'Inspiration Archives and the Politics of Authenticity', Association for Art History 2021

  • Eleanor Roberts (Speaker)

Activity: Public engagement and outreachPublic speaking engagements


Session paper for 'Art, Obscurity, and the Politics of Rescue', Association for Art History 2021

This paper takes as its starting point Aaron Williamson’s sardonically titled Inspiration Archives (2019), which seems to document obscure historical figures who were disabled. Documentary items, such as those representing paraplegic explorer ‘Parachute Susan’ O’Sullivan, have been received by visitors as authentic. In fact, the Inspiration Archives are built around fictional narratives, and actively upset distinctions between the ‘real’ and ‘not real’. The politics of this work are complex: Williamson (who is deaf) critiques ‘inspiration’ as potentially patronising in the context of disability, and seems to demonstrate the dangers of ‘fake news’. At the same time, the forgeries and fakeries also represent a meaningful moment of institutional critique, and prompt questions around who gets to be part of history.

The Archives lead me to a broader consideration of the politics of authenticity, particularly in contexts of renewed attention to fiction in discourses of contemporary art. Aesthetics and methods of theatricality, fabulation, fakery, and active frivolousness have long been prevalent strategies of queer, feminist, disabled, and postcolonial makers engaged in critical practices of world-building in resistance to marginalising, essentialist and positivist ideologies of the ‘authentic’ and institutional seriousness. However, reactionary violence and erasure in today’s mainstream political landscape demands the urgent re-evaluation of how historicity and importance might be strategically claimed.

For those engaged in mapping the legacies of hitherto under-acknowledged artists, how might the sardonic critique of ‘inspiration’ be generatively in tension with temporal transitivity; intergenerational, coalitional crossings between subjects through the archive; and demands for visibility and recognition?
Period17 May 2021
Event titleAssociation for Art History - Annual Conference 2021
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • crip theory
  • disability
  • archives
  • decentred study
  • live art
  • performance documentation
  • visual art
  • visual culture