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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

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:

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 1 March 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 March 2013

Colin visits Sanchita Islam's Pigment Explosion Party

Creativity is a place where difficulty and beauty can share the same bed and offer something of value. The Creative Case for Diversity is an approach - mooted by the Arts Council - in an attempt to have a conversation about how it is that Art that comes from artists outside the usual narrow definition of who can be defined an artist and what can be defined as art, is often the most original work being produced.

DAO as a platform has attempted over recent years, to open its pages up to work by artists - who may not define as disabled artists - but who produce work that has come out of an experience of disability or impairment. The exciting thing for me about this work is its intent to say something real, that comes out of lived experience.

Yesterday I saw work produced by the remarkable, unfettered imagination of Sanchita Islam (as featured in an interview with Elisabetta Marino on Creative Case for Diversity) at her Pigment Explosion Party 2. Located in the snug on the fifth floor of Shoreditch House, I walked past a pool room to find Sanchita drawing in situ, while a screen showed a digital showcase of containing work spanning 25 years of making art.

On either side of the room, displayed flat were two 30 foot long scrolls: ‘Soul on a Scroll’ and a ‘panoramic view of East London’. Covered in the most exquisite range of pen and ink, drawing and painting, the work explores a billion and more details of intertwining stories and narratives of a mind allowed to roam unrestricted.

The minutiae of details in Islam’s drawing, reminded me of a lighter, feminine Nick Blinko, more psychedelic than gothic in its influence, but nonetheless intense; especially in the reams of impossibly tiny text that becomes a textural mark-making pattern for ‘Soul on a Scroll.’ The writing assumes a quality akin to the Rosetta stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Begun in 2008 as a way of emptying and calming the mind the work references classic images by Bacon, Bosch, Velázquez Goya and Da Vinci. There are a range of anatomical exercises in amongst the mountains, trees and foothills which unveil an inner landscape of truly epic proportions. There is absurdist humour in the detail. The eye suddenly settles on a phrase “I don’t like number 2” as a prequel to a sequence of drawing made of equations moving like swimmers in the tide towards the ‘Sanchita Equation.’

The second scroll on display was a 360 degree panoramic view of East London as seen from the top of Shoreditch House, before the recent railway was built. It begins with a man sitting with his back to the city and extends beyond into a freeflow of erotic goddess-type figures who pose in the sky, alongside the faces of small dogs peeping out from behind clouds. The landscape unfolds further to reveal a scene of upright dildos, resembling the ‘Fairy Chimneys’ in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Showing artwork in this way, in a non-gallery setting, makes it less formal, and more of a happening; a chance to meet the artist, hear her perform poetry and exchange meaningful conversation. I was wowed by the experience. Look out for an article from Sanchita about her work on DAO, to be published later this week…

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 March 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 16 March 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

Colin Hambrook takes a look at the latest Christmas offering from the Disabled Avant Garde

I caught Ed Vaizey on BBC Parliament last week. He was answering questions before a Select Committee challenging him on whether there is any justification for spending public funding on the Arts. A key reason he gave was that he saw the Arts as a bastion for sharing Happiness. Believe it or not he described himself as the Minister for Happiness.

He talked about the economic arguments for investing in the Arts, although it was clear from the discussions that the agenda for commercial sponsorship is going to be higher on the agenda than ever.

There is a massive divide in ideas about the value the Arts bring to peoples' lives - and who the Arts are for, and whether they are simply about entertainment. And of course whether the Arts are best served, as any funding becomes more dependent on sponsorship - as a marketing tool for Business.

Disability Arts is very much about challenging perceptions around identity. The movement has arisen out of a massive lobby, particularly in the UK, to challenge the deficit model and to support authorship of creative expression, exploring Disablity as a construct.

In my opinion none do it better than the Disabled Avant Garde (DAG) producing work that combines a liberal dash of sardonic wit and disability politics. Their latest christmas offering 'No Room at the Igloo' is a 9 minute video mockumentary they've produced for youtube.

The video is a bit of fun that casts some wry comment on the commissioning process behind last years' Igloo in the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. They also make some pertinent remarks about perceptions of 'disabled artists' - combining humour and attitude.

My guess is that seeking business sponsorship will up the anti on a reliance on the tick-box approach for any funding disabled artists can expect to realise in future. DAG take a subversive approach to the notion of the tick-box and the tragic but brave connotations it supports. The DAG image of disability arts and Joseph and Mary is very pertinent.

Have a look and explore some of the other videos on the DAG channel too.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 8 December 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 9 December 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