ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tasha Books was born with a partially developed left arm, so she is accustomed to people looking, even staring, at her with startled curiosity.
Actually, she’s OK with that. She understands.
“The most hurtful thing is when people see you and avert their eyes immediately,” she said. “Then they are not acknowledging you. That is more painful.”
Books, 37, is an instructor with a Corrales therapeutic horsemanship program designed to help children and adults deal with a range of emotional, social, learning and physical disabilities. She is a persistent proponent for people taking ownership of their challenges and differences, a strong voice for making it clear that there’s more to individuals than what they look like, more to them then their physical limitations.
That’s why it is no surprise that Books is the force behind “ON DISPLAY/Albuquerque,” the local version of an international living-sculpture exhibit intended as a commentary on the body as spectacle and society’s obsession with body image.
“The idea is for people who are not the typical media image of what is beautiful to put themselves on display,” Books said. “We gather together, all dressed in white, and spread out in an area open to the public. Each person chooses a spot and forms a pose. And from there, each moves, very slowly, into the next position they want to take. There is no choreography per se. It is an internal journey from one pose to another. A person can stand or lie down. Just not move from the spot they have chosen.”
Conceived by choreographer Heidi Latsky, artistic director of Heidi Latsky Dance, a New York City-based physically-integrated dance company, “ON DISPLAY” premiered in 2015 in New York City and Hobart, Australia. In 2016 it expanded to 26 cities, includingAlbuquerque. The program is celebrated on Dec. 3, promoted by the United Nations as International Day of Persons With Disabilities.
Books met Latsky for breakfast in Manhattan in 2013.
“We just sort of kept in touch loosely since then,” Books said. “We were hoping there would be some way to collaborate.”
Latsky’s “ON DISPLAY” program offered that opportunity. Books organized the first Albuquerque program last year. In 2016, eight participants, including Books, did programs at the Old Town Plaza and at the Uptown Mall.
Today, 15 persons will do programs at the International Balloon Museum and the Uptown Mall.
“Basically the idea behind this whole thing is engagement,” Books said. “Those of us who are presenting ourselves to be looked at have our eyes open, so we are staring back. We are hoping to open a dialogue. I am putting myself out there and it is OK to look.”
She said people are drawn to participate in the program for a variety of reasons. This year’s group includes women and men ranging in age from their mid-20s into their 60s.
“Some of the participants’ differences are not obvious,” Books said. “It might be hip displacement that makes activities limited. It might be their weight or some other reason people don’t feel like they are the body image ideal. A lot of people are doing it in celebration and acceptance of who they are, whatever that means, even losing their hair. Age, gender and ethnic diversity are all part of it.”
Books said people are invited to walk through the living installation, to observe, take photos and take video, as long as all this is done from a tasteful distance and preferably without flash attachments that might distract the participants. A sign explains what the program is about.
Judging from reactions to last year’s program, Books said people are curious.
“Because it is definitely not like what they normally see,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Umm! What’s going on there?’ Most kind of stand at a distance. But last year, one kid, about 10 or 11, at Uptown Mall, actually joined in the installation. He just froze in place.”
Books said this year Romy Keegan, owner and director of Albuquerque’s Maple Street Dance Space, is acting as the group’s movement director.
“Everyone chooses their own poses, but Romy leads us in movement warm ups and guides us through the installation as we will be doing it,” Books said. “She is the one who oversees the integrity of the installation, making sure, for example, that we are moving slowly. For most of us, it is unusual to be still that long – outside of when we are sleeping.”
The program can be scary, too.
“We are just allowing our body shapes to be shown, without makeup and the normal accoutrements,” she said. “It takes some bravery on behalf of the participants. And the audience as well.”