This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit disabilityarts.online.

Disability Arts Online

> > Penny Pepper

Taking A Liberty

I sit in a cramped room in Camden.  I am a shy, nervous creature, newly in London. Listening to this bunch of disabled people speak, my thoughts flood with hope and awe. They speak of our arts and culture, and call for revolution.

This was a meeting in the Artsline office, Crowndale Road, circa 1985.

I am not sure any of us realised we were pioneers, but I believe history shows we were in our own ramshackle way.

And now, against memories of those beginnings, I come to Liberty in the Olympic Park. You would think disability art in the UK was not a world leader, with a developed, debated and vibrant identity. The way artists were grafted in amongst the stalls that urged sports participation, had the awful outmoded stench of Seventies art therapy. I am surprised there was not a basket weaving stall, because, as any crip of a certain age will know, that type of ‘useful’ activity has long been considered good for us handicaps in all our varieties.

We were all there at Liberty 2013. I bumped into Ruth Gould (DaDafest), Jenny Sealey (Graeae Theatre Company), Michelle Baharier (Cooltan Arts) along with friends and colleagues – Rachel Gadsden, Sophie Partridge, to name but a few performers. I never made it to see Mat Fraser and John ‘Rocking Paddy’ Kelly as the main stage (which I am told was miniscule), was not easy to locate. Artist Katherine Araniello was there to ‘enjoy’ the festival. A close friend of Liberty founder, David Morris, she was not pleased with the layout and the facilities. Translate ‘not pleased’ as furious.

This was my fourth Liberty as a performer. I yearned for the days of the comedy and cabaret tent in Trafalgar Square, when an audience could identify with the performers, where there was a sense of connection to something shared. This could not be said for the strung-out assemblage of activities at the windy park, hindered further by well-meaning volunteers who didn’t have a clue where anything actually was.

I wish I could predict a positive future for Liberty, but instead I am burdened with weary pessimism. We face a resurgence of old barriers and old attitudes, resurrected by the current government. Once more we see the model of brave, inspirational crip being upheld to a ludicrous level, which does no favours to the genuine talents of disabled athletes, and condemns the rest of us to the unworthy dustbin of scrounger and assisted-suicide candidate.

I have no easy answers; in the current climate we know funding is compromised. And worse still, there is certainly a pervasive, repellent ideology seeping into the zeitgeist, as to whether we are ‘affordable’. Because now we are deemed as having too much, of being privileged – a word that has been bandied around from the High Court hearings concerning the closure of the Independent Living Fund, to comments made within social media.

In such an environment, how can Liberty survive? Perhaps the name Liberty will be purloined; we will see a festival of ‘volunteer performers’, echoing the no-pay ethic of the Games, and of politicians that put forward ‘volunteering’ as an incentive for people to find ‘real work’.

Should this happen, I can see Liberty becoming a joke as do-gooders flood in, with disabled people ideologically high-jacked to join in some old style happy-clappy stuff that will ‘make them feel better’. I call on – who? - DaDaFest and Shape perhaps? - to take up cultural arms against this horror.

Hear now, the distant anger of the late David Morris, and my sadness as I reflect upon those fine if difficult times in the early days of our arts movement when anything seemed possible.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 19 September 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 September 2013

New York, Old London, Same Battles

I did it. Amazed myself and survived to tell the tale, crammed with feverish stories and kaleidoscope  memories. All roasted and shaken in the rich, brash, varied flavours of New York.

I say roasted with meaning because it was hot. Blistering and humid, and when up the Empire State Building, I could see the thick smog arc hanging over and into the city. One day hit 39c - I don't believe I have known it that hot before in my whole life. Thank the gods for air con. Yet nothing could ruin this incredible adventure.

I was there primarily for work to get a feel for the city, meet people, and to do a performance at the Bluestockings, a radical feminist bookstore, at an event called 'CripLit' which was brought together by the maganificent NY burlesque queen Jo Weldon who worked with several crip woman at DadaFest last year to create 'Criptease'. Indeed, the first piece to be read (by Jo) was the DAO blog by our very own Sophie Partridge, who detailed the DadaFest event with much verve and colour.

Native New Yorker, Christine Bruno, who has visited the UK and worked on the disability arts scene on several occasions, read extracts from her one-woman show 'Screw You, Jimmy Choo', reminding me of what a talented actor she is. Other New York crips did interesting and intriguing pieces; a visually impaired woman telling the amusing story of the frustrations of being a VI bride and the discrimination she faced, and another set where one woman read a beautiful poem while her colleague stripped and danced and posed.

Aussie artist Kath Duncan – another Dadafest Cripteaser – had her deliciously raw and rampant story read out with great panache by Christine, an exceptional reading especially as Christine had not seen it till that moment.

Then it was the Brits. Our own institution of crip glory Mr Mat Fraser read a fab and filthy story, set in New York, and then it was me. Little ole me making my debut in New York. My mum will be staggered! I did my rather rude ‘Dr-Patient Relations’ spoken word burlesque, developed a few years ago with London based burlesque legend Jo King, and finished off with a new piece call ‘Alphabet Sex’. 

I glowed and grinned and basked in my moment. I sold books and Bluestocking took copies as stock. Everyone was lovely and complimentary. I most certainly will return.

I’m full to the brim with New York and the stories will spill out into something very soon.  

But for now, slowly recovering from jet lag, I have to turn my thoughts, if not energy quite yet, to the Edinburgh Fringe. I am there from Aug 22-27, performing the show ‘Adventures in the Dark and Light’ – in Princes shopping mall (!?). Quick note: I have floor/sofa bed space in a semi-accessible apartment if anyone is interest – reasonable rates.

But reflecting on an intense and exciting week, in which I felt I made progress with my work, I have to end on a sombre note.  The ConDem cuts are hitting. Social services peer into our lives to trim and snip… and slash.  A top-notch PA made my New York trip possible in the sense of appropriate support. Yet as budgets are challenged and we are pushed to live in conditions worse than convicted criminals, what then of our work and our aspirations?  

The hypocrisy shouts as loud as we do – can we make them listen? We have to, for all our sakes – and not only to have the right to travel, but the right to exist.   

Posted by , 4 August 2011

Penny on protests... then and now!

It’s Sunday, late evening as I write this. I’m preparing myself for the protest in London tomorrow, as we take to the streets to show our anger at the savage cuts about to hack us hard. Cuts that slice our human rights to bloody ribbons too.

I haven’t been on an action for some time. From a personal perspective they have always made me nervous and even insecure, as though I was not really up to it, not made of hard protestor fibre. I’m fragile, I break mentally and physically, very easily. I feared I’d be a spare wheel(ie), an over-delicate hindrance rather than of much use.

I do remember in my younger years going on the odd local CND rally, and even a disability action – three of us turning up at some inaccessible bank I think, in a sleepy home counties town, dragging my embarrassing yellow ‘batricar’ buggy out from the area’s council estate scrag-end where I lived. Ironic and a little cringy to report that the said batricar had been raised by local charity… Mike Oldfield even donated 50 quid. How else would my poverty stricken family have even thought of such a thing?

The protest for Liz Crow a few years ago was great though! I still have recordings from that. Tomorrow, I am ready. I have my anti-government Protest Song, written for the DaDaFest Bed-In, and hope many of you will seek me out to sing along.

My writer’s head will be on full alert. I intend to absorb and immerse, record and photograph. Hope to see lots of friends old and new. Let’s show these people that we have a voice, a very loud one.

Posted by Penny Pepper, 23 January 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 24 January 2011

New Year, New Hopes, Old Battles

I doubt any of my pals are surprised I didn't manage to post a DadaFest write-up part two. Distraction, distraction... That's my problem. Sometimes I fire so many simultaneous thoughts that they lead me around in exhausting circles, and leave me in a woeful state bemoaning that I haven’t completed any project. I hope this will change this New Year. If you are ever on the end of my distraction issue – apologies. OK, I have had a weight of annoying health issues too, but the distraction does not help.

I was very chuffed at being short-listed for an Emerging Artist award at DadaFest. I’ve been in emergence for quite some time, and while I applaud Pete Edwards for winning and his ground-breaking piece ‘Fat’, I do think I need to get on with it. Emerge and cut out, yes, distraction, and procrastination!

On a more sombre note, here we are in 2011 facing grim battles with the government and some very fundamental challenges to our human rights. I’m directly affected by the changes to housing benefit, independent living funds and the attacks on Access to Work. Through my connection to various DPOs and of course the arts movement, I have to say it is truly terrifying what is taking place.

We must act in all ways we can manage, on the streets and from our homes (while we have them!) I believe the government believes we have no ‘power’ or clout. We have to show them otherwise.

From a perspective of recent personal experience and my old codger status, I believe the ‘them and us’ mentality continues to underpin the absolute cynicism shown towards us. We, as in disabled people, still carry labels imposed on us, experience barriers we did not create, and clearly, behind the rhetoric, we don’t matter much.

We invariably remain ‘the other’. Not their problem really, not a thing to think about. We are alien and over ‘there’, in a box, to be avoided until something pushes us into their snide, non-disabled mindset; to make a token political gesture, to gain temporary brownie points.

I know that thankfully we do have non-disabled allies amongst our friends and families, and I wondered recently if we could do something akin to what Harvey Milk did for gay rights. I was incredibly inspired by the film, in the way he thought outside the box.

Is there an equivalent of ‘outing’ for us as crips, with our allies, that would make a point!? To re-establish that we are connected to families and friends, embedded within society, we are part of it and contribute to it in myriad ways from our vibrant and unique arts scene to the fact that we can challenge old ideas about ways to live. We’ve always been overlooked and now it’s worse. We’re burdens, we’re tragedies, we’re tabloid tainted scroungers. We are inconveniences who cost a lot of ‘public’ money (a public we are not part of). The tired, tired clichés go on and on.

I’m not psychologically fit to go on many demos; but I know I can take these thoughts into my work with passion. And that is what I am doing now, with every beat of my heart.

Let’s rally. Let’s get political and personal. Bring it on.

Posted by , 2 January 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 3 January 2011

Penny Pepper's DadaFest Part One: Fun, Frantic, Provocative

I'm pulling my guilty face as I write this because I didn't manage to blog while I was working at DadaFest, and I really wanted to share this amazing experience. I've read the blog by Tanya, the reviews, and comments by Colin and echo the sentiments. This felt historic and it was a huge privileged to be there. Yet what a whirlwind, what an awesome frenzy. I loved every minute, even the exhausting ones.

My participation in DadaFest happened despite the odds. Earlier in the year my extreme mental distress had me trapped in a fog of tears and futility. I thought I'd missed my chance, and wasn't especially worthy of one. Somehow I muddled through with help from super friends and colleagues, did some proposals, and was offered work at DadaFest in the end.

I was at the happy launch night, ready for an early start the following day modelling for lovely Tanya Raabe once more. It was quite a thrill to pose under the awesome R.Evolve installation in the Bluecoat, and see people gazing at it, turning the cubes. It was especially funny if people caught my eye and realised then that it was me, one of the naked models they had been peering at.

With some to-ing and fro-ing on the train, London-Liverpool, I was at DadaFest for almost 12 days in total. My work began with being one of the models for The Three Graces for Tanya's life class. This was a moving and empowering event. Fellow model Julia Dean-Richards has written a poignant poem about this on DAO's DaDaFest review pages.

I loved what Tanya did with us, including the silhouette piece, in which we stood against a wall, set up with a paper, to capture our unique shapes. The class included people who had never drawn life models before, including Kath Duncan, a creative from Australia, who I was to work with later. The Guardian have a photo of Tanya working on this piece, in their DaDaFest Gallery.

My next job was with the burlesque project 'Criptease', in which six women had been brought together, mostly through the efforts of Liz Carr, to work with the queen of New York burlesque, Jo Weldon and her partner Jonny Porkpie. Three solid days of crazy glitz and glam rehearsals resulted in an open showing on Sunday 28th November. Each of us presented a 3-4 minute piece, exploring our own take on stripping. I went from dowdy, splinted and bored, to an Arabian shimmying dancer, stripped by the Genie (Jonny), who popped from the lamp. Of course, I had to end with some fast cheeky tassel twirling on my breasts - which the audience seemed to like!

In tandem with the Criptease work, I was also doing a 'Bed-In' performance on the Saturday. This event was to commemorate John and Yoko's peace protest, and other artists included Julie McNamara and The Feral Four. I did some story telling, recalling how certain events in my life had coincided with times of conflict and unrest. Two were most memorable; firstly that of being in a hospital bed when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. How us teenage girls feared a nuclear war! The second was the day of the invasion of Iraq by the West, which happened to be the day my book 'Desires' was officially released, thus wiping out many of my planned interviews. All I can say is – no comment.

I ended my Bed-In with a protest song I'd written in some panic the night before as time was incredibly tight - set to the tune of Yellow Submarine - hopefully I can supply a link soon. It was a powerful moment for me to hear the public joining in on the chorus:

"What do we think of Cameron and Clegg?
They'd rather we were dead
So I'll protest from this bed..."

Part two tomorrow as I am being very naughty now by staying up too late. There'll be trouble if I can't wake up bright and bouncy.

Posted by Penny Pepper, 10 December 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2010