Freaky or No?

Rita Marcolo, a dancer in the UK who has been epileptic since the age of 17, is planning a 24-hour performance which will include strobe lights and sleep deprivation. Prior to the performance, she has ceased to take her epilepsy medication. She received a grant of £13,889 from the Arts Council England for the performance. Notes the November Times Online:

Epilepsy charities said that the event turned a much misunderstood condition into a freak show and warned of the potentially severe dangers of coming off epilepsy drugs.

Marcalo said that she wanted to raise awareness of epilepsy as “an invisible disability” and would use next month’s adults-only show at Bradford Playhouse to explore “my ‘other’ identity as a disabled person”.

Marcalo, the artistic director of a Leeds-based dance theatre company, Instant Dissidence, has been epileptic since the age of 17. She stopped taking her anti-convulsant drugs last week and for 24 hours, from 1pm on December 11, a paying audience will watch her attempts to bring on a fit.

These will involve the use of strobe lights, fasting, sleep deprivation and specially designed computer programmes, plus raising her body temperature and taking brain stimulants including alcohol and tobacco.

Performances from other dance and installation artists will keep the viewers entertained as they wait.

The Playhouse says: “At any point in the event Marcalo might have an epileptic seizure. Whenever this happens, a loud alarm will sound, lights will brighten, music will stop and a series of cameras will start recording her seizure. Audience members will be encouraged to record it on their mobile phones.”

A neuropsychologist from the
National Society for Epilepsy, Sallie Baxendale, comments that:

“The upside is that it gets people talking about epilepsy, but the downside is that it’s being presented as a freaky type of entertainment as opposed to teaching people about seizures.

“The danger of coming off medication is that sometimes when you go back to the same level as before your seizures are not controlled any more. You play about with your medication at your peril.”

From the
Times Online article, it’s not clear if medical personnel will be on hand during Marcolo’s performance. One can’t help but wonder if the dancer might be risking health too much in the service of art, with such a performance? Or is Marcolo’s performance rather a novel way to increase understanding and awareness about epilepsy, about what it is to have a seizure?

As a parent of a child who seems prone to some sort of
neurological activity that we can’t seem to figure out, I’d say that we make it a point to avoid or at least think of how to ease Charlie through any situations that might cause said activity, and seek out environments that are more likely to be soothing and not over-stimulating. And, Charlie takes various medication some of which are anti-seizure meds, and you can be sure we make sure not to miss a dose.

What I’m wondering is, what’s to be gained for public knowledge about epilepsy, to witness someone, it seems, deliberately creating the circumstances for herself to have a seizure? Are audience members allowed or expected to aid Marcolo should she require such? Is she making of herself a literal “freak show”?
Charlie trying my soup at the diner

Often enough, Charlie being Charlie gets attention—stares and uncomfortable glances—of an uncomfortable sort. Wanting to celebrate Charlie’s good first week at his new school (Friday was good), we had gone to his favorite diner last night for an early dinner. Two couples, one quite elderly, were seated in his preferred booth. They all seemed to be ordering complete Early Bird Special dinners and Charlie eyed their food and them—smiling a lot—while waiting for his burger. (He also asked a few times to try my soup.) There were some perplexed, if not apprehensive looks, at Charlie’s mannerisms and his speech and vocalizations. After he had finished eating and was pulling on his coat, there was a new round of stares and questions from two boys who were dining with their grandparents, and all the more when Charlie paused between the booths, put his head down, and paused.

Sometimes we say something; last night, we didn’t. Charlie eats quite a bit at this diner and he wasn’t doing anything particularly unusual or exciting. Any “freakishness” was in the eye of those looking.

And perhaps that’s the mindset that might be useful in considering Marcolo’s performance. Freakshowness is in the eye of the beholder?

7 Responses to “Freaky or No?”
  1. Obviously this person wants the truth, the reality, of epilepsy to be known by the world. You call it art, and that is the context, but it is also awareness, reality based awareness is it not?
    I hope she comes through it OK. I admire her courage and determination to speak the truth, at serious risk to herself, and in defiance of those who insist that disabilities be portrayed as differences but not as what they are … disorders that restrict the lives of those who suffer from them.

  2. farmwifetwo says:

    I always say something. Isn’t that the point, to teach instead of holding up posters and slamming people as they go into a performance.
    Being ignorant to others does not get you sympathy. Going about your normal daily business and talking about autism and explaining what is, does.
    I’ve never had a negative experience, when I spend that moment.

  3. Not sure whether it is inherently more freaky than someone like me posting my stims online and claiming it is an artform, but probably a lot more risky and certainly not something in a similar condition I would wish to undertake, and certainly would not watch because of the strobe lights, never mind her what about the audience!
    In terms of self inflicted damage, I doubt it is worse than the spectacle of two grown men slugging it out in the ring to see who can induce the most brain damage first.
    Even so boxing is far from the most risky sport one can indulge in, I think mountain climbing, particularly if K2 is your propensity, is the worst.
    One guarantees some form of physical damage by climbing without oxygen to the summit of everest, yet it is frequently done.
    It is all relative in the end, a matter of what one percieves as dangerous, as art, as entertainment, as medical, as sport and I guess that is what she is trying to demonstrate.

  4. “Art” itself has become a freak show, hasn’t it? I hesitate to call this art and instead would prefer to call it an easy money-making-publicity-stunt.
    We could put a few autistic kids on a stage and watch them flap but than that would be exploitation and not “art.”

  5. Club 166 says:

    I’m with Jill. This stunt is far across the line that separates art and stupidity.
    If she wanted to raise awareness about epilepsy, she could have done a one woman show, talking about her experiences, augmented by videos of other people that have been recorded having seizures.

  6. Dwight F says:

    As for people gaping at Charlie, it’s very rude.
    I’m going to challenge this. Some gets surprised and forgets themselves? This is new for them, novel, interesting.
    Now if they were to give a look of castigation, with out asking? Sure, because they presume to know what is going on. But I can’t think of a single time I’ve ever experienced that with G. Now he is small for his age, of 7, which might have some bearing on this. But even his big brother (not ASC) who has generally been HUGE for his age and acted with mannerisms well below his age, there have been incidents of curiousness but never what I considered disparaging looks.
    Or maybe I’ve always been able to head it off at the pass? I will offer a quick, offhand explaination when the surprise hits them. I don’t let them hang themselves with presumption through ignorance. I assume they are surprised because they don’t know, and probably would like to know more. That’s why they are paying attention.
    People with the attitude of Michael Weiner(AKA Michael Savage) thankful seem to be very much in the minority. At least the people in public places I frequent. I don’t doubt that some day I, or G, will meet someone like that. But mostly, in my experience, people are people if you approach them like that.

  7. Hala says:

    I’m thrilled and fascinated by the idea of this performance. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stigma of epilepsy and the language used to describe it: the standard terminology, for instance, designates a person taking anti-seizure meds as a “controlled” epileptic, versus an “uncontrolled” epileptic. Despite their serious and often life-altering side effects, forgoing anti-seizure meds is often not presented as a choice. In my case, it however, it was a choice: college or seizure control, since we were unable to find any med or cocktail that didn’t inhibit my ability to cognitively function to the point where I simply couldn’t be in school. That I made a cost-benefit analysis and chose certain things (my ability to process information, write, and think) over others (driving, swimming alone, a certain degree of peace of mind) is seen by many as the height of irresponsibility. I applaud Ms. Marcolo for, if nothing else, making it very clear that whether she chooses to take anti-seizure medications is nobody’s choice but her own.

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