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Week 1: Aaron Williamson blogs his Residency at Spike Island Bristol / 3 February 2010

artist launches himself against a white wall with windows above

'The Artist Throws Himself at A Gallery Wall' Aaron Williamson (2008)

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Arriving to a large, completely empty studio lit by an overhead skylight I had to immediately think about how to become its occupier for the next 12 weeks as an artist. Working largely through performance I’m not emphatically a studio artist – wherever I hang my hat normally suffices – but I’m aware of the cultural idea of the artist’s studio and what it means and represents to others.

During performance art's highwater period in the late 60s/70s, the notion of art deriving out of intensive privacy was blown apart by the communitarian and social politics of the time. Bruce Nauman had a studio in New York but was reduced to making work about that fact: ‘Stamping In the Studio’ (and so on), are video works addressed to an unmanned, stationary camera; the privacy of the artist and their attendant rituals/neuroses now become the work.

A maxim I recall from my brief flirtation with theological philosophy many years ago claims that ‘religion is what you do when you are alone’. It's quite possibly true: many people conduct actions or rituals when they are alone that, in a sense, is at the core of their belief system; who they ‘really are’.

So imagine willingly adopting cell-like isolation and then observing your own physical and unconscious responses. I remember a student – nameless – who, in the days when education afforded the nascent artist a closed space, made a point of ritually taking occupation through spilling each of his bodily fluids onto the floor of his space.

I don’t do that myself but nonetheless, I do experience transformation into being a finicky re-arranger of objects and furniture and endless prevaricating before, probably late at night, being able to rub my hands together and proclaim ‘and now for some art’.

Katherine Araniello and I have been working on a new opus – a short film – for the grandly titled ‘Disabled Avant-Garde’. Having ‘done’ crafts/ art therapy in ‘Amazing Art’, contemporary dance in ‘Damaged Dance’ and music in ‘Singalonga DAG’ and ‘20 Institutional Classics’ (forthcoming), we are currently shooting a film about a fictional art installation by us.

We usually film in an improvised way in public situations and draw all manner of bizarre responses from the public for no more reason than that Katherine uses a wheelchair and I’m her deaf sidekick. We can get away with cultural murder: blagging our way into first class VIP/members’ areas and last week, staging a disruption of a classical concert at the South Bank without any remonstrance, where normal folks would be booted onto the street.

More about this in future blogs but to my mind Katherine and I are shaping up to become the Laurel and Hardy (or Keaton-Arbuckle) of the disability art world.

Katherine’s current passion, both as an artist, and as an activist, is her opposition to assisted suicide (or ‘the new eugenics’ as it has been described on dao). We made a film in 2007 before the debates really took off. ‘Assisted Passage’ was the covert film of a public performance in which we drew a response from supposedly politicised students expressing themselves in favour of assisted suicide. A significant number signed our bogus petition on the spot to send Katherine to Zurich!

There’s a lot been said and its difficult to add a new slant but its interesting that the high-profile expressions of favour towards the ‘freedom’ of AS comes from people who are expecting their lives to become indescribably awful through becoming disabled.

Charlotte Raven recently in the Guardian for example appears to be most horrified that she might one day be found dribbling and needing someone to muck her out. Her putative loss of social propriety seems to be of greater value to her than life itself. This is a sad view since it reinforces social perceptions of disabled people as, basically, living in hell. In fact, if one removes the crippling social perceptions one is constantly up against from upright folks, then life as a disabled person can be no bad thing at all.

In fact I for one can affirm that my life became MORE not less live-able through my adjustment. Through becoming deaf I gained a life, lost some background noise. Big deal – the most difficult aspect was the adjustment itself since those around me presumed I’d be devastated to wake up as a corporeal doorpost one day.

The arrival at a point where I had to acknowledge and embrace life as a disabled person (I date it to when I binned my use of hearing aids 20 years ago) was a blessed relief and the disability community was a sustaining factor in that process. So what bothers me about AS is that, whereas there will remain an ageing ‘affirmative’ community, young disabled people in remote or under-educated societies will come to see themselves as being subject to an evaluation of their continued existence.

I’m not saying that there will be frothing AS/eugenicist Nazis on every street corner. But to make the breakthrough discovery that life is just fine as an independent disabled person, will become increasingly difficult and the temptation to ‘relieve’ society of one’s burdensome existence will be pronounced by, oh, at least say 39.5% or so.

There was a point where, as an abject ‘hard of hearing’ teenager my outlook might have been moulded into a suicidal one by a society that was only slightly more obsessed than that of the late 1970s with rectitude and social Darwinism. This is the argument that isn’t being staged: by all means ascribe a liberal, legal method of suicide available to those who only expect pain and eventual death (but didn’t someone once say ‘life is pain, and then you die’ – like, anyway?).

But to conflate that ‘right’ with the supposed ‘tragedy’ of physical impairment/ disability is an enormous social reversal that will decimate the disability community profoundly. And besides, I for one shall never personally speak to, or socially recognise a ‘doctor’ who has killed a person on the grounds of somehow ‘assisting’ them. I mean, what the fuck is in it for them? Compassion - or a fat fee?

Back in Bristol, and in the studio for the fourth day – what have I done so far? Well I’ve chosen a material that I really want to work with and bought some of it online – to be revealed next week. I’ve wandered about the city and wondered where it was that I saw the Pop Group supported by the Slits when I hitched down here from Derby around 1980.

I’ve been stamping around the studio and making some exceptionally bad watercolour paintings and thought about learning to walk on stilts. Why? Well what if the world was full of ‘normal’ people with two heads and four legs, three arms and were on average 8 foot tall? Wouldn’t they look at the sad, currently-average citizen model that we now champion and proffer them the favour of doing away with themselves? It must be awful, these people would opine, having only one head.

Go to the Adam Reynolds Bursary website to find out more about the award.