By Abby Weingarten

How do we, as humans, look at bodies that are different than ours? And how has the human body been exhibited throughout history—in entertainment and art?

The fifth VariAbilities academic conference, co-hosted virtually by New College and entitled “Exhibiting Humanity; Inhabiting Bodies,” will ask these questions and more from June 10 to 12.

“The concept of the ‘variable body’ is something conference founder Dr. Chris Mounsey of the University of Winchester developed—as an inclusive and expansive way of thinking about human variability of all kinds,” said event co-coordinator Miriam Wallace, Ph.D., chair of the Division of Humanities, and a professor of English and gender studies at New College. “I visited Dr. Mounsey in London in 2019 and asked if he thought Sarasota might be a good location for VariAbilities—since we have both New College and The Ringling museum right here.”

The Ringling, Wallace noted, has a vast collection of circus-related memorabilia, including a trove of materials on “variable” bodies (some early modern prints and 19th-century artifacts from sideshow performers).

“This conference seemed like a good way to build a broader conversation among historians of embodiment and the lived body, and those interested in circus history, performance and rights,” said Wallace, who worked closely on the conference coordination with Jennifer Lemmer Posey, the Tibbals Curator of Circus at The Ringling.

The event is part of the New College Connecting the Arts and Humanities on Florida’s Creative Coast initiative, which is funded by five-year $750,000 grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The conference was created in 2013 and typically occurs every other year.

“VariAbilities was supposed to take place in June 2020, but we had to cancel at that point. This year, we decided to take it online, and about half of the participants in the academic conference were eager to present virtually,” Wallace said. “We’ve decided to do a short version this June online and then a bit more next June 2022, when all can come to Sarasota and also tour the circus collection archives.”

This year, the public is invited to attend the free public keynote (Revisiting Cultural Spectacles and Extraordinary Bodies in 2021 by Professors Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Michael Chemers and Analola Santana); workshop (Inhabiting the Body: Gut Botany: A Poetry/Performance by activist/artist Petra Kuppers); and event (A Faux Memoir: Sex Work / Disability/Fetish/Capital by performance artist Amber DiPietra).

“The materiality of the body confounds us; it forces a reconsideration of the ‘linguistic turn,’ perhaps even the ‘social constructionist’ turn, by which we understand the world and identity as linguistically or socially constituted,” the conference organizers wrote. “But how do we look at bodies–our own, the first bodies exhibited to us as children, the bodies of clowns and circus performers, or even the bodies of everyday folks with impairments—people who are like us but also somehow different? And what knowledge do such encounters create or reify?”

Attendees will find out this week.

To attend these events, email education@ringling.org. For more information on the VariAbilities schedule, visit ncf.edu/about/performance-and-lecture-series/mellon.

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state’s Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in applied data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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