Colin reflects on decibel's aim to bring Performing Arts from across the diversity strands under one banner
A week on from decibel, the Arts Council’s Performing Arts Showcase in Manchester from 12-18 September 2011 and I am still reeling from the expanse and breadth of the work we saw there. At a time when the recession is hitting the Arts, it was exciting to experience a festival that understands how bringing artists and companies from across the range of work being made under the diversity banner can create an atmosphere that fosters new challenges, new conversations and new ways of doing things.
I won’t forget seeing Avant Garde Dance performing break-dance on top of a black cab. Aside from the decibel audience they drew the attention of builders and office workers who happened to pass the car park outside the music theatre where it was all taking place.
Brian Lobel [www.blobelwarming.com ] broke taboos with an extraordinary performance about his experience of testicular cancer that proved that one of the best ways of coming to terms with chronic, life threatening illness is by being able to laugh at it. The point of it was to break down barriers to the way we talk about impairment. I found it inspiring as someone who struggles on a daily basis, to come to terms with chronic illness.
The opportunity to meet and learn from people like Rawand Arqawi from the Freedom Theatre in Palestine was immense. There are big advantages to bringing artists together from across the sectorial divides. Maria Oshodi, Director of Extant put it well when she said “My art practise is informed by my norm, but bringing my practise into a more public arena, turns it into something other than the 'norm'.”
So crossing those divides can create the conditions to spark the imagination and break out of that sense of being constrained by the fact you are only speaking to people with a similar idea of what it means to be different. Difference provides the arts with a rich tapestry that is truly innovative and refreshing. But there needs to be a way to open up debate to a wider arena – and that is what the decibel showcase provides.
Programmers I spoke to gave a range of responses to how they might take on board the work on show, and the artists being showcased. But essentially there was no mistaking the fact that work coming out of practice that falls under the diversity banner; that represents the different agendas: disability, race, lgbt and women’s issues, can offer something refreshing and new to the Arts.
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?