‘Utopia is a place that accommodates every body’

Last October, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) appointed multidisciplinary artist Ariella Granados as its first Central West Center artist in residence. Supported by the MOPD, the National Endowment for the Arts, and DCASE, the residency offers studio space and funding for Granados to develop her artistic practice, host open studios and meetups for artists with disabilities, and present a series of public programs between January and July

January programming launched with an open studio with Granados and a sound workshop by blind media artist Andy Slater. On January 27, Granados screens Experimental Graphic Score Performance, their first work completed during the residency, alongside an hour-long DJ set. Programs in upcoming months include a DJ workshop, an improv/comedy workshop with Jesse Swanson of iO, a set design workshop, and a makeup/character workshop—all designed to cultivate a community of artists with disabilities. 

“What I love most is . . . Ari’s playfulness in their work,” says Zhen Heinemann, DCASE director of visitor experience and public engagement, who has been working with MOPD on the residency. “The projects . . . seemed a fun entry point for folks . . . with wigs, makeup, set construction, improv. That kind of work supports a social environment to celebrate in community. Because Ari is a performance-based artist and a makeup artist, it’s a theatrical world. People who come from the performance world come from a place of collaboration and community. It’s a program that’s about opening arms and gathering people in, in a fun, playful, joyful way.”

Blending humor, drama, and improvisational play, Granados’s work spans creative direction, makeup, performance art, video, and music—frequently casting herself in alternate worlds and even altered bodies to experience, process, and reimagine personal history, family dynamics, and existence as a first-generation Mexican and Indian artist with a disability. In 2021, Granados created a series of videos using green screens to transport them to spaces such as the surface of a resident card (No Documents), a meat processing plant, a gas station convenience store, and the set of a telenovela (I Used To Have Cable Before He Left, parts 1-3), using makeup and costuming to transform themself into characters that inhabit these spaces, including imagined renditions of their parents. 

In 2022, during a residency at the Hyde Park Art Center, Granados began to transform the background into the foreground by reinventing herself as a green character. “The color green is used to render things in postproduction, so I’m thinking of [the] color green and blue as ways of rendering my body,” says Granados. “I use the color green as a metaphor. When you’re standing in front of a green screen, you have to render the image you want into the green screen for you to be where you want to be. I started using green screen to put myself in different places, to recreate memories and imagine memories. [Now] I use the color green as a way of rendering my body.”

For more information about the programs and residency with Ariella Granados at Central West Center, and to register and request accessibility needs, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/public-programs-central-west-center-artist-in-residence-ariella-granados-tickets-477485651437

At the Central West Center, which houses the MOPD and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services at 2102 West Ogden, Granados has been developing an album called /’pôlzē/. “It’sspelled the way it’s pronounced, palsy: to be paralyzed,” says Granados. “It’s me thinking about my experience being paralyzed and how I can convey that through sound, and thinking about experiences I’ve found paralyzing in my upbringing.” Coproduced with drummer Eddie Burns, the album also features musicians Josh Jessen (keys/synth), Alec Trickett (percussion), William Corduroy (bass/guitar), and Kenneth Leftridge Jr. (saxophone/flute)—a “community of people coming together,” says Granados. Three songs from the album will be presented on January 27, with videos created in collaboration with sound engineers at VSOP Studios, production assistant Erika Grey, and directors of photography Alex Halstead and Pouya Shahbazi.

“I grew up in the church and grew up singing,” says Granados, who was born in Texas and came to Chicago to study art at UIC. “When I left Christianity, I left singing. But when I built a friendship with Eddie and began to participate in the music community, it happened out of nowhere—going to the studio, making songs—before I knew it, I had eight or nine songs.” 

“This is what it feels like to be in my body, a paralyzing experience,” says Granados. “I have Erb’s palsy, paralysis on my right arm. It was medical mistreatment—the doctor’s fault when they were delivering me—then I was not properly treated. My mom had just immigrated to the U.S. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to navigate the medical system.”

“I didn’t really come into my disability identity until three years ago. I grew up hiding my arm—for 23 years. I was not in my body. I was very much just in survival mode,” says Granados. “Like many of us, I had a lot of time to sit with myself through the pandemic, and that was it for me. I was forced to come to terms with my feelings around my disability. I was tired of hiding. I think the moments that gave me confidence in coming into myself were through self-expression with my makeup and clothing. I was naturally drawn to bright colors and patterns as a way to distract myself from my disability.”

“Coming into my identity as a person living with a disability has helped me understand myself and step into my body. For so long I have been so deeply dissociated, living with chronic pain, what comes with having a disability. I’d premeditate how I would get up and move across the room and make sure I would do it in a way that people wouldn’t notice my arm.” Now performance has become “a way to reclaim my body,” says Granados.

Community has been key to Granados’s progress. “Finding the Chicago Artists with Disabilities Facebook page was life-changing to me. I had felt alone for so long. Being in a body is hard, especially with the upbringing I had. I grew up radically Christian, being at church conferences with 150 people praying for me, like God was going to heal my arm. It was because of those experiences that I hid. I broke with that when I moved to Chicago. I was 17. [I thought ] I shouldn’t be living with this much guilt and shame in my life for being myself, for wanting to express myself and be a human. Now I’ve been here for nine years. Community—that’s what’s kept me here, because the winters are brutal. There’s such a rich community here of artists and musicians. Now I’m slowly beginning to build a disability community. I’ve wanted this space for so long.”

The culminating project of Granados’s residency is designed to build and acknowledge this community of disabled artists—a video in which they intend to engage other artists with disabilities in visions of utopia: “What does utopia mean to you? What does it mean to be in your body? What makes you feel the most at home?”

For themselves, Granados says, “I don’t care for perfect. Utopia to me is an imagined place of rest and pleasure, where humans who look like me and different kinds of ways are celebrated and honored. Utopia is a place where I can exist freely and safely in my body. It’s a place that is digitally rendered, green, with an influx of images of big arms and hands. Utopia is a place that accommodates every body. It’s a place that prioritizes access and needs across the board.”

“I’m not a victim of pain; I am in relationship with pain and that complicates things because it’s one of the things you just have to come to terms with, and sometimes it’s really difficult to accept. I spend time in my room doing my affirmations—‘I am enough, yes’—but goddammit I’m also in a lot of pain. What do I do with that? Make art.”

Read More

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *