Firstly I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all Dao’s readers and contributors. Last year we got out and about a fair bit, spreading the word about the disabled artists who engage with the disability arts sector through being a part of events, over and above the usual work we do of reporting on events and supporting artists through networking.
Firstly last June there was DaisyFest in Guildford, which featured two of Dao’s writers Penny Pepper and Allan Sutherland. Both Penny’s intimate Lost in Spaces - a poetic, musical journey through a personal history of the Disability Arts Movement and Allan’s extract from Neglected Voices: Proud were examples of the importance of persisting to assert the human rights element of our art form.
Later that month I gave a presentation of Dao's work at the Senseability conference organised by Tanvir Bush at Bath Spa University. It was a great pleasure to talk about some of the work we’ve featured over the last 10 years and explain something of Dao’s role to assist in facilitating networks and to support emerging disabled writers and artists through our blogs and our programme of commissioning writing on the arts and disability.
Last August Dao was invited to host another poetry event at Together! in Newham, where Wendy Tongue and Bonk Bipolar took to the stage with elements of the craft they’ve been developing through their respective blogs on Dao. There was further endorsement of their talent with invitations for further performances and workshops with the grassroots disability arts organisation.
On 3 September we ran Perceptions of Difference - a poetry event at the Saison Poetry Library in programmed to coincide with the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Having had a longstanding connection with Survivors’ Poetry, it was a fantastic achievement for me personally to introduce four poets who’ve been cornerstones of the movement: Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee and Frank Bangay.
Head Librarian Chris McCabe said of the event: “It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.”
It has been an ongoing pleasure to be a named media partner for Unlimited. Dao was the seventh top referral to the Southbank Centre’s website during the festival from 2-7 September, not accounting for the drive we did through our social media and weekly bulletin.
As the Unlimited programme develops through 2015/ 16 we will see new and further embedded partnerships beginning to ensure the programmes’ influence grow beyond London showcasing disabled artists creating extraordinary work.
It was great to see many of the artists given a platform at DaDaFest who are also an Unlimited partner. Last December the festival featured one of the main commissions Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged, plus several of the research and development projects: notably Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero with Backstage in Biscuit Land, Ailís Ní Ríain with her extraordinary cross art form Hieronymous Bosch-influenced The Drawing Rooms, and Kazzum Theatre’s promenade performance piece Where’s My Nana
DaDaFest was particularly memorable for the International Congress that was a major part of the programme, bringing disabled artists from across the globe, to coincide with the International Day of Disabled People.
A quote from mainstream freelance writer Bella Todd who we engaged last year to help us spread the word about Unlimited to the wider press sums up something of our aspiration to keep going in 2015:
“Many national, international and mainstream publications would envy the scale, quality and consistency of community engagement Disability Arts Online fosters on both its main website and through its social media channels.
Its writers, bloggers and readers (among whom there's an important degree of crossover) engage in an ongoing discourse that's at once supportive, argumentative, personal, politicised and teeming with individuality. That's no mean editorial feat. The quality and breadth of the debate will always make Dao pertinent and provocative reading for the wider world.
As a platform for giving a community a powerful, purposeful yet individuated voice, it's also a site to which more media outlets and organisations could do with paying attention.
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. We are under threat from measures designed by people in power who really basically don’t have a clue. Let’s come together and use Dao as platform to get our voices heard and to challenge top-down ignorance
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 week. Attitudes 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
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 email@example.com
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
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
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?