Freedom, I’ve come to realize lately, is a fairly simple proposition, which is not to say it is simple to achieve. Freedom is the ability to live one’s life fully, knowing that you’re doing it in a way that allows others to do the same. Self-actualization that is not selfish. The principle moves out from the personal to the geopolitical, and vice versa—our safety, security, happiness, fulfillment, is only meaningful if it doesn’t impinge on the complex web of relationships, visible and invisible, close and impossibly abstract, in which we exist.
I don’t know what this might look like in practice, but I know it starts with a few basic things (basic, again, but not easy): the radical redistribution of wealth and resources globally, a privileging of life (human and nonhuman) over ease, open borders, the dismantling of white supremacy and its attendant mechanisms (capitalism most of all), a breakdown of those structures which empower some precisely by disempowering others. Freedom is the absence of power, because all of those inequalities that give some power over others will have been dismantled.
Yes, utopian. Perhaps only available in the imagination. But that’s where art comes in: by offering us the space to dream such freedom.
I don’t know what freedom might look like, but I have more of an idea what it might feel like after seeing Sue Austin’s Creating the Spectacle, Part 1: Finding Freedom, a video from 2012. The artist modified a wheelchair so that it can function underwater, allowing her to glide, flip, and spin in a coral reef. The water is impossibly blue and gravity-less, and instead of scuba gear she wears a flowery summer dress, sandals, and sunglasses. The outfit prompts us to imagine what it would be like if the limitless mobility possible in an aqueous realm was available to us on earth.
The artist herself has a disability—a curious term, because of course what disables her is the world’s inability or refusal to accommodate her body and its attendant ways of being, not her body itself. (Likewise, I do not have a race but am racialized; I am not a minority but am minoritized—these qualities have nothing to do with me but with the way the world is structured around me.) I am not disabled by the world—yet, though things change with age. And yet Austin’s video was the most visceral experience of freedom I’ve seen—one that I wanted to experience, too. What an extraordinary thing, for an artist to cut through all the ways society tells us that disabled bodies are lacking (and all the ways it diminishes those bodies) so that she can offer us an image of her body as pure plenitude.
Why does this feel like freedom to me? Perhaps because it offers an image of frictionless existence. Our lives—and the “we” I refer to here is the most expansive one possible, a global one—is marked by friction (the endless violences perpetrated by states and capitalism that we endure daily, to greater and lesser degrees) and immobility (the function of state imposed borders and permanent refugee camps). How ironic, given the promises neoliberal, global capitalism made to us, of people and goods skating over a flat earth without impediment.
Austin’s video does more than offer an inspirational picture of a person with a disability overcoming obstacles—it forces us to ask of ourselves, “why don’t I feel like that?” And I don’t. I don’t feel as free as that image of aqueous ballet looks. For many of us, what we tell ourselves are privileges are those things keeping us from true freedom. To be reminded that I do not feel unfettered is not an invitation to feel sorry for myself, or a reason to devolve into a politics of resentment, but to ask why, what’s standing in my way. And in the process, to take on the most important work of our time: to imagine the world differently, so that I, and people like me, and people utterly unlike me, can float through the world, propelled by our own desire.