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> > > Awkward Bastards: the fraudulent face of ‘Diversity’

Awkward Bastards took over mac birmingham on 12th March, the day Terry Pratchett died and the day the government announced further cuts to disabled peoples’ Access to Work funding. Colin Hambrook gives further reflection on the Symposium

photo of Tanya Raabe-Webber's live drawing of Sean Burn

Tanya Raabe-Webber draws Sean Burn at the Awkward Bastards Conference

Presented by a mix of academics, artists and activists representing diversity (disability, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and class) from across the UK and USA Awkward Bastards raised some difficult and entertaining questions addressing our identity as 'frauds'.  

Gemma Marmalade introduced herself as the Conceptual Charlatan, the Court Jester out there, amongst the ‘normals’ to push buttons, creating spectacle and provocation. Her starting point is that the role of the visual artist will never be removed from the moral dilemma that s/he will always be seen as a fraud; and any attempt to move the confines of art forward beyond the constraints of pure representation will always be seen by some, if not many, as fraudulent.

So, for example, playing with boundaries between truth and fiction one of Marmalade's projects Strange Birds (2011) established an archive of bogus scientific materials. Set in 1957 the work presents collected data based on the premise that the common pigeon is capable of understanding human sexuality through observation. In the artwork the birds are witnessed in trials set to peck boxes of seeds labeled ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ in order to determine the sexual orientation of human subjects. The result was deemed as having an 82 per cent success rate; something academics are still coming to with interest, convinced of the projects’ veracity.

In his keynote speech Professor David Turner looked at disability from a historical and contemporary context, unravelling some powerful facts as to where the concept of the disabled person as a fraud has come from. According to Turner’s research the 18th century was a time of much greater visibility for disabled people. There were an estimated 15,000 beggars on the streets of London, many of whom were accused of flaunting disabled bodies to elicit sympathy and of employing the rhetoric of victimhood to the degree that pedestrians were encouraged to inspect individuals impairments to check whether or not they were ‘real’.

Later in the day James Leadbitter aka the vacuum cleaner told us of various labels he’s been given by public services and statutary bodies. He didn't tell us quite what he'd been doing with his electric meter, but I chuckled at the idea of E.ON describing him as a ‘domestic extremist’ and ‘a clear and present threat'. He gave a vehement argument for rejecting ‘disability’ as a label he would want to attach to himself: “Call me a ‘retard’, rather than a ‘disabled artist’” he demanded. Like many of the up-and-coming generation for him ‘disability’ is simply a tick-box for accessing funding. Rather than a context for challenging hierarchies Leadbitter described ‘disability’ as a “form of function and power”. “Boxes are for shoes” he opined, perhaps missing the point that the disabling nature of the mental health system is putting an increasing number of us in boxes under the ground. 

Leadbitter challenged the idea of attaching an identifier to the job of ‘artist’. “I would never specify that I wanted a disabled electrician, so why would I want to call myself a disabled artist”, he said. But, I would argue that there are contexts in which an individual would ask for a disabled electrician; if they needed a tradesperson who understood specific access requirements. Who better to employ than someone who understands access needs from a personal point of view?

However, Leadbitter warranted respect for giving us his truth. The history of the Disability Arts Movement is one of great successes and difficult failures. One thing that has never been resolved in my mind is the uncomfortable fit between mental health and the Social Model of Disability, the cornerstone for understanding disability as an idea in peoples’ heads, rather than as ‘something wrong with you.’ 

During what Tony Heaton called the first wave of the disability arts; the activist phase from 1986-1999, there was a huge resistance to accepting people labelled with mental health conditions as disabled people; perhaps because, as Sean Burn pointed out, the body language for mental distress looks very much like a ’sufferer’. And during those times with a rising tide of challenge to social barriers, there was a resistance towards accepting the more difficult aspects of living with impairment. Think of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ or Van Gogh’s ‘Old Man in Sorrow’ and you’ll understand that you’ll only prove you’re not a fraud by holding your head in your hands in despair. There is nothing positive about aligning yourself with that image.

Personally I liked the Skinder Hundal’s quote from the artist Nastio Mosquito that went along the lines of: “..only when people are uncomfortable will they find something new.” Shouldn’t art be about underscoring humane attitudes towards life and living; reflections that may well upset our ideas of who we are? It occurred to me that accusations of fraud arise in life as in Art, when people reject being made to feel awkward. Judgements are made from a scale of rationale based on subjective experience and will always be up for refutation. Discomfort is an opportunity, but it takes some courage to recognise it as such.

Hundal raised an awkward question about the aspiration for ‘diversity’ as a goal for developing an increasingly representative cross-section of society: “How do you fit content of character into a quota?” he asked. He echoed Leadbitter’s disillusionment with labeling oneself as anything. Yet still the question remains of how to make the invisible corners of Art practice, visible? 

To  bring this reflection on just a tiny amount of what was presented during the Awkward Bastards symposium to a close, firstly I would say it gave me further belief that there is strength to be found in examining what we’re doing as ‘disabled artists’ under the broader umbrella of ‘diversity’. It brings up more and different questions about how to move forwards within what has become an increasingly bleak landscape, culturally and politically.

DASH have published their thoughts on the symposium. Please click here to visit 'Views from the Back Row' and links to video clips from the day on the DASH website.

I look forward to further thoughts and film of the Awkward Bastards Symposium. Click on this link to read an editorial with my initial thoughts on the day.