I’m delighted and excited that Daisyfest 2016 has given DisabilityArtsOnline a slot at G Live in Guildford to showcase some of the talent DAO supports through our blogging platform. So, we’re producing an event next month called Words That Defy Normality - a smorgasbord of humorous, reflective, autobiographical poetry and performance from Penny Pepper, Allan Sutherland and Dolly Sen.
I was over the moon at the success of Penny’s campaign via Unbound to get her memoir First In The World Somewhere published by Unbound/ Penguin.
Penny ran the gauntlet of social media to ensure the publication happened. Backed by Daisyfest the crowdfunding campaign reached 102 per cent of its target, so the publication is due to be released in early 2017.
And now, hot off the stage from speaking at the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World (WoW) Festival, Penny will give Daisyfest a flavour of her personal recollections of the beginnings of independent living and disability civil rights.
Penny’s story is one of a first-generation punk crip who skirted through new romantic pop into being a music-junkie indie kid, always pushing her writing and performance alongside the emergence of the Disability Arts scene.
Allan Sutherland, once described as 'the first political stand-up on the disability arts circuit' has for thirty years been exploring ways of making the voices of disabled people heard.
He has explored his own epilepsy though performance poetry, stand-up comedy and personal writing. He has presented the lives and opinions of other disabled people through radio and television scriptwriting and journalism.
In more recent years, Allan has developed the technique of interview-based transcription poetry, which has proved to be a powerful means of telling disabled people’s stories. Supported by DAO, his first exploration of the form, told the life story of Disability Activist and campaigner Paddy Masefield, before further developments, which gave us The Explorer with scenes from the life of artist Nancy Willis and Neglected Voices, with stories recalling the lives of three disabled people:
In this performance he will be reading from his recently-completed collection, ‘Difficult People’. [We are the difficult people,/ The ones who do not fit,/ Who have no place in/ The world as you’ve made it.]
The collection straddles several decades of the writer’s engagement with disability arts, activism and culture. It starts with some of the performance poems, which document his own experience of living with epilepsy; followed by a set of found poems, and lastly his transcription work.
Dolly Sen has been blogging on DAO since 2008 with her unique and persistently uproarious take on the world. As a child, Dolly Sen was an alien in Empire Strikes Back. She knew then she would never know normal life. Dolly is an award-winning writer, artist, performer and filmmaker, which has taken her up a tree in Regents Park, to California’s Death Row, to the Barbican, Tower Bridge, Royal Academy, Trafalgar Square, and up a ladder to screw a lightbulb into the sky. She also thinks she is a sheep.
Dolly’s creativity aims to put sanity over her lap and slap its naughty arse. She will do this for your delight at Daisyfest, using poetry, art, comedy and sheep.
For my own part, as well as having the delight of compering the words that defy normality, I am planning to run a poetry sharing workshop earlier in the day as part of Daisyfest’s programme of free daytime events.
Most people dabble in poetry at some point in their lives. Some of us turn to writing poetry during difficult times in our lives as an outlet for deep-seated fears and anxieties. Some of us use poetry as an alternative way of recording feelings about people or events that are important to us, or as an alternative way of keeping a diary.
For others poetry can be the most direct form of self-expression when the creative urge takes hold. It doesn’t have to be precious or academic. It can simply be a rewarding way of giving voice to the value we attach to our lives. For disabled people in particular, poetry can often be a lifeline because poetry allows us the space to say things that are often negated, misconstrued or disallowed.
This workshop will be an opportunity to gain confidence through sharing poetry and getting feedback from others.
The journalist Matthew Parris has a bit of a thing about ‘usefulness’ as an important human trait. When interviewed by disability activist and wheelchair user Baroness Jane Campbell on BBC Radio 4’s first Today programme of 2016, he branded her as “a clearly useful person” because of her place in the House of Lords.
Parris makes his politics clear. His recent article in the Spectator was headed: ‘Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended’ meaning, of course, the lives of disabled people: not ‘good’ disabled people like Baroness Campbell who contribute by virtue of being part of the Establishment, but ‘bad’ disabled people who are deemed by the media circus to ‘cost money’.
According to Parris, legislation supporting assisted suicide is of no consequence: “the Darwinian struggle for survival” means that “tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper.” His argument is that the acceptance of assisted suicide will come in only a matter of time. He believes that we will learn to elect to end our lives, because history has taught us “that suicide can be a fine and noble thing”.
But did Darwin believe that ‘natural selection’ was dependent on life being able to compete as is understood by the ideology invested in the term ‘survival of the fittest’?
Dr Ju Gosling takes a critical look at Darwin’s theories and their impact on society in her book ‘Abnormal: How Britain Became Body Dysphoric and the key to a cure’. She concludes that a generally accepted misunderstanding of Darwin’s ideas, “appropriated by economists and politicians to give scientific credibility to the field of eugenics”, is responsible for “the biggest impact of all on the way in which we view our bodies today.” P.25
Gosling goes on to explain that by ‘fitness to survive’ Darwin meant the flexibility within species to be able to adapt to their environment. By ‘natural selection’ he meant for example, that “a species that had a thick coat during an ice age was likely to develop a thinner coat during a period when the earth was hotter, or it would become extinct…”
“All of this natural selection depended on there being as wide a range of attributes to choose from as possible, underlining the importance of continuing diversity within a species.” P.26
Living in harmony with other members the species and being physically suited to an environment are critical qualities on the journey towards adaptation. Darwin had little truck with theories of ‘biological determinism’ that were attached to his scientific research, often used to support the beliefs of eugenicists that “humans could be ‘improved’ by allowing only the strongest, sanest, fittest and brightest people to reproduce.” P.27
Going back to Parris’s article, his concept of “the Darwinian struggle for survival” is deeply flawed and far too simplistic to bear relation to what Darwin wrote and believed.
The notion of what and who is ‘useful’ is very subjective and a dangerous imperative. As Quentin Crisp said: “everyone knows the uses of the useful; but no-ones knows the uses of the useless.”
I’m sure that Baroness Campbell sees her ‘usefulness’ to society in very different terms to Parris. On the Today programme she said: “The world is still a barrier to disabled people, but there is an even bigger battle about perception; people thinking of disabled people in terms of the welfare system. You’re either a benefit scrounger or an Olympian.”
Over the last 15 years, society’s attitudes have shifted ever further towards equating the value of human life with monetary worth. Poverty has often been regarded at different periods in history as a sin. During Darwin’s time eugenicists regarded poverty as a crime, rather than a consequence of circumstance.
When, for example as reported recently in The Independent, the Department of Work and Pensions is able to get away with spending more taxpayers’ money on punitive fit-to-work assessments designed to punish disabled people than the programme is actually set to save, then we can see that vested interests are shoring up an insistence that impairment is to be feared and eradicated. It also becomes clear that the argument of economic necessity actually bears little relation to the facts.
Baroness Campbell dedicated a fair bit of the Today programme she edited in reviewing the changes in attitudes 20 years on from the Disability Discrimination Act. “The predominant attitude [then] was pity; that’s still there, but at the time we were not visible in society; not on the streets, not in jobs, not in schools. That’s changed, but we’ve a long, long way to go.”
And there lies the rub. Institutions have closed down and we are more visible, but the reality is that society is scared of what disabled people represent.
I’m not usually a fan of crime drama, but last week BBC One’s ‘Silent Witness’ proved an insightful and entertaining watch. It carried a storyline exemplifying ways in which it is now understood that that fear could manifest.
The first two episodes of the new series followed the investigation of two murders made to look like suicide by the perpetrator. On establishing that both individuals had terminal illnesses, forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery (played by the fabulous Liz Carr - read our recent interview with her here) questions whether the killer saw the murders as “acts of mercy”. The plot later revealed that the motive was revenge, but the storyline suggests the scriptwriters understood how attitudes towards disability have moved further towards ideas of eradication over cure.
Disability is understood in terms of deficit, and the value of disabled peoples’ lives is always going to be in question as long as the attitudes that underline those values persist. But where do you draw the line on who is and isn’t ‘of use’ to society? Who decides? In the current climate there is a dangerous idea that there is a simple equation for what is or isn’t a productive life – centred around monetary worth. And there is a narrow band of members in society whose say counts.
But are asset speculators useful to the continuation of the human race? Are the genes of reality television hosts essential to healthy cultural values? Many would (perhaps justifiably) see the bleating of the middle classes not as ‘culture’ and ‘art’, but as an essentially useless activity. Should we simply euthanise these ‘useless’ people and their pursuits? The idea seems preposterous. Unfortunately, to many like Parris, the idea is not so ridiculous when it comes to disabled peoples' lives.
In thinking about my round-up of the highlights of 2015 there are several events that stand out and a changing climate, culturally and politically, which are having an impact on the evolving beast that is disability arts.
Last March, and for the third year running, SICK! Festival presented its increasingly influential showcase simultaneously in Brighton and Manchester. Branded as a festival that confronts the physical, mental and social challenges of life and death this years’ theme was sex and sexuality, abuse and suicide.
One of the pieces that stood out for me was Sue MacLaine’s ‘Can I Start Again Please?’, which was commissioned by SICK! and launched at the festival. The show received much acclaim from the press and won a Total Theatre award during its run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Presented as a duo with Nadia Nadarajah mirroring MacLaine’s poetic script in BSL, the performance was like a Vermeer painting come to life and choreographed with delicate precision. A hymn to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of abuse, the piece reflects on the paucity of a useful language to articulate traumatic experience.
Also in March, the provocatively named Awkward Bastards conference produced by DaSh at the mac in Birmingham shed light on critical issues relating to the Arts and Diversity. There are no easy answers to the problematic of identifying with any single ‘characteristic’. “How do you fit content of character into a quota?” Skinder Hundal asked, echoing a general sense of disillusion with labelling one’s work or one's self as anything. Yet still the question remains of how to make the invisible corners of Art practice visible.
Election night in May was made memorable by a performance by Jess Thom of Touretteshero’s, ‘Backstage in Biscuitland’. If you know Jess’s work you’ll know she has a unique capacity to improvise. Learning that “Nigel Farage is at home washing his tortoise” was actually an immense comfort in the face of the misery of the inevitable outcome of the vote.
Originally an R&D commission from Unlimited in 2014, ‘BIBL’ as it’s affectionately known on Twitter, went on to receive five star reviews at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the UK tour is set to extend until May 2016. In November Jess presented a version of the show for BBC4 as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Live from Television Centre broadcast and she got 3 million views on Russell Howard’s Good News on BBC Two. I had the privilege of interviewing Jess shortly before the airing on television.
In April Dao’s own Trish Wheatley and Alice Holland worked with Liz Crow during the production of her live performance piece 'Figures' highlighting the impact of austerity on our community. Trish interviewed the artist and Alice blogged about her involvement with the project, illustrating the power of art as activism. Perhaps Disability Arts is not dead, but like the clay figures Crow made for her performance, has been crumbled to nothing, waiting to re-emerge?
In June, I went to see Sanchita Islam’s astoundingly beautiful artwork at Rich Mix in East London. Imagine some of the most popular artists from the history of Art collaborating on producing 25 foot long scrolls using ink and pen. You’ll find elements of Da Vinci, Bosch, Breugel, Dali and a myriad of others intricately hidden amongst a seamless cacophony of elaborate detail. Using the event to launch her book 'Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too' - published under the pseudonym Q S Lam. Despite falling into a medical-model approach, the artist presents a much-needed critique of psychiatry from a personal perspective.
Four months later and I’m still recovering from my week at the Edinburgh Festival. It was hugely enjoyable and I got to see loads of amazing work, but the high octane engagement necessary to cope with the city is not conducive for someone like me, coping with ME/CFS. This year we saw Unlimited take off at Edinburgh with a plethora of artists with Unlimited awards showcasing work as part of the iF Platform and the British Council showcase within the Fringe Festival.
My most memorable encounter was with newcomer to Disability Arts, Rowan James. A part of StopGap's iF Platform, the spoken word performer’s 'It's Easy For You To Say' was not one of the most polished or well-staged pieces in the festival, but it certainly came across with the most passion; at turns humorous, engaging and biting when it came to making comment on the impact of ‘labeling’, serving as a critique of Disability Arts in a disabling world.
The year's 'Consumption Award' for theatre riddled with disabling stereotypes goes to 'Kill Me Now' at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Displaying the most abject humour it was an example of the kind of theatre that should be shot down as soon as it rears its vituperative head. Thankfully, the theatre director Jez Bond listened to disabled people's complaints and elected to commission work from within the sector later in the year. He programmed Deafinitely Theatre for a run of their piece 'Grounded' during November, reviewed by Dao’s new-ish recruit Joe Turnbull.
At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Williamson at the Shape gallery during a showing of the ‘furniture’ he’s created for his Demonstrating the World Unlimited commission. When the first outing of the live performance took place in November at the Experimentica Festival in Cardiff, Chloe Phillips gave it a considered response.
Choosing a blog post of the year is tricky. There have been so many erudite, funny or touching posts from all the artists using Dao as a blogging platform. But I think the question that Sophie Partridge raised again about the emphasis on impairment rather than disability, which has been a hallmark of the work shown this year past, is something that needs further and deeper discussion.
There have been benefits. Much of what’s been shown has had a focus for attention on the creation of innovative access – partly down to some of the pioneering work done by Unlimited. Another of the Unlimited R&D Artists, Chloe Phillips was a real find. Her research into audio-description as part of the creation of a piece of work with Taking Flight theatre is going to result in some interesting if not hilarious theatre next year.
From a small award, in part motivated by Jess Thom being refused entrance to theatres because of impairment issues, she has gone on to challenge theatre makers, directors and producers to think about the creative uses of ‘relaxed performance’. Backstage in Biscuitland has been an example of how art can be a real catalyst for change.
On the other hand – in tandem with a plethora of performance and theatre that tells our stories of impairment – is a careering back to medical model language.
This year has seen an explosion of a return to the use of the tongue-twisting phrase ‘people with disabilities’. As though the Social Model never happened. As though we are forever doomed to be objects for scrutiny in the eyes of non-disabled people, defined as containers like Pandora’s Box – emblems of everything that’s wrong in the world.
There was a clear end to what we saw as Disability Arts at the beginning of the 2000’s – a move from an activist phase of work that sought to challenge discrimination in a pro-active way, made by and for us. The last 15 years has seen the emergence of work looking to challenge perceptions and prejudices. In the last few years we’ve seen much professionally produced work with more money behind it to make it more presentable to wider audiences. But also there has been more of a sense of fragmentation and less of a sense of what Disability Arts is for. Disability Pride seems to have taken a fall before it even had a chance to raise its head.
The issues Sophie raises need further questioning because we have entered a new phase. It hasn’t quite defined itself, but is marked by the closure of the ILF last June and the caps on Access to Work, which will continue to make it harder and harder for disabled people to continue paid employment.
For Dao, we look forward to some much-needed improvements to the site next year. From the team, Trish, Joe, Alice and myself, we wish you all the best for the holiday season and look forward to engaging with you all again in 2016.
On the uses of art and polemic in theatre.. Howard Barker and Patrick Marmion battling it out in the same theatre...
I went to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston the other night and was dazzled by an unexpected encounter with Howard Barker - considered one of the major writers of modern European theatre. I found myself in the 'wrong' studio as Barker began holding court about the state of Theatre in the UK: “The best thing British Theatre could do would be to get rid of the English,” he said, lamenting the utilitarian approach to the Arts evident in this country; “and probably something to do with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism.”
Barker railed against the idea that Art needs to be ‘for’ or ‘about’ anything and the need to justify the ‘use’ of what you produce as evidence for any funding application. And although it is evident (to me at least) that the utilitarian approach is a cornerstone of why and how Disability Arts has been awarded the success it has within the Arts funding system here over the last 25 years, I have sympathy with Barker’s concerns that proving ‘a use’ can be a death knell for creativity. In Europe there is no conflict about Art needing 'a purpose' and so Barker talked about five of his plays being produced in the Parisien equivalent of the National Theatre with no more reason other than that “the Director likes the work.”
Here, Arts production is more often driven by what mainstream theatre directors thinks their audience wants rather than programming what interests them aesthetically and artistically. For me, Patrick Marmion’s evocation of the life and times of psychiatrist Ronald Laing: ‘The Divided Laing’ - seen later in the same theatre - seemed to me an example of a play written and produced for a specific zeitgeist.
Alan Cox’s reinvigoration of the spirit of R.D. Laing, bête-noir of the psychiatric profession is immensely enjoyable. With an uncanny physical resemblance Cox effortlessly expounds Laing’s views on so-called mental illness: “Schizophrenia is a word for people who don’t fit… or who find it impossible to be themselves,” and “You can’t cure people who are not sick.”
But, ultimately the play is a reimagining of Laing alive and well in 2015, (played by Kevin McMonagle) as a clinician at the Maudsley, having “sold out” as a witting proponent for the previously reviled ‘Medical Model’.
Through its telling Marmion’s The Divided Laing undermines the very questions about the medical model that Laing raised and denies the impact of Laing’s ideas on the purpose of psychiatry as a tool for understanding the soul.
With recent questions about the ‘cure’ of Peter Sutcliffe, infesting the Media with explanations for ‘schizophrenia’ and the all-pervasive lies about anti-psychotic medication as the answer to ‘mental illness’ I left the theatre thinking about Barker’s stance against naturalism and the dangers of theatre that takes a polemical stance on the ’truth’, dressed up as entertainment.
As clinical psychologist Rufus May wrote to me via twitter recently: “the term schizophrenic is offensive and misleading,” yet, so Marmion tells us in the Divided Laing, recent research has proved elements of the theory of genetic inheritance and advances have proved that schizophrenia can be treated with medication.
It is all a matter of conjecture, depending on what reports you read and which publications you believe. The Critical Psychiatry Network and the likes of US journalist Robert Whitaker would clearly take exception to Marmion’s script.
In contrast to Marmion, Ridiculusmus’s David Woods and Jon Haynes when researching a play about psychosis they intended to write, they travelled to Finland to meet Dr Jaakko Seikkula, author of the Open Dialogue approach, which draws from R. D. Laing’s ideas, sharing the premise that the symptoms of psychosis are intelligible responses to difficult aspects of life’s experience. Commissioned by Sick! Festival in March 2014, ‘The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland’ uses a counter-intuitive form of naturalism, designed to unsettle any notion of reality, rather than to create an illusion of reality.
The intention of the artist is everything. Marmion set out to prove Laing wrong, where Woods and Haynes set out to illustrate a state of mind. As a mirror Art can be used in many ways. Perhaps defining those ways is a necessary evil or perhaps Barker is right and creativity rather than structure is the key to good art? As Quentin Crisp said famously "everyone knows the uses of the useful, but no-one knows the uses of the useless.'
Sheila Hill’s Him was a favourite in the Unlimited showcase at Summerhall in Edinburgh earlier this year. Aside from the quality of the work as a piece of art, the content seemed relevant to me, personally, partly because the panoply of impairment issues I deal with on a daily basis are steadily presenting new challenges as time goes by.
Choreographed into short sections ‘Him’ is a portrait of actor Tim Barlow meditating on life in older age. The short film combines the warmth and engagement of theatre with the fineness and subtlety of the visual arts.
It cuts against the grain of cultural preconceptions about ageing, presenting Barlow’s take on things in a natural and seamless series of head-shots. By observing the face from the perspective of a landscape, ‘Him’ seems to transcend age.
I’d been looking forward to seeing Hill’s follow-up film with Hugo Glendinning on camera. Glendinning’s images of disability theatre and dance will surely be the most enduring photographic record of the movement over the last 20 years or so, given their quality and dynamism.
Shown during a panel discussion on Men and Ageing in the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival, Him II takes some of the conventions in the first piece and extends the themes. As contemplation on ageing and death the film is a reassuring piece of work: a reminder that you get out of life what you put into it.
The piece strikes a series of dissonant tones, contrasting images of Barlow dancing to Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ with reflections on parental relationships and his first major encounter with death at the age of five.
Do any of us ever really grow up? Or decide who we want to be when we grow up? Him II caused me to reflect on what I’d like to do with the time spent in the country where Older people, live.
When I was younger I always imagined that it would be unlikely I’d reach a retirement age given the fragility of the circumstances I found myself in. And yet now I’m well into my 50s it seems sensible to plan for what I could be doing, given the likelihood of reaching my 70s.
Themes from the first film are taken further philosophically forcing the viewer to engage with silence through a series of frames in which we watch Barlow, watching himself, in the moment. Counter-intuitive, Him II turns the convention of film as escapism on its head and – for a short while at least – asks the viewer to contemplate the here and now.
But more than anything I loved the idea of being a ‘happy dancer’ to coin the term of an elderly member of the panel at the Southbank Centre who talked about dancing with Amici and Entelechy Dance companies.
A warm slice of Barlow’s personality shines through in the dance scenes. I think I know what I want to do when I grow up, now.
I was invited to be part of the SICK! Festival Thematic Advisory group and recently attended a meeting at The Manchester Museum with a large group of academics, theatre producers/ makers and representatives of Arts and Health organisations.
The purpose of the thematic Advisory Group was to help shape the focus and content of SICK! Festival in 2017. With broad provocations on themes of identity and selfhood the day was full of engaged and passionate discussion focusing on art and philosophical issues encompassing what could broadly be construed as ‘mental health’ within a plethora of conversations about life, art and everything between. Key to the discussion were questions around ethnicity, class, sexuality and gender.
Identities are not coherent, fixed or singular but constantly in negotiation internally and externally. How does the question of ‘who am I?’ impact on the dynamic relationship between the individual and their social context?
I introduced myself as Disabled by Psychiatry since for me the battle with the unthinking bogus Science that calls itself Psychiatry is central to my life and identity. Mental Health and the Medical Model are inextricably bound together, yet within the Survivors Movement there is a lack of connection or understanding of the Social Model of Disability. There is a question not only of how useful a disabled identity is but how authentic we are in defining ourselves in that or any other way?
I treasure my experience of visual and auditory hallucinations including the distressing aspects of my experience. I resent that experience being labelled as a ‘mental illness’. I have been more disturbed by what I’ve seen Psychiatry do to people with its drugs and intimidatory tactics than the problem of dealing with difficult mental states. But without a coherent broader narrative based on peoples’ lived experience a more scientific understanding of how mental health and consciousness are linked becomes impossible.
Ian Parker, academic, psychoanalyst, and editor talked about a Hearing Voices network meeting where the relationship with an external consciousness was described in positive ways by Survivors.
For a long time, the Survivor Movement has been advocating that what what people experiencing altered states need, is time, space and understanding, rather than the host of problems that come with medication. Psychiatry must needs present itself as an authority but Psychiatry itself is prone to what academic Jackie Stacy talked about as the gap between authenticity and reality.
In my mind there seems to be an oppositional thing happening in that the more peoples’ identities are medicalised the more limits are placed on the will towards transcending the constraints of our identities and understanding of who we are. We can only find ourselves - the personhood or selfhood that arises through touching our core self - by testing our identities through relationship; the fragmented selves that knit together and overlap as we learn to develop the multiplicity of worlds that we move between.
US Journalist Robert Whitaker (author of 'Mad in America' and ‘Anatomy of an Epidemic’) writes using psychiatry's own statistics on how dangerous and ineffective neuroleptic drugs are. The statistics for dependancy and low age expectancy for those who get caught up in the system are criminal.
As identities evolve in our increasingly global and digitally-manufactured society so do the kinds of scripts we learn or are imposed on us, which locate our identity with our mood. Daily Life Ltd’s Roving Diagnostic Unit has excelled in applying psychiatric labels to everyday situations: apply the ridiculous to the mundane and you come up with a park bench with an anxiety disorder.
This is a personal response with a few reflections on what came out of the day, which was a far more wide-ranging discussion than I’ve attempted to write about here. It was thought-provoking and challenging as indeed Sick! Festival has proved itself to be over the last 3 years.
Sick! Festival kicks off with a series of SICK! Lab events in Manchester from 9-12 March 2016, with a fuller festival planned for 2017.
Coming back from the Creative Minds conference in Ipswich I was mulling over the day's discussion about 'quality' and remembered how six years ago I had the privilege of sitting in on a theatre-devising workshop with Australian theatre company Back to Back. It was very different from anything I’d experienced with learning-disability arts organisations in the UK.
Their community company ‘Theatre of Speed’ were being asked to express something about family relationships and share pieces of dialogue. One of the members became upset because they’d been reminded of a loved one who’d died. They wanted to leave the workshop but were encouraged to stay with the emotion and work with it.
The artistic director, Bruce Gladwin was clear in his respect for the person’s feelings but was keen that the actor remained present, despite the difficulty of being immersed in grief. It was clear that ‘quality’ for Back to Back was a serious matter.
As Gladwin said at the time: “The underlying approach at Back to Back stems from the idea that the truth is the best starting point for creating a compelling piece of theatre. That starting point is to delve deep to find out from the performers what they want to express. What stories they want to tell.”
Jez Colborne of Mind the Gap pointed out in the Creative Minds debate about ‘quality’ that assumptions are often made of what people with learning difficulties can and can’t do. Gladwin was clearly not putting any limitations on the company’s expectations. There were clear ground rules in place to support the actors to express themselves on stage – as themselves – rather than trying to emulate an idealised ‘norm’.
Some people might have seen Back to Back as misguided or even cruel. Demands were being made, without concession, in the way a theatre company might make demands of any actor. The expectation was that the people in the workshop were actors, coming from the standpoint that an artist brings everything, all of their experience, to what they do on stage.
Gladwin was looking for authenticity from his troupe and demanding they live up to their own expectations to be taken seriously as actors. That surely is what makes for ‘quality’ in theatre.
It's Easy For You To Say: Rowan James and the emergence of 'impairment-laden' work by disabled artists
I recently caught an ITV news item celebrating the “ordinary heroes of Britain.” An eight-year-old disabled child was put on the spot for being ‘inspirational’ for completing a triathlon. It was notable because the lad was much too sharp to be fooled by media patronising bollocks: “I don’t even know why I’ve won an award. Anyone could do it.” His response caused immediate embarrassment to the news presenter and to the boy's father and he was promptly put in his place. [He was true Laurence Clark in the making.]
It seems that the tragic but brave stereotype just won’t go away. Meanwhile for many of us – especially those of us with invisible impairments – the need to shape up and prove our disability status is growing.
At the end of August I saw Rowan James's excellent spoken word piece ‘Easy For You To Say’. An antidote to the plethora of confessional-style, impairment-fixated work in Edinburgh; it is a raging comment on what a short distance we’ve travelled in our attempts to be a more inclusive society. It begins as a meditation on normality: “What do you need to be ‘normal’, a 3-piece suite, a subscription to Netflix, a body that’s perfect…”
With a combination of beatbox and rap the performance rises to a crescendo, ranting on the exigencies of labeling. Rowan’s generation have grown up with the tick-box system. It’s refrain is clearly anathema – an excuse for bureaucracies to dodge any real, effective inclusion of disabled people (or for that matter women, people from black or minority ethnic racial backgrounds, or gay people) by replacing the needs of individuals with the self-satisfaction of meaningless statistics – certainly within the education system.
But then with poor statistics for inclusion in every sector, you wonder what’s going on? It can seem as if the point of equality forms is to advertise a failure of society to do anything but marginalise people with ‘protected characteristics’: even the Equality Act (2010) term reeks of kindergarten.
The essential piece of equipment – the ‘necessary evil’ – in the game of tick-box is the ‘Equality Monitoring Form’. Rowan asks his audience to respond to the categories before going on to self-define: what labels would we choose for ourselves and for each other?
There’s a level of basic dignity and respect that is tested as soon as you are asked to identify as one thing or another. The caveat ‘prefer not to say’, seems to say everything about the context of what the form really means.
The question is where do we draw the lines? How do we build a context for meaningful inclusion: “where’s the line and whose line is it anyway?”
In her recent blog Sophie Partridge raised the question of why disabled artists seem more impelled to “'spill the beans' about impairment?” Even a decade ago, entering into ‘Medical Model’ territory, was actively discouraged by the sector. There is so much prodding and poking and the question of ownership of one’s body and the right to say ‘fuck off’ to non-disabled people who assume they’ve a right to a piece of you, is an issue.
But equally, if you present as a non-disabled person, and there are edges, then you will be judged and will be the object of discrimination. Unless that is, you go through the obstacle course of explaining your impairment issues. And so perhaps a reason for artists like Jess Thom to hand out medical details is to counteract the ill-advised, if not downright ignorant assumptions about what it means to have a particular impairment or illness.
And lastly there have been a lot of advances in technology, which has meant that for many, the medical model has presented the possibility of adaptation, rather than the mantra of ‘cure at all costs’, which was the stance a decade ago. It seems as if research into assistive technologies is broadening the scope to make music, perform, write, drive, achieve a host of functions, which would have been impossible even a decade ago.
The problem with the Medical Model approach has always been to do with the distribution of power… our lives in the hands of ‘professionals’ whose understanding is based on their prejudices rather than our needs. But the question is, has the Medical Model changed in the last ten years of emphasis on facilitating adaptation, rather than working to effect ‘cure’?
In order to get the access (to education, to work, to transport, to health etc. etc.) we need, we have to explain ourselves… and there is still the risk that what we say will be judged negatively; that our attempts to explain will still be patronised. From my own experience I know that making work about mental health issues always elicits responses of fear and loathing. It seems to go with the territory, no matter that the context for expression is a challenge to the taboos, it seems inevitable that it will be misunderstood.
There isn’t a conclusion, except to say it is more understandable for artists to talk about impairment in the current climate where key obstacles are less about the oppression of being subject to cure, and more how to survive.
Rowan James ended his piece on a note of hope and restitution. Equality is subject to cynicism, but equally, it’s an ideal worth holding on to. “Our quirks make us real… our commonality, solidarity… We steer our own lives through good times and bad nights… all people are equal. It may not be easy for us to say, we are the same.”
Last night the Free Word Centre in Holborn played host to writers from the Creative Future Literary Award ceremony reading poetry and prose pieces on the theme of ‘impossible things’. With support from Lemn Sissay and Maggie Gee and prizes of cash and mentoring from the Literary Consultancy the room buzzed with interpretations of the idea of ‘impossibility’: everything from Catherine Edmunds inanimate furniture to Peter Jordan’s ever-expanding warrior.
I was struck by the affectionate portrait of Jackie Hagan’s ‘Edna’: a character whose impossible spirit cannot fail to invigorate. Edna features in Jackie’s one-woman show 'Some People Have Too Many Legs', which is a must-see when it tours again this winter.
For Lemn Sissay compering the evening there is something “freeing” about the self-selection process for the CF Awards, reaching out to marginalised and disabled writers. Self-selection as ‘disabled’ has always been a tenet of the Disability Arts Movement, but any kind of labelling has its drawbacks. There are valid criticisms of the processes of both the definition and the self-selection of an identity.
Rowan James’ spoken word show ‘Easy For You To Say’ that Dao helped get to Edinburgh with a crowdfunding campaign (brilliantly produced by Alice Holland) is a rhythmic and poetic look at the insufferable excesses of the ‘tick box’ system. Essentially tick boxes allow bureaucracies to dodge any real, effective inclusion of disabled people by replacing the needs of individuals with the self-satisfaction of meaningless statistics.
Allowing individuals to self-select gets around the artificiality of imposing definitions as one thing or another: it’s up to the individual person to say what or who they are; to own their identity, rather than it being imposed from without. But it’s important to bear in mind that ’being disabled’ is a tautology. It is not an embodiment, not something that’s ‘wrong’ with the person, but a social construct that says something profound about the way society is organised.
The aim of programmes like Creative Future Literary Awards is to reach out to creative people who don’t have the kinds of privileges owned by writers with a degree of financial backing, reputation and access to the ‘gatekeepers’… Creative Future offers an alternative route to being published or maybe just encouragement to realise the value of being creative. I know from personal experience how a little bit can go a long way.
The key to Creative Futures’ success in attracting more than double the number of entries this year is their focus, above all, on creativity and the purpose writing serves to widen the horizon and open up the opportunity to make the impossible, possible. As Maggie Gee eloquently put it: “writing is a break for freedom, a run into the light, a rebellion and the chance to put into words what it feels dangerous to speak.”
For a copy of the anthology ‘Impossible Things’ or to find out more about the Creative Future Literary Awards go to http://www.cfliteraryawards.org.uk
The Live Art Development Agency launch a book and DVD of Katherine Araniello's 'Dinner Party Revisited'
There are only a few days left to view Katherine Araniello’s ‘Dinner Party Revisited’ on the Live Art Development Agencies ‘LADA Screens’ platform. The audio-described version of the Dinner Party Revisited is a good example of using creative description to add another layer within a work of art - taking it beyond documentation and allying with the performance’s intention to use humour to convey subversive ideas.
The describer comes alive as another ‘invisible’ guest at the party, using her role to add nuances in describing the interactions between the host Katherine, her butler, the PA and the BSL interpreter. As the party unfolds, Katherine and the butler invite their ’guests’ , a series of on-screen incarnations of Katherine; conceptual portraits of disabled people.
LADA who have been producing Katherine’s work have launched a book of essays about Katherine’s work with a DVD of the live art piece, which was originally staged in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre a year ago. Sophie Partridge described the Dinner Party Revisited as “slapstick, served up with hints of past comedy genius: touches of a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore style interplay between Katherine and `the PA’!”
Mik Scarlett also reviewed the piece in the Huffington Post as: “an anarchic art performance with a serious heart. While the audience laughs as the show rushes forward at break neck speed we unconsciously find our preconceptions and stereotypes challenged by references to the real day to day experiences of disabled people. Each nightmare 'guest' is a hideous caricature of people every disabled audience member knows all too well. No one is safe. Paralympians, disability activists, professional victims, charity loving celebs…”
In an interview, Unlimited producer Jo Verrent “loved the audacity of Katharine Araniello’s piece, The Dinner Party Revisited. It’s political, in your face, raw, edgy live art.”
A 46 min edit of the AD version of the film will be live until midnight on 23rd September on the LADA Screens channel.
Unveiled in the same week that the UK government scrapped the Independent Living Fund (ILF), a debate about the artistic merit of Damien Hirst’s 'Charity' (2003 - 2004) ignited on Dao’s FB group.
A 22-foot painted bronze likeness of a Spastics Society (Scope) charity collection box from the 1960's-1970’s depicting a sad disabled child, the press lauded it as a statement about disability rights and exclusion. Why? Because in Hirst’s depiction, the giant charity box has been prized open with a crow bar and it's contents stolen. It's lazy art for lazy people lacking imagination or any understanding of disability representation.
As Mark Harrison commented on FB: “Art business & disability business - match made in heaven... both making money from crips.”
In response artists Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven decided to set up a fake artisan pickled gherkin stall, 'The Golden Gherkin', beside the 'Charity' sculpture installed next to 'The Gherkin' building in central London.
“Come and get your juicy, cheeky gherkin, all in the name of charity… spastic disabled gherkins made on Damien Hirst’s disabled farm…. Free. Dig down deep. £78… Hard to stomach.. Free gherkins.”
You can see edited highlights below. The joke is clearly lost on most city workers who walk past in a hurry. To my mind the dark humour here sums up the cynicism of the city and the corporate art it supports.
Although apparently one man did donate a pound, so maybe all is not lost.
I arrived at the Liberty Festival in the Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford with that M.E. glow, swollen glands and throbbing head in a howling freezing wind and lashing rain, thinking “what am I doing here?” By the early evening I left with that Liberty love thing that keeps me going back year on year.
Liberty has always been about a sense of community and grass roots, which has been helped in recent years by the association with Together! who presented an afternoon of music and poetry.
Michelle Baharier from Cooltan Arts read a moving tribute poem to the life of a friend who ended their life as a result of austerity policies.
And Allan Sutherland did a few poems from his forthcoming poetry collection ‘Difficult People’, which to my mind is an astute way of summing up how disabled people are represented by the media and press, generally. Inherent in the idea of us being ‘difficult’ are the reasons for how and why we continue to be marginalised. The poem ends on a typical Sutherland tongue-in-cheek cliff-hanger:
Just getting rid of us
Is what you’d like to do
Which gives us a lot in common -
We ‘d like to get rid of you.
Yes, Liberty is a watered down version of what it was when it was held in Trafalgar Square and the association with Disability Sport is incongruous because of its rootedness in a medical model of disability. And call me naive but I always thought being Mayor of a town was a job like any other, not an event brand.
However, in terms of politics with a small ‘p’, there’s still something of value about an event at which disabled people come together to share their arts and culture in a public arena…
Considering the weather and the fact Liberty’s been moved to a Sunday, guaranteeing transport routes will be out of action and PAs and carers will be in short supply, it was amazing that a reasonable crowd turned up at all.
I’d been excited about Sonic Vistas as Ivan Riches has been blogging on Dao about his motley band of assisted music technology performance artistes for a while. It was a raw and unpolished performance, but a lot of fun all the same. Kris Halpin looked super cool, playing power chords on air guitar using MiMu Gloves. The loveable Mik Scarlett, star of synth pop, reminded us that nothing about us should be without us, and the equally loveable Sophie Partridge took us home on the night train.
This year we were given a range of excellent world music with the incomparable Baluji Shrivastrav, the versatile Hassan Eraji and headliners Mbongwana Star. With an irrepressible jive style style the 7-piece band have a unique sound melding African and western rock styles of music with bass lines incorporated into the playing of rhythm guitar.
I’d been keen to see the latest circus theatre offering with Jamie Bedard and John Kelly as part of Extraordinary Bodies - a partnership between Cirque Bijou & Diverse City. It looked like the weather had stopped play, but in the spirit of true troopers they decided to go ahead anyway.
The wind clearly limited how much they could do on the huge aerial platform - a ladder, come bridge/ boat structure held in place using counterweights. The narrative told the story of an escape from home by an adventurous daughter leaving behind a distraught family. A chase was played out as the structure turned 360 degrees, held by a supporting frame.
It was the kind of spectacle that Greenwich and Docklands International Festival who produced the event, are famous for. And John Kelly was in great voice with a range of ballads and rock songs telling the story of a young woman in search of colour and excitement.
Unfortunately the rain started again and rather than risking the electric guitarist going up in sparks the performance had to close mid-way, with the offer of hearing a finale with the Southwark community choir under cover in the nearest tent.
Overall it was a great day out, despite everything. I’d love to have seen more… so if it goes ahead again next year it’s certain I’ll be there…
Logging on to Dao’s FB group can be a reminder that we are living in a regressive period where Disability Politics is concerned. It can often feel as though the Social Model understanding of our lives as disabled people has taken several steps backwards.
The Dao FB group has grown to nearly 3,700 members, increasingly attracting individuals from every corner of the globe. It’s an open forum with an increasing number of posts, linking to journals and blogs that present a dilemma in advocating stories of ‘overcoming’ disability or ‘normalising’ disability.
Two recent examples, Beyond Disability and The Department of Ability represent some of the flotsam attracted to the group to promote stories about ‘triumphing over tragedy’ and being a ‘super-crip’ who just likes to have fun.
These people are well-meaning with good intentions. They are often non-disabled people who have a close relationship to disabled people. Personally I am fed up to the back teeth of being moulded in the image of someone who has triumphed over adversity. Is the expectation that you can be ‘more than’, any less oppressive than the expectation that you are ‘less than’?
Both extremes (pathetic victim/ supercrip) are all pervasive disability stereotypes that deserve, and need to be challenged. In his thesis ‘Does anybody like being disabled?’ Dr Colin Cameron quotes Charles Riley (2005): “the sadcrip/supercrip are two sides of the same coin, signifying impairment as a tragedy that needs to be overcome.”
Cameron goes on to say that “While the narratives of pathetic victim and plucky struggler appear superficially to be doing different things they are part of a single discourse identifying impairment as tragedy.”
The point is that impairment is ordinary, not special. Dealing with the difficulties that having an impairment brings is enough without having to negotiate a world which shuts you out by judging against definitions of what is ‘normal’.
I loved the work for DaDaFest exhibition, Niet Normaal that Andrew Tunney made with Laurence Clark a few years back. Super-Crip lampoons the image of the disabled hero confronting the ridiculousness of being so special with his power to switch impairment at will, playing on the stereotype that the loss of one sense, means the heightening of other senses.
The City of London laughs in the face of the plight of disabled people with the erection of a new/ old Damien Hirst monument
A statue by artist Damien Hirst which according to the Evening Standard “aims to challenge our prejudices around disability” was recently installed next to St. Helen’s Church and opposite the Gherkin in London’s Square Mile.
The seven-metre high sculpture, called Charity (2003), is a replica of a 1960s Spastic's Society charity collection box depicting a disabled young girl clutching a teddy bear and a collection tin.
The Standard goes on to say that Hirst said he “aims to question society's historical tradition of representing charity as a pitiful image.”
So, firstly you have to ask yourself, why? And at a time when disabled people are suffering more than any other community within society as a result of the increasing prejudice and discrimination being expounded by the media and government.
Both FAD Magazine and Artylst tell us that “Hirst’s Charity revolutionises the classical practice of elevating a noble subject, by selecting the dejected image of a disabled girl with her leg in a splint and depicting the charity box having been broken into.”
What utter drivel. And yet another example of 'disability' being used and exploited by the rich and powerful as a commodity for trafficking ideas and power. Since the 2012 Paralympics it seems that we have gone beyond 'disability'. We live in such an equal society now, apparently ‘disability’ no longer exists.
'Disability' has been written out of the benefit system. Access to Work has been cut and the Independent Living Fund is no more. And now, of course, we hear the government want to make further steps to legalise killing us off.
Yet Hirst deems it appropriate to celebrate the fact that the 'disability' begging box has been broken into and the few meagre pennies we had have been stolen, right in the middle of the biggest self-serving tax haven and money laundering centre in the world.
As a movement we’ve always given ‘pity’ bad press. Johnny Crescendo urged us to 'piss on pity' when it seemed we were fighting for a more just world. But society has gone so far in proving that any form of compassion is outmoded and that as a result society itself no longer exists.
We’re just a group of individuals stacked up against each other like pawns in a China shop, self-righteous about the need to throw away anyone who doesn’t justify their worth to the economy. Even then, the logic of throwing away the ILF and the Access to Work Scheme doesn’t bear thinking about. The amount of money wasted by disavowing disabled people from making a contribution through employing PAs, paying tax. etc. is sickening.
The first thing you realise is how utterly lacking in imagination Hirst and the producers of Sculpture in the City are. I mean, come on, a sentimental 1950s image of a young disabled girl begging in a short skirt. The crowbar and the scuffed appearance are probably reminders of how sick people got of these objects on the streets in the 1970s. My own memory is that they always stood, vandalised and broken into.
Simon Raven reminded us that by far the best artistic treatment of the charity-box pity theme was by Katherine Araniello who did an ironic imitation, collecting for the Sick Bitch Crips. (As an aside Araniello is performing in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on 25 July as part of One City One Day)
Simon also suggest a group coming together to organise a 'Beggars Banquet' event at the foot of the sculpture to address our concerns. Anyone else up for it?
It was great to see the news of the protests against the disbandment of the Independent Living Fund… I've always had a huge amount of respect and admiration for John Kelly and it was great to see him on the news singing 'Which Side Are You On My Boys'. Much warmth, respect and solidarity goes to all the protesters who stormed Parliament yesterday!
I think this cartoon by Dao cartoonist Crippen from 2012 says it all about how despicable the puppet figurehead of our overlords is.
This is no human being! This is a man who will use any emotional trick in the book to draw sympathy from an unthinking, drugged by TV, drugged by Gaming, populace into colluding with his death-dealing campaign against disabled people.
As the Black Triangle Campaign commented: “The use of one’s dead family members to push policies which amount to passive euthanasia must be unprecedented in British political history.”
We are pleased to be supporting Rowan James’ bid to raise £1500 to complete his debut Edinburgh Fringe run this year as part of the iF (Integrated Fringe) Platform.
Rowan and his team are seeking support to pay for their accommodation and food during their stay, plus production and technical support to make the show as professional and polished as it can be.
Rowan is a hip hop and punk-inspired poet diagnosed with a specific learning difficulty and speech impediment, often disabled by other people’s perceptions.
Marv Radio is a beatboxer with dexterous lips and an arsenal of sounds. With big beats and big words, and the rhythm of Rowan’s irregular heartbeat, they ask you to consider the effects of a society obsessed with normality.
In a world of normcore fashion and statistical averages, what’s so important about blending in? Commissioned by Cambridge Junction. Supported by Escalator Performing Arts. Part of Stopgap Dance Company’s iF Platform.
This Dao crowdfunding campaign is part of a Catalyst-supported fundraising experiment in partnership with Salisbury Arts Centre, The Point, Eastleigh and Stopgap.
We are looking for responses to our 2015 Reader Survey to get Your valuable feedback is absolutely vital for future development of the organisations and to help us to secure funding for future projects.
This year we are doing something a bit different. The questionnaire is completely anonymous because we want to gauge the temperature of feeling towards some of the major disability related arts programmes. We're also really excited to hear your thoughts on how we can improve Dao's website.
We want to gauge the temperature of how you see Dao and how you feel it is best placed to support the artistic endeavours of the disability arts sector.
We’ve asked for your impressions of what it is that Dao does and what content and style changes could be made that would improve your experience of the website?
We are also asking you to let us know what sort of partnerships we could make that would be invaluable for you to develop a career in the arts.
Dao is more than a website. In recent years we have given various talks at events and festivals, run poetry events and supported commissions to make new work. We also collaborate with other arts organisations and provide some consultancy for arts organisations as well as helping to promote festivals through media partnerships.
We connect people to artists and organisations; work with artists to develop and promote their projects, including named in kind support on funding bids, create volunteering opportunities and give informal mentoring through artists blogging. We have also run arts writing training programmes in the past.
We are not sure how aware people are of the range and extent of the work that our small team of people is engaged in or of what readers think generally of the work that we do.
It would assist us greatly if you can spare 15 minutes or so of your time to complete the Survey Monkey, which you can find by clicking here.
The Government's plans to do away with the Independent Living Fund (ILF) on 30th June are going to have an immense impact on many individuals Dao works with either directly or indirectly.
The ILF helps over 18,000 disabled people with high support needs to live independent lives in the community rather than in residential care. The fund was introduced in 1988 as the Conservative party at that time realised that supporting disabled people with personal care needs to live independent lives, in their own homes, was cheaper by far than residential care.
After June 2016 there will be no additional funding for already cash-strapped local authorities to meet their legal obligations. The LA’s budgets have already been cut by £991 million in 2011, £890 million in 2012, and they are being cut by a further 28% in 2013-15.
There is no overall scheme to ensure the safety of the people who depend on the ILF. The overall sense of what will happen is that LA’s will not be able to supply the budgets needed for disabled people to continue to have the same levels of PA support. Individuals will be left to fight for their support needs to be recognised.
The policy to scrap the ILF is not designed to save money. The implication is that most group 1 users will no longer be eligible for any funding due to tightening of local authority eligibility criteria. The average cost of the ILF is just £345 a week compared to the average cost of residential care being £738 a week.
This is a direct attack on disabled people designed to divide, weaken and destroy the spirit of an already fragmented community. More than 18,000 disabled people will lose an essential lifeline, devastating their quality of life.
Please write to your local MP, and sign the 38 Degree Petition
In a recent Guardian blog theatre critic Lyn Gardner quotes the late Chinese Communist leader, Mao Zedong: “Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, no matter how progressive they are politically.”
Gardner goes on to talk about ‘quality’ in relation to Disability Arts, specifically Learning Disability Arts and the Creative Minds conference, which took place in Bradford recently. Posted on the Dao FB group. It provoked a fair bit of response from a few Disability Arts old-timers, asking what Disability Arts? And what 'quality'?
Disability Arts as was died over a decade ago with little sign of a younger generation of disabled people picking up the mantle. For a time from the early noughties there was a concerted effort to improve inclusive education and to remove barriers to an arts education for disabled students.
But in the last five years there have been increasing barriers to arts education generally. According to the recent Warwick Commission report on the Future of Cultural Values, between 2003 and 2013 there was a 50% drop in GCSE entries for design and technology, 23% for drama and 25% for other craft-related subjects.
We have seen investment in the Disability Arts sector slowly whittled away over the last 15 years. The report goes on to to say that disabled people are largely invisible within the arts both as creatives and as consumers: “Only 1.6 per cent of artistic staff, 2.8% of managers and 3.9% of Board Members within the 2012–15 National Portfolio Organisations and Major partner museums consider themselves disabled.
Not surprisingly the value of the idea of organisations and projects being disabled-led has all but disappeared. We’ve seen a rise in a few individual disabled arts practitioners finding a place within the mainstream, but largely Disability Arts as an expression of our experience of disability and what it means to live in a disabling society has disappeared.
Unlimited is one of the few remaining initiatives commissioning work of artistic quality whilst holding on to a vestige of the political intent that Disability Arts set as a challenge to the discriminatory values of non-disabled society. And it appears Unlimited within its limited capacity, is having some effect.
For over a decade I’ve complained year on year of the lack of programming of disabled artists in Brighton Festival. But this year with Ali Smith as Guest Artistic Director, there is record amount of performing and visual arts being programmed - and no pro-assisted suicide theatre, which the Brighton Fringe has showcased, in recent years.
This year, Unlimited 2012 award-winner Claire Cunningham is bringing a new show to Brighton Festival. ’Give me a reason to live’ commemorates the lives of the disabled victims of the Nazis Aktion T4 program and of those who have died under the austerity measures of current UK government’s ‘welfare reform’.
One of the rising stars from Unlimited 2014, Jess Thom, is also taking her riotous show 'Backstage in Biscuitland' to the Brighton Dome’s Studio Theatre. StopGap Dance are appearing in the Without Walls programming and Outside In have also been invited to present a showcase as part of HOUSE.
The politically driven Disability Arts movement of the 80s and 90s was, thank goodness, significantly devoid of work with ‘artistic quality’, that is If you measure 'quality' by 'what's made it' within the judgement of the likes of the Guardian. How many Damien Hirst’s or Jake and Dino Chapman's creating acclaimed masturbatory artworks, do we need?
I got involved with Disability Arts because it was about art that was about real life, not dull concepts full of cynicism and devoid of imagination. The question is, where do we go next?
Having entered a decade akin to the Victorian age with an increasing rise in importance placed on benevolence and charity we have to ask ourselves is there a place, now, for Art Movements that seek to address social justice and inequity within society?
Or do we rather want to throw in the towel; see it all as worthy nonsense and let the White Men in their ivory towers carry on business as usual putting the mundane and populist at the top of the charts. Has Disability Arts or Black Arts or Women’s Arts or Gay Arts, for that matter, ever made a difference?
I came away from DASH’s Awkward Bastards conference with an overriding sense that the communities that fit within the ‘creative case for diversity’ conversation, set up by Arts Council England, have more in common than you might have realised.
For some time we’ve had this sense of all of what have been deemed by the Equality Act 2010 as ‘protected characteristics’ ie communities of Disabled, Black, Gay and Women as having been lumped together in some politically correct paradise where none may venture except with a sense of worthiness.
After all as Tony Heaton, CEO of Shape and one of the Awkward Bastard panelists, is fond of saying: “no-one looks at me wheeling down the street and thinks ‘there goes a ‘diverse’ person’.” I would hasten to add, though, that I can’t imagine anyone of any characteristic, boxing themselves in with a ‘diverse’ tagline, in the same way that no-one would describe themselves definitively as an ‘equal’ person. Diversity is a process surely, a way of understanding the differences that exist within society. And equity is, hopefully, what we strive towards.
So how do we unravel ‘diversity’ as a platform for issue-based artwork? Awkward Bastards named after a piece of poetry from Firing the Can(n)on of disability arts - a film and digital artwork by Sean Burn was all about unpicking several conversations about Art and the Art-maker and the relationship of both to what’s happening in the world.
It was also about the fact that the history of artists who have had the audacity to presume that Art can change anything for the better have continued to be consigned to a wall of silence. The will for universal Human Rights moves in cycles and we’ve been arcing back towards greater and greater inequity over the past 15 years. Who knows how far the tide will turn?
If you compare Human Rights under Queen Victoria’s reign between 1819-1901 to the previous eighty years, you could argue our society then existed at a time of enlightenment. You’d have to discount the ravages of the British Empire and atrocities such as those perpetrated by the East India Company for example.
On the face of it you could argue that the 19th century marked the beginning of 200 years of moving forwards. The Slave Trade Act came into force in 1807, abolishing the slave trade in the empire, followed by the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834. Women first got a vote in 1918; Homosexuality was decriminalized within The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 and finally the first Disability Discrimination Act became legislation in 1995. But then how much did legislation actually stop corruption, abuse and the misappropriation of power?
However much you try to make a meal of race and disability, what it really comes down to is issues of class and the lack of opportunity, which comes with being marginalized in one shape or another. Of course, the communities that mostly tend to get left out of any conversation about equality is reference to the rights of Children and Old People.
Emily Dugan in The Independent recently reported that every year, an estimated 5,000 children die in the UK, with disadvantage being a major factor in preventable deaths.
The Office for National Statistics reports that the current death rate in England and Wales is running about one-third higher than its normal rate for this time of year, official statistics show: with 28,000 deaths in the two weeks ending on 23 January 2015, compared with the average of 21,000 deaths, which has been consistent over the past five years.
However you wan to package and box the Arts, or not, there is a responsibility for artists to reflect back on what is happening within society. Without the structures that allow for reflection and pause; that give rise to an understanding of how we see ourselves and how we are seen, then we will inevitably veer towards a fascistic state that only allows expression that supports a singular view of itself.
Access to Arts, Health and Education is being snapped away by the bucket-load. Libraries are being closed down, the Arts are generally being devalued more and more as we increasingly become a cruel society; one that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
While the brunt of austerity is born by the poorest and least powerful people within our culture, according to an OECD report in 2011 the wealthiest tenth of society earns 12 times as much as the poorest, up from eight times as much in the 1980s.
We need our awkward bastards more than ever, I would say!
Dear readers, firstly I’d like to apologise to all those individuals who have been communicating with me over the past few months, who I have promised interviews, reviews, listings etc. but have been frustrated by my lack of communication.
It has been a stressful time as my father is fast approaching his dying. I am currently overwhelmed by attending to his needs with the rest of my family. Indeed for all of us who are close to him the acceleration of his passing has been sudden and we are all in a state of shock.
We’ve been living with the slow onset of his cancer for a couple of years now and had expected him to have had another few months at least. But it is not to be. He is 90, so he has had a good shot at life and is amazingly calm and comfortable and suffering only a modicum of pain, without the use of morphine, remarkably.
I intend to look in on Dao over the next few weeks and do what I can to keep everything ticking over with the weekly newsletter and proofing and responding to blogs, dealing with listings and email enquiries etc.
In the mean-time if you have any urgent queries about copy you are expecting or would like to see published on Dao, please email Dao Director Trish Wheatley via trish@Disabilityartsonline.org.uk
For those who may be interested you can expect some responses on my own Knitting Time blog in the next few days.
There was a lot in the media last week, centred on Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Dr Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything'. Newsnight covered it with an interview with the US disabled actor RJ Mitte - star of 'Breaking Bad'.
Frances Ryan's critical response to news of a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Redmayne on the Guardian’s comment is free pages was to say: “while ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage, ‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards.”
A debate followed on Dao’s FB group. Lloyd Coleman argued that he saw that it is important for high profile roles to be given to disabled actors. He qualified the opinion saying: “Frances Ryan makes some valid points, but also makes a fundamental error in comparing the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors to the (rightly) outdated and unacceptable act of 'blacking up'. The latter is offensive because the colour of one's skin is a matter of race, which doesn't alter over the course of a life time. Men playing female roles (or vice versa) would also be considered absurd in a conventional 21st century drama."
"But 'disability' is a much more fluid area, in terms of what it means for the identity of the individual concerned. If it is unacceptable for Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking, does that mean it is always unacceptable for an able-bodied actor to play a visually impaired person for example? No, just as we would like it to be commonplace for visually impaired actors (or any other disabled actor for that matter) to play so-called 'able-bodied' characters, if they were suitable for the role. By the same principles, would we want all straight actors to only play straight parts, and all gay actors to play only homosexuals? Again, I don't think so."
"Acting is the art of portraying a character, who may well have very different attributes to you. I have seen 'The Theory of Everything', and it tells the story of Stephen Hawking's life from his student days, before the onset of motor neurone disease. So practically speaking, the film also required an actor who would be able to show this, which I think Eddie Redmayne does remarkably well.”
Bob Findlay-Williams argued in response: “Frances Ryan collapses two very important issues into one badly articulated argument. Casting actors needs to be done in relation to a given character. In terms of this film it makes perfect sense for an actor who can portray a person with and without a specific impairment, therefore, casting Redmayne makes sense. This is a different issue to the historical tendency of overlooking disabled actors in favour of non-disabled ones. It isn't about disabled or gays only playing disabled or gay parts. It is about negative attitudes which reinforce institutional discrimination and leads to the underemployment of disabled actors.
"Of course quotas and 'politically correct' solutions aren't the answer: writing decent scripts, casting disabled actors in non-stereotyped roles would be a good starting point, but the best solution of all would be to create an inclusive society where disabled actors would be reflecting a wider reality of opportunity.”
I would follow what Findlay implies is the real problem in terms of reinforcing discrimination with what I thought was the most coherent argument in Ryan’s column. Christopher Shinn is quoted as saying: “the act of watching a disabled character being played by an actor who we know is really fit and well, allows society’s ‘fear and loathing around disability’ to be ‘magically transcended’… pop culture is more interested in disability as a metaphor than in ‘disability’ as something that happens to real people”.
I think there is a truism here. It’s the sentimentality that surrounds the depiction of disabled people; even when the depictions are not just utterly erroneous bad acting. (My no 1. hated portrayal is Russell Crowe as John Nash in 'A Beautiful Mind'). Anyone with a daily lived experience of impairment would know that 'The Theory of Everything' is a fairy tale, and that the truth of Hawking’s fight to life and to acclaim would be far more harrowing than Hollywood’s interpretation of the story.
But, then, is that how we would want our own story to be protrayed? Whether or not it is valid to criticise in terms of identity poitics or in terms of discrimination, I don’t believe anyone can gainsay Hawking’s own validation of 'The Theory of Everything', allowing copyright to use his synthesised voice, as reported on biography.com.
Many would have watched and enjoyed the film, as an entertaining piece of escapism. Whether or not it’s ‘Art’ is a very different conversation.
Firstly I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all Dao’s readers and contributors. Last year we got out and about a fair bit, spreading the word about the disabled artists who engage with the disability arts sector through being a part of events, over and above the usual work we do of reporting on events and supporting artists through networking.
Firstly last June there was DaisyFest in Guildford, which featured two of Dao’s writers Penny Pepper and Allan Sutherland. Both Penny’s intimate Lost in Spaces - a poetic, musical journey through a personal history of the Disability Arts Movement and Allan’s extract from Neglected Voices: Proud were examples of the importance of persisting to assert the human rights element of our art form.
Later that month I gave a presentation of Dao's work at the Senseability conference organised by Tanvir Bush at Bath Spa University. It was a great pleasure to talk about some of the work we’ve featured over the last 10 years and explain something of Dao’s role to assist in facilitating networks and to support emerging disabled writers and artists through our blogs and our programme of commissioning writing on the arts and disability.
Last August Dao was invited to host another poetry event at Together! in Newham, where Wendy Tongue and Bonk Bipolar took to the stage with elements of the craft they’ve been developing through their respective blogs on Dao. There was further endorsement of their talent with invitations for further performances and workshops with the grassroots disability arts organisation.
On 3 September we ran Perceptions of Difference - a poetry event at the Saison Poetry Library in programmed to coincide with the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Having had a longstanding connection with Survivors’ Poetry, it was a fantastic achievement for me personally to introduce four poets who’ve been cornerstones of the movement: Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee and Frank Bangay.
Head Librarian Chris McCabe said of the event: “It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.”
It has been an ongoing pleasure to be a named media partner for Unlimited. Dao was the seventh top referral to the Southbank Centre’s website during the festival from 2-7 September, not accounting for the drive we did through our social media and weekly bulletin.
As the Unlimited programme develops through 2015/ 16 we will see new and further embedded partnerships beginning to ensure the programmes’ influence grow beyond London showcasing disabled artists creating extraordinary work.
It was great to see many of the artists given a platform at DaDaFest who are also an Unlimited partner. Last December the festival featured one of the main commissions Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged, plus several of the research and development projects: notably Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero with Backstage in Biscuit Land, Ailís Ní Ríain with her extraordinary cross art form Hieronymous Bosch-influenced The Drawing Rooms, and Kazzum Theatre’s promenade performance piece Where’s My Nana
DaDaFest was particularly memorable for the International Congress that was a major part of the programme, bringing disabled artists from across the globe, to coincide with the International Day of Disabled People.
A quote from mainstream freelance writer Bella Todd who we engaged last year to help us spread the word about Unlimited to the wider press sums up something of our aspiration to keep going in 2015:
“Many national, international and mainstream publications would envy the scale, quality and consistency of community engagement Disability Arts Online fosters on both its main website and through its social media channels.
Its writers, bloggers and readers (among whom there's an important degree of crossover) engage in an ongoing discourse that's at once supportive, argumentative, personal, politicised and teeming with individuality. That's no mean editorial feat. The quality and breadth of the debate will always make Dao pertinent and provocative reading for the wider world.
As a platform for giving a community a powerful, purposeful yet individuated voice, it's also a site to which more media outlets and organisations could do with paying attention.
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. We are under threat from measures designed by people in power who really basically don’t have a clue. Let’s come together and use Dao as platform to get our voices heard and to challenge top-down ignorance
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. Many of our artists, dependent on the Independent Living Fund are under attack. We need to come together creatively and positively to challenge the threat we are under from measures designed by people in power who basically don’t seem to have little clue about the real world.
The letter I received personally from my own MP to complain about the closure of the ILF said:
“...Ministers have considered the implications of the fund and have undertaken a new equality analysis and gathered further evidence. Following this, the Government has decided to close the ILF on 30th June 2015. This will provide disabled people with choice and control over their care within the mainstream system, with local authorities responsible for meeting the care of support needs of ILF users in England. Local authorities will be funded so that they will be abler to meet their new responsibilities towards ILF users. Awards will be maintained for current users until the ILF closes.”
We’ve got six months to raise a fuss and ensure that our voices are heard above those who may possibly in all sincerity believe that the closure of the ILF will provide disabled people with choice and control!
Join DPAC for a Mass Action to save the ILF, Tuesday, January 6th 1.30pm for 2pm start. House of Commons, SWIA 0AA OR Join Online. DPAC have prepared a webpage with tweets on that you can use. For more information please click here to go to the DPAC website
Firstly I’d like to extend my condolences to Richard Longstaff’s family at this time. His loss last summer, as a result of cancer was a big blow to me personally. I could see a book of poetic reminiscences of growing up in a rural Northern village emerging from his poetry blog. It was a joy to work with him and he is sorely missed.
2014 has been an eventful year for us here at Disability Arts Online. There have been lots of highlights but I’ve been particularly pleased about getting out and about more - taking Dao on the road, as it were. Getting involved in being a part of arts events as well as reporting on them has been a rewarding way of providing opportunities for the artists who engage with Dao.
Dao has always been about providing a space for disabled artists putting their art into a public arena for the first time alongside established disabled artists. Dao is more than just a website, so it was great to talk about what we do as an innovator in the arts, giving a potted history of Dao as part of Bath Spa Universities' Senseability Festival.
I’d especially like to thank John Kelly and Karl Newman of DaiSyFest. Last June they invited us to produce a poetry event at G-Live in Guildford. The captivating Penny Pepper performed an extract from her poetic memoir Lost in Spaces with riveting cello accompaniment from Jo Cox.
Allan Sutherland took to the stage with a selection from the transcription poetry cycle Proud: from the words of Jennifer Taylor. I think all of us, Allan included, were stunned by the power of Jennifer’s voice rising through the poetry to describe a fierce determination in the face of appalling discrimination. It’s one thing to read through the cycle from 'Neglected Voices' as they were published on Dao, but another to hear the words in performance. It was made all the more moving by Jennifer’s contribution to the q+a after the reading.
It was great to get more continuity with a successful application for a slot; Perceptions of Difference in the Saison Poetry Library on the Southbank, which fortuitously we were able to fit into the Unlimited Festival. In putting this event together I came full circle as my roots in Disability Arts came through having worked initially with Survivors’ Poetry from the early 90s. We programmed two of the poetry groups’ founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay alongside two other important poets/ writers within Survivors’ Poetry’s history, Debjani Chatterjee and John O’Donoghue.
What can I say about Unlimited. I think Shape and Artsadmin have done a terrific job overall. Applications will be foremost in many artists’ minds over the coming holiday and from the interview I did recently with Tony Heaton. It will be extremely competitive due to the far-reaching success of the festival at London's Southbank Centre. We did a massive job of reporting on as much of Unlimited as possible and thanks go to Bella Todd who we commissioned with a brief to get as much copy into other publications as possible.
There have been some massive successes coming out of this years’ Unlimited: the three that spring to mind are the extensive tours by the poet Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged and the performer Jess Thom's Touretteshero plus the Vacuum Cleaner’s Madlove, which has been commissioned by FACT in Liverpool with a big development in partnership with the University of Liverpool.
Like Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities performance at the Science Museum (amongst other places) in London earlier this year, Lost in Spaces reflects on the history of our movement. I hope we see more art and performance in 2015 on this level. Disability Arts is fragile and like all historical accounts, vulnerable to a sleight of hand. It’s important that we have control over how our stories are told, so I’m looking forward to developments with NDACA (National Disability Arts Collection and Archive).
Ann Wade, Ruth Gould and their team at DaDaFest in Liverpool deserve a special mention for providing the most powerful highlight. It was the international element of DaDaFest that brought into context so much about the work Dao does as a networking organization that pulls people and ideas together.
Listening to Leroy Moore eulogising about Krip-Hop Nation as a global force: “we, not I”, performing with Ronald Muwanga who talked about the oppression of disabled people in Uganda. We heard a rousing talk from Chris Smit who is taking elements of Art of the Lived Experiment to DisArt Festival in Chicago next Spring. And were treated to Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor exhibition, making connections with disabled artists from the Middle East. The lasting images that will stay with me were from Epic Arts dance performance of the before and after of the history of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge with the regimes’ Year Zero in 1975 in Cambodia. I hadn’t realised how much further than Hitler the dictator went. Even people needing glasses were considered too impaired to be worthy of life…
We live in precarious times. The forthcoming disbandment of the Independent Living Fund with a ridiculous promise from the Government that Local Authorities will step in and make provision, in the light of further announcements today of further incisive cuts to local services, means that for many of our talented artists who rely on ILF for PA support, there is a chasm opening. Society, it seems, has been hoodwinked into turning its eye inwards, like a homunculus reflecting greed and self-interest at the expense of culture and civilisation.