As disabled artists, we know that our work is as good as anyone else’s. Indeed, since our lives force us into a more intense relationship with society and the environment, as well as developing our observation, precision and problem-solving skills, you could argue that it’s better.
History will also ensure that the international Disability Arts movement is recorded and recognised alongside the rest. We already have an impressive record of exhibitions, festivals and publications, along with a coherent body of theory and tradition. Melvyn Bragg has rightly described us as the ‘last avant garde’.
When it comes to competing for work, though, we are often left out of the running. I have lost count of the times that I have asked why a visual arts opportunity has not been advertised, only to be told that, in an “Arts Council-approved and established process”, application has been by invitation only. (Did you see the Cultural Olympiad poster commission advertised? Nope, me neither.)
Just who is going to invite us? Quite apart from viewing us, and therefore our work, as second-class because we’re disabled, a whole range of barriers deny us networking opportunities. These range from lack of support to leave our homes, to lack of accessible public transport, to lack of Blue Badge parking, to inaccessible arts venues, to lack of Sign Language Interpreters to facilitate communication, to printed materials which are impossible for us to read – and many more.
At least the Arts Council is funding events like Decibel for performing artists, but no such opportunities exist for visual artists. It is all very well for the Arts Council to want to ‘mainstream’ us and for the Government to want us to work until we are 66, but how can we in the current circumstances?
And with the closure of dedicated funds for disabled artists, how can we even maintain our CVs? We are not asking for ‘special’ treatment, but all the statistics show that we are currently being denied anything like our rightful share of arts funding, along with the right to compete alongside everyone else.
Even when opportunities are advertised, there are often unnecessary – and illegal – barriers to applying. I was all set to apply for the Matchmakers commission in Hackney last week, only to discover at the last minute that it was by post only. And I only have access to the post office once a fortnight …
Yet the Government have just announced the closure of the Equality and Human Rights Commission helpline, as well as the withdrawal of all Legal Aid from discrimination cases. In the past, we were able to challenge ‘established’ processes and procedures for being discriminatory, but what are we to do now?
When it comes to being a woman artist, there’s a double bind. Women still make up less than 3% of all exhibited artists internationally, while Tracey Emin has reported that the work of male YBAs sells for five times the women’s. (Not that many disabled artists would object to selling their work for the price of Tracey’s or Cornelia Parker’s.)
I was delighted when, in 2010, the DaDaFest visual arts exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool was listed in the official Liverpool Biennial programme. That was, until I read the listings online and realized that only the male artists from the group show had been included in the programme. Officially, we all took part in DaDaFest, but Tanya Raabe and I were absent from the Biennial.
Fancy smashing a glass ceiling, anyone?
I’m back in Wales this week to run the Abnormal exhibition workshop in Milford Haven. What does it mean to be abnormal? Who decides? Do any of us actually feel abnormal? We spend an enjoyable day exploring self-portraiture and the place of the body within art from prehistoric handprints to contemporary land art.
It is particularly good to have two teenage girls present who are incredibly enthusiastic. Last month’s panel discussion in Newcastle also attracted a predominantly young audience, with students coming from Durham and Dundee as well as locally. Such is the future for Disability Arts despite all of the cuts and closures.
Poignantly, it is the anniversary of my friend David Morris’s death. David founded the Liberty Festival while he was the Mayor of London’s disability adviser, and was external inclusion lead for 2012 at the time of his death. As a poet and film-maker, David also organized salons at his home in Limehouse where a wide range of people enjoyed sharing films, poetry, music and food.
David called his gatherings Red Jesus, after the bright red statue of Jesus on the church opposite his home in Limehouse. Since he died, Katherine Araniello and I have organized various Red Jesus events in his memory, and are in the process of founding a Community Interest Company (CIC) to take the work forward. On the day of the royal wedding we are organizing a picnic for David’s friends in the wildlife area at the City of London cemetery where he is buried (contact me by email if anyone wants the details).
After the workshop, Julie Newman and I set off to remember David in a way that he would have enjoyed, at Pentre Ifan prehistoric burial chamber in the nearby Preseli mountains. From there you can see for miles over the surrounding countryside and sea, and this reminds us of the view over London from David’s ninth-floor flat.
After the sun sets, we light a candle and incense in a glass jar and set it under the capstone of the burial chamber. As the flames rise, we feed them two strips of paper containing dried rosemary for remembrance, which another friend gave out at a private memorial event for David last May. Goodbye old friend, we will always miss you. I take the jar home to use within the Memory Jars installation that I am making for the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London, where the Abnormal tour ends for four months from September.
As many DAO readers know only too well, the untimely loss of friends is a characteristic of the Disability Arts movement. In the ‘mainstream’ world, artists generally receive the most recognition after the age when non-artists retire, and this is the point when their work is purchased for important collections and when retrospectives take place. In our movement, though, many artists die before reaching this age, or are forced to give up working and abandon their creations before being shoehorned into supported housing or residential care.
The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), currently housed at Holton Lee in Dorset, was meant to counter-balance this by documenting disabled artists and providing a purpose-built home for their work. However, the withdrawal of Arts Council funding after the Heritage Lottery Fund failed to support the project means that instead NDACA sits in boxes in the loft and outbuildings at Holton Lee, its ownership disputed between the Holton Lee trustees and the independent NDACA steering group.
As a result, David’s considerable archive sits at the back of my art storage unit in Docklands, rather than being preserved for the nation properly. How many other disabled artists’ work has been lost forever during the past 12 months, and how much more will disappear in the future before funding is finally found? Lest we forget...
This week we are all still trying to process the impact of the Arts Council cuts, not just to Disability Arts organizations like Dada South, but also to the ‘mainstream’ organizations. Which activities will be dropped when organizations are facing a 7-10%+ cut (more in real terms) in the next financial year? Surely it will include a large number of ‘educational’, ‘outreach’ and ‘community based’ activities, all of which will disproportionately affect disabled people?
This, of course, follows even greater cuts by local authorities, not just to independent arts organizations but also to their own departments. So while my local arts centre, Stratford Circus, will receive an increase from ACE, Newham Council’s arts department now contains just one officer, down from four-plus last year, which will inevitably affect arts activity levels in the borough. And while Newham has very few arts organizations to cut in the first place, the chances of setting up new ones now seem very slight indeed, at least if they are dependent on public funding.
I recently returned from Newcastle where my experiences show that the ‘mainstream’ has a long way to go in any case to include disabled artists. I arrived at the Centre for Life to take part in a panel discussion linked to my Abnormal exhibition, only to find tables being set up on a high stage with no ramp or lift to it. It took a long time for them to realize what I was talking about when I suggested there might be a problem… then came the explanation “Of course, this was really built for performers.” This in a brand-new, Heritage Lottery Funded building.
However, once we had relocated the panel to the pit, the discussion went well. As the scientist on the panel agreed with just about everything I said, it was even harder than previously to work out why the exhibition was ‘too controversial’ for its original location at the Bioscience Centre, and had to be shoe-horned into the paid-entry visitor centre instead after just 48 hours. It was indisputable, though, that this meant thousands more people saw it (an estimated footfall of 30,000), albeit it in less than ideal conditions.
A workshop with Arcadea members a few days later went well too. Another positive impact of Abnormal being in Newcastle has been to forge a new relationship between the Centre for Life and Arcadea that should result in more disabled artists being able to show their work there in future. Only then will change happen.
I was glad to move the show on the following week, though, to one of my favourite places, the west coast of Wales, or more specifically to the Oriel Joanna Field gallery at the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven. A locally based disabled artist, Tony Malone, helped me to install the show, and Sara Beer from Disability Arts Cymru joined me at the artist’s talk that preceded the opening. All concerned hoped that this would be the start of a new relationship between the gallery and disabled artists, and Tony had booked his own show there by the end of the PV. So although I had wondered in retrospect if 1 April had been a good date to choose for a private view, I needn’t have worried!
I usually make a new piece of work for each date on the tour, and inspired in equal parts by the Newcastle experience and the ACE cuts, made the attached. This was sketched out in the Newcastle workshop, and shot on the windowsill outside Tony’s house while dodging oncoming traffic. ‘Please do not touch the artwork’ is freely available for use by anyone who wishes to oppose arts cuts, whether locally or nationally: email me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you require a high-res copy, or feel free to download this one if not.
I've spent the past two weeks at Croydon Clocktower, working with Fittings Multimedia Arts on the second stage of their Sputnik project. This would have been a happy occasion - and in fact has been for most of the time - were it not for the fact that the Clocktower's arts programme is about to be terminated. Yes, the Clocktower is yet another victim of local government cuts.
As many DAO readers will know, the Clocktower has long been a supporter of Disability Arts. Back in the days when London had a proper Disability Arts festival, the month-long Xposure Festival, the Clocktower was a key venue. On an ongoing basis, it runs ‘Club Soda’ for people with learning difficulties, and a range of other disability specific activities.
However, the Clocktower has always included disabled artists and organizations within its main commissioning and programming, not waiting for 'special' occasions to do so, and there are few national tours by disabled artists which have not stopped there.
This has not just benefited audiences within south London and the surrounding area, but disabled people from further afield who find that the lack of parking and accessible tubes in central London means that venues like Soho Theatre are impossible to get to.
The Fittings residency underlines just what a loss the Clocktower will be. David ‘Stickman’ Higgins and I have been working with a wide range of groups, from final year BTEC art students, to Scouts, to performing art students with learning difficulties. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and where students have been involved, it has been obvious that their education has been enhanced as a result.
I’ve also been making a film, ‘Fellow Traveller’ (the Russian meaning of ‘Sputnik’), about the kinetic sculpture by Sharmanka that is at the centre of the residency. The story goes that a magic machine was created by a watchmaker for a girl who wanted to leave this world for a new one. Now it is waiting for someone new to bond with it before it can fly again. The sculpture is situated in the foyer of the Clocktower, and has attracted a wide range of people of all ages and backgrounds since we installed it at the beginning of the month.
This is the second time in recent years that I've been one of the last artists to work at a 'mainstream' venue which is particularly good at inclusion. In 2009 my Abnormal exhibition toured to Theatre Workshop Scotland (TWS), as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. TWS was the first Scottish theatre - indeed the first UK theatre - to introduce integrated casting as the norm, but as a venue it closed that September, having lost the local authority funding that it needed to continue.
Can it be that, simply by including disabled artists and audiences, venues are seen as less deserving of public support than otherwise? And if so, surely the opposite should apply instead if we apply any of the criteria relating to the Public Sector Equality Duty or the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People?
The Arts Council may have a policy of ‘mainstreaming’ disabled artists, but on the current evidence it is hard to see just where those opportunities are going to exist after the end of next month.
I am going to use this blog to focus on the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People as it relates to art, culture and sport. The Convention, which the UK ratified in 2009 (with reservations), states that disabled people should be able to participate in art, culture and sport on an equal basis, and, critically, that our own culture must be respected and encouraged (which presumably also means funded).
As a member of the group that is monitoring the Government’s implementation of the Convention, I am using my own experience to report back to the Office for Disability Issues and the other committee members. I am also going to share and document it here. The UK Disabled People’s Council is launching a website where individuals can report their own experiences, both positive and negative, and I encourage all DAO readers to bookmark the site and to use it whenever appropriate. More news about this next time.
This week I am still reeling from the news that my Abnormal national touring exhibition was taken down after just 48 hours in its new venue, the Bioscience Centre at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. The exhibition resulted from an 18-month artist’s residency at the National Institute of Medical Research, and both the residency and the tour have been funded by the Wellcome Trust. The tour has been ongoing for two years without complaint, and Newcastle was its seventh venue.
In Liverpool the media coverage was all positive, and the feedback was even better. The genteel residents of Bournemouth were confronted by it in their central library for seven weeks without finding it controversial, and engaged with the show in a workshop and open discussion. In Huddersfield and in Edinburgh, theatre-goers had foyer and café areas turned into an Abnormal environment, and the only problematic response was when the exhibit Shai was stolen by an over-enthusiastic fan in Huddersfield. In Belfast, a white coat bearing the word ‘God’ on it was hung in the window opposite the cathedral without raising an eyebrow, and an artist’s talk, private view and workshop were all well-attended.
However, in Newcastle the exhibition was felt to be inappropriate in a building attended by fertility clinic patients, and was widely complained about. It is currently in the process of being relocated to the visitor centre, where scientists and intending parents will only have to see it if they choose to do so.
Yet 700 scientists walked past the show three times a day for two months when it was in its original home at the National Institute of Medical Research, and pregnant women and parents of disabled children have given me some of the most positive feedback to date. I didn’t even know the building was used for anything other than laboratory research and teaching. Anyway, judge for yourself – you can find the Abnormal website at www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk, or follow the link from my Home Page and see more of my work at www.ju90.co.uk