Interview with Simon Mckeown
Anne Teahan: How does disability relate to your art?
Simon explains the origin of his art in his childhood experience of brittle bones.
Simon Mckeown: It made it happen really – it was fundamental. When I was younger, because I’ve got brittle bones, I was injured a lot. I’ve had anywhere between 70 & 100 breaks. If you spend 2 months with your legs in plaster as a kid not being able to move, it’s boring. If you can’t be single minded and entertain yourself, you’ve got a real problem.
One of the things you can do is draw, doodle, imagine, without any effort. It wasn’t like football; it wasn’t going to injure me. And that was a very big influence on becoming artistic.
Disability is also the subject of ‘Motion Disabled’ Simon’s award-winning digital animation which showed in ‘Revealing Culture’ in Washington and many international venues. His film animates the varied and subtle movements of disabled people going about daily manoeuvres including managing a wheelchair and playing football. Again there are childhood and family connections:
SM: My grandfather was a wheelchair user. He had brittle bones. Family members have industrial injuries and I grew up around lots of disabled children in the local environment. So when I looked out the window, I didn’t see a homogenous mass. I saw very individual and different people.
So all that feeds that view of disabled people in Motion Disabled as beautiful, interesting shapes, movements, voices and faces.
AT: The tone of Motion Disabled is optimistic.
SM: Yes it’s not meant to be a campaigning piece…it just says, “Look at these people, they are really cool and beautiful”.
AT: So it’s an observation of people?
SM: And it’s a homage. I do feel that if we were sitting here in a 100 years time, many body shapes and their movements - people types I suppose - will be gone.
AT: You mean genetically engineered away?
SM: That’s my worry; that’s the undertone of it. I wanted to follow on from artworks that studied motion like Eadweard Muybridge.
My work records posterity – I don’t think there will be people with Thalidomide in 50 years, and people will not have children that fail the test for Cerebral Palsy for instance (which is a massively wide spectrum). More and more people are advised not to have a child who’s got Downs Syndrome, and so on and without being glib I think that’s a real shame.
AT: So the full flourish of humanity is being smoothed away?
SM: There’s an emphasis on selection. There’s a lovely chaos when you’re around disabled children and adults, because physically things are different. Different shapes, different rules…it’s all much more higgledy-piggledy and therefore more interesting – but it’s also nature - biodiversity. And that’s my experience. ‘Motion Disabled’ was celebrating that. There would be something much more android left without all this and critically and genetically we don’t know how or why differences in genetic makeup will be important to humanity's future.
AT: But some things have improved?
SM: Yes we’ve got some disability laws which is good. I’m not sure culturally we have advanced enough. Lots of our culture looks at disability crudely and I’m hoping that organisations like VSA and DaDaFest can challenge that.
But on the medical side - where there’s a kind of eugenics thing going on - that’s scary. I think it’s the big last question of society. To some extent our society has tackled race and gender, but we’ve not really looked at medicine and disability in any futuristic, forward looking way. There is an assumption that it’s better to remove disability and that’s not necessarily a true or good assumption. I don’t want to dwell on that too much but the requiem side of Motion Disabled comes from that.
AT: My next research question is: how do you feel about exhibiting under a disability banner?
SM: I am very proud of this unique area. It needs more support at a gallery level, more promotion. It produces some of the most interesting work in the art world.
I want to exhibit in this area and help bring it to public recognition, along with exhibiting under a general banner.
AT: Has it offered opportunities? Is it a potential ghetto, or does it offer the right context for your work?
SM: It offers opportunities. It is not a ghetto – it just needs to be fully recognised and for more opportunities to develop from it. Some of the best artists can and will emerge from this area, if the art industry looks in detail. It takes political and cultural will, and to some extent we have seen this in the USA, with the Kennedy family connected to VSA and in the UK with the Arts Council and other bodies’ support.
AT: I’d like to ask you about the contrast between British and American approaches to disability and art. We both exhibited in the ‘Revealing Culture’ exhibition in Washington. You also attended the grand opening of VSA’s International Festival of Disability Arts, which launched the exhibition. Tell me about that experience and your impressions.
SM: There were a thousand people and it was seriously Washington-led. Some of the Kennedy family and advisers to Obama were there. VSA accessed the Smithsonian International Gallery and took over the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts utilizing the foyers, the front of the building, all of the stages at a world renowned arts center. It was big.
AT: So the whole huge space was devoted to celebrating artists and performers with disabilities.
SM: Yes, the Kennedy Centre held musical events by groups such as Rudely Interrupted who were really good fun; Melody Gardot - a modern-day Nina Simone - and brilliant!
Simon explains how VSA’s support has led her to be internationally successful. VSA also came to promote Motion Disabled internationally to mark the UN Day of Disabilities in December 2010. He explains how it happened:
SM: When I went to Washington, the original idea was to place Motion Disabled as a projection on the outside of the Kennedy Centre for the entire week (of the VSA Disability Arts Festival). Unfortunately it fell through, so over time we carried on discussing other projection ideas which came to be the worldwide projection of Motion Disabled on December 3rd, the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. VSA were excellent organisers. They promoted it with all their international partners and arranged to show Motion Disabled in 16 countries in the end.
VSA is affiliated to disability arts organisations throughout the world. Eventually Motion Disabled was shown in 24 locations on the same night, including Liverpool, Glasgow, Washington and Saudi Arabia.
SM: It went everywhere in lots of interesting ways, and that took a lot of pulling together behind the scenes.
AT: Do you think the VSA approach would work in the UK? Could we learn something from America?
SM: VSA work within the concept of philanthropic business support (as well as government funding) which we haven’t got in the UK. The support we get from the Arts Council is invaluable, but they may become increasingly hamstrung with the cuts. There has to be finance from other places to do bigger and better things. Big festivals and successful artists are often funded by rich individuals, businesses or collectives.
AT: So yours is a pragmatic approach. You wouldn't object politically to wealthy philanthropy?
SM: Personally I don't think there's a huge difference between money from business or the state. All money within the context that we live in is tainted in some respect, but it’s also a question of degree and individual opinion and so on. Ethically sourced funding is very important to me and probably many artists, but we also live in the world we live in.
AT: The next question is about managing work and impairment together.
After a successful career in TV special effects, and as an animator working on some of the world’s most successful computer games, Simon shifted direction. He now teaches animation at Teesside University, in addition to pursuing his work as an artist.
AT: Is there a tension between different creative endeavours: – teaching, making art and of course managing impairment?
SM: Oh there’s a lot! It’s not easy. I enjoy the teaching. The University’s a very vocational kind of place. People work extremely hard, supporting the students and coming up with lots of innovative practices. The School of Computing where I work is state of the art and full of creative staff and students.
Simon describes how his experience of both animation and disability, contribute to innovation in teaching:
SM: Computer games are open to all kinds of really diverse characters, but you wouldn’t have found many animations of people in a wheelchair in the past. Generally the games designers haven’t got experience of working or being with disabled people. Technically it was difficult too.
Nowadays, as games get more complicated and computers get better, I speak to my students about the opportunity for more representative body shapes to be included. That’s the thing I’d like to see i.e people with prosthetic legs for instance as the hero or anti-hero.
So it’s teaching about diversity. I’m hopeful that over the next 10 years you might see more of that come through, especially as the designers and the industry matures. Games have always been a bit of a frontier thing because it’s quite edgy and hard to do.
Simon describes combining teaching with his own art:
SM: If I’m due in front of a lot of students…and I would like to be at a meeting or an arts festival, I just can’t fit in the arts festival.
When I’m actually doing some art work, I disappear for days on end … I don’t use the phone or email. It’s quite hard - so there’s a lot of stress. I suspect that’s the same for everybody.
AT: But then you’re managing all this with impairment as well. Can you tell me about what might happen?
Simon describes some of the situations: the precariousness of brittle bones and being very busy during the snow last Winter; needing to drive after recovering from hand, wrist or knee injuries. Less frequent, but more devastating are episodes where balance problems make most activities impossible:
SM: That’s the most difficult. It has only really happened 4 or 5 times when I’ve ended up in hospital. I wouldn’t be able to read, so I couldn’t actually work, or stand up - I was basically wobbling around for 6 weeks.
AT: So 6 weeks is a significant period?
SM: It’s 6 weeks for everything. One of the features of bones is 6 weeks or longer from break to growth to repair.
AT: That gets us to the awkward question. Would you be rid of your impairment? Is it friend or foe?
SM: I would be lost really. It is part of who I am. At times it is not a friend at a medical level, but at a social/society level it is 100% my friend.
It might be different if you acquired something late in life. The Balance thing came later.
AT: So would you be without the balance problem then?
SM: It’s awful, but it’s interesting.
AT: Would you have the experience and learn from it but then be without it?
SM: Some of it was terrifying, - but I wouldn’t change it. If it comes again, it comes.
AT: So there’s an acceptance?
SM: Yes because otherwise I’d start to worry about it coming again.
But what happens is a theoretical question at the moment. Doctors can make it slightly better but are not very good at curing it. I think it’s better to just be relaxed….and what happens, happens. Obviously that’s not true for a lot of things. Would I say the same if it was life threatening? If it was something much more serious; if I couldn’t be artistic, or draw or talk or see, would I have the same answer? I’m not sure.
AT: So if it feeds creativity it’s quite different from something that blocks creativity?
SM: I think all these things are contextual. You can only deal with things as they come along. Whether you choose them as friend or foe depends on what they are and how they affect you.
AT: I’ve been asking this question of people whose impairment has gone on longer than mine, and I’m starting to think it may be a bit of a mad question.
SM: It’s a very good question.
AT: Well I’m realising there’s a very different kind of perspective between the two. If impairment happens halfway through life, you have a ‘before and after’ idea. Whereas if it happens early on in life, it’s just there - and it is your life.
SM: It’s just that you’ve got the experience of having things.
AT: You’re an expert at having things.
SM: You’re professional at the doctor’s, professional at the hospital to some extent - and I don’t mean to trivialise the situation, but you have done it before, so it’s not a new experience. So it’s perhaps a little less scary. Whereas for people who have never been in hospital much, to suddenly be there for months on end is probably quite shocking.
I know somebody who was seriously injured in their mid-30s. I asked him the same question: “Would you change what’s happened?” He’s a wheelchair user. He went through a really difficult situation and he said he wouldn’t change it. Not least because 10 years down the line it has given him a new perspective on things…opened up opportunities.
But it is a theoretical question – they actually can’t fix him - and as a consequence he can and perhaps has to be quite relaxed about it. We only have one life and we can’t turn the clock back unfortunately.
AT: Tell me about your current and future work. What will you be doing over the next year?
Simon tells me about working with actress Liz Car on ‘The Beaten’ his first non-animated short live film as director, supported by ‘104 Films’ of the UK Film Council. This is currently being entered into Disability and mainstream film festivals. He describes the story:
SM: It’s quite dark. Liz is an inmate. She’s being kept somewhere, but you’re not quite sure why she’s there. I suspect most people would think “poor Liz she’s in prison” because she’s disabled. But I’d be interested if someone thought, “Is she’s a psychopathic murderer?” I haven’t answered that question. The story develops as she deals with being imprisoned.
The other part of it is about disability and that whole area of abuse of people in care. Care in that sense can quickly become an abusive situation. It’s not an art piece; it’s just an explosive short film.
‘Motion Disabled:Face’ is an animation project featuring five disabled people with different faces and voices. It’s going to be quite a fun piece. It looks at personality and facial and voice difference.
He describes the approach:
SM: Motion captured faces of people talking, telling unusual stories, love poems, things to do with their life. It’s not a documentary about facial or voice disability, it’s just 5 really interesting people all jumbled up looking at the issue of what’s normal, what faces, voices and language are acceptable in society.
AT: Is the visual style like Motion Disabled?
SM: It’s going to be very different:- full of colour, character, sound, and shapes.
AT: One last question: – animation can be a very slow process; it’s painstaking. How do you manage that aspect?
SM: It is time consuming, mind boggling - the thousands of man hours that have gone into say ‘Shrek’ - the stress people go through to animate just one second.
I enjoy the process of doing things, and I’m methodical in part. For me it’s also part of my professional training.
AT: So impairment has trained you to work with concentration?