Experimental artist Bill Shannon is the subject of CRUTCH (2020), a new documentary chronicling 20 years of his career as a street performer, skater, b-boy, and more. Though Shannon may be best known for his ground-breaking use of rocker-bottom crutches in street performance, he doesn't consider himself only a dancer. Instead, Shannon puts his body into every question he asks, using dance as one of many tools to examine the complex phenomenology of physical disability and the projected narratives of others.
CRUTCH premiered at DOC NYC on November 11 and can be viewed online through November 19, with subsequent screenings to be announced. I had the privilege of speaking to Shannon via Zoom, the week before the premiere.
Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone (Rail): I was struck by the consistent presence of recording devices throughout this 20-year documentary, both in examples of your own experimental film work and through the footage captured by friends and colleagues. What was it like to have the documentary camera in your creative spaces for so many years, especially when your work already deals with public perception, gaze, and being watched?
Bill Shannon: Professionally, I really needed the documentary cameras. When I met Sachi [Cunningham, CRUTCH director and producer alongside Chandler Evans], I was touring street dance and I was very interested in media. But you can't dance on crutches and hold the camera and document all at the same time. Taking that one thing out of my hands was invaluable.
My friend Brian Cummings always had a camera out, taking pictures. He treated it like digital photography, even before digital existed, so I was used to having someone around, constantly photographing everything. The documentary wasn't really there for my personal life. It wasn't there for my relationships. When someone follows you for 20 years and cuts it down to 90 minutes, that cutting floor is bloody.
Rail: Some of that early footage shows installations you created, in which you're performer, writer, set designer, costumer, and director. Were you seeing that kind of work anywhere else around you? Can you track the impulse to create worlds for yourself?
Shannon: I grew up with a disability and it was alienating—I was always standing on the outside looking in, even when I wanted to participate. I didn't take expressions of US global supremacy as gospel and I had a different understanding of this country from my peers, even from a young age.
There were all these abandoned steel mills where I grew up in Pittsburgh. I was digging through them as a teenager, using objects as raw material to construct wearable sculptures for street performance pieces. I was finding my own path through the physical environment, and my body became the experimental medium. I don't ask questions hypothetically. I think that's what the documentary shows, that the work isn't medium-specific. I didn't lay there and think, “I'm going to do rhythmic crutch dancing on a skateboard in the street. That sounds cool.” No. All those things happened one on top of the other, the references cascaded. What I'm doing is listening.
Rail: It seems like there's a huge emotional shift in your public performances. We see you go from earlier work in which you crash into the ground, to sustained and durational tasks.
Shannon: The documentary shows spontaneous moments of transformation and the reversal of roles from being the subject of people's narrative projections to the host—accepting what I didn't need, just to see what it was, instead of denying it all the time. It was the birth of this whole can of worms, the complex representation of disability, people's assumptions, fears, and hopes. It was a physical dance too. I was sobbing, laughing, I was embracing people to a point of discomfort. Upon reflection, I knew I needed to define my boundaries with the public more clearly.
Rail: How did you establish those boundaries?
Shannon: It took me a moment to realize that there needed to be a conceptual framework to organize performative strategies. Retaining Neutral Palette is one performative strategy—of many other handles and terminologies—within a conceptual framework. The strategy is: Don't do anything too extreme, don't do anything too tragic or heroic. I wanted to do simple and utilitarian tasks in public.
“Neutral Palette” is about subjectively constructed neutrality. The words use a painterly reference for a performative strategy in a public space. “Retaining” means trying to keep my affectations somewhat within the mundane physical range of what I do on a daily basis. I establish these daily movements and patterns and keep them as the core of my street performance. In that way, the public isn't responding to a dramatization. Actually, I was recently at an academic conference in which “neutral” was challenged.
Rail: In what context?
Shannon: “Neutral” is a charged word and the lexicon within academia is loaded. What does it mean for me as a white, cisgender male to say I have a subjective notion of neutrality and how does that relate to the world around me? How do others interpret that? The response was that it's offensive to people who cannot be seen as neutral. I agree that one can't be neutral, but I do believe that we each have ways within us to determine what our own neutral ranges are. We can figure out which part of our own spectrum we might want to define as the neutral palette or the most mundane. I don't think the label is incorrect, but at the same time I'm ready to adjust my language.
Rail: To what?
Shannon: Maybe, “Retaining Utilitarian Patterns.” Everything I'm doing in public is utilitarian and mundane by definition. I'm up in the air about “neutral” because it doesn't exist, but Retaining Neutral Palette is in reference to an actual performance strategy connected to other specific terms, like peripheral fluctuation and projected narrative. This is terminology I invented to put handles on what I was doing. “Weight of Empathy,” “Gesture of Help,” all of those are a part of the body of work. So that Retaining Neutral Palette isn't a stand-alone, all-important concept. I really haven't seen it treated holistically.
Ultimately, however, I think “Retaining Utilitarian Patterns” is a better terminology: streamlined, functional, constructed from the minimum of what you need to accomplish a task. That's what I'm switching it to right now. I'm flexible and ready to shift gears around this concept.
Rail: I was struck by the way critics and the public responded so personally to your provocations, accusing you of tricking or taking advantage of people. I'm not sure how I would feel in their shoes, but it seems like questioning cultural assumptions and actions of “goodness” is a valid artistic pursuit. I wonder why it was so bad for them to feel sheepish or even a little foolish when you complicate the need for help.
Shannon: There are unwritten rules about what someone who represents a disability can do in a public space and still keep it “fair” to other people. The film skips a lot of controversial stuff, but it was an evolutionary process critical to realizing the limits and arriving at a more balanced space. The way that I'm moving in some of the scenes in the doc, at peak physical ability and agility—people still intervene to “help.” It just proves that there's no way to get beyond those interventions. There's no limit to that mindset.
Rail: You could be flying and people would try to reach up and grab you out of the air.
Shannon: They would say, “Oh no, he's falling.” In Chicago, I was on my skateboard on a really cold windy day, and this crowd of people poured out of Union Station. I could feel the energy of their motion and I just decided to tumble backward with the wind and the people. People were avoiding me and walking around me as I continued my motion of falling. I didn't have to try that hard because the wind was so powerful. It was almost like I was a piece of fabric on the street. It was a moment of dancing in the street with light, time, space, and human energy, the textures of the sidewalk, being a skateboarder and looking at a street in a certain way, being a b-boy and not worrying about touching the ground—all of that fell into this random performance outside of the train station. It became subject to the moment, that quality of listening. If you understand that, and you understand what it means to take advantage of someone, then my performance has nothing to do with that.
Rail: Sometimes I wonder if audiences and critics are offended by experimentation that ends in failure or that refuses to hand emotional closure to the viewers. There's a moment in Sketchy [2007, a show featured in the documentary] where a b-boy is pushing through as many airflares as possible. The audience is so hyped! They're cheering for his effort and commitment, but he doesn't quite make it.
Shannon: Those pieces became meditations on the translation of street dance to the proscenium. People are often evolving in [street dance] cyphers, so it's about the process and not about presenting something complete. You couldn't put a label on it; guys trying moves they don't land in the middle of a performance. That kind of thing came out of hip-hop culture. All of that is in play in that moment of crashing to the ground. We're not going to be the pinnacle of what we can be, we're going to reach for the next moment.