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Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven do 'The Golden Gherkin'

Unveiled in the same week that the UK government scrapped the Independent Living Fund (ILF), a debate about the artistic merit of Damien Hirst’s 'Charity' (2003 - 2004) ignited on Dao’s FB group. 

A 22-foot painted bronze likeness of a Spastics Society (Scope) charity collection box from the 1960's-1970’s depicting a sad disabled child, the press lauded it as a statement about disability rights and exclusion. Why? Because in Hirst’s depiction, the giant charity box has been prized open with a crow bar and it's contents stolen. It's lazy art for lazy people lacking imagination or any understanding of disability representation.

As Mark Harrison commented on FB: “Art business & disability business - match made in heaven... both making money from crips.”

In response artists Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven decided to set up a fake artisan pickled gherkin stall, 'The Golden Gherkin', beside the 'Charity' sculpture installed next to 'The Gherkin' building in central London.

“Come and get your juicy, cheeky gherkin, all in the name of charity… spastic disabled gherkins made on Damien Hirst’s disabled farm…. Free. Dig down deep. £78… Hard to stomach.. Free gherkins.” 

You can see edited highlights below. The joke is clearly lost on most city workers who walk past in a hurry. To my mind the dark humour here sums up the cynicism of the city and the corporate art it supports.

Although apparently one man did donate a pound, so maybe all is not lost.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 29 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 July 2015

Liberty Festival 2015

I arrived at the Liberty Festival in the Queen Elizabeth Park in Stratford with that M.E. glow, swollen glands and throbbing head in a howling freezing wind and lashing rain, thinking “what am I doing here?” By the early evening I left with that Liberty love thing that keeps me going back year on year. 

Liberty has always been about a sense of community and grass roots, which has been helped in recent years by the association with Together! who presented an afternoon of music and poetry. 

Michelle Baharier from Cooltan Arts read a moving tribute poem to the life of a friend who ended their life as a result of austerity policies.

And Allan Sutherland did a few poems from his forthcoming poetry collection ‘Difficult People’, which to my mind is an astute way of summing up how disabled people are represented by the media and press, generally. Inherent in the idea of us being ‘difficult’ are the reasons for how and why we continue to be marginalised. The poem ends on a typical Sutherland tongue-in-cheek cliff-hanger: 

Just getting rid of us
Is what you’d like to do
Which gives us a lot in common -
We ‘d like to get rid of you.

Yes, Liberty is a watered down version of what it was when it was held in Trafalgar Square and the association with Disability Sport is incongruous because of its rootedness in a medical model of disability. And call me naive but I always thought being Mayor of a town was a job like any other, not an event brand.

However, in terms of politics with a small ‘p’, there’s still something of value about an event at which disabled people come together to share their arts and culture in a public arena… 

Considering the weather and the fact Liberty’s been moved to a Sunday, guaranteeing transport routes will be out of action and PAs and carers will be in short supply, it was amazing that a reasonable crowd turned up at all.

I’d been excited about Sonic Vistas as Ivan Riches has been blogging on Dao about his motley band of assisted music technology performance artistes for a while. It was a raw and unpolished performance, but a lot of fun all the same. Kris Halpin looked super cool, playing power chords on air guitar using MiMu Gloves. The loveable Mik Scarlett, star of synth pop, reminded us that nothing about us should be without us, and the equally loveable Sophie Partridge took us home on the night train.

This year we were given a range of excellent world music with the incomparable Baluji Shrivastrav, the versatile Hassan Eraji and headliners Mbongwana Star. With an irrepressible jive style style the 7-piece band have a unique sound melding African and western rock styles of music with bass lines incorporated into the playing of rhythm guitar.

I’d been keen to see the latest circus theatre offering with Jamie Bedard and John Kelly as part of Extraordinary Bodies - a partnership between Cirque Bijou & Diverse City. It looked like the weather had stopped play, but in the spirit of true troopers they decided to go ahead anyway. 

The wind clearly limited how much they could do on the huge aerial platform - a ladder, come bridge/ boat structure held in place using counterweights. The narrative told the story of an escape from home by an adventurous daughter leaving behind a distraught family. A chase was played out as the structure turned 360 degrees, held by a supporting frame. 

It was the kind of spectacle that Greenwich and Docklands International Festival who produced the event, are famous for. And John Kelly was in great voice with a range of ballads and rock songs telling the story of a young woman in search of colour and excitement.

Unfortunately the rain started again and rather than risking the electric guitarist going up in sparks the performance had to close mid-way, with the offer of hearing a finale with the Southwark community choir under cover in the nearest tent.

Overall it was a great day out, despite everything. I’d love to have seen more… so if it goes ahead again next year it’s certain I’ll be there…

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 27 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 28 July 2015

Sadcrip/ supercrip: two sides of the same coin

Logging on to Dao’s FB group can be a reminder that we are living in a regressive period where Disability Politics is concerned. It can often feel as though the Social Model understanding of our lives as disabled people has taken several steps backwards.

The Dao FB group has grown to nearly 3,700 members, increasingly attracting individuals from every corner of the globe. It’s an open forum with an increasing number of posts, linking to journals and blogs that present a dilemma in advocating stories of ‘overcoming’ disability or ‘normalising’ disability.

Two recent examples, Beyond Disability and The Department of Ability represent some of the flotsam attracted to the group to promote stories about ‘triumphing over tragedy’ and being a ‘super-crip’ who just likes to have fun.

These people are well-meaning with good intentions. They are often non-disabled people who have a close relationship to disabled people. Personally I am fed up to the back teeth of being moulded in the image of someone who has triumphed over adversity. Is the expectation that you can be ‘more than’, any less oppressive than the expectation that you are ‘less than’? 

Both extremes (pathetic victim/ supercrip) are all pervasive disability stereotypes that deserve, and need to be challenged. In his thesis ‘Does anybody like being disabled?’ Dr Colin Cameron quotes Charles Riley (2005): “the sadcrip/supercrip are two sides of the same coin, signifying impairment as a tragedy that needs to be overcome.” 

Cameron goes on to say that “While the narratives of pathetic victim and plucky struggler appear superficially to be doing different things they are part of a single discourse identifying impairment as tragedy.”

The point is that impairment is ordinary, not special. Dealing with the difficulties that having an impairment brings is enough without having to negotiate a world which shuts you out by judging against definitions of what is ‘normal’.

I loved the work for DaDaFest exhibition, Niet Normaal that Andrew Tunney made with Laurence Clark a few years back. Super-Crip  lampoons the image of the disabled hero confronting the ridiculousness of being so special with his power to switch impairment at will, playing on the stereotype that the loss of one sense, means the heightening of other senses.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 21 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 27 July 2015

The City of London laughs in the face of the plight of disabled people with the erection of a new/ old Damien Hirst monument

A statue by artist Damien Hirst which according to the Evening Standard “aims to challenge our prejudices around disability” was recently installed next to St. Helen’s Church and opposite the Gherkin in London’s Square Mile.

The seven-metre high sculpture, called Charity (2003), is a replica of a 1960s Spastic's Society charity collection box depicting a disabled young girl clutching a teddy bear and a collection tin.

The Standard goes on to say that Hirst said he “aims to question society's historical tradition of representing charity as a pitiful image.”

So, firstly you have to ask yourself, why? And at a time when disabled people are suffering more than any other community within society as a result of the increasing prejudice and discrimination being expounded by the media and government.

Both FAD Magazine and Artylst tell us that “Hirst’s Charity revolutionises the classical practice of elevating a noble subject, by selecting the dejected image of a disabled girl with her leg in a splint and depicting the charity box having been broken into.”

What utter drivel. And yet another example of 'disability' being used and exploited by the rich and powerful as a commodity for trafficking ideas and power. Since the 2012 Paralympics it seems that we have gone beyond 'disability'. We live in such an equal society now, apparently ‘disability’ no longer exists.

'Disability' has been written out of the benefit system. Access to Work has been cut and the Independent Living Fund is no more. And now, of course, we hear the government want to make further steps to legalise killing us off.

Yet Hirst deems it appropriate to celebrate the fact that the 'disability' begging box has been broken into and the few meagre pennies we had have been stolen, right in the middle of the biggest self-serving tax haven and money laundering centre in the world.

As a movement we’ve always given ‘pity’ bad press. Johnny Crescendo urged us to 'piss on pity' when it seemed we were fighting for a more just world. But society has gone so far in proving that any form of compassion is outmoded and that as a result society itself no longer exists.

We’re just a group of individuals stacked up against each other like pawns in a China shop, self-righteous about the need to throw away anyone who doesn’t justify their worth to the economy. Even then, the logic of throwing away the ILF and the Access to Work Scheme doesn’t bear thinking about. The amount of money wasted by disavowing disabled people from making a contribution through employing PAs, paying tax. etc. is sickening.

A fertile discussion raged on Dao’s FB group in the last couple of days, instigated by blogger Deborah Caulfield.

The first thing you realise is how utterly lacking in imagination Hirst and the producers of Sculpture in the City are. I mean, come on, a sentimental 1950s image of a young disabled girl begging in a short skirt. The crowbar and the scuffed appearance are probably reminders of how sick people got of these objects on the streets in the 1970s. My own memory is that they always stood, vandalised and broken into.

Simon Raven reminded us that by far the best artistic treatment of the charity-box pity theme was by Katherine Araniello who did an ironic imitation, collecting for the Sick Bitch Crips. (As an aside Araniello is performing in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on 25 July as part of One City One Day)

Simon also suggest a group coming together to organise a 'Beggars Banquet' event at the foot of the sculpture to address our concerns. Anyone else up for it? 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 7 July 2015