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.
DAO Editor Colin Hambrook has been getting about a bit lately. And care of a train journey sponsored by Virgin, he managed to make it to the launch of DaDaFest at The Bluecoat in Liverpool yesterday afternoon.
There was hilarity in the air. A team of volunteers dressed in white coats and armed with clipboards mingled to ask whether or not we considered ourselves to be normal. Apparently they had been at it all day, outside Lime Street station, questioning Scousers about their view of how normal they think they are? Those conversations were filmed and will be edited and uploaded on to the DaDaFest website at a later date. So that’s one to watch out for!
This years DaDaFest, which is happening between now and 2 September promises some great visual arts, performance, dance theatre etc. on the theme of how identity is bound up with our changing, ageing bodies, ever prone to impairment, as the clock ticks away.
There has been a shifting emphasis as DaDaFest has developed over the past eleven years. It has retained elements of the traditional Disability Arts Festival by and for disabled people, offering a space for discussion about choices and rights.
But its ambitions have become much bigger and its focus wider as it has expanded from a community festival to a national and internationally recognised Arts Festival (DaDaFest Patron Sir Bert Massie reckoned the organization will soon be reaching out to Mars looking for artistic disabled aliens to take part! And what’s more, compere for the evening Mik Scarlett volunteered to be part of the scouting party. Now there’s an adventure!)
DaDaFest brought 60,000 visitors to Liverpool last year, as part of an ongoing legacy that has developed since the city was the European Capital of Culture in 2008. To build on that success DaDaFest aims to use the arts to spark a conversation with a wider audience; one that might well be alienated by ‘disability’ from the perspective of the Disability Arts movement.
To do that, it has changed the focus away from ‘being about disability’ to a subtler frame of reference, asking people how they relate to the idea of ‘normality’ in a life where our bodies change and our sense of identity shifts as a natural part of the process.
The main exhibition at this years’ festival – ‘Niet Normaal: Difference on Display’ (which also forms part of the London 2012 Festival programme) is an extraordinary attempt to move on the debate about how impairment and disability affects the lives of everyone.
As one of the Niet Normaal commissions Live Artist Aaron Williamson will be in residency at the Walker Art Gallery, ‘eavesdropping’ on the collection of paintings in the gallery: exploring a secretive dialogue, which plays on the assumption of his supposed ability as a deaf person to overhear and mishear the unvoiced.
DAO is proud to have been able to offer Aaron Williamson (who blogged on DAO about his residency at Spike Island in Bristol in 2009) a Diverse Perspectives commission to blog about the reality behind the façade, as the residency unfolds.