Performance artist Hanna Cormick on disability, climate change and why the way we make art needs to change

Interviewing Hanna Cormick requires one to embrace an elastic relationship with time.

The performance artist has what she describes as a “trifecta of conditions” — Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome — that affects her joints, organs and ability to stand.

She also has severe allergic reactions — including anaphylaxis — to various foods, smells, temperatures, vibrations and chemicals.

Since September 2015, Cormick has been living in a positive pressure air-sealed safe room in Canberra.

It took a number of tries for ABC RN’s The Stage Show to be able to record an interview with the artist, whether that was due to her experiencing pain, severe reactions to medication, or the sensory overload triggered by her neighbour’s lawnmower.

These interruptions, pauses and delays are an important part of her story and this one.

“It’s part of that ethos of allowing illness and things falling apart to be visible,” she told The Stage Show.

She says this speaks to the concept of “crip time”, an idea antithetical to theatre’s famous adage that ‘the show must go on’.

“‘Crip time’ allows for cancellations and postponements and for things to move outside of strict deadlines; it’s putting the human above the deadline,” Cormick explains.

Cormick didn’t always operate on crip time — for years she worked gruelling hours touring as a circus and dance artist across Europe, before her trifecta forced her to come home and put her art on ice.

But in time, she started making art again — most notably The Mermaid, a performance piece where she put her vulnerable body on the line to make a moving point about ableism and climate change.

A woman in her mid 30s with arm splints and zebra print shirt
Cormick in the splints she has to wear to prevent dislocation and subluxation from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.(Supplied: Cormick)

Dr Lara Stevens, a researcher in performing arts and environmental crisis at The University of Melbourne says: “In the history of performance art so much has been about creating calculated scenarios of bodily risk and then exploring political and social themes through that risk.

“In a way we’ve reached an impasse with that because how much further can we push performance in terms of how radical or avant-garde we can be? Because we’ve already shot ourselves and cut ourselves open.

“Cormick’s work is so shocking because it’s real and it’s not a choice … Cormick was knowingly putting herself into danger, but in conditions not of her choosing.”

Cormick performed The Mermaid at the 2020 Sydney Festival, during which the smoke from bushfires heightened the already risky performance.

“It was really radical in a way that was properly new, in a way we haven’t seen before and that was challenging the parameters of how we live, how we make art and with what kinds of bodies,” says Stevens.

‘Red flags everywhere’

Cormick is a Finnish-Australian with Sámi and Irish ancestry. Growing up in Canberra, her childhood was rich with art; her father is a writer and she was dragged along to galleries by her grandparents, who were tour guides at the National Gallery of Australia.

She discovered performance as a teen.

“I suddenly decided through contact with the stage that that was where I wanted to be and that was where I felt that I could express myself the most fully,” she recalls.

While still in high school, she began travelling to Sydney to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art’s Young Actors Studio

She then studied acting at Charles Sturt University, while working in the evenings at theatre companies — including Riverina Theatre Company and Gearstick.

Cormick describes it as a “saturated double life” of studying and working.

In 2011, at age 27, she moved to Paris to study mask work at the prestigious Ecole Jacques Lecoq, where she gravitated towards circus and dance and began performing around Europe.

“It’s hard to pinpoint when things started to really go wrong, and when I look back at my life, in retrospect, there were red flags everywhere,” says Cormick.

She had been sick through much of her time in Paris, though she was in denial about it.

But things came to a head in September 2014 while Cormick was working as a clown for Sirkhane Social Circus, travelling between refugee camps on the Turkish/Syrian border and struggling to stay awake after performances.

“On the one hand, it was the most physically in control of my body I’d ever been, doing this kind of contortion work and circus work. But at the same time, I was starting to develop paralyses and seizures and a lot of pain.”

A woman in her mid 30s in lingerie holds her body up from a wheelchair, hooked up to oxygen
“One of the main hallmarks of Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes is hypermobility, which in me was very extreme and in fact led to pursuing training in circus arts,” says Cormick.(Supplied: Novel Photographic/Shelly Higgs)

On her return to Paris that year, where she continued her theatre work, Cormick’s condition rapidly worsened and she began to lose her ability to walk, as well as losing muscle, weight, energy, strength — and even consciousness. Her lifelong allergies reached a new and debilitating level of intensity.

In August 2015, doctors urged her to stop performing, but she was in the middle of a run at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe and so refused.

She says her wake-up call came when her partner said: “You can go back to Australia and you can take time off and you can be cared for and get better, or you’re going to die.”

So she returned home in September 2015, thinking she would take a few weeks off and then go back to Paris.

“I got back here and instead of getting better, I continued to get worse … and I stopped making art for a number of years.”

‘Don’t look away from this’

“I believed that I wouldn’t be able to perform anymore, and I actually thought I wouldn’t be able to make art anymore within any form because art takes a lot of energy and I didn’t have any energy at all,” says Cormick.

“And the only way I knew how to make art was using this motor of time scarcity and stress and manufactured chaos and adrenaline. That’s the way we’re trained to make art.”

A white woman in her mid-30s with short brunette hair and glasses, hands under chin, stares at the camera
“I thought it wasn’t possible to create if I wasn’t moving my body in a space or if I wasn’t working in this very hyperactive way,” says Cormick.(ABC Arts: Shelly Higgs)

But the playwright David Finnigan, her close friend and collaborator, suggested that art might help her to process what was going on. He set her a simple task sometime around the start of 2016: write one or two sentences a day.

Some days she couldn’t manage it.

“[But] I started to realise that the experiences I was describing … the experiences of what my life was like now, was very strange and interesting.

She began reading and researching, finding the work of chronic illness bloggers and YouTubers, and the art and writing of performer Claire Cunningham, actor Liz Carr, writer Anne Boyer and artist Johanna Hedva.

This all shifted her thinking around illness, capitalism and art, exposing her to ideas including the social model of disability and crip time.

Cormick embraces the Disability and Crip Pride movements.

“One really big part of the Disability Pride movement and the Crip Pride movement is the idea of rejecting a cure, and rejecting the idea of disability as being bad,” she explains.

“‘Crip’ is a word that has been reclaimed by a particular subset of the disability community. It is a bit in your face, it’s got a bit of a punk edge to it … it’s saying ‘No, don’t look away from this’.”

The Mermaid

These ideas and experiences all fed into the first work she performed after her hiatus: The Mermaid.

“Part of it was drawn from recognising how invisible disability … illness and fragility is made in our society and the way that invisibility aids and abets oppression and injustice,” Cormick says.

In the performance, Cormick sits on her wheelchair in a beautiful silicone mermaid tail and top, wearing a full-face respirator mask and hooked up to an oxygen tank and IV line with saline.

A woman in her mid 30s in a mermaid costume and oxygen mask sitting on a wheelchair, in a warehouse
“Bringing this experience into the world [in The Mermaid] … felt like something very shameful for me because I was dealing with so much internalised ableism,” says Cormick.(Supplied: Novel Photographic/Shelly Higgs)

“For me, that was very much a symbol of the social model of disability … about how it’s spaces that disable, not our bodies.

“In the ocean, the mermaid is free and can move about, [but if] you change that environment, you put her on land, suddenly she presents as disabled.”

As part of the show, Cormick recounts her own experiences of ableism, including this anecdote: “An airline official recommends I wear a burqa to cover my face and body, so ‘no one will have to look at me’, and always parks my wheelchair facing the wall.”

The Mermaid was Cormick’s first autobiographical work, and represented a scary and difficult “coming out as disabled” to her peers.

While she received a lot of positive and validating feedback, she also received online abuse from ableist trolls.

“That’s kind of the double-edged sword that exists for being visible,” says Cormick.

‘Dangerously extractivist’

Much of Cormick’s work is concerned with climate change, an interest she cultivated in her art before she got sick. Now it’s a particularly urgent issue: petrochemicals and pollutants exacerbate her condition.

“[But] a major shift that happened in my practice, when I started to make art again, was the recognition that the ways I had been working … within the physical theatre and circus and dance industries were what I would describe as ‘dangerously extractivist’,” she says.

“I had been treating my body like a resource that I could draw upon until it was exhausted; treating my body like the fossil fuel industry treats the planet.”

A woman in her mid 30s in a mermaid costume and oxygen mask crawls away from a wheelchair
Cormick says one of the big things she learnt from The Mermaid was considering post-performance “aftercare” for both herself and the audience.(Supplied: Daniel Boud)

Yet Cormick risks that body again in The Mermaid: despite her protective equipment and efforts to minimise her exposure to food and smells from the audience, some performances were interrupted by medical events including respiratory distress, seizures and anaphylaxis. (She has a medical team on hand during shows).

“The performance is turning it [these medical events] into art, into a political statement; into, hopefully, something that allows for communication or connection, or compassion and empathy-building.”

Cormick is drawing a link between her experience of rare disease and the climate crisis.

“It’s trying to make people aware of how we’re not actually these discrete entities, we’re all connected — and the things that we do with our own bodies, in our own homes, does flow out and affect other people, other creatures or their ecosystems.”

Towards the end of the performance, she tells the audience: “I do not need to be strong or brave or courageous.”

She explained to The Stage Show that this is about “accepting that fragility is OK, limits are OK”.

Which is why every time she performs The Mermaid she asks herself whether it’s time to shelve the project.

“I want to be doing work that doesn’t put my body into that situation — because fundamentally, I don’t want to be in that situation.”

A young woman stares at the camera, sparkles of light projected on her face
In Canary, which explores climate change protest, Cormick’s words are performed by a proxy “immunologically privileged” performer (pictured here Julie Trépanier).(Supplied: Imago Theatre/Andrew Andreoli)

Similarly, she thinks about a world where other works of hers — like Canary and Dream/Remember, both commissioned by the Climate Change Theatre Action Festival — are no longer relevant.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to be talking about the climate crisis? Fundamentally, they’re artworks that I wish I didn’t have to make,” Cormick says.

Access and inclusion

Before the pandemic, Cormick left her house once a week, with care and under certain conditions. Currently the only contact she has with the outside world is a nurse in protective clothing who visits every few weeks.

Cormick is now vaccinated, although, like other disabled Australians, she found it hard to get the vaccine despite being in a priority group.

Her conditions make COVID-19 an extremely risky prospect.

“Even if I was fully vaccinated with boosters, if COVID was still going around in the community forever, I still might be isolated like this forever. Who knows? … It’s quite scary to face actually.”

A white woman in her mid-30s with short brunette hair sits on a bed with green bedding
“I do tend to be quite vocal about … [my] conditions because they are underdiagnosed and a lot of people go for a very long time not knowing what’s wrong with them,” says Cormick.(ABC Arts: Shelly Higgs)

As live performance returns to many parts of Australia, some in the disability community fear for the future of online arts — which so many companies pivoted to during lockdowns.

“We have been asking for this for a very long time and were constantly told: ‘There are not enough people for it to matter’ or ‘No one really needs that’ or ‘It’s impossible,'” says Cormick.

“If we take away the virtual component, then people who can’t access the live component will again be excluded.”

She isn’t just talking about disabled audiences, but people who can’t access art due to distance, work, caring responsibilities or cost.

“Now that they know that we’re out there, if we’re not including that virtual access, it’s no longer ignorance, it’s a deliberate choice to be exclusionary.

Cormick is set to remount The Mermaid at Sydney’s Firstdraft gallery in April 2022 for Conductive Site, an exhibition that aims to interrogate expectations around live performance, curated by interdisciplinary disabled artist Riana Head-Toussaint.

Whether Cormick will be able to perform the work, remains to be seen.

“Perhaps the work has to adjust to meet the new risk parameters, perhaps the work is replaced with something new, or perhaps it can’t go on,” says Cormick.

“Or perhaps some new chaos element arises, as it always will when chronic illness is on the table. You stay flexible and adaptive; that’s how crip time operates.”

Kenneth Proto

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