Features

3D rendered self portrait by Olivia Dreisinger sitting on the floor in front of a red curtain with a few books placed around her. she is wearing a t-shirt that says "eco-crips against toxic ecologies".

Fear tends to expose the best and worst parts of what makes us human. Be it the greed that guides a hoarder’s cart at your local supermarket, to the uplifting sound of cheering against pots and pans. COVID-19 has given us a taste of what living in isolation means and what this might look like for people with chronic illness and disabilities — a reality that artist Olivia Dreisinger is quite familiar with. 

Olivia became chronically ill after a viral infection triggered an immune response that never went away. She describes herself as a “sick independant scholar specializing in all things disability”, and her work ranges from educational pamphlets like “Make Events Accessible”, to a documentary about a cosplaying service dog team, as well as interactive short stories, zines and animations. Speaking with Olivia, I wondered how she deals with isolation and pandemic as a chronically ill artist.

 

M: Tell us about your creative process, I understand it takes place inside mostly?

Oliva: Yeah, it’s actually never been that much of a problem for me, to be honest, because I’ve been intermittently sick since I was a kid. I have always been the home-dweller type. I think what you’ll see in the work that I do now is I’ve always put what I’ve learned from my own isolation into my creative and academic practices. My work has always built accessibility into it and, because of my illnesses, I need to work slowly. I need to sleep a lot and I need to stay home, or at least, really close by in case I need to return home to rest. And so, I think the medium has just grown out of that. I write a lot. I taught myself how to make 3D animations just so I could sit at home and be very physically still while working. I used to also illustration of a laptop with flowers and hearts coming out of the screen.take photographs when I was more able-bodied, but I’ve had to re-evaluate how I do that now. I’m still working on how to make photography work with my body. More recently, I’ve been working with plants. I’ve been making herbal salves and teas and vinegars to support my body through illness. I’m also trying to figure out if there is a way to bring that into my creative practices. You have to be really resourceful, I think, when you work from home.

There’s a constant unpredictability and spontaneity spurred by illness that Olivia has allowed to shape the space her art inhabits. I imagine it kind of
wrapping around her computer, a viney growth that bolsters a certain strength around her pieces. The necessity for resourcefulness has sprouted a freedom of versatility in her crafts. This similar source of strength can be felt from the story told in her documentary, “Handler is Crazy”, which can be streamed on Youtube.

M: You received a grant to create the documentary “Handler Is Crazy”. Would you like to talk about that?

Olivia: Yeah, sure. So I was really fortunate to receive a grant through the Canada Council for the Arts to make a documentary and it was my first time ever receiving a grant. The documentary is about a woman named Koyote Moon and her service dog Banner. Banner is a medical and psychiatric dog, who also cosplays, which is why I was initially interested in making a documentary about Koyote and her life. Banner would dress up as characters that had similar disabilities or conditions to Koyote [and cosplaying] became this interesting kind of advocacy thing, beyond Banner’s regular service dog tasks. Service dog knowledge is, I think, pretty limited in Canada, which was another reason why I wanted to make a documentary about this particular team. I think the definitions around service dogs are growing and service dogs are not just for blind people anymore.

a still from Olivia Dreisinger's "Handler is Crazy" of Banner running beside Koyote Moon.

A large part of Olivia’s art is providing educational resources that create dialogue on how to improve the emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing of people with disabilities through sharing sick and disabled experience in zines, digital rendered videos and print-at-home pamphlets. Her zines range from the “little book of herbal vinegars for sober, sensitive, or alcohol intolerant folks” to “what is a service dog? 2-in-1 booklet providing information for the general public and prospective handlers”. She says she’s jumped to zines now because zine culture is all about low costs and circulating radical stories and media. They’re easy to convey information through, and most importantly, she says, they don’t have to be perfect. Olivia also has a new zine project, tentatively titled “Eco-Crips Against Toxic Ecologies”, which aims to expose toxic systems like ableism, speciesism and environmental injustices. Even though these topics might sound daunting to someone who hasn’t ever participated in conversations within accessibility politics, Olivia explains to me what ends up being a common theme throughout her interests — to make things simple. And, sometimes, a little laughter is the simplest remedy to help get the point across.   

M: Can you speak to how you balance the gravity of these things with a palpable sense of lightness and humour? As in the “Make Events Accessible” zine, which features a photograph of an incorrectly marked accessible entrance?

Olivia: I don’t know if it’s funny to nondisabled people — but it’s funny to disabled people because it’s kind of like, oh, of course, you know, like there’s a step. You were so close to making the ramp accessible, but there’s a step! So therefore it’s not accessible, you know? It’s kind of funny how people don’t really think about access very well, or they put in like, 90 percent effort and fail at the other 10 percent. 

Olivia also explains how the spectrum of disability leaves room for the creative process to find ways of adapting and accommodating access needs that can be exploratory, and fun. 

scans from the first page and an image from the "Make Events Accessible" zine compiled by Olivia Dreisinger.

Olivia: It can be fun and also humorous, you know, like having these random, clashing, access needs. And like you said, there’s a lot of humour in the work that I do too. I think when you live in an unruly body — a sick body — you don’t take things for granted because you have to scale back or limit the things you do. You start interacting with systems, other people, and your own body in ways that I don’t think non-disabled people do. There’s a lot of joy and a lot of pleasure, ironically enough, in being sick and ill.

This deep sense of gratitude, pleasure, and joy, garnered from tasks like making a trip to her local supermarket is something Olivia says are routines she misses now within the pandemic. The world has changed drastically with the spread of COVID-19, and the risk for someone chronically ill walking to get groceries is simply not worth taking. 

Sometimes art serves as an eruption of feeling, other times it lingers between survival and hope. Sometimes it is meant to inspire — other times to soothe. Olivia told me about how she had begun foraging for poplar buds to make anti-inflammatory ointments to help alleviate pain. Crafting these herbal elixirs and tinctures are a new way she’s begun to find ease. 

Since we weren’t able to carry out a photo-shoot for this piece, a precautionary measure due to COVID-19, Olivia was gracious enough to accommodate by creating a 3D self-portrait. Using her art as a means for accommodation was actually her entrance into digital rendering, and it all  began during her masters program at McGill.

M: Why does 3D Animation speak to you rather than drawing?

Olivia: I actually taught myself how to do animation during my thesis. That was when I was getting really sick, and I was almost failing out of McGill. In order to access disability services on campus, you had to have a definite diagnosis and I didn’t have that on hand. And so, without a definite diagnosis, professors will fail you [for not] showing up to class. Animation kind of came out as a way to survive. I opted to do a creative thesis, to make a video essay, and it was a way to build accessibility and survival into my practice. I think it also kind of substitutes for the scaling back of my photography practice — I can kind of transplant my photography practice into this 3D landscape and have that work for my body. Another thing to note is that the 3D program that I’m working in is free, so it’s financially accessible and there’s a lot of free models to use. People are collectively doing this labour, offering resources for free in order to support creatives. I think that’s also why I became really interested in [3D animation], just to see how people were using their time and labour, and putting it into the world.

3D rendered self portrait by Olivia Dreisinger where she is sitting in a chair in front of a red curtain wearing blue latex gloves and a t-shirt that says "hold abuse accountable".

 We spoke more on the solidarity within the disability community, and what it looks like during the pandemic. Another space which displays this collectivity, and built-in accessibility, is the fan-fic community, which also inspires Olivia’s work. 

M: What brings these communities together and how have this collective action changed in the midst of the pandemic?

Olivia: So I think fan-fiction pairs really well with the 3D universe that I work in because they have these built-in access interests. Now that I’m moving towards more academic terrains, or with the Make Events Accessible zine, for instance, disability representation has become really important to me. I also recognize that I come from a very specific point of view with my own health, and I can’t know everything about other disabilities. So, you know, just talk to other people who have different disabilities, and make connections with them, and hope that they offer their valuable knowledge to you so that you can also represent them accurately so that people also start caring about them and what they need. I think that’s also like the academic in me—I want to know it all. I want to know inherently in my body, all of the disability experiences, but I just can’t. *laughs* With the fan-fiction community, it’s the same thing. It’s like everyone is contributing to the 3D universe. Everyone’s contributing within the disability community. If you look now at disability twitter, or disability instagram, with the pandemic, everyone is trying to provide care and mutual aid to each other because everyone’s pretty scared right now. Going back to the reality of COVID 19, a lot of people’s really important medical appointments are being canceled, or they’re scared to go to the hospital, or they already have run out of nitrile gloves and hand sanitizer. So, you know, everyone’s kind of sharing what they can. I shared my hand sanitizer with my neighbor, who is also sick. We’ve been dropping off care packages outside each other’s doors. I’m going to be sewing fabric masks later today and kind of helping distribute them. So, yeah, you can’t really like work in disability in an isolated bubble. You need to be caring and working with everyone else in the community.

illustration of a dog with a superhero-esque red eye mask and a red cape with a cross on it indicating it is a service dog.

M: Is there anything else that comes to mind that we haven’t touched on?

Olivia: I mean, I have one other thing to say, and it’s funny because with this quarantine, it’s actually been the most social I’ve ever been online. Now all of these non-disabled people are coming up with creative ways to interact with each other online and I feel like pre-pandemic no one would have extended that gesture to people who are in isolation all the time anyways. It’s been weird because people are now making an effort to make socializing accessible to me. I hope that once quarantine lifts, people start caring about the disability community all year round. 

The comradery felt within the accessibility community is contagious, and Olivia Dreisinger’s art demonstrates the power found within uncertainty. The versatility of her work is an ode to endurance and gives us the opportunity to rethink our pain and forage pleasure from places we never thought we’d be in. But beyond indulgence, her art seeks to expose the diverse ways we interact within the sick and disabled experience. It also demands that the crucial infrastructures created under the pandemic which serve these experiences do not end with the virus. Because after it passes, there will be problems which cannot be solved by vaccines — those which require our continuous vigilance. Some of us are simply visitors to the troubles of our time in the pandemic.

an image of planet earth with arrows around it titled "pandemic time" and "crip time". the text around the image reads "Pandemic time is crip time. Start listening to disability wisdom all year round."

You can find all of Olivia’s work on her website at https://oliviadreisinger.wordpress.com/

Her instagram is @bodyintrouble and watch her documentary ‘Handler is Crazy’ at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqloMVJ9zBk&feature=youtu.be

For a copy of her zines, you can email her at: oliviadreisinger@gmail.com 

 

Growing Room Literary Festival

On the figures that grow out of letting go, on rest, balance and solitude. Disorder talks post-cancellation, from the comfort of our bedrooms.

[Discorder had planned on sitting down with Jessica Johns, managing editor for Room magazine and programming director of Growing Room Literary Festival. Of course, in the wake of the pandemic, this brief needed to pivot. Facing the redirection head-on, I sat down with Jessica and fellow writer/programmers, Aimee Louw, Jillian Christmas and Serena Bhandar to talk post-cancellation thoughts, ideas, emotions, and liberations. That way, we could still orbit the ideas Room Literary Festival sparked, just in a way that makes sense for right now. ]

 

Tasha | Today at 12:39 PM

Hello everyone! First I want to say, thank you for meeting with me, especially under these funny circumstances — I have never used Discord to conduct something like this before. Coming to you all from my single-windowed living room, messing with my split ends in front of a computer screen. <3 

We’re here to talk about Growing Room, the annual literary arts festival Room Magazine hosts, which was sadly cancelled as a cautionary measure in the COVID-19 outbreak. Was there anything particularly challenging, or even, enlightening about this decision?

Jillian | Today at 12:47 PM

From the perspective of a programmer and artist, it was devastating to know how much work Jessica and her team put in, and how little would be seen. But honestly, there was something really important in the knowledge that care is always first and foremost. I think all of the writers really appreciated and acknowledged how impactful that was.

Jess | Today at 12:50 PM

It wasn’t a hard decision to make in the sense that it was for the safety and care of the community; however, it was certainly difficult to do. This festival was a year in the making, was made up of love, hours and hours of labour, and care from the festival staff, volunteers, and artists involved. So making the decision to not see it through is one that still hurts my heart. But the enormous amount of support we received from our artists, even though they were negatively affected as well, and from the community was amazing. It reminded me why we did all that work in the first place.

side profile photo of Jessica Johns reading a book

Jess | Today at 1:00 PM

I also think it’s important to mention that I felt a lot of guilt afterwards. I felt guilty for feeling so, so, sad about something that was ultimately the right thing to do. But I had to learn that just because it was right, doesn’t mean that the feeling of loss — grieving something so important — was negated.

Jillian | Today at 1:01 PM

Ooof, that’s so true. Grief was the feeling for sure. I think paying attention to that, and honoring when it shows up is really important.

Serena | Today at 1:03 PM

I also had a poetry residency at the Banff centre get cancelled soon after the festival, and I felt a lot of grief for that too. In general, I know a lot of artists and creators are grieving what we’ve lost while trying to celebrate what we’ve gained through these challenging times

Aimee [transcribed from voice chat] 12:55 PM:

I would agree [there is a] potential gain. It would be great to maintain the attention, and energy in web collaborations after quarantine ends. Not in the context of Room specifically, but just in general, to make sure that we remember that this is a helpful way of connecting across distance and different access needs.

Jess | Today at 1:10 PM

Yeah, I agree Aimee. I also think there’s a critical lens to apply to this method of gathering as well. Because, as with any gathering space, we still need to think about equitable access, and what safety measures mean in this method.

Jillian | Today at 1:11 PM

That is such an important point. I think one big thing that this highlighted for me, is how infrequently this type of access is offered. I really hope that people continue to be creative about connection beyond quarantine. Feeling very grateful to Room folk for directing their focus toward that. It’s exciting. We’re at a turning point and people are paying attention. It’s really promising that Room is putting energy towards that. 

Tasha | Today at 1:17 PM

Jillian, you were on the panel “Radiant Flesh: Black Femme Writing & The Body, which discussed this idea of “embodied memory”. To stay on this interesting divergent in the conversation, how has embodied memory adapted, or pivoted, in the wake of our retreat from physical gathering spaces?

selfie image of Jillian Christmas in her living room

Jillian | Today at 1:20 PM

Unfortunately, that panel did not go forward, […] as for how my engagement in the digital space has adapted, bringing my work into an embodied place is fundamental to my practice as a spoken word performer and sometimes clown. I’ve been trying to find ways to utilize the online space to deliver pieces of that show, and I feel lucky to have access to my tools here in my little East Van apartment […] Trying to find new ways to bring voice to these pieces without the connection of being in shared space. […] I’ve had some troll action in zoom, not nice, [but] I’m preparing all my readings with troll responses, lol. All my poems with teeth are ready. Just in case.

Tasha | Today at 1:29 PM

Yeah, it’s a challenge to adapt your practice to a new medium, but it repositions us almost necessarily (we should be so lucky to have more poetry with teeth). I’m thinking about Aimee, being a moderator in the “Accessing Ourselves: Crip Poetrics and Writing Our Desire” workshop. It came with the lovely assertion: “witness our origin stories, our fire, the shit we can’t say on the city bus or at the doctor’s office that we long to say to ourselves, or each other.” which I found so striking. Stories affect how we see our lives. What we consume, or create — and representation is at the kernel of all of this. Can you comment on how this practice, this advocacy, has been impacted?

Aimee | [transcribed from voice chat] Today at 1:41 PM

Representation is important when I think of people that I want to speak to — but it’s almost more fundamental than that. A lot of my writing is about actually creating possibilities for the people that I love, and imagining new ways of being together. I got my start online, blogging. So in a way it feels like a bit of a return. It doesn’t seem foreign to me, returning to online spaces more. But I miss contact, for sure, I miss gathering in person. 

Tasha | Today at 1:49 PM

Serena, you were involved in “A Scale Not Merely Human”, the panel which had the description, “Speculative poetry borrows techniques from fiction, using storytelling’s narrative, character, and plot while still eating language alive.” Can you elaborate on the capacity of speculative poetry to bend to, or benefit from, this adaptive moment?

selfie image of Serena Bhandar lying down amongst books

Serena | Today at 1:52 PM

Totally. […] I have a strong background in fantasy writing — it’s really where I got my start as a writer growing up. The way I approach fantasy is the same way I approach speculative poetry — the story, at its core, must tell something true. I’m currently working on a book of poetry and lyric prose adapted from a Punjabi folktale […] and the truth of that story, and my reinvention of it, comes from the parallels it bears to my own life and the experiences of trans women of colour like myself. So, in fact, I see speculative poetry not reimagining bodies so much as I see it affirming knowledge and truths that we have always known.

When my residency got cancelled, I had the temptation to just finish the book during social distancing and self-publish it online. While that idea was a bit too big, I am really grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from this transition. That we need to prioritize self and community care […] This crisis has illuminated all the diverse ways we can be reaching more audiences — particularly underserved ones — beyond the end of social distancing. I’m excited to see how we can move forward with these panels, and our own creative projects, through this. 

Aimee | [transcribed from voice chat] Today at 2:00 PM

I’m glad to hear that you also think [we] should focus on being ok first. Because I’ve heard a lot of people say this is the “perfect residency”. If that’s true for people, great! — and I’m not judging that — But I’m also aware it may be hard to concentrate while things are so uncertain. And, you know, creating something isn’t just about having a few available weeks. It’s about being in the right mindframe. Having the right energetic resources, and being able to balance in writing. Like, for me, I swim a lot. Not having that, […] I don’t have the same balance, and it takes a different type of focus to center myself. 

Serena | [transcribed from voice chat] Today at 2:05 PM

I really appreciate you adding that. So much of my writing style — my ability to write — is based on my ability to connect with my community. So the fact that we have all this alone time is actually counterproductive, in a way, because so much of my writing is based on my communal relations, which I can’t really engage with in the same way.

Jess | Today at 2:28 PM

One of the main things I kept coming back to was wanting to honour storytelling in its many different forms, not just the written “literary” form. […] Because storytelling surpasses writing, historically and personally. This meant working collaboratively with many different people […] Making this thing, and saying goodbye to it, has made very apparent the ways in which we do adapt for survival. It didn’t feel right to me that this festival, this thing that so many people put SO much into, would just be cast aside. […] So while we first, of course, thought of moving everything online, we realized very quickly we just didn’t have the resources, background, or support, for that. I also had to shake off this idea to react instantly. […] I realized moving with care and intention meant moving slowly. So we’ve been sitting on it for a few weeks, and we think we want to instead have the festival and its artists come together as a special edition of Room magazine (also surprise Serena and Aimee because you don’t know this yet lol). We haven’t announced this yet, though we will be soon.

So that’s a long ass way of saying that it has made apparent that the worlds we want to see don’t die because they don’t form in the way we originally imagined. We just have to reimagine them differently, and that people have really surprised me in their ability to do this in light of everything that’s happened.

selfie image of Aimee Louw

Tasha | Today at 2:35 PM

Friends, I have two last questions for everyone. They’re somewhat parallel, so I’m going to drop them at the same time. What has been the most important thought you’ve been carrying around with you this week? And/or, what have you let go of recently that you no longer needed?

Aimee | Today at 2:37 PM

For me, I’ve been trying to actively let go of shame around resting/being witnessed when resting.

Serena | Today at 2:38 PM

Taking this time to slow down and reconnect rather than speed up. I said previously that I feel like a coiled spring, and while that is true, I think there are ways to relieve that tension, through small projects and conversations like these, so that I don’t explode at the end of this, haha.

Jess | Today at 2:41 PM

For some reason when I read the second question, I got really emotional. That’s a really important and tender question. I feel like I’ve let go […] of the idea that I need to care for others before myself. I have grappled with this a lot (which my therapist knows): I have always thought my worth to be in what I can do, rather than just who I am. But I feel this time of isolation has made me really have to look at my own needs first, and that’s been a really unexpected gift.

Tasha | Today at 2:43 PM

Couldn’t agree more with everything that’s been said! I feel like I ask this question a lot in order to figure it out for myself — so it’s a little selfish of me, but i’m happy it can bring some insight. Thank you everyone for making the most of all of this!

Jess [transcribed from voice chat] Today at 2:43 PM

I just wanted to say I really appreciate this conversation, and for the idea around this [interview]. It is really great, and is really important to me — which I didn’t realize at first. This whole festival was so collaborative, and all three of the participants in this interview were so integral to the creation of it, so it’s really important that this was a collaborative conversation, and I want to thank you for that. 

photo of Jessica Johns working on some beading.

<3