not missing something if I can't see the visual access. The big one is the book I have. It's called Interdependent Magic Disability Performances in Canada. And it's the first edited anthology of disability plays in Canada, which is very exciting. I've got a piece coming up at Tangled Art and Disability, hopefully, in person in January for their exhibition called Hashtag Crip Ritual. Crip referring to a political term that disabled folks use to align themselves with political disability work.

Jessica Watkin (07:49):

And so I'm actually creating a piece of tactile art, which will be created predominantly through yarns. And so this project is all about the books. It's a love letter to the books that I've read while knitting and the person I've become through knitting. And the goal is to have experiencers of the exhibit knit with me. I will have an open piece, so folks can pick up my needles and knit as well, and I'll have a how to do it. But with COVID, a tactile art, how do we keep that clean? How do we keep it safe? I'm experimenting right now with plastics. So I'm looking at knitting. We've been saving, my partner and I, through the COVID... we've been collecting plastic eggs throughout the COVID and I'm going to be knitting with them.

Jessica Watkin (08:32):

So I'm actually going to be using them as the material that I knit so that we can spray, clean, and wash dry the material in between people touching it. So that's kind of the big challenge that I'm thinking through, but it's very exciting. And I also have a piece that's just been put up on the National Arts Centre website, part of their Transformations Project. It's a part of a small snippet of a play that I'm working on. I'm working on a play about a blind mermaid.

Radio LUMI producer, Dev Ramsawakh (09:03):

That was Jessica Watkin. To find the spotlight and others check out Radio LUMI on the Luminato website. To hear the full interview, head over to Radio LUMI on Stream B of on Thursday, October 14th at 8:30 PM. Or if you're hearing this after the festival, head over to the Luminato website. You can find it at