Remembering Chris Smit

Chis Smit was a scholar and disability rights activist. He co-founded DisArt, a production company that cultivates disability culture. Chris passed away on January 4, 2023. The following text was written for “Letters to Chris” on the DisArt website.

Chris Smit was someone who changed how I saw the world multiple times, as a professor, a collaborator, and a friend. I have two stories to add to the chorus of praises about Chris and what he meant to us all. I know writing these stories is probably more about allowing myself the opportunity to think through them and reflect, but hopefully they resonate with others as well.

When I first met Chris he was my professor at Calvin. I was an art major and film studies minor, this was 20 years ago. Chris taught a class called Media and the Public (I think). We talked critically about all sorts of mass media, we read Marshall McLuhan, it was great. We had to write a paper where we offered a critical analysis of some media artifact, it could be a TV show, a movie, music, a play, anything. I was writing about lots of movies and contemporary art in my other classes, so I decided to write about music. I wanted a challenge, so I picked an album that I loved but didn’t understand, one that freaked me out a little: White Light White Heat by The Velvet Underground. 

In order for this story to make sense I have to briefly explain something about Calvin College at that time (this may still be true, I’m not sure). In the Communications department there was a trend where professors and students would extend a redemptive, Reformed Christian reading onto secular media that didn’t come from that intellectual or spiritual tradition at all. The thinking was that God’s grace was evident everywhere, if only you looked for it, so of course redemption would shine through in secular stories, not just in explicitly Christian ones. An example, from one of Chris’s colleagues at the time, was a reading of Pulp Fiction as a tale of Christian redemption by focusing on Jules’ (Samuel L. Jackson) monologue in the diner, where he talks about finding meaning in the Bible verse he quotes before killing people, and says, “I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd!” Depending on your background, this may seem odd. But for many Calvin students at that time who grew up in strict households being warned to avoid the evils of secular media, the idea that you could find good things in Pulp Fiction was incredibly liberating. They say the F word in that movie!

So, I went into my critical analysis of White Light White Heat with this framework in mind. I thought it was what scholars operating with a Reformed Christian perspective did, and that’s what I was there to learn, and I was ready to dive in. I set out to find the redemptive diamond in the rough of a wild and frankly violent record. But I could not find a diamond! I could not find a hidden redemptive arc. I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about how Chris lectured in the class. While the trend to retrofit redemption was pretty pervasive at Calvin, Chris always approached art with a combination of honesty and courage that refused to take refuge in easy, formulaic readings. Writing for Chris, I knew I had to be honest. I did my best to articulate why White Light White Heat was an incredible album, even though I could not find a nice redemptive pearl. The album is a gorgeous mess of distortion, drugs, and murder. Chris gave me an A. I don’t recall exactly what he told me afterward, but he let me know how much he appreciated that I didn’t resort to easy answers about difficult art. I felt like he helped me break a spell, to see art for what it really is, even when it’s terrifying and thrilling. 

My second story about Chris is more recent. I was part of ArtPrize since its beginning, and by the tenth event in 2018 I was Artistic Director. After a decade of annual art competitions the format was getting a little stale, despite many amazing collaborations where Chris and DisArt made amazing things with Paul Amenta and the SiTE:LAB crew. For 2019 we decided to take a break from the competition format and instead commission a handful of international artists to create temporary projects around a theme. I curated the exhibition, titled Project 1: Crossed Lines, and invited artists to respond to the idea of the invisible lines that divide the city (implied borders, political fault lines, accessibility, discriminatory housing practices, etc.) 

We commissioned Paul Amenta and Ted Lott to do a project, and they produced Critical Infrastructure, a site-specific architectural pavilion focused on accessibility and featuring programming collaborations with DisArt, SiTE:LAB, Kyd Kane, The Grand Rapids Ballet, and many others. Other Project 1 installations featured special events, but we decided that Critical Infrastructure should hold an event on the opening night. Paul and Ted invited Chris and DisArt to collaborate on the programming and DisArt invited Drag Syndrome to perform. Drag Syndrome is an internationally acclaimed drag troupe from London composed of adults with Down’s Syndrome. As the performance date approached, the event started to draw criticism. In the time since 2019, drag shows have become even more of a culture war flashpoint, but at that point we were still taken a little off guard. All of the homophobic and transphobic vitriol that normally accompanies opposition to drag shows was combined with a wilful misunderstanding of who Drag Syndrome was, the agency (and brilliance) of the performers, and a sickening condescension toward them masquerading as concern. The opposition gained national media attention, there were email and phone call campaigns, it was picked up by far-right news sources including neo-nazi web forums. The owner of the property where Critical Infrastructure was built (a certain former congressman and heir to a local supermarket fortune) decided to revoke permission for the event. Drag Syndrome still performed that night, but not on the stage/catwalk/pavilion/sculpture that Paul Amenta and Ted Lott had built for them. 

It’s tempting to think of the Drag Syndrome fiasco as a failure, but I’ve come to think about it as the most successful element of the whole exhibition. Chris and DisArt managed to rise to the challenge of Project 1 with far more courage and clarity than I ever could. I set out to curate an exhibition about the invisible lines that divide communities and keep us from achieving equity. What Chris taught me was that it’s not enough to make art about those divisions, you have to make art that smashes right through them. Only then do the invisible lines become visible, and only then do we stand a chance of getting through to the other side and building something new together. 

Rest in power, Chris. I’ve learned from your courage, but I could never hope to match it. 

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