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Art of Difference / 22 March 2009

I attended a lot of cabaret performances at Art of Difference. The first reaction to being in Gasworks Arts Park was that it was like being at the Dada-Fest, which takes place in Liverpool every year – the big difference being that we were in the sun. However there are differences between Disability Arts and Deaf Arts culture in Melbourne and generally in the UK. Firstly, everything here is a lot more non-disabled led. On an organisational level, things possibly tend to run more smoothly here, as a result, but as a result there is also less of a political edge, generally.

Here as in the UK there is a tendency to place everything under the label of Disability Arts, whether or not the work is coming from a participatory, community, inclusive or disability arts format. With some exceptions, notably Alexandra Beesley’s animated documentary Revolving Door, there wasn’t much of a sense at Art of Difference of the notion of Disability Arts as being about making work that tackles discrimination directly, although there were some wonderful extracts of performances, particularly from Atypical Theatre and Back to Back theatre.

The edgy side to Disability Arts seemed to be themes that were introduced as parts of an overall aesthetic integral to the Art, rather than overtly advocating a political agenda. So when Sarah Mainwaring from Back to Back introduced a film clip from her piece Foreign Body during one of the seminar sessions, her approach was here is a piece of Art, rather than here is a Disability Arts. The clip showed her delivering a monologue direct to camera, Alan Bennet-style. She used an apple and impeccable timing to deliver a very funny but highly political story about "a bad girl called Eve." The bible story was a device for her to talk candidly about disability and gender politics.

Similarly, at the Thursday night cabaret Atypical Theatre Company performed a scene from ‘One more than One’ – a dialogue between a 3 foot high Caucasian woman and a 6 foot 6 Asian man, who are to all intent and purpose meeting for the first time through a dating service. The premise was original and entertaining, but also highly controversial, subverting notions of the freak show. The piece used elements of movement and physical theatre to illustrate character development, whilst the dialogue unraveled into a string of disablist and racist insults hurled between the two characters. It was a very clever bit of writing, daring to make the incredible, credible by imposing disability and race onto an ostensibly mundane piece of social interaction.

I also really enjoyed the readings from Insanity Consultant and poet Sandy Jeffs. There was an edge to her delivery that gave an insight into life and conditions for a mental health service user, served up with lashings of humour.

I've still lots of notes to write up, so keep returning to this blog for further reflections on the Art of Difference and the disability arts scene here.