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!
A stimulating discussion unfolded on Dao’s FB group last week in response to the Shape Open Exhibition, which was launched at Shape’s Gallery in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford last week.
The call-out for Shape’s annual Open Exhibition was for the third year opened out to disabled and to non-disabled artists specifically asking for work on the theme of [in]visible.
The question posed was whether Shape should be supporting work by artists who didn’t necessarily see themselves as disabled people?
When I got into Disability Arts in the 1990s there was a massive energy from disabled artists making work that was based on real-life situations. I was attracted by the fact that disabled artists were making work that had a correlation with the reality of stuff that happens in everyday life.
In the 1990s there was a swell of activism by disabled artists. Indeed Shape’s CEO Tony Heaton was at the centre of an agit-prop Art protest that received massive media attention. Shaken Not Stirred had a knock-on impact on ITVs telethon and indeed that particular charity fundraiser defining disabled people as poor, needy objects of pity, was abandonned.
In the 1990s there was a lot of action by disabled people against the charities that are supposed to represent us, who largely – then as now – are very adept at playing the ‘worthy cause’ card to fundraise, but actually do little in the way of providing the kinds of services we actually need or to even employ disabled people within their workforce.
The Social Model defined ‘disability’ as the problem society has with accommodating anyone different from the ‘norm’; and it was key to a collective politicised will for change. Then around the year 2000 the climate went through a dramatic transformation.
The Disability Arts Movement had been very effective in drawing disabled people to it and creating opportunities for disabled people to take part. Disability Arts had largely been about disabled people entertaining other disabled people. In the 1990s there had been a thriving scene of Disability Arts cabaret, which gave disabled performers an opportunity to talk about discrimination. The DDA came in and the Capital Lottery Fund (with massive insistence from people like Paddy Masefield) had disability access provision enshrined into planning as a rule for any public building looking for money for new build or refurbishment.
Disability Arts was largely seen as Community Arts and key funding bodies like the Arts Council who had supported Disability Arts changed tack towards what was termed ‘excellence’ in the arts. And disabled-led organisations that had been incredibly effective in supporting and empowering disabled people were suddenly put into the position of having to think of ways to ‘mainstream’ the disabled artists they worked with, in order to survive. There was a bid to get curators and producers from wider arts organisations to recognise the ‘quality’ of the work that they were supporting.
Paul Darke saw the writing on the wall back in the late 90s when he wrote a dissertation called Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe He realised that the political will for Disability Arts to follow the Social Model and to subvert the idea of being ‘normal’, was being overturned by the idea of inclusion: that disabled people could become part of the fabric of society with a move towards an enlightened dismantling of the physical and attitudinal barriers backed by access provision.
And so a message went out that the job was done and the majority of disabled-led arts forums fell by the wayside. Shape has survived by stealth. Tony Heaton, Shape’s CEO, inspired by Adam Reynolds, saw the potential for Disability Arts to rise out of the ghetto and to take a more ‘mainstream’ focus.
Part of Shape's aims are about getting the work of disabled artists into mainstream galleries and through programmes like Unlimited, supporting a new wave of Disability Arts that is focused on the Art and which perhaps expresses disability politics in more subtle ways. [Or less subtle, perhaps if you consider the recent Adam Reynolds bursary winner Carmen Papalia using the services of a brass band to announce his access needs.]
But there is another strain of thought of behind the principles of the Shape Open. There has always been a real difficulty in promoting the understanding that ‘disability’ is constructed by society. A significant number of disabled people have always resisted defining themselves as disabled people because of the stigma that comes with that identity. My own father, who is ageing rapidly and has become severely impaired, won’t see himself as a disabled person, because he sees it as ‘giving in’. He can’t be persuaded to use a wheelchair, because although it would obviously give him more independence and quality of life, he sees using a wheelchair as immediately defining him as ‘dependent’, as ‘less’ or as ‘other’.
And so by making the Shape Open available to disabled and non-disabled artists, there is an attempt by Shape to allow entry for artists who might define as disabled people, but are uncomfortable with framing their Art within that definition. By asking artists to respond to what [in]visible means to them, there is an opportunity to attract work that expresses what ‘disability’ means within a broad parameters and so at least to get people thinking about it.
Whatever you think of the idea of society becoming more inclusive and the agenda for inclusivity, it is perhaps the sole idea that remains – and that only in a very piecemeal way from what was a thriving movement. Unless there is a new surge of energy to organise and make some noise that rattles the cage of the status quo, then disabled peoples rights will continue to rapidly diminish, as they have done in the last four years.
By Colin Hambrook
Happy New Year to one and all. As a theme running through DAO's tenth year I want to draw attention to features in our back catalogue for those who may not be aware of the depth and breadth of the content in the journal.
Many of you will be aware of the value and importance of the Social Model of Disability to the history and development of Disability Arts, but may be confused or sceptical about the Affirmative Model of Disability which attempts to bring the theory into a 21st century understanding.
One of the most consistently accessed pieces of content on DAO over the past few years has been an interview I conducted with Colin Cameron in 2009 whilst he was researching a PhD on the Affirmative Model of Disability. Colin has a knack for illustrating disability theory with lived experience - and in the process often refers back to Disability Arts as having been instrumental in his personal understanding of his relationship to disability and impairment.
It's lengthy and time-consuming to read, but I would suggest that it's essential for anyone working within disability arts to develop an understanding of the discussions which have laid a cornerstone for our movement.
Last week DAOs FaceBook group was the site of a raging debate about disability, art and identity. Between 19-27 November members of the group posted something in the region of 15,000 words in 122 posts. Responses were passionate. It was a valuable debate testing the validity, or otherwise of Disability Art, a Disability Arts Movement and of definitions of being a 'disabled artist'.
Many of the contributions question the social model ethic of 'self-definition' and the validity of art that is informed by identity. The debate was prompted by Katherine Araniello questioning "a trend in disability culture of becoming a 'broad church' to include a wide range of illnesses, and character traits which have been problematised through both self-definition and current political thinking that we are all suffering from trauma and mental illness."
I guess it depends on your perspective. From my own experience of mental health issues I have no doubt that mental health is 'disability' issue. The most disabling aspect being the lack of an arena to talk about the issues outside of a 'medicalised' approach.
There has been the biggest backlash in the Press in recent years against disabled people, and in particular disabled people with mental health issues, for receiving disability benefits. According to the report published by Inclusion London a year ago, the press have been putting out the message that the majority of disabled people are only pretending to be disabled people. We are not who we say we are, but simply fraudsters. The mainstream view ignores the understanding of the disability movement of disability as oppression - as standing for the barriers that society places in front of people.
So what has this all got to do with art? Many feel that the politics around identity get in the way of art; that identifying as a disabled artist takes away from the value of the work produced.
I've been asked by several people who took part in the debate to post the comments from the DAO FaceBook group so you can read the arguments for yourself and continue the debate!
In a blog on Parallel Lines recently, Aaron Williamson made the point that “the notion that an individual is disabled by their impairment is still the prevalent mainstream way of thinking.” One of the ways it manifests is in the often tokenistic way that organisations attempt to make concessions towards disabled people.
Looking at the BBC Vision’s current training opportunity to find disabled presenters -‘PresentAble’ - leaves me with that certain feeling I get in the pit of my stomach whenever I see programmes designed to wrest disabled people from a well of despond. I would wish for something positive to come from the opportunity. Perhaps for those individuals who end up taking part, it could represent an opportunity that would not have otherwise been obtainable!
But the language of PresentAble is steeped in notions of ‘celebration’ and ‘overcoming’ – a trend Aaron identifies as “a noticeable return to specifying individual impairment rather than social identity as the basis for disability art.”
True this is about the media, rather than ‘art’… and as such it would no doubt for some mean a laudable opportunity. But it’s that taking the ‘dis’ out of disability, thing, that seems to perpetuate itself in the arts and the media
I happened to look through the ad and the application process online and ended up feeling they were - once again - looking for someone with a visible impairment who doesn’t have the kind of disabilities for who the application process itself would not present any barriers. Again there is a contact to get in touch if you want them to consider making reasonable adjustments…
If you are interested in PresentAble go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/news/presentable.shtml for details on how to apply. Applications are open until 31 January
On Thursday 15 October Shape held their second informal conversation, led by Michèle Taylor - this time targeted at performing artists. Recognising the current lack of a platform for disabled and Deaf performers to come together to share ideas and talk about prevalent issues, Shape has created an ongoing event where 20 or so disabled and Deaf people can come together to talk openly and honestly.
Michèle set the tone by opening the debate with a showing of Liz Crows’ film about her iconic piece of performance on Anthony Gormley’s plinth, which was created to coincide with Resistance - a moving image installation, which is currently on tour. Liz Crow's performance has now reached the Guardian's Top Ten, which has been selected from the 2400 people who have each spent one hour on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Liz Crow’s performance was deliberately provocative. It consisted of her appearing dressed in a veil which was drawn aside to reveal her in nazi uniform. Significantly the performance took place on the 70th anniversary date of the Nazis Final Solution programme intended to end the existence of disabled people, amongst other minority and ethnic communities.
As well as drawing peoples' attention to a bit of overlooked history, it is truly about making people think about discrimination as it exists in the present day. In conversation, several people said that the atmosphere at Trafalgar Square on the night was electric.
The film gave an opportunity for people to discuss how there seems to be little space these days for people to talk about their experience of discrimination. These are not the kind of conversations that we are having as disabled people any more.
Disability arts became established through the cabaret circuit. It was a safe space for many disabled and Deaf performers to hone their craft in a space where they knew their audience would understand where the work was coming from. It was also a campaigning ground – especially for pushing access issues to the fore.
The fact is that we still live under a cosh as to whether or not we are ‘persons worthy of living'. The more ‘normal’ we can present ourselves as, the more likely we are of getting through the net of who is and who isn’t 'of value’.
I say this from a personal and emotional space. My mother was killed by a psychiatrist - one of the many Dr Shipman-types who inhabit psychiatry because of the lack of accountability that makes it possible for some psychiatrists to basically do what they want to you without fear of any comeback. As a ‘nutter’ you won’t make any sense anyway – so what does it matter if you complain?!
There is a notion that things are different now; that we have acceptance etc. But only six years ago when I tried talking to a GP about my mothers’ death. She told me that if my mother hadn’t died of the medication, "she would certainly have died of the schizophrenia.”
I come from a line of three generations labelled as schizophrenics. I am proud of being a human with a brain split into two halves. The challenge is understanding why people are so scared of a fancy medical word invented with a bit of Latin jiggery-pokery. ('schizo' means 'split' and 'phrenic' means 'of the brain')
The identity debate provided an opportunity to air some our stories. Julie McNamara talked about a Survivors’ poetry gig where she was told by a dignitary that she thought it "marvelous that mentally ill people are allowed out these days to do their own thing.”
The position now is that we don’t see ourselves as a Movement. We have lost cohesion and don’t consistently have the opportunities for conversations about the politics of disability that were part and parcel of the scene up to ten years ago.
Tony Heaton made the statement that we are struggling to get through a glass ceiling. Without critical debate we can’t move on as artists, writers and performers – yet there isn’t a coterie of professional disabled journalists who understand the issues who can write critically about the art and performance.
Mandy Colleran made the point that recently there has been a proliferation of research PhDs around disability performance, but they are all written by non-disabled academics, who cannot ever own the space, or truly understand the voice that the disabled performers’ experience is drawn from.
I think we struggle within the movement to fully grasp each others’ access issues. It can be hard enough to even own our own access issues, let alone moving into other impairment territories. There was a lot of discussion around how certain disability performing arts companies have made choices that have excluded impairment groups – another part of the division which has brought us to where we are.
The real dilemma that we face, is that we are stuck with the fact that people from outside the disability community will more often than not look at us and at our work from a medical model perspective. Liz Bentley talked about having to feel comfortable that what she delivers is going to be understood by her audiences. As a performer fairly new to the Disability Arts scene, it is only in recent years of doing disability gigs that she has developed disability material. Before going on she therefore has to make a decision about her audience and chooses what material to give them, based on a quick judgement.
The politics of disability arts has been diluted by our efforts to move into the ‘mainstream.’ Stephen Hodgkin made the point that we have been colonised by mainstream thinking. We find ourselves struggling with the fact that our voices and experiences are being owned by others with a medical model attitude.
I guess it comes down to motivation. What drives you to get up on a stage in the first place. I can’t attempt to summarise much more of the conversation here, so I’d like to leave it on an unequivocal statement from Katherine Araniello that for me summed up my feeling about why the hell keep banging on about disability arts in the first place. She said she is driven to make the work she makes because she hates the world - with all the stereotypes and tight-fit ways of representing difference as tragedy and loss.
In the 1990s LDAF used to organise debates, which, truth to tell, became circular arguments centering around the question of what is Disability Arts? We somehow never seemed to get beyond celebrating difference and protesting righteous indignation that nothing should be made about us without us.
With disabled people at the helm the world was going to be a better place. Dissing the Social Model was tantamount to letting the side down and any critical debate was stifled by polemic disguised as Social Model rhetoric.
Irrelevant old Art didn’t get a massive reference. Few of the people at those discussions had ever been to a mainstream exhibition at Tate Britain or a performance at the National Theatre. Access was a massive problem then – on all counts. If you just consider wheelchair access - there was none at The Tate Britain which was fronted by an endless barrier of steps. You could go to the National Theatre – but more than one wheelchair user was said to represent a fire hazard, so you could only go on your own.
There was also little access to college education for disabled people, unless you were able to pretend you were non-disabled and throw yourself through all kinds of hoops in the process. LDAF fought for so many years for the right of disabled people to have a say and a place at the forefront of things. Had LDAF not existed would there now be access to mainstream art spaces? So much influence came out of LDAF, but times have now moved on and the conversations that need to happen are different.
The mid to late 1990s were angry times, understandably. The anger was positive in many ways, but there was a flip side to it. It meant that unless you conformed to a particular world-view within that circle, you became subject to that anger. The fire brought a lot of disabled people together, but equally a lot of disabled people trying to take themselves seriously as artists, either couldn’t relate to the rhetoric, or had disagreements with it that there was no space for them to air.
Aaron Williamson argues in his book ‘Performance, Video, Collaboration’ that Disability Arts organisations’ have become slaves to tick-box culture and the ideals behind social inclusion and as a result have been very resistant to avant-garde art or Art that presses buttons - in a desperate attempt to conform; to become ‘Normal’, as Paul Darke would argue.
One of the big problems for Disability Arts organisations has been about resolving who its constituency really are. There has been a lack of grounding in the history of Art for many disabled people working within disability-led organisations which has undermined our efforts to survive within a changing cultural landscape. Without those reference points we have struggled to support emerging artists beyond a certain level and provide opportunities for professional development outside of the Ghetto.
Things aren’t brilliant now, access-wise, but they are a hell of a lot better than they were ten years ago. The DDA has come in incrementally and the Disability Arts movement has struggled to identify its vision within a rising tide of artists who live with impairment and disability, but who are resistant to taking on the disability label.
Shape in its bid to rebrand itself as an organization that is about artists as well as audiences, has begun to host a series of evenings inviting artists under their roof in Camden to discuss. Crafted by Michele Taylor’s seemingly effortless ability to take us on a journey, we were introduced to Katherine Araniello, Tanya Raabe, Aaron Williamson, Jon Adams and Noemi Lakmaier who all presented pieces of their current artwork.
Michelle asked what it means to us, as artists, that we are disabled people? I think all the 25 or so people present, agreed that being a disabled person was part of their identity as an artist. But, crucially the degrees of identification with the term disabled artist, were wide ranging. Some marketed themselves as both artist and disabled artist, keeping all the eggs in the basket.
Tanya Raabe talked about fiercely identifying with being a disabled artist as a mark of pride. She presented some of her Who’s Who in the context of wanting to document some of the history of our movement. Disabled people have been invisible for so long and we need a sense of history in order to value what we have achieved. Work only really gets recognized for its value after it has undergone the test of time.
I think there needs to be more of an uncovering of the disability experience – work that was begun by Leicester Universities’ Buried in the Footnotes programme – a reevaluating of the institutionalization that influences peoples’ perceptions of where Disability Art is coming from. Tanya has shown her Who’s Who in 13 galleries to date. She has had 2 galleries reject the exhibition, one notably from a gallery who didn’t get the connection between the portraits and Disability Art. This success would suggest, that whilst old perceptions die hard, the tide is turning and there is a wider consciousness to embrace disability as a part of the human condition. Perhaps?
Both Aaron Williamson and Katherine Araniello are skilled at taking perceptions of disability and turning them into artwork that challenges prejudice by using a subversive humour that can shock and tease at the same time. And both have had success at taking their work into non-disability settings and gaining some evaluation from what we loosely call ‘the mainstream’.
Noemi Lakmaier talked about her work as having disability reference points. Her work is crucially about identity but whether or not this is seen as disability is not a major concern for her. It is what individuals’ can read into the work from their own experience that is the starting point for its being understood. She showed some work in development that is about ‘imposter syndrome’ – a psychological condition that stems from a lack of security in being who you are. Her portraits presented herself as an office worker, drenched with water and wearing inappropriate clothing.
Who we are, who we think we are and how others see us are such different and divergent things. Jon Adams refuted the term disabled artist as a nonsense. You wouldn’t buy a disabled car or call on a disabled tradesman, so why would you call yourself a disabled artist? He challenged the notion that Disability Arts battles against others’ prejudices asking whether the barriers can sometimes be put there by us? Jon is one of a new generation of artists making work that is about or informed by experience of disability, who is challenging how we feel about Disability Arts in a way that may enable us to move forward. The language we use and how we present ourselves is so important.
Is the phrase Disability Arts useful? For all of us there are universal elements to our work – but how important is it to reference the disability bit of it? Disability is a qualification, like a landscape artist or a surrealist artist it provides a reference point. The barriers the term creates is qualified by peoples’ perceptions and prejudices. But the opportunities it opens up for providing a bridge to an Art which is rooted in lived experience – and as such has the potential to create a deep and unique resonance. It is what drew me in to Disability Arts, having always been disillusioned with work which purely comes from an academic place, with historical reference but little or no emotional commitment.
A barrier has always been that Disability Arts communicates to other disabled people, but leaves non-disabled people out in the cold. As Aaron said during the discussion, we have reached stasis at the moment. Disability Arts has to be taken out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, but on its own terms. The challenge for organisations like DAO is in finding collaborations within the bigger picture that we can nurture in a the bid to give the work we are passionate about a wider audience.
This first event had a focus on contributions from visual artists. The performing artists will come next and I suspect will have a very different flavour. One of the greatest strengths and most undermining weaknesses for Disability Arts has been its ambition to cover all the artforms. It allows for more cross-fertilisation working across disciplines, but equally means that the separate needs of visual artists in comparison to performing artists has made the job the sector has to do in trying to embrace everything, that much harder.
There has always been a pressure on Disability Arts organisations to be all things to all people. May be this should be the subject of a future debate? Certainly there is a strong need for a platform for bringing people together to talk openly. This is something that has been very thin on the ground over the last ten years. So bring it on!