Firstly I’d like to extend my condolences to Richard Longstaff’s family at this time. His loss last summer, as a result of cancer was a big blow to me personally. I could see a book of poetic reminiscences of growing up in a rural Northern village emerging from his poetry blog. It was a joy to work with him and he is sorely missed.
2014 has been an eventful year for us here at Disability Arts Online. There have been lots of highlights but I’ve been particularly pleased about getting out and about more - taking Dao on the road, as it were. Getting involved in being a part of arts events as well as reporting on them has been a rewarding way of providing opportunities for the artists who engage with Dao.
Dao has always been about providing a space for disabled artists putting their art into a public arena for the first time alongside established disabled artists. Dao is more than just a website, so it was great to talk about what we do as an innovator in the arts, giving a potted history of Dao as part of Bath Spa Universities' Senseability Festival.
I’d especially like to thank John Kelly and Karl Newman of DaiSyFest. Last June they invited us to produce a poetry event at G-Live in Guildford. The captivating Penny Pepper performed an extract from her poetic memoir Lost in Spaces with riveting cello accompaniment from Jo Cox.
Allan Sutherland took to the stage with a selection from the transcription poetry cycle Proud: from the words of Jennifer Taylor. I think all of us, Allan included, were stunned by the power of Jennifer’s voice rising through the poetry to describe a fierce determination in the face of appalling discrimination. It’s one thing to read through the cycle from 'Neglected Voices' as they were published on Dao, but another to hear the words in performance. It was made all the more moving by Jennifer’s contribution to the q+a after the reading.
It was great to get more continuity with a successful application for a slot; Perceptions of Difference in the Saison Poetry Library on the Southbank, which fortuitously we were able to fit into the Unlimited Festival. In putting this event together I came full circle as my roots in Disability Arts came through having worked initially with Survivors’ Poetry from the early 90s. We programmed two of the poetry groups’ founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay alongside two other important poets/ writers within Survivors’ Poetry’s history, Debjani Chatterjee and John O’Donoghue.
What can I say about Unlimited. I think Shape and Artsadmin have done a terrific job overall. Applications will be foremost in many artists’ minds over the coming holiday and from the interview I did recently with Tony Heaton. It will be extremely competitive due to the far-reaching success of the festival at London's Southbank Centre. We did a massive job of reporting on as much of Unlimited as possible and thanks go to Bella Todd who we commissioned with a brief to get as much copy into other publications as possible.
There have been some massive successes coming out of this years’ Unlimited: the three that spring to mind are the extensive tours by the poet Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged and the performer Jess Thom's Touretteshero plus the Vacuum Cleaner’s Madlove, which has been commissioned by FACT in Liverpool with a big development in partnership with the University of Liverpool.
Like Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities performance at the Science Museum (amongst other places) in London earlier this year, Lost in Spaces reflects on the history of our movement. I hope we see more art and performance in 2015 on this level. Disability Arts is fragile and like all historical accounts, vulnerable to a sleight of hand. It’s important that we have control over how our stories are told, so I’m looking forward to developments with NDACA (National Disability Arts Collection and Archive).
Ann Wade, Ruth Gould and their team at DaDaFest in Liverpool deserve a special mention for providing the most powerful highlight. It was the international element of DaDaFest that brought into context so much about the work Dao does as a networking organization that pulls people and ideas together.
Listening to Leroy Moore eulogising about Krip-Hop Nation as a global force: “we, not I”, performing with Ronald Muwanga who talked about the oppression of disabled people in Uganda. We heard a rousing talk from Chris Smit who is taking elements of Art of the Lived Experiment to DisArt Festival in Chicago next Spring. And were treated to Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor exhibition, making connections with disabled artists from the Middle East. The lasting images that will stay with me were from Epic Arts dance performance of the before and after of the history of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge with the regimes’ Year Zero in 1975 in Cambodia. I hadn’t realised how much further than Hitler the dictator went. Even people needing glasses were considered too impaired to be worthy of life…
We live in precarious times. The forthcoming disbandment of the Independent Living Fund with a ridiculous promise from the Government that Local Authorities will step in and make provision, in the light of further announcements today of further incisive cuts to local services, means that for many of our talented artists who rely on ILF for PA support, there is a chasm opening. Society, it seems, has been hoodwinked into turning its eye inwards, like a homunculus reflecting greed and self-interest at the expense of culture and civilisation.
Firstly, many thanks to Ruth Gould and her brilliant team at DaDaFest in Liverpool for inviting Dao to be a part of what must be one of the most important International Festivals of Disability Arts in the world. It was a powerful feeling to be part of a Congress of disabled artists from different parts of the globe coming together to share work, process, experience and ideas.
In the UK our sense of being part of a disability arts community has been fairly battered over the last decade or so with the disbandment of so many of our organisations and the whittling away of the values that were so strongly shared back in the 1990s.
One of the key things that DaDaFest 2014 gave us, aside from a reappraisal of the work that we’ve been so passionately committed to and the history of our movement over the past several decades, was a strong sense of how the messages of disabled peoples’ empowerment through the Arts, is trickling out to all quarters of the globe, to the Middle East and to Africa. It was fantastic that the British Council were able to bring representatives from the Middle East. And that artists Zahra AlDhamin from Saudi Arabia and Safiya AlBahlani from Oman whose artwork featured in Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor project, were also able to attend.
DaDaFest Chair Jane Cordell opened the Congress saying that “being disabled is being human, writ large”. Allan Sutherland gave the first speech about the journey so far, giving an impassioned critique of where we have come from as a movement and how we are slipping back in the UK with notions of disability access and disability rights being ever eroded in a backlash in attitude change prevalent as a direct result of the recession. We are living in difficult times.
Allan reminded us of Jayne Earnscliffe’s ‘In Through the Front Door’ - an Arts Council publication about good examples of access in the visual arts first published in 1992. And how, incredibly wheelchair-users can no longer enter Arts Council’s main London office in through the front door, which carries with it a powerful symbolic message about the extent to which disability arts has failed in maintaining its relevance in the increasingly competitive climate of recent years as Arts funding becomes ever more difficult to procure.
Later during the Congress, Sir Peter Bazalgette Chair of Arts Council England gave an impassioned speech describing his sense of the value of disability arts within the context of diversity as a whole: “all forms of non-conformity are precious… for relevance and freshness of the arts”. He further advocated that the most potent arguments we can make are “by producing life-affirming art that carries important messages widely”. He implored disabled and deaf artists to apply for Arts Council funding, recognising the importance of our contribution and the will within Arts Council to fund work that advocates for social justice.
Our Art is so directly connected to our lived experience of a disabling society. And that is what makes it excellent. As Chris Smit, Director of DisArt Festival, Michigan succinctly put it; disability arts is a dialogue between personal experience and public expectation. As a global society we live within a cultural context where “we have been socialized to fear physical and mental difference. Disability is all too often painted with cultural representations in film, television and art, enshrouding us in “…mystery, pity, and confusion”.
And so it was disappointing and worrying that despite a strong presence at the Congress of representatives from Arts Council England that none of the local Liverpool-based National Portfolio Organisations were present. And only a smattering of mainstream venues and organisations were in attendance.
And this despite the strong presence of British Council. Carole McFadden laid out the organisations’ strong agenda to support disability arts internationally. Having taken work from Unlimited to Brazil and Bahrain in 2013, they are now committed to a major disability arts festival in Qatar in March 2015. She encouraged disabled artists to apply for a further showcase next August and to submit details of work to their Disability Arts International website.
There were a host of presentations I could write about further here, but I think the talk that left the most indelible mark on me came from US Black writer and performer Leroy Moore, creator of Krip-Hop Nation and cofounder of Sins Invalid. He talked about ‘intersectionality’ and the need for disability culture and disability politics to widen its frame of reference to reach out beyond the narrow framework of ‘I’ to embrace ‘we’.
Krip-Hop’s agenda is firmly rooted in social justice within a family of artists across the globe. His was a clear and passionate call for us to work together, to be critical in a bid for social change globally in recognising the human rights of disabled people.