Firstly I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all Dao’s readers and contributors. Last year we got out and about a fair bit, spreading the word about the disabled artists who engage with the disability arts sector through being a part of events, over and above the usual work we do of reporting on events and supporting artists through networking.
Firstly last June there was DaisyFest in Guildford, which featured two of Dao’s writers Penny Pepper and Allan Sutherland. Both Penny’s intimate Lost in Spaces - a poetic, musical journey through a personal history of the Disability Arts Movement and Allan’s extract from Neglected Voices: Proud were examples of the importance of persisting to assert the human rights element of our art form.
Later that month I gave a presentation of Dao's work at the Senseability conference organised by Tanvir Bush at Bath Spa University. It was a great pleasure to talk about some of the work we’ve featured over the last 10 years and explain something of Dao’s role to assist in facilitating networks and to support emerging disabled writers and artists through our blogs and our programme of commissioning writing on the arts and disability.
Last August Dao was invited to host another poetry event at Together! in Newham, where Wendy Tongue and Bonk Bipolar took to the stage with elements of the craft they’ve been developing through their respective blogs on Dao. There was further endorsement of their talent with invitations for further performances and workshops with the grassroots disability arts organisation.
On 3 September we ran Perceptions of Difference - a poetry event at the Saison Poetry Library in programmed to coincide with the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Having had a longstanding connection with Survivors’ Poetry, it was a fantastic achievement for me personally to introduce four poets who’ve been cornerstones of the movement: Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee and Frank Bangay.
Head Librarian Chris McCabe said of the event: “It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.”
It has been an ongoing pleasure to be a named media partner for Unlimited. Dao was the seventh top referral to the Southbank Centre’s website during the festival from 2-7 September, not accounting for the drive we did through our social media and weekly bulletin.
As the Unlimited programme develops through 2015/ 16 we will see new and further embedded partnerships beginning to ensure the programmes’ influence grow beyond London showcasing disabled artists creating extraordinary work.
It was great to see many of the artists given a platform at DaDaFest who are also an Unlimited partner. Last December the festival featured one of the main commissions Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged, plus several of the research and development projects: notably Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero with Backstage in Biscuit Land, Ailís Ní Ríain with her extraordinary cross art form Hieronymous Bosch-influenced The Drawing Rooms, and Kazzum Theatre’s promenade performance piece Where’s My Nana
DaDaFest was particularly memorable for the International Congress that was a major part of the programme, bringing disabled artists from across the globe, to coincide with the International Day of Disabled People.
A quote from mainstream freelance writer Bella Todd who we engaged last year to help us spread the word about Unlimited to the wider press sums up something of our aspiration to keep going in 2015:
“Many national, international and mainstream publications would envy the scale, quality and consistency of community engagement Disability Arts Online fosters on both its main website and through its social media channels.
Its writers, bloggers and readers (among whom there's an important degree of crossover) engage in an ongoing discourse that's at once supportive, argumentative, personal, politicised and teeming with individuality. That's no mean editorial feat. The quality and breadth of the debate will always make Dao pertinent and provocative reading for the wider world.
As a platform for giving a community a powerful, purposeful yet individuated voice, it's also a site to which more media outlets and organisations could do with paying attention.
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. We are under threat from measures designed by people in power who really basically don’t have a clue. Let’s come together and use Dao as platform to get our voices heard and to challenge top-down ignorance
Avant-garde or art as activism? Colin Hambrook discusses Disability Art in relation to Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures and Liz Crow's In Actual Fact
Since 1948 the BBC have been broadcasting an annual series of lectures by leading figures of the day addressing contemporary themes. It's over twenty years since there was last a Reith Lecture on the place of the Arts within society, so initially I was a bit non-plussed as to why Grayson Perry had been chosen to deliver a series which I normally associate with heady science or hearty politics.
I listened to the third of the 'Playing to the Gallery' series of talks 'Nice Rebellion: Welcome in' immediately seeing how the title might relate to Disability Arts. The Disability Arts sector has a legacy going back to the 1980s, of looking to produce art that challenges attitudes towards disability - the kind of art as activism that seeks to challenge institutions and institutionalised discrimination.
True to the title of his talk Grayson argues convincingly that the idea of rebellion within art is a tautology; that everywhere art institutions applaud Art that dresses itself up as going against the grain; and that the cultural zeitgeist of the Western world has reached a point where 'subversion' is as much a target for commodification as anything else. "…the lifeblood of capitalism is new ideas," he argues, because "they need new stuff to sell!" And when seeking the shock of the new, what better product than subversion?
So where does the concept of Disability Art fit in with the idea of seeking to challenge? Some years ago at the 2007 debate held by London Disability Arts Forum in Tate Modern, Yinka Shonibare described Disability Arts as 'The last remaining avant-garde movement'. If we think of the idea of avant-garde to mean "at the forefront of rebellion", I'm not sure that is completely true. Feminism may have moved forwards into the mainstream to a greater or lesser effect, but it strikes me that the artists who popularly most exemplify 'art as rebellion' at this moment in time are the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. In the aftermath of a public performance of a punk prayer to oppose the unscrupulous vilification of women through the sanctification of State by Church in Russia, they have put their lives on the line. Recent BBC reports of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova say that after going on hunger strike following abuses in jail, that the Pussy Riot member has disappeared, and is feared dead.
As much as Grayson Perry talks about the globalisation of Art practice, it is very evident that the rules that apply in the Western world are different to those in the East. And that attitudes towards human rights are equally very different. Or are they? What is the life of a disabled person worth in a situation where so many of us can be declared fit for work, whilst on our deathbeds? And what does it mean when the fact of so much misery and suffering can prevail against the most vulnerable members of society with hardly a murmur raised in opposition in our media?
Personally I'm not sure whether the term 'avant-garde' conjures up the idea of something that's controversial. It perhaps says more about where we've come from than where we're going. Again with reference to one of Grayson Perry's stories from his lecture, the term describes Duchamp's Urinal but not Brian Eno's recent ploy to fill it with piss.
And so I'd very much doubt whether avant-garde is a term we'd see as applicable to our movement. However, to my mind Liz Crow is one of the few disabled artists seeking to present art as activism - and to use the precept of Disability Art as a form that speaks about the experience of disability, rather than the experience of impairment.
Her counter-propaganda site In Actual Fact, was created to give actual facts about benefits and public services cuts - and to counter the political use of austerity to justify the deaths of disabled people who are being cast aside. Tomorrow is The People’s Assembly national day of action against austerity. Crow is urging people to tweet (and Facebook) from the In Actual Fact site, adding the #burnausterity hashtag at the end of tweets.
On Wednesday 6 November 9.00pm, BBC will broadcast ‘Britain on the Fiddle’ (the first in a series of three). This is a chance to show In Actual Fact working to counter propaganda. Crow is calling for mass-tweeting on the #britainonthefiddle hashtag, answering every single lie with relevant tweets from the IAF site.
In Grayson Perry's mind sincerity may well be 'problematic' and by implication a disguise for much 'bad' art. But then as much as I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of his series of Reith lectures, I doubt he would ever give disability art the time of day, or indeed see the critical nature of what we're trying to achieve.