This DadaFest felt, in many ways, to be the disability and deaf arts festival to beat all. It felt like the end of an era - and the beginning of a new one in which disability and deaf artists find the confidence to take their work forward, find platforms for their work outside of the confines of a disability and deaf arts context.
The festival left me with a sense that the need for this kind of event is an important part of the arts landscape. Where else can we debate the issues and explore access as an artistic endeavour? There is also a sense for many of the artists that DadaFest provides a space in which to show work to kindred spirits - and to receive the kind of recognition, support, encouragement and critique that no other arena can provide.
The festival took me back to thinking a play about personal experience of schizophrenia that I wrote back in the late 1970s. It was a 20 minute, two-hander that took the audience inside lived experience. It was performed in drama school and had a short outing at a fringe venue in West London. But the performance was slated, and the playwriting workshops I took the piece to for critique dismissed it out of hand as a pretentious affair, describing something that bore no resemblance to reality. 30 years later I've still not written another play. If I'd have had DadaFest I'd have had a community that could relate to the art and the experience of disability 'The Egg Play' was about. I think that was the main difference with this DadaFest. It may have lost the hard edge politics, but it was replaced by a sense of artists having critiques of their work through the debates and discussions that took place, formally and informally. There was a sense at this Dadafest that the disability arts community is learning to put the work under a microscope - to say what it feels about the quality as well as the width.
The big conundrum now, is whether we continue to we sell the work as disability and deaf art or not? There is a responsibility to make key decisions about how work gets labelled. I know the idea of having a ‘disability ghetto’ isn’t lauded by everybody. The whole conundrum of disabled artists wanting a platform for their work, but not wanting to be seen as ‘disabled artists’ is an attitude I hear often – especially from emerging artists. BUT my question to those individuals is how do they get the critique of their work from a disability perspective without the Disability and Deaf framework that DadaFest provides? Should this kind of ‘ghetto’ event be replicated in the South East? I think the biggest problem is marketing. Time and again it seems that framing events of this nature under the disability banner is a death-knell to audience attendance. NWDAF under the guidance of Ruth Gould has built a community of disabled artists, disabled participants, mainstream and participatory arts organisations, local government, and arts funders who understand what DadaFest brings to the community.
It was interesting to hear Kaite O'Reilly's experience of finding her award-winning play Peeling - on an ever increasing number of Disability Studies course reading lists, which are springing up all over the country. Her question was around her amazement at seeing all manner of books – particularly the cringeworthy Day in the death of Joe Egg on the reading lists for these courses - being labelled as Disability Art.
Inevitably, much of the work at DadaFest isn't Disability Art in the sense of the key definition - ie work informed by experience of the disabling barriers society presents to disabled people. But the interesting thing that DadaFest offers is the chance to reflect on the nuances and subtleties of the definitions we give to our work. This is critical in taking charge of how work is perceived by critics, media and a wider audience at large.
NWDAF director Ruth Gould is very rightly proud of the work done by Young DadaFest – an event that run by and for young disabled people, in parallel to DadaFest, which creates a platform for young disabled people to produce stage productions and exhibit their artwork. Nurturing young talent is at the core of what NWDAF do, building community links and fostering a body of artists and audience able to appreciate the cultural importance of DadaFest to the quality of the lives of disabled and deaf people.
So, even if – as some would propose – that Disability Art is dead – DadaFest leaves a legacy of innovative and wonderful expressions of disability and impairment that are arising from the ashes.