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Artists Debating Identity

In the 1990s LDAF used to organise debates, which, truth to tell, became circular arguments centering around the question of what is Disability Arts? We somehow never seemed to get beyond celebrating difference and protesting righteous indignation that nothing should be made about us without us.

With disabled people at the helm the world was going to be a better place. Dissing the Social Model was tantamount to letting the side down and any critical debate was stifled by polemic disguised as Social Model rhetoric.

Irrelevant old Art didn’t get a massive reference. Few of the people at those discussions had ever been to a mainstream exhibition at Tate Britain or a performance at the National Theatre. Access was a massive problem then – on all counts. If you just consider wheelchair access - there was none at The Tate Britain which was fronted by an endless barrier of steps. You could go to the National Theatre – but more than one wheelchair user was said to represent a fire hazard, so you could only go on your own.

There was also little access to college education for disabled people, unless you were able to pretend you were non-disabled and throw yourself through all kinds of hoops in the process. LDAF fought for so many years for the right of disabled people to have a say and a place at the forefront of things. Had LDAF not existed would there now be access to mainstream art spaces? So much influence came out of LDAF, but times have now moved on and the conversations that need to happen are different.

The mid to late 1990s were angry times, understandably. The anger was positive in many ways, but there was a flip side to it. It meant that unless you conformed to a particular world-view within that circle, you became subject to that anger. The fire brought a lot of disabled people together, but equally a lot of disabled people trying to take themselves seriously as artists, either couldn’t relate to the rhetoric, or had disagreements with it that there was no space for them to air.

Aaron Williamson argues in his book ‘Performance, Video, Collaboration’ that Disability Arts organisations’ have become slaves to tick-box culture and the ideals behind social inclusion and as a result have been very resistant to avant-garde art or Art that presses buttons - in a desperate attempt to conform; to become ‘Normal’, as Paul Darke would argue.

One of the big problems for Disability Arts organisations has been about resolving who its constituency really are. There has been a lack of grounding in the history of Art for many disabled people working within disability-led organisations which has undermined our efforts to survive within a changing cultural landscape. Without those reference points we have struggled to support emerging artists beyond a certain level and provide opportunities for professional development outside of the Ghetto.

Things aren’t brilliant now, access-wise, but they are a hell of a lot better than they were ten years ago. The DDA has come in incrementally and the Disability Arts movement has struggled to identify its vision within a rising tide of artists who live with impairment and disability, but who are resistant to taking on the disability label.

Shape in its bid to rebrand itself as an organization that is about artists as well as audiences, has begun to host a series of evenings inviting artists under their roof in Camden to discuss. Crafted by Michele Taylor’s seemingly effortless ability to take us on a journey, we were introduced to Katherine Araniello, Tanya Raabe, Aaron Williamson, Jon Adams and Noemi Lakmaier who all presented pieces of their current artwork.

Michelle asked what it means to us, as artists, that we are disabled people? I think all the 25 or so people present, agreed that being a disabled person was part of their identity as an artist. But, crucially the degrees of identification with the term disabled artist, were wide ranging. Some marketed themselves as both artist and disabled artist, keeping all the eggs in the basket.

Tanya Raabe talked about fiercely identifying with being a disabled artist as a mark of pride. She presented some of her Who’s Who in the context of wanting to document some of the history of our movement. Disabled people have been invisible for so long and we need a sense of history in order to value what we have achieved. Work only really gets recognized for its value after it has undergone the test of time.

I think there needs to be more of an uncovering of the disability experience – work that was begun by Leicester Universities’ Buried in the Footnotes programme – a reevaluating of the institutionalization that influences peoples’ perceptions of where Disability Art is coming from. Tanya has shown her Who’s Who in 13 galleries to date. She has had 2 galleries reject the exhibition, one notably from a gallery who didn’t get the connection between the portraits and Disability Art. This success would suggest, that whilst old perceptions die hard, the tide is turning and there is a wider consciousness to embrace disability as a part of the human condition. Perhaps?

Both Aaron Williamson and Katherine Araniello are skilled at taking perceptions of disability and turning them into artwork that challenges prejudice by using a subversive humour that can shock and tease at the same time. And both have had success at taking their work into non-disability settings and gaining some evaluation from what we loosely call ‘the mainstream’.

Noemi Lakmaier talked about her work as having disability reference points. Her work is crucially about identity but whether or not this is seen as disability is not a major concern for her. It is what individuals’ can read into the work from their own experience that is the starting point for its being understood. She showed some work in development that is about ‘imposter syndrome’ – a psychological condition that stems from a lack of security in being who you are. Her portraits presented herself as an office worker, drenched with water and wearing inappropriate clothing.

Who we are, who we think we are and how others see us are such different and divergent things. Jon Adams refuted the term disabled artist as a nonsense. You wouldn’t buy a disabled car or call on a disabled tradesman, so why would you call yourself a disabled artist? He challenged the notion that Disability Arts battles against others’ prejudices asking whether the barriers can sometimes be put there by us? Jon is one of a new generation of artists making work that is about or informed by experience of disability, who is challenging how we feel about Disability Arts in a way that may enable us to move forward. The language we use and how we present ourselves is so important.

Is the phrase Disability Arts useful? For all of us there are universal elements to our work – but how important is it to reference the disability bit of it? Disability is a qualification, like a landscape artist or a surrealist artist it provides a reference point. The barriers the term creates is qualified by peoples’ perceptions and prejudices. But the opportunities it opens up for providing a bridge to an Art which is rooted in lived experience – and as such has the potential to create a deep and unique resonance. It is what drew me in to Disability Arts, having always been disillusioned with work which purely comes from an academic place, with historical reference but little or no emotional commitment.

A barrier has always been that Disability Arts communicates to other disabled people, but leaves non-disabled people out in the cold. As Aaron said during the discussion, we have reached stasis at the moment. Disability Arts has to be taken out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, but on its own terms. The challenge for organisations like DAO is in finding collaborations within the bigger picture that we can nurture in a the bid to give the work we are passionate about a wider audience.

This first event had a focus on contributions from visual artists. The performing artists will come next and I suspect will have a very different flavour. One of the greatest strengths and most undermining weaknesses for Disability Arts has been its ambition to cover all the artforms. It allows for more cross-fertilisation working across disciplines, but equally means that the separate needs of visual artists in comparison to performing artists has made the job the sector has to do in trying to embrace everything, that much harder.

There has always been a pressure on Disability Arts organisations to be all things to all people. May be this should be the subject of a future debate? Certainly there is a strong need for a platform for bringing people together to talk openly. This is something that has been very thin on the ground over the last ten years. So bring it on!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 21 June 2009

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 8 December 2010