Tim Jeeves recently came back from Singapore with some thought-provoking questions about cultural interpretations of disability art.
So, I ask you; when is a disability art festival not a disability art festival? To which the answer, given in chorus of a thousand laughing voices, is,
When it's the 2007 Singapore Fringe Festival. Now perhaps that's being a little harsh, and I'm being a little Anglo-centric in my definition of the term disability art, or even a little conservative in how closely a festival needs to relate to its theme. But when I am confronted with a series of video works such as those I saw by Tim Etchells that have no bearing to disability (or are related in only the most mind-stretchingly convoluted way), and where even the paragraph in the program headed The Relation of the Work to Disability makes no reference whatsoever to its title, one is forced to ask some questions as to why exactly he was invited to participate in the festival.
Even before this my relationship with Singapore had been a bit strained. Singapore's Media Development Authority (the nation's censorship board) had told me a few months before my trip that I could not perform naked since
our consultation reveals a discomfort with members of the public drawing freely on the naked body of a sick person. Aside from indignation at the restriction on my artistic freedom I was disgusted enough to consider not going at the implication that writing on the body of a non-sick person was somehow more acceptable. And where the idea that I'm sick came from I'm not sure… But after much internal debate off I went, revenging myself on the authorities by printing the above text on the seat of the boxer shorts I had to wear, and an interesting experience of Singapore's take on disability art was gained.
Of course, not all the work was so independent from the festival's theme as the Etchells' video pieces mentioned above. The work I saw from some of the other British artists was particularly striking. Larry Dunstan's evocative and personality-filled portraits dominated the subway into the Jendela (Singapore's main art centre for theatre and music - think the Barbican but in the Far East). Julia Cassim's documentary film, The Insightful Eye, showed off the work of a selection of partially sighted UK artists to good effect, though the poor sound reproduction of the video in the gallery meant that a great deal of the intention was lost, and though I, with true journalistic dedication, made the effort to persevere with it, I was left wondering how much interest the piece would have generated in a more casual viewer.
United Nations, by the Portuguese (though London based) artist Monica de Miranda, was another piece of work to stretch my associations of the word disability a little further than I am accustomed. Taking members of the public for a ride in a wheelchair decorated with a sequinned Stars and Stripes, she facilitated a one to one performance discussing the disabling effects of globalisation on the world. At first I was disorientated and a bit put off by the piece, after all, the program stated that it was a work dealing with issues of social disability, which I, naturally enough, assumed was a reference to the social model. After a while though the metaphor she was suggesting began to present itself to me in more depth. There is a similar demonstration of selfish disregard by both the able-bodied in their construction of the world around us and the rich world's manipulation of the rest of the globe. An interesting analogy that can be taken a fair way before it breaks down. Whether such a comparison was her explicit intention I'm not sure. If it was, much more could have been made of it in the conversation we had.
Tim Jeeves reflects on the directions and possibilities presented by disability arts
However, credit must be given for a piece that was a manifestation of the festival's loose definition of the term disability, whilst still having a concrete relation to the usual sense of the word. I could now go with the festival definition of disability and tell you about the other work I saw, such as Sherfon Derz's mediocre video installation, Transportation Love Songs Part 1, (which, so I am informed, deals with humanity's disability to communicate) or Jan Rathuizzen's interesting exploration of identity, The Self Collector, which, though presenting an interesting series of prints and text, was about as disability specific as an episode of Big Brother.
But there is a political undercurrent that I feel needs exploring, which, from the selection of international work I encountered both in reality and through the festival program, is a largely British perspective on disability art, and that is a belief that disability art is art made by disabled people, or addresses issues of disability in its presentation. Admittedly I was only there for a week of a month long festival, so can't make too many snap judgements, but the only non-British show that I encountered that in any way corresponded to this conception of disability art came from a collaboration between Singapore's Very Special Arts and Taiwan's Van Body Theatre. Using the artist Chng Seok Tin's lyrics as its foundation, it was a dance, voice and sound based exploration of the loss of her sight twenty years previously by performer Wu Wen-Cui. Now, I'm obviously at a cultural disadvantage in not knowing Mandarin, so the sung poetry was lost on me, but I do believe that it takes more than a pained expression, noise played at an uncomfortable volume and a pool of light on stage, for me to feel that I am witnessing the emotions of a person whose sight is failing.
As I say, despite its faults this was the only show from outside the UK that ventured into familiar interpretations of disability art, and for that, and the beautiful stage design of Seok Tin's installations, I was pleased to see it. Looked at in it's entirety, the festival's loose interpretation of disability art did often disappoint; but it also asked some interesting questions. If disability art is ever to be integrated into the mainstream, is to break away from playing to a sometimes incestuous audience, then does it not need to address subject matter that is broader than disability? Through touching on more universal themes, it will appeal to a more comprehensive audience.
Of course, we mustn't forget that, since disabled access to the arts is still as problematic, if not more so, than access to other areas, there is a need for the use of common identity and collective strategy to get the situation improved. But if we look toward other ghettoised art forms, I feel that it is interesting that perhaps the oldest of the art movements of representational politics in the twentieth century, that of work by women, whilst still not being put out on to a level playing field, is likely to relate solely to women's issues a whole lot less than black, gay or disabled work relate to their specific area.
Now that is generalising, and I'm sure there are arguments against such a statement, not least of which is that there are companies and artists who do already present work in this broader spectrum (within the festival Liz Munro and Nuala Watt's poetry/print collaborations being a fine example), but the important thing here is the danger of forgetting that disability art should be beautiful / interesting / didactic (choose your own adjective) as well as forcing diverse representation in the mainstream, equalising opportunity, and raising awareness.
The aesthetics must be as important as the politics. And perhaps the Singapore Fringe Festival achieved these aims in its own roundabout and highly faulty way. In spite of its faults and very loose interpretation of the term it was still a high profile festival that took disability as its theme.
Better that than to accept that disability art will always be presented to the same people who are giving support because it is work by or about disabled people. For if that is the case then it is destined to flounder, and through the betraying of its own principles will eventually lose the respect of those that it should be hoping to introduce itself to, and more importantly, the respect it should have for itself.