For Petra Kuppers, performance is art. It is healing. It is vibrant, urgent, and necessary. She has worked with people who were incarcerated, people who have physical disabilities, community groups, and students. At the core of her diverse forms of art and scholarship is a drive to uplift those she believes often go unseen.
Kuppers—the Anita Gonzalez Collegiate Professor of Performance Studies and Disability Culture, and a professor of English literature and women’s and gender studies—describes herself as “a community performance artist, a disability culture activist, and a wheelchair dancer.” Her life’s work recently culminated in receiving the coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, one of 43 U-M affiliates to ever receive the honor.
For the fellowship, she is focusing her writing and methods on two key areas: the mental health system and institutional sites of incarceration, specifically through performance projects that she co-curated with her wife, poet and dancer Stephanie Heit. As an educator and community practitioner, Kuppers encourages all forms of artistic exploration. “I’m trying to give everybody the opportunity to explore their own creative sense, however they wish to do that,” Kuppers says.
Kuppers works in tandem with her wife Stephanie Heit to bring disability culture activism to more audiences. They also do community writing, performance, and storytelling out of their home in Ypsilanti, Michigan, among other places. “The exciting thing about the Guggenheim fellowship is that they awarded it to me for mixed methods, so I’m not just writing a book; I’m also creating more performances,” Kuppers says. “This research has been part of my career since the 1990s,” says Kuppers. “I’ve worked with mental health system survivors, and often worked in site-specific ways, creating healing work, performances and writings that came from these inquiries.”
Kuppers was recently commissioned by the Disability History Handbook project, the National Park Service, and the National Council on Public History. For the handbook, she reimagined the former asylum site of Roosevelt Island in New York. People from a multitude of backgrounds and histories, led by Kuppers, did movement around a memorial of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kuppers’s chosen modality exemplifies the mixed methods she is using as part of her Guggenheim Fellowship. Kuppers embraces a different vision for galleries, museums, and classrooms, where she hopes new perspectives challenge the status quo and inspire new research and art.
“I am particularly interested in experimental processes and fractured stories,” says Kuppers. “I’m also interested in spiritual practices and their relationship to creative practices.” Kuppers analyzes how performances are connected to human rights and the environment as well. “I’m often intrigued by the moments when we become aware of the discomforts of our histories.”
In 2021, the New York Public Library dance archives gave Kuppers a fellowship to do a new project: the Crip/Mad Archive Dances, which is meant to “find traces of mad and crip dance artists” in the archive and reimagine them. Part of her ongoing work is to bring new performances to the library’s outdoor space and then add them to the library’s expansive Jerome Robbins Dance Division collection for future researchers.
In the Asylum Project, Kuppers led a team to explore multiple meanings of “asylum” through site-specific performance explorations, including religious sites as places of political and personal sanctuary, national border crossings and their relation to queer lives, and the gardens of old psychiatric institutions. This focus on site-specificity is central to Kuppers’s work—and she often works with students and community groups in U-M’s Museum of Natural History, featured in these photos. Together, they touch time and place through performance actions.
With the support of her wife and others in the community, Kuppers is always looking ahead. In addition to her work in the Guggenheim Fellowship, she also has a new book coming out in February 2024 called Diver Beneath the Street. Kuppers says the work “engages the history of the land” in the Detroit and Ypsilanti regions and is “true crime meets eco poetry at the level of the soil.”
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