Colin Hambrook reviews Aaron Williamson's rise as performance and video artist, documented in a Live Art Development Agency publication
Aaron Williamson has been making performances internationally for more than 15 years. Produced by the Live Arts Development Agency, Performance/Video/Collaboration documents 24 solo pieces and 16 collaborations between October 2000 and June 2008, presented around the world. It includes the collaboration with Katherine Araniello as The Disabled Avant-Garde and the video work of the disability artists' collective 15mm Films that Williamson leads. The documentation centres on texts by Williamson to describe each performance or video piece, before digressing to retrace the creative process, explore theoretical ideas, recount anecdotes and offer artistic statements, using accessible and entertaining writing. The preface is an in-depth interview with Williamson, ‘Performance, Disability, Humour and Being in Public’ by Dr Marquard Smith (editor-in-chief of Journal of Visual Culture) and the book is also illustrated by documentary photos and video stills in full colour, and printed on art paper.
Above all, the beauty of this book is in the thought that has gone into relaying an honest account of Williamson’s motivations and premises for creating some of the most ridiculous, banal, outrageous and hilarious live performance interventions for public consumption. The introductory section is purposefully edited, leaving in all the points of misunderstanding between interviewer and interviewee. The effect is to try to make accessible an art form which is usually the most intellectual and obscure of all art forms, relying as it does on self-reference and conceptual ideology. Aaron Williamson states that he started off from the premise of playing at being a live artist. Clearly, he has worked hard at keeping the emphasis on the play.
It is astounding what one (or two) individuals are capable of doing in the name of art. Aaron has taken the punk principle of anarchy and dedicated himself to going to the most extraordinary extremes to upset self-governing values of what is acceptable behaviour in public places.
Some of the performances outlined in Performance/ Video/ Collaboration had me in stitches. The effect of the ludicrous Shouting Island – a performance in which Aaron spent seven hours walking the circumference of a tiny island just off the shore of Kuopio in Finland, shouting ‘I am an island’ in Finnish, turned from something mystical and slightly unnerving for an unwitting audience into an epic media event in which photographers were ordered off the island for invading its privacy.
Some of the antics he describes go to the fringes of violence in the effort to provoke a response. There is an attempt in much of the work to explore the notion of what the wild man, the ‘sham’ shaman, means in contemporary society. Much of the work is informed by experience of disability and Deafness. Obscure Disaplay, for example was a performance at the V & A museum in London which sought to challenge medico-scientific notion of having lost hearing, rather than having gained deafness.
I remember having conversations with Kit Wells, editor of DAIL Magazine, in the early 1990s. We talked a lot about how a key thing that sets disabled people apart are the often small, but by accepted standards, bizarre aspects of our lives.
We wrote in DAIL magazine about the potential for disability arts to reflect disability experience in a way that takes the art form into new areas of expression. The reality – as Aaron comments – is that disability arts organisations have been desperately trying to appear ‘normal’ in order to meet funding criteria. We’ve been trying like the plague to fit in with the mainstream – often at the expense of the art form we’re advocating.
One of Aaron Williamson’s greatest collaborations has been with Katherine Araniello. They produced the Disabled Avant Garde Today initiative - a sensational exhibition of digital media work at the Gasworks as part of Adjustments. Alongside further performance work– Assisted Passage and The Charity Stall, The Disabled Avant-Garde have pushed the boundaries of inverting disability discrimination more than any others. Because there is a strong political precedent in creating and producing this work, there is a meaning and intent rooted in direct experience, which much work calling itself ‘avant-garde’ doesn’t have. Amongst the attitudes The Disabled Avant Garde explore in this work are ideas of how disabled people are either in need of a cure or are only fit for death. These are powerful and thought-provoking statements that cut to the underneath of accepted and thoughtless prejudice.
For anyone interested in Disability Arts and performance, this book is a must. Not only is it a charming, beautifully and honestly written document of Aaron Williamson’s artistic journey, but also a insightful comment on what it means to be a disabled artist today.