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Colin Hambrook on the launch of Unlimited at the Southbank Centre / 11 July 2012

red painting of an african woman

An Angel in the House. Image © Rachel Gadsden

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DAO Editor Colin Hambrook had the pleasure of visiting the launch of the Unlimited commissions yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London's Southbank Centre.

Bringing together all 29 Unlimited commissions, Unlimited: the Revelation starts here is a showcase for a platform of new works spanning dance and performance, visual arts, comedy, circus, music and theatre. The 11-day celebration is the finale of Southbank Centre’s summer-long Festival of the World, which presents projects from around the world that demonstrate the power of art to transform lives.

Alongside Southbank Centre's Artistic Director Jude Kelly, who said she hopes Unlimited will mark "a milestone step change across the arts community and audience development" were Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad talking about the aim of Unlimited to create work of scale and ambition and Carole McFadden, Drama and Dance Advisor at the British Council talking about the range of international connections the commissions have involved.

We were treated to Claire Cunningham speaking about her dance/ theatre piece Ménage a Trois, made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland. She said the idea for the piece initially came from putting a jacket on a pair of crutches, which became like a scarecrow and led her to think about her relationship with her crutches. Having lasted 20 years, she talking about them being "like a partner" - one she initially hated, but has come to learn to love. Talking further she said Ménage a Trois is " not about disability, but neither is it about ignoring disability; rather it is about identity as a whole."

We saw several of the artists' Push Me Please films four of which have now been uploaded onto The Space.

Rachel Gadsden's 90 second film reminds me that no matter how different our experience across impairment groups, that there can be a commonality. She speaks about how her own breathing difficulties led her to find kindred spirits amongst a group of HIV/AIDS survivors in South Africa.

For Sue Austin her development of the underwater wheelchair has taken her on a journey from wanting initially to transform preconceptions about the wheelchair to thinking about the issues that everyone has to transcend in their lives.

For disabled people as a community - however much Unlimited promises to challenge old prejudices and awareness of issues, I wonder about how far and how much we are actually moving backwards in terms of how we are perceived and treated in the wider world? I've absolutely no doubt that all 29 of the Unlimited commissions - having become so acquainted with them over the past two months - are going to be fabulous. And I hope they will spark debates about real issues. Certainly there will be opportunity for debate at Unlimited Voices - a series of discussions on disability, art, labels and life - hosted in Level 5 Function Room at the Royal Festival Hall on 1-2 September.

Lastly, if you haven't been to The Festival of the World Museum on display in the Spirit Level of Festival Hall, I'd recommend a trip down memory lane to see footage of some key moments in Disability Arts history, from Mik Scarlett's archives from BBC's 'Over the Edge', alongside Chris Ledger's 1996 film 'Moving from Within'.

The display hasn't been presented accessibly, unfortunately, but hearing Ian Stanton's anthemic 'Rolling Thunder' and Johnny Crescendo's 'Choices and Rights' - albeit on a tiny, tinny hand-held speaker, in the Royal Festival Hall, brought something of a lump to my throat.

Something has shifted in terms of attitudes and recognition. An exhibition of archive pieces from disability arts culture, wouldn't have happened a few years ago. But the question still remains as to what has shifted? It has taken a lot of disabled people to make the shift, but how much have things really changed?


Deborah Caulfield

11 July 2012

It's a worthy aim, 'to challenge old prejudices and awareness of issues', but a tall order on two counts.

First, whose prejudices need challenging? Are they the people who don't engage much with art, never mind disability art?

Second, is it the job of disabled artists to challenge and try to change the world? Is it not enough to (just) make art and reach audiences?

For me it's about opening up real (as opposed to token) opportunities for disabled artists' work to be out there, to open up the closed shop as it were. If Unlimited achieves this, I'll be happy, or at least consider it to have been a success.

If, on the other hand, Unlimited turns out to have been a one-off celebration of crip-art then back to bed the lot of you ... Then what?

Joe McConnell

12 July 2012

The Unlimited show looks like some fantastic artists are being showcased and there will surely be exciting debates etc. Thanks DAO et al for telling us about all this. But the lives of many disabled people in Britain and beyond are surely going from bad to worse.

As someone currently 'closed for repair' in one of the NHS's more humane recovery centres, the stories i'm hearing about ghastly levels of marginalisation and disenfranchisement are very bleak. It's good we have dancing under water and such. But is this the age of the uber-crips who glitter in the spotlight as so they should and the best of luck to them, while so many others go to the wall?

It is shocking how few disabled people are employed after all this time. Even the organisations we spent years supporting and building up are no longer disabled-led. What's that about?

Colin Hambrook

13 July 2012

It is a time of great polarisation. On the one hand this great opportunity for a high profile of a few disabled artists making great work... but I worry what the real legacy is going to be. As opposed to the one that is 'spun'.

Joe McConnell

13 July 2012

There is some amazing work about. But the collective spirit evoked by 'rolling thunder' and 'piss on pity' seems sadly to have disappeared completely. Rachel Gadsden's work is an obvious exception maybe. Who was it said 'the caravans pass, the dogs bark'?