What is art about social assistance?

Is there such a thing as art about social assistance? By people on social assistance (whether it’s welfare or disability)?

I’ve been dreaming up an art project. I’m asking if art about being on social assistance is a thing (not looking for definitive answers, just putting that question out into the universe, and making some of my own). I’ve been reviewing a lot of my writing, and trying to place it within different contexts. One of those contexts is Art About Surviving Social Assistance (specifically, without the goal of getting off it & ‘making a living’). Last Spring and Summer, I desperately documented the process of coming up for review. In May, I was forced to crowdfund rent and food, and at the end of Summer, I wrote a zine about how I survived. While I was initially cut off due to misfiled forms (the worst Mercury Retrograde), eventually my benefits (but it’s hard to call it that) were restored and I was given permanent disability status.

During that same period, I wrote about having yet another discussion with a mental health worker about how writing what I’m writing, doing what I’m doing, isn’t quite giving me the feelings I wanna have, or the life I wanna have. That’s still true. It was one of those absurd, exasperating “Have you ever tried writing or journaling?” conversations. This conversation happened in the context of me having to quit the first (and only, thus far) complex-(p)TSD group therapy I’d had access to, since others were consistently breaking the scent-free policy despite reminders via phone, email, and mail, and signs on all the doors and mirrors. Instead of just rolling my eyes at the system, I’ve been contemplating these questions ever since.

marandaelizabethpillsforever

{image description: My left hand holding onto two small glass vials of pills, and a silver blister pack of pills. The pills are white and the wall in the background is purple.}

One of the things that helped me get through the disability review process was reading stacks of disability studies and mad studies books from the library. As a broke-as-fuck high school dropout, these are texts that, in various ways, are not accessible to me – whether or not they are meant to be (and even when they’re about me). I spent a lot of time googling seemingly innocuous words like pedagogy and temporality that a lot of people use everyday and take for granted. I found ideas that made me want to stay alive. But the books prompted so many more questions: Who gets access to information that makes their life more liveable? Who gets to participate in conversations about disability and madness? Who is invited to participate and who is left out? Whose knowledges are valued, prioritized, listened to, paid for? Whose knowledges are left behind? What happens when maps and theories about your own brain body psyche daily-life and survival are not accessible to you?

marandaelizabethdisabilitybooks

{image description: A stack of books I read last Summer. They all have library code stickers on the spine.}

They are:

Feminist, Queer, Crip by Alison Kafer
Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability by Robert McRuer
Disability Theory by Tobin Siebers
Disability Aesthetics by Tobin Siebers
Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader edited by Tanya Titchkosky and Rod Michalko
Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies edited by Brenda A. LeFrançois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume

marandaelizabethwinterreading2016

{image description: Another stack of books I’m reading.}

They are:

Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex, Blood, Loss, and Selfies by Margaret Christakos
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
Problems by Jade Sharma
milk and honey by rupi kaur
Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of A Movement by Angela Y. Davis
Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Volume Two by Nia King, edited by Elena Rose
bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
When the Sick Rule the World by Dodie Bellamy

Now that it’s March 1st, I’ve been on ODSP for a full decade. Average rent in my city is almost more than double my entire monthly income. And if my income doubled, I’d still be living well below the poverty line. While it’s a miserable and frightening income to try to live on, in a weird way, it’s a bit of a dream come true, too. I grew up scared of growing up. I left school when I was fourteen and started working when I was fifteen. I quickly built a reputation for crying while serving customers, having panic attacks at work, and quitting by either storming out or not showing up at all (well, that was my reputation at school, too, but a little more violent). However. I hoped that somehow, by the time I was an adult, if not sooner, I could find a way to stay home, get my rent paid, and read and write whatever I feel like. I didn’t know I’d puke my way through these years, or dissociate, or lose my ability to walk, etc etc etc – maybe I wasn’t specific enough when I burned candles and drew sigils on my teenage bedroom walls with greasy lipstick and wrote short stories about escape, but the spells came true.

marandaelizabethsurvivingillnessselfie

{image description: Selfie taken in a dusty used bookstore. Although you can only see my face, I am on my knees, with my purple cane handle beside my face. I am expressionless, not-quite-frowning. There are bookshelves and books behind me. The shelves are labeled SURVIVING ILLNESS and ADDICTION/RECOVERY.}

The next chapter of my social assistance art project (or the can art about social assistance exist? and what is it? project) is this: My Wishlist (click! click! click!). To celebrate the fact that though the provincial government has been trying to kill me, I have survived a full decade. All I wanna do (is have some fun) is read more, write more, share more. And I want to do that knowing that my contributions are appreciated and valued, and that I am being supported, not merely consumed. Most of the books on my wishlist were chosen as part of my current focus on learning about and naming mad and crip lineages, politicizing borderline, unlearning white supremacy, and continuing to develop my writing skills and (re-)develop my imagination.

(And if yr feeling gross about Amazon, just remember that many of us can’t afford the full-cost of books and can’t get our bodies to bookstores and and and. Sometimes being poor or oppressed in other ways necessitates compromise and participating in the systems that are hurting you so you can stay alive. Criticize systems without abandoning individuals, please and thank you!)

marandaelizabethkathyackerquote

{image description: A quote from Kathy Acker’s Blood And Guts In High School that I’ve written in all caps black ink on unlined paper. It says: “POVERTY IS BAD FOR HUMANS BECAUSE IT MAKES THEM PERPETUATE ALL THAT IS OPPRESSING THEM AND GOOD FOR HUMANS BECAUSE IT HELPS THEM TO BE WILLING TO DO ANYTHING – THE WEIRDEST ACTS POSSIBLE, SUICIDAL – TO STOP THE POVERY.” My long purple glittery nails are visible in the photo, holding the page flat.}

If you buy something from my wishlist, you’ll also be participating in my weird social assistance project with me. I plan on documenting this in multiple ways. If you buy me something, please consider answering these questions in the snail mail note that gets delivered with your order. You can choose whether or not to remain anonymous.

Why did you choose the book/item you chose?

Have you read this book? Do you intend to?

How long have you been following my writing?

Is there anything you’d like to share with me? A word, a story, a mantra, a secret?

marandaelizabethbooksimreading1

{image description: Another stack of books.}

They are:

Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch
No Exit by Annie Mok
salt. by nayyirah waheed
Having Faith In The Polar Girls’ Prison by Cathleen With
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek
The Right to Narcissism: A Case for an Im-possible Self-Love by Pleshette DeArmitt
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis
Laid Waste by Julia Gfrörer
When the Chant Comes by Kay Ulanday Barrett
About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delaney

Part of this experiment is also to see if readers will celebrate crip wisdom by buying me books specifically about poverty, madness, disability, and incarceration as a form of valuing my work and showing a desire for more. Incidentally, you might notice that many books on these topics cost more than ordinary books. I wish this weren’t so, but here we are. A few of the books are ones I’ve already read from the library, but want my own copies of so I can reference them more often. Most of them are books I haven’t read yet.

You know that feeling when you have (a) severe mental illness(es) and debilitating chronic pain condition(s) that make you wanna die, but you keep dreaming up art projects that’ll take years to complete? That’s where I’m at right now. Actually, this is where I’ve been for a few years, but it’s tough to even begin those projects when everyday, in multiple personal and political ways, feels like it could be the end of the world. But I’ll keep trying.

Experimentally Yours,
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P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process!

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