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 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?