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2015: The year impairment issues returned to the fore

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.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 December 2015

Last modified by Joe Turnbull, 18 December 2015

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.”

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 19 October 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 October 2015

Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven do 'The Golden Gherkin'

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.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 29 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 July 2015

Disability Arts is dead! Long live Disability Arts...

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?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 26 April 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 27 April 2015

Disability Arts versus Pudsey Bear

I often ask myself what is the point of Disability Arts? Every board meeting we have discussions about how we are swimming against a tide in our desire to raise the stakes for equality for disabled people. The attitudes that keep us in chains abound everywhere we look and our small attempts to challenge collectively are consistently ignored.

Just last week we suffered the BBC’s annual celebration of everything Tragic but Brave in which Pudsey Bear struts his stuff to let the world know how lucky it is to be ‘normal’. According to the Guardian an average of 8.3 million viewers watched Children In Need. 

Disability is a role imposed on us as bearers of abnormality. The BBC ups harp music to the max in order to play on peoples’ fears of impairment, using the wit and charm of Sir Terry Wogan to preach their disabling message. At its core that message is that we can only make sense of our impairments in negative terms; that our worth as human beings can only be measured through a discriminatory lens.

Children In Need exploits the poor, needy and desperate straits of children and young people in order to remind us of the value of normality and to ram home the message that unless ‘normal’ people want to experience stigma, they’d better keep on conforming to disabling value systems and keep their own little idiosyncrasies and abnormalities well hidden.

And so it goes on… I don’t think anyone could argue that many of charities the BBC’s fund-raising marathon supports are not doing good work. This year Children in Need raised a record £32.6m for disadvantaged children and young adults in the UK, £1.6m more than last year.

The reality is of course, that at the end of the day it is disabled people who pay for the appalling piece of marketing that the BBC is so proud of. Disabled People Against Cuts are now estimating that the average number of deaths directly or indirectly attributable to austerity measures has risen from 32 deaths per week to 73 deaths per weekAttitudes proselytised by campaigns like Children in Need only serve to justify the human cost of discriminatory attitudes. 

Meanwhile events such as DaDaFest are still attempting to raise awareness through showcasing artwork that presents conversations about the experience of disability and of impairment. 

Art of the Lived Experiment, this years’ curated show at the centre of DaDaFest International 2014 has had a piece of work blacked out in protest by one of the exhibiting artists who took offence at his work being labelled as Disability Arts. Quite why Mike Carr would agree to have his work exhibited in a Disability Arts festival if he objects to the term is not clear. DaDaFest says what it is on the tin. What this act does demonstrate, in my mind at least, is how high feelings run in the running away stakes.

Disability arts still has a role to play in allowing conversations, not marred by media spin, that demonstrate the realities of living with imperfect, impaired bodies and minds in a way that is balanced and real, rather than tainted by negative sensationalist attitudes.

By Colin Hambrook

 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 November 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 November 2014

To define or not to define: the dirty 'disability' word

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

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 27 October 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 October 2014

Colin kicks off 2014 with a look at one of Dao's most accessed pieces of in-depth content

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. 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 January 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 January 2014

Avant-garde or art as activism? Colin Hambrook discusses Disability Art in relation to Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures and Liz Crow's In Actual Fact

Since 1948 the BBC have been broadcasting an annual series of lectures by leading figures of the day addressing contemporary themes. It's over twenty years since there was last a Reith Lecture on the place of the Arts within society, so initially I was a bit non-plussed as to why Grayson Perry had been chosen to deliver a series which I normally associate with heady science or hearty politics.

I listened to the third of the 'Playing to the Gallery' series of talks 'Nice Rebellion: Welcome in' immediately seeing how the title might relate to Disability Arts. The Disability Arts sector has a legacy going back to the 1980s, of looking to produce art that challenges attitudes towards disability - the kind of art as activism that seeks to challenge institutions and institutionalised discrimination.

True to the title of his talk Grayson argues convincingly that the idea of rebellion within art is a tautology; that everywhere art institutions applaud Art that dresses itself up as going against the grain; and that the cultural zeitgeist of the Western world has reached a point where 'subversion' is as much a target for commodification as anything else. "…the lifeblood of capitalism is new ideas," he argues, because "they need new stuff to sell!" And when seeking the shock of the new, what better product than subversion?

So where does the concept of Disability Art fit in with the idea of seeking to challenge? Some years ago at the 2007 debate held by London Disability Arts Forum in Tate Modern, Yinka Shonibare described Disability Arts as 'The last remaining avant-garde movement'. If we think of the idea of avant-garde to mean "at the forefront of rebellion", I'm not sure that is completely true. Feminism may have moved forwards into the mainstream to a greater or lesser effect, but it strikes me that the artists who popularly most exemplify 'art as rebellion' at this moment in time are the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. In the aftermath of a public performance of a punk prayer to oppose the unscrupulous vilification of women through the sanctification of State by Church in Russia, they have put their lives on the line. Recent BBC reports of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova say that after going on hunger strike following abuses in jail, that the Pussy Riot member has disappeared, and is feared dead.

As much as Grayson Perry talks about the globalisation of Art practice, it is very evident that the rules that apply in the Western world are different to those in the East. And that attitudes towards human rights are equally very different. Or are they? What is the life of a disabled person worth in a situation where so many of us can be declared fit for work, whilst on our deathbeds? And what does it mean when the fact of so much misery and suffering can prevail against the most vulnerable members of society with hardly a murmur raised in opposition in our media?

Personally I'm not sure whether the term 'avant-garde' conjures up the idea of something that's controversial. It perhaps says more about where we've come from than where we're going. Again with reference to one of Grayson Perry's stories from his lecture, the term describes Duchamp's Urinal but not Brian Eno's recent ploy to fill it with piss.

And so I'd very much doubt whether avant-garde is a term we'd see as applicable to our movement. However, to my mind Liz Crow is one of the few disabled artists seeking to present art as activism - and to use the precept of Disability Art as a form that speaks about the experience of disability, rather than the experience of impairment.

Her counter-propaganda site In Actual Fact, was created to give actual facts about benefits and public services cuts - and to counter the political use of austerity to justify the deaths of disabled people who are being cast aside. Tomorrow is The People’s Assembly national day of action against austerity. Crow is urging people to tweet (and Facebook) from the In Actual Fact site, adding the #burnausterity hashtag at the end of tweets.

On Wednesday 6 November 9.00pm, BBC will broadcast ‘Britain on the Fiddle’ (the first in a series of three). This is a chance to show In Actual Fact working to counter propaganda. Crow is calling for mass-tweeting on the #britainonthefiddle hashtag, answering every single lie with relevant tweets from the IAF site.

In Grayson Perry's mind sincerity may well be 'problematic' and by implication a disguise for much 'bad' art. But then as much as I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of his series of Reith lectures, I doubt he would ever give disability art the time of day, or indeed see the critical nature of what we're trying to achieve.

Please click on this link to go to the In Actual Fact website

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 November 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 November 2013

Colin Hambrook adds a vote of thanks to the intoxicating and cerebral survivor poet Dave Russell

This week Trish Wheatley and I have been busy making plans for new projects on DAO, getting ready to for DAOs tenth anniversary in April 2014. As one of the projects we hope to develop is a poetry prize, I thought I'd add a quick post on the first Outside In poetry event hosted by Pallant House Gallery on the 12th October.

Simon Jenner penned a review of the event last week, but for those who were in attendance [and those who weren't] who wondered at the words of the wild and invigorating performance of the legendary Dave Russell, I thought I'd post one of his genius poems from his collection Prickling Counterpoints.

Dave gives so much as a performer with a rare quality of complete and utter uniqueness, mixed with a humour that is beyond all ken. I know because I've been set free by clinical psychiatry without a facile solution in sight.

Clinical Psychiatry

I never go to gypsies to find out about my fortune,
I've cast off superstitions of the past;
I am a product of an era of built-in obsolescence
Where relationships are just not made to last.

My world is morning-grey; I have learned to live with it,
That's a promise that to myself I vowed;
Because I've been set free by Clinical Psychiatry
And no facile solutions are allowed.

The highways of your mind are quite forbidden to pedestrians,
That's tough on me – I'm trying to be naïve;
When it comes to making statements from the bedrock of my feelings
It's the tongue inside my cheek I must believe –

You see, I read you up in books before I ever saw your face
And now it's just your ambiguity I see,
And as I wander through those labyrinthine depths of inner meanings,
I think the only one I'm talking to is me!

I hoped my being lonesome might place me on a pedestal
But now I see I'm in a lonely crowd
Of people all set free by Clinical Psychiatry
And no facile solutions are allowed.

We're half-past liberation; nothing's right and nothing's wrong –
There's just a big complex of different points of view,
And my vast array of paperbacks has so broadened my outlook
That I make all the allowances for you.

Yet you still seem to be present as a sensory phenomenon
and this poor superego can't be proud
Because I've been set free by Clinical Psychiatry
And no facile solutions are allowed.

I happened upon a recording posted by Jim Clark of Dave back in 1997. I'll be ever indebted to Dave for his song Microscope with its ever useful instruction on how to attain the binoculars of wisdom. To be astounded and amazed click on this youtube link... and remember to make sure you have your microscope with you at all times 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 25 October 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 30 September 2014

Colin Hambrook asks where do we find Disability Arts and activism?

The Disability, Arts & Diversity Symposium: 'From the Personal to the Universal' at Salisbury Arts Centre last week, promised to be "an in depth look at Disability Arts and activism from the viewpoints of artists, producers, presenters and policy makers."

There are myriad implications for Disability Arts and its activist role in the wider social context, but to my mind the Symposium itself did little to address the issues. I wonder if somewhere along the way, the glory of Unlimited has gone to our heads? Many of those commissions address discrimination through talking about marginalisation, through telling personal stories and creating social engagement - through for example asking a wider public about their attitudes to the wheelchair - and all in all, like most art on public display, through entertainment.

But to my mind none of those works are actively challenging the status quo. All of the work comes from a middle-class elitist response to the barriers placed in front of disabled people. If it wasn't would it find a home in the Southbank Centre, or Salisbury Arts Centre?

In his address at the symposium Hassan Mahamdallie (Senior Strategy Officer, Arts Council England) talked about Standpoint Theory - based on the idea that those who are marginalised have more to give because we have to understand the centre as well as our own position in the scheme of things, whilst those at the centre don't have to understand anything beyond their own viewpoint.

We are seeing this now with the clash of class consciousness over the decision to spend £10 million on Thatcher's funeral - as if the whole country has a duty to mourn this one person. For those in the ruling classes there is no consideration of the worth of the millions whose lives were destroyed in one way or another through policies that directly demeaned and challenged our very existence.

Mahamdallie went on to talk about work that makes a virtue of being an outsider. Yes, I would say the work of Outside In, the work shown in the People Like You exhibition does that. But does it have an activist role? Who is art as activism for? We have the Disability Movement to thank for galvanising us to find artistic ways to protest through organisations like the London Disability Arts Forum in the 80s and 90s. The clarion call of disabled artists like Johnny Crescendo and Ian Stanton were a lynchpin for activism. Where and who do we have to turn to, now?

Liz Crow's 'Bedding In' to my mind, took an activist stance in giving a voice to those disabled people who are not seen and not heard. But where was the context in looking at how we develop approaches to giving a platform for the dispossessed? I would have cited the cartoons of Crippen or the visual poetry of Vince Laws in taking an agit-prop look at what's going on in the real world. I would have talked about the work of the Atos Stories Collective who are attempting to challenge the media and by writing plays about individuals experiences and getting the monologues out there.

Who would you cite?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 April 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 16 April 2013

Colin Hambrook introduces the new look DAO and invites you to attend a symposium on disability art and activism at Salisbury Arts Centre

We've been working hard during the last six months on the new design of DAO, which we launched earlier this week. Big thanks to everyone who has sent us feedback in the last few days.

Responding to our last readers survey in March 2012 we decided to move away from the handmade feel and produce a bolder design which highlighted art form to make it easier to find features on specific topics within the navigation.

We're working hard on identifying bugs in the older pages and tweaking anomalies that have appeared as a result of the changeover. Please continue to highlight anything you think looks amiss and let us know what you think of the new look by emailing me via editor@disabilityartsonline.org.uk

DAO is currently working in partnership with LinkUpArts and Salisbury Arts Centre on an exhibition called People Like You. We are very excited about the symposium 'From the Personal to the Universal' which focuses on the role of disability arts and activism. This takes place on 10 April, towards the end of the exhibition. There are limited places so if you plan to attend make sure you book well in advance. The same goes for Liz Crow's Bedside Conversations which were a highlight at SPILL Festival, Ipswich last year.

For those writers amongst you there is an opportunity to come on a brilliant half day course with Marian Cleary in Writing Interviews on 9th April. This will be a great opportunity to brush up on technique and attend the symposium the following day for free!

Further details are here: www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/Opportunities?item=3870

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 1 March 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 March 2013

Colin Hambrook posts the debate from FaceBook group on disability art and Identity

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!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 5 December 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 9 December 2012

Colin Hambrook asks will the Paralympic opening ceremony provide more of a laugh than Katherine Araniello's take on the 'Superhuman' ideal being proselytised by Channel 4?

The London 2012 Paralympics, which will be broadcast in over 100 countries, with a count down to the opening ceremony being broadcast on Channel 4 tonight. After months of top level secrecy I got an email earlier from an excited disabled performer saying "it's all tantrums & tiaras back-stage". I can just imagine! All those 'superhumans' in the background getting ready to flex some bicep.

Personally I find the whole malarky about how 'inspiring' we are - as disabled people - to be deeply offensive. It's as if it's suddenly okay to patronise us. And now of course that we can do everything and be everything, it's perfectly okay to do away with benefits and let us die.

Last April a Mirror.co.uk investigation by Penman and Sommerlad estimated "an average of 32 people  are dying each week despite them being ruled not sick enough in the medical test for the new incapacity benefit." More recently undercover Dr Steven Bick reporting on Channel 4’s Dispatches claimed the Government has issued targets for 7 out of 8 to be reclassified as eligible for work. The Daily Mirror reported, earlier this summer that "Atos boss Thierry Breton received a bonus of nearly £1million to help slash the benefits bill." Another report in the Guardian yesterday said that "the government have outsourced more than £3bn of public services to the firm."

It seems we are in a state of rapid change. Perhaps the dream of the the Disability Movement to challenge the charity model of disability has been more successful than perhaps we might have wanted. We're no longer the worthy cause that demanded tick-box recognition. It's hard to predict what's around the corner, but it seems some disabled people are fighting back.

And perhaps some of the messages from the Unlimited commissions will get through. For example Simon Mckeown's 'Motion Disabled Unlimited' animation is a graceful take on the ordinariness of the impaired body. Claire Cunningham charts her lifelong relationship with her crutches and its impact on her love life in 'Ménage à Trois'. Kaite O'Reilly's 'In Water I'm Weightless' gives a textured portrayal of individuals relationship to their impairments.

However, performance can be interpreted in many different ways so whether or not the disability messages of challenging preconceptions about who and what is 'normal' get through, remains to be seen in how the press cover the events.

However entertaining a spectacle Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings pull off for the opening ceremony tonight - in my mind nothing could beat Katherine Araniello's spoof on the Channel 4 Paralympics 'Superhuman' advert. Ready to do battle with fags and chocky cake, Katherine performs the amazing feat of balancing an imitation bar-bell on her finger, in the form of a cotton bud.

We can't match up to the aesthetics of the Paralympians however much we might try. Or kill ourselves trying...
---
The opening ceremony is being televised tonight on Channel 4 at 8pm

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 29 August 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Colin Hambrook, reports on news about DAO, past, present and future

the disability arts on line logo

We've had an exciting time recently finishing off DAO’s New Voices project. Our 2012 group of New Voices writers have been fully engage with DAO. During the project, their blog entries, reviews and interviews have delivered lots of interaction from our readership.

In preparation for our next project, Diverse Perspectives, we’ve been awarded a significant Grants for the Arts award by Arts Council England (ACE) to do a range of things.

Firstly, we are commissioning eight disabled artists to work with arts venues nationally to produce new works over the period of a year for online presentation on DAO, and we hope beyond. These commissions will offer a wide range of artistic engagements with key arts and cultural organisations across the country.

Secondly, DAO's writers, will be out in full force during the Cultural Olympiad to capture the debate and critique the events involving disabled artists and audiences. This includes the 29 Unlimited commissions which will be toured around the country from now until the end of August and will then be part of Southbank’s Unlimited Festival, part of the Festival of the World from 31 August to 9 September 2012.

Thirdly, to help everyone keep track of what is going on, DAO will also be launching a special DAO Guide to 2012 app which will provide a comprehensive listings service with links to artists, venues, events and festivals.

We will also be continuing to work with the Creative Case for Diversity so keep up with this website for dialogue, comment and debate.

DAO will also be getting a facelift! Through our recent reader survey, as well as through general communication with our readership over the past few years, it has been clear that using a side-menu navigation bar hasn't been as successful as we'd have liked in signposting our readers to the massive range, breadth and depth of copy published within the journal.

So to that effect we will be developing a top menu, with a focus on art form rather than content type. This means you’ll more easily find copy on the particular types of content that you are interested in reading about and discussing on our pages. So thank you to everyone who took part in feeding back comment, the good, the bad and the ugly, and please look out for more reader surveys in the future.

These improvements have been taking up a lot of time! And to help us deliver what we do to a higher standard we have taken on a freelance sub-editor, Marian Cleary, who is a welcome addition to DAOs small but committed part-time staff team.

This is a really exciting time for DAO and everyone involved in Disability Arts. There are so many disabled artists aiming for great things this year and DAO will be providing a platform for celebrating, examining and debating all that emerges from this.

So with that combined with our own new commissions, we are really looking forward to what promises to be fascinating times for everyone involved. And that includes you, the readers, artists, commentators, critics, bloggers, venues, programmers and all the people involved in creating the case for not just diversity but entertainment with attitude, debate and discussion, and taking forward what all that those presenting their ideas on DAO, in so many ways, have to say.

Posted by Anonymous, 18 May 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Colin asks 'What is Liberty?'

Last Friday I entertained a group of nine young disabled people on a research visit from Seoul in Korea. They were wanting to find out about the history of disability arts development in the UK. They wanted to know how disabled artists in the UK have achieved the level of independence that we have; how we have got into a position where our work is seen, now, within the pantheon of professional arts practice. I talked about the importance of the Social Model of Disability as a rallying cry; the importance of disability cabarets, Ian Stanton, Johnny Crescendo, D.A.N., Heart n Soul.

At this time when everything we have fought for seems under threat like never before, it is a time for re-remembering, recording and disseminating those stories and that work. It is a dichotomy that the drive towards supporting the professional development of artists and companies to make work for a mainstream platform has gone side-by-side with the undermining of the disability arts movement as a community.

How strong the disability arts community is seems hard to gauge right now. The majority of disability arts forums, who were the mainstay of community development in the '90s, no longer exist. Those few that remain have a massive battle on their hands for survival.

The Liberty Festival was set up in 2003 with the express intention of creating a political platform to support disability rights. This happened with active engagement from Ken Livingstone who was then Mayor of London. [Interesting to note the lack of a presence from the current mayor this year.]

Liberty is no longer a rights festival. On the other hand its message to promote inclusion is massively supported by its presence in the new venue on the Southbank. Taking up space in the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall has given it a mainstream audience like never before. (With audiences of 300+ for each performance, I estimated 6,000 people for the main events alone.) But access for the disability community, by the nature of the Southbank architecture with its cobbled pathways and split level areas, has been compromised in comparison to Trafalgar Square.

The cabaret tent, which was the most overtly political element of the old Liberty, has gone, in favour of much fuller performances from the likes of Graeae, StopGAP and Fittings Multimedia Arts. It is now a very professionally produced event. No longer can we moan about the accessibility of the brochure or the staging of events. It is all seamless. [Although I’m sure VIPs would have something to say about the audio-description.]

Caroline Cardus’s installation, ‘The Way Ahead’, a series of traffic signs promoting disability rights messages, had a steady stream of people readily absorbing and photographing the work. When I spoke to her, she said that when it had been shown previously at Liberty non-disabled audiences were less able to comprehend what the installation was and their engagement with it was more circumspect. But audiences at the Southbank come to the venue for arts and culture. They are there for the art. And that has got to be good for the artists whose work is shown there, hasn't it?

However the Liberty brand now begs the question, ‘liberty’ for whom? Does the festival title now carry an implication that equality has been fought for and won? Will the festival now become lost in the plethora of arts festivals which inhabit the spaces on the Southbank?

At a time when disability rights are systematically being sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, I wondered what stories about independence for disabled artists a group from the Korean Society of Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities would take back with them to Seoul in a year or two’s time?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 September 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 April 2012

Editor Colin Hambrook reviews some DAO highlights of 2010

Greetings to all the wonderful disabled artists, performers and writers who have contributed to DAO and made it such a fantastic journal to edit over the past year.

Over the last eight months or so I've been making more of a concerted effort to encourage disabled individuals, companies and projects to use DAO as a place to blog about life, art, access and artistic practice. It's been a rewarding experience and so (in no particular order) I'd like to share some of my highlights of the past year.

In July Sophie Partridge reported on her experience of being part of Rethinking Disability Project Focus Group at Shape. She gives a lively account of reflections on images of disabled people from the Royal College of Physicians’ archive. The group was a preliminary adjunct to an exciting exhibition interpreting the context of image-making and attitudes towards disabled people to be shown in Shape's offices (and hopefully other venues) in 2011.

I also greatly enjoyed Anne Teahan's account of taking part in Revealing Culture - an international disability arts exhibition of 55 artists, which was shown at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington last summer. She gives an insightful account of her trip, and reflections on disability and impairment.

DaDaFest 2010 in Liverpool proved to produce a major high point on the the disability arts calendar this year. In her December blog Tanya Raabe gave an excited report on the part her talented brush and eye played in revealing disability arts culture to a wider audience on the BBC's Culture Show.

I can think of a few theatre companies that are tackling inclusion in a dynamic and ground-breaking ways. Over the Xmas break I saw the ever stunning deaf actress Caroline Parker in Red Earth's children's production of The Lost Happy Endings adapted from the book by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. This fun production was energised by the use of BSL by the cast of four who brought it to life.

Improbable Theatre are also developing a track record for inclusive theatre. No Idea was a highly engaging piece of devised theatre by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spense reviewed by Kate Cotton

Ian Dury cropped up several times in 2010. There was a memorable biopic starring Andy Serkis reviewed by Alison Wilde.

Fittings Multimedia blogged about their tour of Raspberry - a production that brought Ian Dury to life as a narrator in a surreal story line that evoked disability struggles. The show was much admired by Colin Cameron

Finally, John Kelly aka Rockinpaddy had a hilarious punky part to play as lead singer in Graeae's production of Reasons to be Cheerful at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In Rockinpaddy's blog he talked about getting and feeling his way through taking on the part in what proved an affectionate, entertaining celebration of Ian Dury's music.

Dolly Sen has been making lively contributions to DAOs pages for nearly three years. She added a gallery of artworks last summer. Did she ever find that missing hula hoop I wonder?

Victoria Wright had a few outings on tv and radio in 2010. As well as having (in my opinion) the best role in Channel 4s award-winning comedy Cast-Offs, she also supplied DAO with an open letter to mainstream comedian Frankie Boyle after his incessant attacks on learning disabled people.

This discussion piece provoked some interesting comments about humour and discrimination. There are no easy solutions. Attacking disabled people for the way we look, sound, are stereotypically expected to behave etc. still largely goes unchallenged. Except for the first time complaints to Ofcom were registered.

Thanks to everyone for supporting DAO in 2010. We look forward to more in-depth focus on you, your talents and our community in 2011.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 1 January 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 2 January 2011

'Dreams of the Absurd...'

In the 1990s I put together a visual arts exhibition called 'Dreams of the Absurd' which got shown in various galleries in the UK and abroad.

It was an extension of a series of large-scale paintings, prints and writing about experience of mental health issues. During research I did whilst still at college I connected the work with the representation of 'madness' within the history of art.

I've been trying to get back into making and showing my own work since the those days... With encouragement from other artists engaged with DAO I'm putting tentative feet back in the water...

So here is a poem that relates to my experience of growing up in a psychotic household and dealing with issues of psychosis personally from a tender age...

 

 

On Healing my Childhood
On RD Laings' fit of promise
I gave you a magic potion, hidden
in a steaming plate of baked beans.

You held your demons in suspension
for a while. I hoped you would find forgiveness
in the small hours and learn to be kinder.

Building a time machine with sticky
back plastic, you concocted a
spell; attempted to undo our births.

I put a band-aid on each moment that hurt you;
went to the moon for help, but couldn't find
my way past the myriad of therapists
who crowded the path to the place of no pain.

The universe exploded with nazi meditators
surrounded in light oozing from every orifice.
I travelled to the end of London and back
to find a potent enough medicine to calm your
nerves; put schizophrenia in remission;
denied its existence to release the guilt.

I tried remembering everything you had ever said;
confessed to the time doctor who gave you yet more
electricity in the name of healing. When
you blamed the next-door-neighbours
I wrapped myself in a ball and sent myself to the talisman.

Calling on blood and stone; I found the faces of change
in the place where the gods live and empowered
each memory with a prayer for healing.

You listened to my heart, made promises for every secret
and bound our love to the four corners of the wind
before your white blood cells dried up and died
of largatyl, chlorpramazine, depixol and modicate.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 19 July 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 27 July 2015

Colin Hambrook continues to be mad...

Living with disability can get extreme sometimes. For me, living in the wake of so-called 'schizophrenia' has meant a lifetime of juggling the darkest emotions like tennis balls. My relationship with the illness has been a lifelong struggle... one of those things you are not meant to own up to.

It's a guaranteed conversation-stopper. Even within the disability community you are not guaranteed an empowering response. Reference to the illness can be a great way of losing acquaintances you are not particularly keen on in the first place.

The best you can expect is a conversation about how much better the medication is these days... as if the pharmaceutical companies were engaged in quality control of the neurological issues, heart problems and effects on the central nervous system which are endemic to all the anti-psychotics.

In an interview about definition and language on BBC Radio 4s Word of Mouth, Francesca Martinez asked "why not redefine people with schizophrenia as 'overly imaginative.'" In context she meant it as an understatement challenging the media's tendency to capitalise on the instant shock value to be gained from adding the 'schizo' word to a headline.

I saw a great ad at a multi-screen cinema recently... 30 seconds of blurry camera and dramatic sound introduce the oft-used cipher 'schizo' - leading you into thinking you're about to see a trailer for a violent horror movie. And then the image is cut with an ordinary family situation. A middle-aged man addresses the camera, telling the audience how he has lived with 'schizoprenia' for 12 years and has been able to live a full life with support from his family. 

There needs to be more responsible open discussion of so-called 'schizophrenia'. As an illness it is all about irrational fear - as effect and as a cipher. Living with overly developed fear responses, is incredibly debilitating and hard work for those around you.

Societies mindless, sensation-grabbing responses don't help. Alison Wilde sent me an interesting analaysis of the nature of fear's companion, evil - in an article on a book titled On Evil by Terry Eagleton in The Independent.

It seems that we've never quite recovered from the boring name goodness and virtue made for themselves during the Victorian period. Despite the banality that accompanies evil; we have become obsessed by painting evil as romantic and glamorous.

During the Thatcher years we saw a reinvention of selfishness as 'altruism', in the desperate game of justifying greed. It set us up for a lot of fighting... and of course, we were the evil ones in demanding that support of our communities was a necessary part of finding strength to lead fulfilling lives. 

But our community does continue to thrive... and will continue to thrive as the going gets tough...

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 May 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 20 May 2010

Colin Hambrook reflects on the second Artists Debating Identity event at Shape

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.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 16 October 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 8 December 2010

Disability arts - is it politics, or is it art? Who decides?

I have always been reluctant to write about my impairment issues. Such talk always leads towards a medical model, victim mentality. And that is why the disability arts community has always, rightly, made room for self-definition. We’ve been labouring against medical model labels that brand us as tragic for a long time. And certainly the weight of media still continues to represent us as victims of our conditions and to define us with negative stories about our lives; or dressing us up in the emperors’ bravest clothing.

For some time we have been labouring to get to grips with the Social Model thing about celebrating difference and understanding how the barriers to equality of opportunity etc. have been imposed on us by society. There has been a lot of mileage in those ideas; questioning the medical model and societies attitudes to disability. They have given us room to build the disability arts movement.

But now we have the DDA and a lot of positive change has come over the past ten years, in terms of accessibility and equality of opportunity. But there is still a weight of discrimination to fight against and I am not sure that any of us know where the disability arts movement is going? We have consistently failed to come together to debate our vision and purpose and to fight our corner for self-determination as a whole.

There is a case for saying that the disability arts movement has done disabled people a disservice in raising expectations of ourselves as artists beyond what we are capable of. In many ways it was simpler when we were plain ‘community art’ and had no truck with ‘excellence’.

For me a big motivating factor is still that creativity belongs to all. But somewhere along the line the political debates have outshone discussion about Art and aesthetics. It has become a case of the cart leading the horse. There is a big question to be tackled about why social and political issues have been conflated with art-making?

Why is a socially excluded disabled person expected to be an ‘artist’ as well as a person with a political grievance? I don't think there is a requirement, but I do think that the conditions of living with discrimination, means that we often become artists because or in spite of ourselves.

The nature of being in the public gaze and experiencing otherness influences our artistic sensibilities. And I have found that making artistic responses to discrimination has been essential to my survival – whether or not the work I’ve created is ‘good’ art or not.

During the heyday of Disability Arts cabaret we saw a lot of work that took a critical look a the Charity sector from the likes of ‘The Tragic but Brave Show’ and a host of performance artists that performed on that circuit. In recent years we’ve seen a lot of interventionist work from the likes of the Disabled Avant Garde that explores societies’ attitudes towards disabled people.

Not to forget Paul Darke’s spoof of the Leonard Cheshire website. The Charity sector has been responsible for many works of anti-disability art in the guise of self promotion – and these have been fuel for many disability creatives’ fire. The game has got more subtle as the Charity sector has either cottoned on to better marketing or has tried to do a better job, generally.

One of the most all-time personally hard-hitting pieces of anti-disability art was the poster campaign that launched Marjorie Wallace’s organisation SANE. It was 20 years ago when she plastered every high street across the country with sensationalist images representing people with mental health labels as dangerous murderers. One of the main campaign slogans read ‘He thinks he’s Jesus. He wants to kill you.’ And a central graphic, used a distorted manipulation of a bearded face intended to reproduce the idea of what it is to go through psychosis. It was an image influenced by Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but which turned the meaning behind his work on its head. SANE’s agenda then was to actively promote fear of disabled people. It inspired hundreds of us from the mental health community to take to the streets.

Discrimination is more subtle now. Such blatant examples of misrepresentation don’t get through the net so easily, but is the Charity sector more responsive to the needs of those they purport to serve? Today, I would still actively question SANE’s motives as an organization.

The job of reflecting back still needs to be done. And I would maintain that we still need disability arts to do that job. But as things move on questions about quality and aesthetic may prove to derail us unless we embrace constructive ways of opening up opportunities for education in the arts – and learn to face critical appraisal of what we put out in the public realm.

Pivoted as we are between making art for a community of disabled people and making art for a wider audience is there any wonder we consistently fail to attain the agenda for excellence? I have just been to the performance arts festival in Greenwich where a host of disabled and deaf companies were programmed and aside from Graeae’s exceptional ‘Against the Tide’, much of it was poor in comparison to the non-disabled work on show and is unlikely to get used again.

To accommodate change I wonder if disability arts, as a form that questions discrimination, may well have to die? It seems to be a prerequisite of human activity that we don’t recognize the value of what we have until it disappears. There is another important question to be asked in how we develop quality art in a world where the increasing pressure is to create work that has commercial viability. There are many and complex problems to overcome.

What do you think? How would you define disability art? What do you feel about the current climate within the movement as a whole?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 July 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 3 November 2010

Artists Debating Identity

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!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 21 June 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 8 December 2010

Getting into the groove ...

I have been slowly getting myself back into the groove since getting back from Australia. Big thanks go to Jon Pratty for managing DAO in my absence.

I saw some terrific work in Australia, met some great people and learnt a lot from the process about my journey through Disability Arts. On a personal level it has been a difficult time. At the beginning of this year my son began treading a similar journey to my own disability-wise - and it has made me reflect a lot on who I am and how I got here. I can only hope that I can support him in finding a way of making his own disability journey as rewarding as I have been able to do for myself.

In Adelaide I had the privilege of attending and giving a presentation at a Disability Arts Forum South Australia meeting. I was invited by Gaelle Mellis of Restless Dance Company to talk about my own journey and reflections on the Disability Arts movement. In many ways it was like coming across an emergent London Disability Arts Forum from the early 1980s. Disabled people were just beginning to get their heads around the Social Model of Disability and to think about how they could get their voices heard in a more effective way. The group of disabled artists, carers and allies had been going for two years and were just beginning to have conversations about becoming incorporated and to look at ways that they could create a structure which fitted their aims and intentions.

Finding and creating opportunities to have a voice, as a disabled person, is a tricky business at the best of times. From my experience acceptance as a disabled person has to come from within first and foremost. It can take many years, a life time, even. Many disabled people don’t get to that point, for a variety of reasons to do with internalised oppression, fear of being labelled etc. etc. But it is only once you’ve come to terms with what disability gives and what it takes, that you can begin to put yourself out in the world. It was encouraging, invigorating to see energy building around the struggle for empowerment happening in Australia – even if some there might say that they are a long way behind what is happening in the UK.

I would say that there is a lot to be learnt both ways around. In Australia I felt that they have gone beyond the hang-up we seem to hang on to in the UK, that Disability Art is about Art. The problems there are more to do with who has creative control over the Art – what it says about the Disability experience; the way it is funded and the way it is marketed. Mostly the control lies with non-disabled producers. That isn’t a problem when those producers are coming from the right place in terms of giving creative control. But there are keen issues to do with definition and identity that can create barriers, especially when disabled people don’t feel their voices are being heard or their interests represented.

Over the coming week or so I plan to give an overview of the Disability Arts activity I saw and reflect on the things I have learnt … so stay tuned …

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 May 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 12 May 2009