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Trish Wheately interviews Ben Fredericks, Shape’s Programme Officer about the up-and-coming Shape Open -  a visual arts competition, that asks disabled and non-disabled artists to respond to 'disability'

TW: What's the idea behind Shape's new open exhibition?

BF: Quite simply the Shape Open is about generating new ideas and surveying current artistic works relating to the concept of disability.

TW: You give a definition of disability that a lot of disabled artists choose not to identify with. What's your reasoning behind this? Is this an intentional provocation?

BF: We chose the dictionary definition because it’s readily available to everyone and we want to reflect the usage in current culture. This is highly influential in forming opinions on what the word disability means.

I think the area where this could create controversy is that this is a dictionary definition, which happens not to align or promote the thinking of the Social Model of Disability. The Social Model is something I would commonly associate with people with a modern disability awareness, which I would assume is the minority of people.

Understanding what disability means is important and there are many conflicting ideas and definitions from different models and organisations, which all have their own agenda. In respect of how we wanted to survey what disability meant to contemporary artists, we decided to give them the starting point from “the accepted authority” (as they state on the website) The Oxford English Dictionary and used their interpretation of what the word means. We are not saying that this is the correct definition, it’s just a starting point that should be food for thought and will hopefully get us some exciting responses.

TW: There have been many integrated exhibitions in the past but they have not generally been themed around disability. It could be suggested that they were curated in a way that highlighted that the quality of art by disabled artists stands up to non-disabled artists - a hiding of disability. This is very much the opposite. Why do you think non-disabled artists have a right to make work about disability?

BF: I think artists have the right to make work about whatever they choose. I'm a firm believer in free speech and a right to expression and do not think that there are any cases whereby an artist should be restricted from making work about a particular theme or subject. I think the question for me as a curator is whether the work has any validity and stands up as a piece of expression. In this case, I am only one person in a selection panel, and will be hoping that the diversity of this panel will lead to an interesting show.

Just to take this question a little further, I think the reason this exhibition might raise a few eyebrows is an element of confusion over the meaning of Disability Arts. To make Disability Arts within the Disability Arts Movement framework, you had to be making work about disability and the artist had to be a disabled person.

But disability arts outside the movement is a conceptual term and refers to the work having some sort of conceptual relation to the meaning of disability and this doesn't mean you have to have a disability to be able to respond with validity to the subject. This is part of the reason why we opened the exhibition up to disabled and non-disabled people because this is a survey of contemporary disability arts and not a survey of the types of artists who made it.

TW: What are your expectations of what the exhibition might achieve? 

BF: I hope the Open will shed light on some interesting work and be an eye opener for visitors, discovering how contemporary artists are respond to the concept of disability.

TW: One of DAO's bloggers responded to the open call by criticising the fact that there is a charge for entries and no assistance with transporting work to the venue. Would you like to respond to that?

BF: I would say in principal I am against any artists having to pay to get their work shown. But the question for us is how we put on art exhibitions that are unique and valid within the budget restrictions we have. Ideally we would like to see that all open submission exhibitions develop a sense of accessibility that allow all people to access them equally. In this case I'm not saying that we have got the model right, it is just one model we are trying in order to allow us to produce an exhibition like this.

We hope to learn from it so we can produce better shows in the future and share valuable information with other arts organisations to help them make their opens accessible.

I'm always happy to receive suggestions for how we might improve the open or look at different economic models for the future so please e-mail me at

NB: There was a misprint in the original information on the Shape Open - the commission fee is 20% not 40% as originally stated.

The deadline for submissions to the Shape Open is 19th March 2012.