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.
DAO Editor Colin Hambrook had the pleasure of visiting the launch of the Unlimited commissions yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London's Southbank Centre.
Bringing together all 29 Unlimited commissions, Unlimited: the Revelation starts here is a showcase for a platform of new works spanning dance and performance, visual arts, comedy, circus, music and theatre. The 11-day celebration is the finale of Southbank Centre’s summer-long Festival of the World, which presents projects from around the world that demonstrate the power of art to transform lives.
Alongside Southbank Centre's Artistic Director Jude Kelly, who said she hopes Unlimited will mark "a milestone step change across the arts community and audience development" were Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad talking about the aim of Unlimited to create work of scale and ambition and Carole McFadden, Drama and Dance Advisor at the British Council talking about the range of international connections the commissions have involved.
We were treated to Claire Cunningham speaking about her dance/ theatre piece Ménage a Trois, made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland. She said the idea for the piece initially came from putting a jacket on a pair of crutches, which became like a scarecrow and led her to think about her relationship with her crutches. Having lasted 20 years, she talking about them being "like a partner" - one she initially hated, but has come to learn to love. Talking further she said Ménage a Trois is " not about disability, but neither is it about ignoring disability; rather it is about identity as a whole."
Rachel Gadsden's 90 second film reminds me that no matter how different our experience across impairment groups, that there can be a commonality. She speaks about how her own breathing difficulties led her to find kindred spirits amongst a group of HIV/AIDS survivors in South Africa.
For Sue Austin her development of the underwater wheelchair has taken her on a journey from wanting initially to transform preconceptions about the wheelchair to thinking about the issues that everyone has to transcend in their lives.
For disabled people as a community - however much Unlimited promises to challenge old prejudices and awareness of issues, I wonder about how far and how much we are actually moving backwards in terms of how we are perceived and treated in the wider world? I've absolutely no doubt that all 29 of the Unlimited commissions - having become so acquainted with them over the past two months - are going to be fabulous. And I hope they will spark debates about real issues. Certainly there will be opportunity for debate at Unlimited Voices - a series of discussions on disability, art, labels and life - hosted in Level 5 Function Room at the Royal Festival Hall on 1-2 September.
Lastly, if you haven't been to The Festival of the World Museum on display in the Spirit Level of Festival Hall, I'd recommend a trip down memory lane to see footage of some key moments in Disability Arts history, from Mik Scarlett's archives from BBC's 'Over the Edge', alongside Chris Ledger's 1996 film 'Moving from Within'.
The display hasn't been presented accessibly, unfortunately, but hearing Ian Stanton's anthemic 'Rolling Thunder' and Johnny Crescendo's 'Choices and Rights' - albeit on a tiny, tinny hand-held speaker, in the Royal Festival Hall, brought something of a lump to my throat.
Something has shifted in terms of attitudes and recognition. An exhibition of archive pieces from disability arts culture, wouldn't have happened a few years ago. But the question still remains as to what has shifted? It has taken a lot of disabled people to make the shift, but how much have things really changed?