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2015: The year impairment issues returned to the fore

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.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 December 2015

Last modified by Joe Turnbull, 18 December 2015

On the uses of art and polemic in theatre.. Howard Barker and Patrick Marmion battling it out in the same theatre...

I went to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston the other night and was dazzled by an unexpected encounter with Howard Barker - considered one of the major writers of modern European theatre. I found myself in the 'wrong' studio as Barker began holding court about the state of Theatre in the UK: “The best thing British Theatre could do would be to get rid of the English,” he said, lamenting the utilitarian approach to the Arts evident in this country; “and probably something to do with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism.”

Barker railed against the idea that Art needs to be ‘for’ or ‘about’ anything and the need to justify the ‘use’ of what you produce as evidence for any funding application. And although it is evident (to me at least) that the utilitarian approach is a cornerstone of why and how Disability Arts has been awarded the success it has within the Arts funding system here over the last 25 years, I have sympathy with Barker’s concerns that proving ‘a use’ can be a death knell for creativity. In Europe there is no conflict about Art needing 'a purpose' and so Barker talked about five of his plays being produced in the Parisien equivalent of the National Theatre with no more reason other than that “the Director likes the work.”

Here, Arts production is more often driven by what mainstream theatre directors thinks their audience wants rather than programming what interests them aesthetically and artistically. For me, Patrick Marmion’s evocation of the life and times of psychiatrist Ronald Laing: ‘The Divided Laing’ - seen later in the same theatre - seemed to me an example of a play written and produced for a specific zeitgeist.

Alan Cox’s reinvigoration of the spirit of R.D. Laing, bête-noir of the psychiatric profession is immensely enjoyable. With an uncanny physical resemblance Cox effortlessly expounds Laing’s views on so-called mental illness: “Schizophrenia is a word for people who don’t fit… or who find it impossible to be themselves,” and “You can’t cure people who are not sick.”

But, ultimately the play is a reimagining of Laing alive and well in 2015, (played by Kevin McMonagle) as a clinician at the Maudsley, having “sold out” as a witting proponent for the previously reviled ‘Medical Model’.

Through its telling Marmion’s The Divided Laing undermines the very questions about the medical model that Laing raised and denies the impact of Laing’s ideas on the purpose of psychiatry as a tool for understanding the soul.

With recent questions about the ‘cure’ of Peter Sutcliffe, infesting the Media with explanations for ‘schizophrenia’ and the all-pervasive lies about anti-psychotic medication as the answer to ‘mental illness’ I left the theatre thinking about Barker’s stance against naturalism and the dangers of theatre that takes a polemical stance on the ’truth’, dressed up as entertainment.

As clinical psychologist Rufus May wrote to me via twitter recently: “the term schizophrenic is offensive and misleading,” yet, so Marmion tells us in the Divided Laing, recent research has proved elements of the theory of genetic inheritance and advances have proved that schizophrenia can be treated with medication.

It is all a matter of conjecture, depending on what reports you read and which publications you believe. The Critical Psychiatry Network and the likes of US journalist Robert Whitaker would clearly take exception to Marmion’s script.

In contrast to Marmion, Ridiculusmus’s David Woods and Jon Haynes when researching a play about psychosis they intended to write, they travelled to Finland to meet Dr Jaakko Seikkula, author of the Open Dialogue approach, which draws from R. D. Laing’s ideas, sharing the premise that the symptoms of psychosis are intelligible responses to difficult aspects of life’s experience. Commissioned by Sick! Festival in March 2014, ‘The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland’ uses a counter-intuitive form of naturalism, designed to unsettle any notion of reality, rather than to create an illusion of reality.

The intention of the artist is everything. Marmion set out to prove Laing wrong, where Woods and Haynes set out to illustrate a state of mind. As a mirror Art can be used in many ways. Perhaps defining those ways is a necessary evil or perhaps Barker is right and creativity rather than structure is the key to good art? As Quentin Crisp said famously "everyone knows the uses of the useful, but no-one knows the uses of the useless.'

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 December 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 December 2015

Embracing the taboos of ageing and death with Sheila Hill

Sheila Hill’s Him was a favourite in the Unlimited showcase at Summerhall in Edinburgh earlier this year. Aside from the quality of the work as a piece of art, the content seemed relevant to me, personally, partly because the panoply of impairment issues I deal with on a daily basis are steadily presenting new challenges as time goes by.  

Choreographed into short sections ‘Him’ is a portrait of actor Tim Barlow meditating on life in older age.  The short film combines the warmth and engagement of theatre with the fineness and subtlety of the visual arts.

It cuts against the grain of cultural preconceptions about ageing, presenting Barlow’s take on things in a natural and seamless series of head-shots. By observing the face from the perspective of a landscape, ‘Him’ seems to transcend age.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Hill’s follow-up film with Hugo Glendinning on camera. Glendinning’s images of disability theatre and dance will surely be the most enduring photographic record of the movement over the last 20 years or so, given their quality and dynamism.

Shown during a panel discussion on Men and Ageing in the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival, Him II takes some of the conventions in the first piece and extends the themes. As contemplation on ageing and death the film is a reassuring piece of work: a reminder that you get out of life what you put into it.

The piece strikes a series of dissonant tones, contrasting images of Barlow dancing to Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ with reflections on parental relationships and his first major encounter with death at the age of five.

Do any of us ever really grow up? Or decide who we want to be when we grow up? Him II caused me to reflect on what I’d like to do with the time spent in the country where Older people, live.

When I was younger I always imagined that it would be unlikely I’d reach a retirement age given the fragility of the circumstances I found myself in. And yet now I’m well into my 50s it seems sensible to plan for what I could be doing, given the likelihood of reaching my 70s.

Themes from the first film are taken further philosophically forcing the viewer to engage with silence through a series of frames in which we watch Barlow, watching himself, in the moment. Counter-intuitive, Him II turns the convention of film as escapism on its head and – for a short while at least – asks the viewer to contemplate the here and now.

But more than anything I loved the idea of being a ‘happy dancer’ to coin the term of an elderly member of the panel at the Southbank Centre who talked about dancing with Amici and Entelechy Dance companies.

A warm slice of Barlow’s personality shines through in the dance scenes. I think I know what I want to do when I grow up, now.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 2 December 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 December 2015