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Colin Hambrook asks where do we find Disability Arts and activism? / 15 April 2013

colour image of shocking pink grab rails spelling out the word 'People' on a black background

Gini's 'People Like You' grab rails on show at Salisbury Arts Centre made a statement about lack of access for disabled people

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The Disability, Arts & Diversity Symposium: 'From the Personal to the Universal' at Salisbury Arts Centre last week, promised to be "an in depth look at Disability Arts and activism from the viewpoints of artists, producers, presenters and policy makers."

There are myriad implications for Disability Arts and its activist role in the wider social context, but to my mind the Symposium itself did little to address the issues. I wonder if somewhere along the way, the glory of Unlimited has gone to our heads? Many of those commissions address discrimination through talking about marginalisation, through telling personal stories and creating social engagement - through for example asking a wider public about their attitudes to the wheelchair - and all in all, like most art on public display, through entertainment.

But to my mind none of those works are actively challenging the status quo. All of the work comes from a middle-class elitist response to the barriers placed in front of disabled people. If it wasn't would it find a home in the Southbank Centre, or Salisbury Arts Centre?

In his address at the symposium Hassan Mahamdallie (Senior Strategy Officer, Arts Council England) talked about Standpoint Theory - based on the idea that those who are marginalised have more to give because we have to understand the centre as well as our own position in the scheme of things, whilst those at the centre don't have to understand anything beyond their own viewpoint.

We are seeing this now with the clash of class consciousness over the decision to spend £10 million on Thatcher's funeral - as if the whole country has a duty to mourn this one person. For those in the ruling classes there is no consideration of the worth of the millions whose lives were destroyed in one way or another through policies that directly demeaned and challenged our very existence.

Mahamdallie went on to talk about work that makes a virtue of being an outsider. Yes, I would say the work of Outside In, the work shown in the People Like You exhibition does that. But does it have an activist role? Who is art as activism for? We have the Disability Movement to thank for galvanising us to find artistic ways to protest through organisations like the London Disability Arts Forum in the 80s and 90s. The clarion call of disabled artists like Johnny Crescendo and Ian Stanton were a lynchpin for activism. Where and who do we have to turn to, now?

Liz Crow's 'Bedding In' to my mind, took an activist stance in giving a voice to those disabled people who are not seen and not heard. But where was the context in looking at how we develop approaches to giving a platform for the dispossessed? I would have cited the cartoons of Crippen or the visual poetry of Vince Laws in taking an agit-prop look at what's going on in the real world. I would have talked about the work of the Atos Stories Collective who are attempting to challenge the media and by writing plays about individuals experiences and getting the monologues out there.

Who would you cite?

Keywords: disability activists,disability art


Richard Lupton-White, Aka Bonk-Bi-polar

6 May 2013

Im slowly understanding the true power of words and the gift it is to share my thoughts, and for others to give there time to read them. starting to understand that we can be the voice of many, And understanding that it is our job to help people through our acts.. Cant wait to learn and make my ink count! :)

Claire Smith

19 April 2013

Fit to work: Poets Against ATOS??? The campaign is building...

Joe McConnell

16 April 2013

"But where was the context in looking at how we develop approaches to giving a platform for the dispossessed? [...] Who would you site?"

YOU for starters Colin. For the 20 odd years you've spent building such a platform which eventually led to this fine website. And i am really grateful to you for exposing me to the writing of Vic Finkelstein - one of the great pioneers of the disabled people's movement - who spoke of the potential of 'disability arts' to explore the collective as well as the personal experience of disability. Well, the 'collective' don't seem to get much of a look-in these days.

I liked much of the Unlimited work. But my real favourite part was Rachel Gadsden's engagement with artists from the Bambanani Group from South Africa. Here we were looking at a collective experience of multiple exclusion devoid of personal glorification and self-satisfaction.

Two other fantastic artists with work soon to hit us with forthcoming work fully focussed on that collective dimension are: Caglar Kimyoncu with his film installation COnscription which looks at the effects of compulsory military service in Turkey and Julie McNamara whose Knitting Circle channels the stories of people who were incarcerated in asylums. Both of these are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be 'disabled' or 'outsider'.