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Liberty? What Liberty? / 9 September 2013

expressionistic drawing  of a wheelchair-user confined by a cube

Rachel Gadsden and Mark Brew combine for a stunning performance of the Cube of Curiosity

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I found myself wondering what David Morris - one the key people involved in the creation of the Liberty Festival - would of thought of last Saturday's event? In 2010 the festival was dedicated to his memory and the festival banners had his words: “Together we can change our world” – emblazoned across them.

True, last Saturday was a good day out. I was grateful for the opportunity to see old friends - some of whom I hadn't seen for years. And there were some stunning performances. I really enjoyed seeing Marc Brew and Rachel Gadsden's Collaboration 'Cube of Curiosity'. Brew's visceral presence as a dancer - literally breaking out of a box in his wheelchair - was aptly complemented by Gadsden's role in the performance as a visual artist, recording his impression on the box made of a canvas using stylised expressive marks. Their scratch performance showed great potential for development.

I was also pleased to see Graeae's 'Limbless Knight' had moved on a pace since its outing at the GDIF Festival earlier this summer. The narrative behind the theatre/ dance performance was much more cohesive as the testimonies of the disabled soldiers - 'the limbless knights' - were integrated more reflectively into the script. This time there was also a bit less pinging of 'knights' on sway poles, which for me detracted from the important message Graeae were trying to get across in the show, that as a society we need to decide whether or not we value human rights?

In 2011 I wrote an editorial proclaiming that Liberty was no longer a festival about disability rights. I raised concerns that the branding of the festival had become anachronistic: it having become a fun, family day out, rather than an event that attempted to challenge or to educate. This year the subtext of the festival - with Liberty having been subsumed by National Paralympic Day - it was clear that the over-riding message of the idea of 'liberty' was that as disabled people we have all the rights we need. The argument follows that we should stop complaining and die quietly - or at least out of earshot of anyone with power or influence.

I've nothing against disabled people doing sports and have much admiration for paralympians. However, I agree with Penny Pepper who wrote on her blog that "this is how the government wants disabled people to be. Get sporty and then you can get work…" The work ethic was the principle behind the creation of the Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville under Dr Guttmann. So, when you consider how much Access to Work and other policies designed to give disabled people the opportunity to work, have been cut back, it really is hard not to be cynical about the underlying message being promoted to the public.

And judging by the audiences, very few people were there for disability art. The tiny performance and music stages had maybe 50 people or so attending each show, in comparison with the thousands we've been used to at Liberty Festival's in the past. The main act on the music stage - BBCs winner of 'The Voice' - Andrea Begley, didn't even realise she was performing at the Liberty Festival and kept referring to it as National Paralympic Day.

Disappointingly, she did a series of cover songs by bands like Semisonic and Bruce Springsteen, rather than presenting herself as a folky singer-songwriter. It seemed that the dilution of the event had even subsumed the will to present something original.

Where will 'Liberty' go next. Butlins perhaps…

Comments

Jenni Halton

/
11 September 2013

Couldn't make it on Saturday but in any case where was the publicity for Liberty Festival? I have enjoyed it in Southbank before but this year a Google search couldn't find anything... Not sure how they expect to attract new audiences if even those who are looking for it can't find the information.

Stephen Portlock

/
11 September 2013

It really is appalling that there is so little publicity for Liberty. Tells us everything we need to know about social attitudes. Sadly, no, I wasn't there but in fairness I was at a disability arts event, run by Together 2012 and at their request I read out several of my poems.

Colin

/
10 September 2013

Debs, I appreciate your response, but I don't think all the art was crap, neither was it a terrible event in itself. It wasn't 'Liberty' as we knew it. In fact it was a different event entirely - and clearly no longer an event for the disability arts community - or what is left of it.

The Queen Elizabeth Park is a vast area and everything was spread out amongst sports and more sports, so it was difficult to find the art.

This was National Paralympic day - a sporting event with a bit of art added on. There's a place for that. People had come to see the paralympians and to take part in sports. It's just a shame that Liberty is no more!

Debs

/
9 September 2013

Well well well... I was shouted down and told to shut my hole when I first suggested that we were heading for a white male fop hole fives years ago with this event. I even talked to David about it and he was in agreement. At least thats how the alcohol allows me to remember it.

Liberty was something, that even with its limited diversity of disability, and perspective on art, performance and culture, to be proud of in its time. There was a chance to laugh and joke to play pranks, disagree, agree and argue the toss about anything and everything that was related to disability arts and all it stood for. We had come a long way, we had fought and won something to identify with.

Then came the paralympics, and people who were not disabled or disabled people who hated sport suddenly were speaking for me. At me. Around and about me. Yet there was I, one of the few, who worshiped at the feet of (pun intended) David and Oscar out in the cold staring at the nonsense, the clamour for attention and the self-righteous shit shouting 'do they know what is going to come afterwards??

No. They really did not. Did no-one think that Liberty would become a show horse for this dirty shower? That the stories and games we once played would be banished to the bins of East London? That the Liberty we sought would be taken away from us? How did anyone who went on Saturday expect it to be anything other than a show for Boris?

I am sorry that people are upset and disappointed, I am sorry that the work wasn't as good at it could have been. I am sorry that the crowds were not there, but I am more ashamed that no-one is looking in the mirror and saying 'look at what we did'?

Because, you did it. For 15mins of fame everything was thrown away and equality was helped along to the shit heap that the Tories have been creating for the past three years.

My question to you all is - ' What the fuck are you going to do about it?'

Katherine Araniello

/
9 September 2013

The move to merge Paralympics with Liberty is insulting and patronising. I felt that I had entered a country fete/children’s sports day. Art was hard to find and when I did stumble upon the end-stage I quickly turned back when confronted with a triumph over adversity film about a story of a disabled woman and her journey to become a Paralympian. The rain was on and off all day and the rest tents sheltered me from the wind and rain, so I guess I was thankful for that – however the ridiculous positioning of the rest tents meant that the only view of clarity was the commercial stalls – and in front of the tent I was in was bars on wheels. The opaque plastic windows inside the tent meant that you could not see any of the events.

The assumption around access is that if you’re a wheelchair user then your access needs are generic – which of course is a misinformed and lazy approach which can only be blamed on the organisers of this event. Apart from wheelchair users getting what I consider to be a raw deal – there are other disabled people’s access needs that also had not been considered. For example mental health service users on medication – apparently the medication can bring on diverse symptoms depending on the weather and therefore dumping disabled people in a park exposed to the elements and a complicated and difficult trek from the park to normality was again ill thought out. From my own observations whilst trying to find some art instead I was continually noticing disgraceful access attempts; for example a bar on wheels with a ramp so steep even a fit Paralympic wheelchair user would find it dangerous if not impossible to reach the bar. The platform on the bar was actually too small for a wheelchair user to be able to perch themselves on – I also notice the DJ booth not having any sign interpreter.

I also aware that established art organisations seem to have a secret ticket into Liberty in which we always see the same companies perform. Is there an open submission in which individual artists can apply to perform at Liberty because I have yet to see this advertised.

I am confused with as to what Liberty is – to me it comes across as performing arts i.e. spectator art, the audience watch and then they clap. Where is the quirkiness and alternative arts scene section? Liberty is behind, dated and worse still it is now become overshadowed by disabled sport – I am so appalled and disgusted by all of this. We should be looking at other festivals that exist and take examples of how Liberty might progress into the 21st-century for example Supernormal Festival: http://www.supernormalfestival.co.uk/