Last Friday I entertained a group of nine young disabled people on a research visit from Seoul in Korea. They were wanting to find out about the history of disability arts development in the UK. They wanted to know how disabled artists in the UK have achieved the level of independence that we have; how we have got into a position where our work is seen, now, within the pantheon of professional arts practice. I talked about the importance of the Social Model of Disability as a rallying cry; the importance of disability cabarets, Ian Stanton, Johnny Crescendo, D.A.N., Heart n Soul.
At this time when everything we have fought for seems under threat like never before, it is a time for re-remembering, recording and disseminating those stories and that work. It is a dichotomy that the drive towards supporting the professional development of artists and companies to make work for a mainstream platform has gone side-by-side with the undermining of the disability arts movement as a community.
How strong the disability arts community is seems hard to gauge right now. The majority of disability arts forums, who were the mainstay of community development in the '90s, no longer exist. Those few that remain have a massive battle on their hands for survival.
The Liberty Festival was set up in 2003 with the express intention of creating a political platform to support disability rights. This happened with active engagement from Ken Livingstone who was then Mayor of London. [Interesting to note the lack of a presence from the current mayor this year.]
Liberty is no longer a rights festival. On the other hand its message to promote inclusion is massively supported by its presence in the new venue on the Southbank. Taking up space in the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall has given it a mainstream audience like never before. (With audiences of 300+ for each performance, I estimated 6,000 people for the main events alone.) But access for the disability community, by the nature of the Southbank architecture with its cobbled pathways and split level areas, has been compromised in comparison to Trafalgar Square.
The cabaret tent, which was the most overtly political element of the old Liberty, has gone, in favour of much fuller performances from the likes of Graeae, StopGAP and Fittings Multimedia Arts. It is now a very professionally produced event. No longer can we moan about the accessibility of the brochure or the staging of events. It is all seamless. [Although I’m sure VIPs would have something to say about the audio-description.]
Caroline Cardus’s installation, ‘The Way Ahead’, a series of traffic signs promoting disability rights messages, had a steady stream of people readily absorbing and photographing the work. When I spoke to her, she said that when it had been shown previously at Liberty non-disabled audiences were less able to comprehend what the installation was and their engagement with it was more circumspect. But audiences at the Southbank come to the venue for arts and culture. They are there for the art. And that has got to be good for the artists whose work is shown there, hasn't it?
However the Liberty brand now begs the question, ‘liberty’ for whom? Does the festival title now carry an implication that equality has been fought for and won? Will the festival now become lost in the plethora of arts festivals which inhabit the spaces on the Southbank?
At a time when disability rights are systematically being sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, I wondered what stories about independence for disabled artists a group from the Korean Society of Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities would take back with them to Seoul in a year or two’s time?
I finally got around to reading John O’Donoghue’s autobiography ‘Sectioned: A life interrupted’. It won the MIND book of the year in 2010 so has been on my shelf for a while now. The preface hurls you into the author's world as a teenager with a tale of exorcism, after the death of his father, and his mother's subsequent breakdown.
From that point, the use of narrative and the clarity of the storytelling brings alive the people and experiences John lived through, primarily in London, during Thatcher’s reign when there was ‘no such thing as society’. The dialogue in particular gives a vivid portrayal of an array of characters from hospitals, residential homes, hostels and squats, complete with mannerisms and accents.
The writing carried me through from episode to episode of psychiatric incarceration and homelessness, willing the bad luck to end… knowing that a point of turn-around was coming. I was glad John finally found some positive advocacy through MIND. I had some good experiences of the group in Camden in the mid-80s, and then again in the early to mid-90s, in association with Survivors Poetry.
Above all I was deeply moved by the determination, resilience, humour and humility that comes across through all the travails John experiences through psychosis… against all the odds. I was struck by the honesty in the face of those misguided notions that have haunted practices within psychology, where so often damning judgements are brought to bear in the guise of being ‘non-judgmental’ and ‘therapeutic’.
Sectioned illustrates a universal truth that so much more than diagnosis and drugs and therapy is needed. What really changes lives is a bit of understanding applied from the right quarters at the right time. Understanding isn’t something you can train anyone to have. Books like Sectioned help, but, in the main, understanding of mental and emotional difficulties are either things people get or don’t get. So often the ability to proffer understanding is equally something that is dependent on a whole set of variables.
Sectioned also illustrates - without falling prey to victimhood - how much the system fails people; humiliates, degrades and punishes like the worst bully. Even some of the worst stories, like being sent to prison for two months for stealing bin bags worth 80p, are told with a humour that makes you question the way society is run.
All those people getting hyped-up in the media and prosecution service about the recent riots would do well to read this book – and maybe think again about the impact their decisions and judgments have on the lives of young people as they react to the urge to ‘make an example’.
Left-wing liberalism has lost its edge recently with all the media hype about responsibility and respect. Even The Guardian seems to have suddenly become a proponent of the Big Society. In its place the class divide has suddenly got inextricably deeper. The same old story comes around as it goes around. Not only do the poor get shafted by all the institutions set up to ‘serve’ but it is done at enormous expense to the taxpayer. Where’s the justice?
‘Sectioned: A life interrupted’ by John O’Donoghue is available from Amazon price £5.99
Up-Stream went full steam ahead at the end of last month as part of the prestigious Brighton Festival. Colin reports on some highlights
I had quite a few highlights from amongst all the work that was showcased. The most memorable for me was seeing My Song, scripted by Charlie Swinbourne and directed by William Mager. The blurb on the British Sign Language Boradcasting Trust website describes the film as "a coming of age story which follows Ellen, a young deaf girl stuck in the middle of the deaf and hearing worlds."
It was a seminal film catching that transition when you discover there are other communities out there whose sense of being in the world is more closely allied with your own. My Song is specifically about a hidden side to Deaf life - the frustrations of trying to fit in and facing rejection from both sides of the fence in your attempts to find yourself.
Still of actress Lara Steward from My SongThe story is very clever in the way that it gives you a range of perspectives on what it means to grow up as a deaf person. I thought it worked extraordinarily well in communicating how passion for rights and equality can become distorted when the ends take over from the means of achieving your aims.
In many respects My Song tells an age old story of the quest for identity. It reminded me strongly of a time in the mid-1990's when I strongly identified with being a survivor of the mental health system although I hadn't been sectioned out-right. As the film skillfully illustrates there are many types of deaf people – there are also many types of survivor. Fitting a group within a narrowly defined label often leads to exclusion for people who identify but are coming to terms with impairment, culture, and of course language differences for the deaf community.
It is one of Dada-South’s greatest strengths that it looks to breaking with the boundaries that you have to define in this way or that way to belong. It recognizes that the greatest asset is you have an as an artist is your own experience. That was something evident in all the diverse variety of work shown in the Up-Stream showcases by Charlie Swinbourne, Oska Bright, Sally Booth, Gary Thomas, Juan delGado, Jon Adams, Freewheelers, Deaf Men Dancing, and Project Artworks.
A big part of the project was a bid to give the artists a professional push in the right directions and I look forward to following up with reports on where the work goes next!
You can see My Song in full on the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust website For more information about Charlie’s scriptwriting, go to http://charlieswinbourne.com For more information about William Mager go to http://wlmager.com
Shut up and Listen has become compulsory listening in the last few months. Hosted by members of Carousel house band, Zombie Crash, it's a thoroughly entertaining hour. Ryan and Luc bounce off of each other on radio - as they introduce a compelling selection of tracks from learning disabled musicians from here and abroad. The March 2011 show which is available on the Shut up and Listen website, is an Australian Special with a feature on the Oska Bright Film Festival as they take their movie magic to Adelaide. The show includes some great tracks from Australian artists: Rudely Interrupted, Donna Williams and Tra La La Blip with the very goose-pimply '1Anzac March'.
Continuing on a musical note I was intrigued to watch Goldie's Band: By Royal Appointment on BBC2 - the first in a three part series available on BBC i-player till 15 April. The series follows drum and bass pioneer Goldie on a personal mission to discover young people whose talent and passion for music is at the centre of their lives. In the first episode, Goldie is joined on his nationwide search by a team of experts including composer Guy Chambers, jazz artist Soweto Kinch, singer/songwriter Cerys Matthews and MC/songwriter Ms Dynamite
It is a refreshing idea, if not unique, and a real one in the eye for the legacy of record companies manipulating and manufacturing music to suit what they think should be popular. Goldie and crew go out seeking young musicians on the fringes. They travel the country sitting down taking tea in their homes and getting them to play.
They've not gone out to search for 'disabled musicians' or anything as prescribed as that. Goldie is looking for music that "makes the hair on his arm stand on end". It's his "litmus test" for whether the music is any good or not. The result is that of the twelve young people chosen at least two have severe mental health issues; one musician is hearing impaired; others come from the margins of society in one way or another. Probably none of them would relate to disability or disability arts, but all would probably agree with the idea that a lot of great music is made out of adversity.
Certainly, Goldie goes to great lengths to illustrate that that is where he is coming from in his search to bring a group of unknowns together and make magic happen. He brings his mum into the frame to open up the story with her about how she had to have him put into care to save him from an abusive father. He talks about how the music he is known for, came out of the need to express himself.
The artist who did it for me was Lester Allen - a young guy from Luton. He makes Ms Dynamite cry, and Goldie fights it all back at the sheer quality and depth of emotion Lester puts into his songs, drawing on experience of mental health difficulties. '30 Pills' is the song that describes his journey into mental hospital: "Poseidon smells my fear and draws me close; he knows my end is near". Then he hits a glorious high note on the refrain: "today will be the day that I die". He's a cross between Mumford and Son and Daniel Johnston - just a young lad sitting on a bed, giving it his all. What was it Dylan said about there not being any sin, inside the gates of eden. You can't have perfection without imperfection.
Not that Goldie's show, like all television, isn't incredibly flawed. There's only two women out of the twelve. The idea is to bring this broad cross-section of talent, instruments and musical influences together to make something unique. There's no telling what a row they will make in their attempt to get to grips with Goldie's dream. And what tops it all is that they are being hyped up to prepare for a 'special', oh so special concert at Buckingham Palace at the behest of Prince Harry. Only television could invent something so appallingly crass.
All I can say is at least he is trying something different; something which allows for inspiration and happy accidents to come to the fore. I just hope it brings something helpful into the lives of those it is meant to change. And lastly talking about remarkable stories I caught a recording on Facebook of film critic Mark Kermode raving about the Staff Benda Bilili! film documentary that is touring the UK now. He likens the movie about a group of disabled street musicians from Congo-Kinshasa to the award-winning 'Heavy Load: A film about happiness' with its "strange garage band version of that Kylie Minogue song that goes 'la la'."
Take note Load fans! Even Mark Kermode, almost recognises that Kylie Minogue is the Heavy's number one fan!
Supporting artists to develop their artistic lives is what drives me to keep [Disability Arts Online] DAO going. It's not something I always get right... and an issue has arisen recently with an artist I am working with, that I thought I'd ask for some advice on.
Identity is key and we don't always want our artist identities to be linked with our day-to-day identities for a variety of reasons. I adopted Mole as my artists' name early on in my career as a visual artist/ poet. Thinking back now it didn't serve me well, although it felt right at the time.
I had a strong emotional connection with the name. It was a nickname my mother gave me as a child and was consistent with the work I began making when I was at art college in the late 1980s and early 90s. Amongst other things the series of poem paintings I created then was about mental health issues in childhood. Some of it is in the NDACA collection at Holton Lee, Dorset.
Mole reflected my proclivity for hiding. Naturally, it wasn't successful or I would be a more prolific exhibiting artist now. [I haven't exhibited much as an artist in the last ten years - apart from in occasional local galleries.] The name went with the territory of not particularly wanting to be known. When I think back now it reflected a lot of the shame and guilt that goes with the territory of being known as someone with a mental health condition.
But I have carried on surviving, much to my great astonishment... and still make work, although the name Mole has all but disappeared except as a signature on quite a few older works. As this issue arose with the artist I'm working with, it got me to thinking about my own choices and wondering how best to advise someone on whether or not adopting an artist' name is a good idea.
There are lots of famous examples of artists changing their names - slightly as in the case of Andy Warhol... or completely as with Banksy, Tracy Emin, Billy Childish - to name a few.
There are lots of reasons why people choose different identities as artists. And I wondered if any of the disability community had ideas on how to go about thinking about choosing something that reflects who you are as an artist?
Greetings to all the wonderful disabled artists, performers and writers who have contributed to DAO and made it such a fantastic journal to edit over the past year.
Over the last eight months or so I've been making more of a concerted effort to encourage disabled individuals, companies and projects to use DAO as a place to blog about life, art, access and artistic practice. It's been a rewarding experience and so (in no particular order) I'd like to share some of my highlights of the past year.
In July Sophie Partridge reported on her experience of being part of Rethinking Disability Project Focus Group at Shape. She gives a lively account of reflections on images of disabled people from the Royal College of Physicians’ archive. The group was a preliminary adjunct to an exciting exhibition interpreting the context of image-making and attitudes towards disabled people to be shown in Shape's offices (and hopefully other venues) in 2011.
I also greatly enjoyed Anne Teahan's account of taking part in Revealing Culture - an international disability arts exhibition of 55 artists, which was shown at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington last summer. She gives an insightful account of her trip, and reflections on disability and impairment.
DaDaFest 2010 in Liverpool proved to produce a major high point on the the disability arts calendar this year. In her December blog Tanya Raabe gave an excited report on the part her talented brush and eye played in revealing disability arts culture to a wider audience on the BBC's Culture Show.
I can think of a few theatre companies that are tackling inclusion in a dynamic and ground-breaking ways. Over the Xmas break I saw the ever stunning deaf actress Caroline Parker in Red Earth's children's production of The Lost Happy Endings adapted from the book by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. This fun production was energised by the use of BSL by the cast of four who brought it to life.
Ian Dury cropped up several times in 2010. There was a memorable biopic starring Andy Serkis reviewed by Alison Wilde.
Fittings Multimedia blogged about their tour of Raspberry - a production that brought Ian Dury to life as a narrator in a surreal story line that evoked disability struggles. The show was much admired by Colin Cameron
Finally, John Kelly aka Rockinpaddy had a hilarious punky part to play as lead singer in Graeae's production of Reasons to be Cheerful at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In Rockinpaddy's blog he talked about getting and feeling his way through taking on the part in what proved an affectionate, entertaining celebration of Ian Dury's music.
Dolly Sen has been making lively contributions to DAOs pages for nearly three years. She added a gallery of artworks last summer. Did she ever find that missing hula hoop I wonder?
Victoria Wright had a few outings on tv and radio in 2010. As well as having (in my opinion) the best role in Channel 4s award-winning comedy Cast-Offs, she also supplied DAO with an open letter to mainstream comedian Frankie Boyle after his incessant attacks on learning disabled people.
This discussion piece provoked some interesting comments about humour and discrimination. There are no easy solutions. Attacking disabled people for the way we look, sound, are stereotypically expected to behave etc. still largely goes unchallenged. Except for the first time complaints to Ofcom were registered.
Thanks to everyone for supporting DAO in 2010. We look forward to more in-depth focus on you, your talents and our community in 2011.
I caught Ed Vaizey on BBC Parliament last week. He was answering questions before a Select Committee challenging him on whether there is any justification for spending public funding on the Arts. A key reason he gave was that he saw the Arts as a bastion for sharing Happiness. Believe it or not he described himself as the Minister for Happiness.
He talked about the economic arguments for investing in the Arts, although it was clear from the discussions that the agenda for commercial sponsorship is going to be higher on the agenda than ever.
There is a massive divide in ideas about the value the Arts bring to peoples' lives - and who the Arts are for, and whether they are simply about entertainment. And of course whether the Arts are best served, as any funding becomes more dependent on sponsorship - as a marketing tool for Business.
Disability Arts is very much about challenging perceptions around identity. The movement has arisen out of a massive lobby, particularly in the UK, to challenge the deficit model and to support authorship of creative expression, exploring Disablity as a construct.
In my opinion none do it better than the Disabled Avant Garde (DAG) producing work that combines a liberal dash of sardonic wit and disability politics. Their latest christmas offering 'No Room at the Igloo' is a 9 minute video mockumentary they've produced for youtube.
The video is a bit of fun that casts some wry comment on the commissioning process behind last years' Igloo in the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. They also make some pertinent remarks about perceptions of 'disabled artists' - combining humour and attitude.
My guess is that seeking business sponsorship will up the anti on a reliance on the tick-box approach for any funding disabled artists can expect to realise in future. DAG take a subversive approach to the notion of the tick-box and the tragic but brave connotations it supports. The DAG image of disability arts and Joseph and Mary is very pertinent.
Have a look and explore some of the other videos on the DAG channel too.
On the way to Stratford Theatre Royal for an evening of Graeae's raved-about Reasons to be Cheerful - it was bizarre to read a report in the Daily Mail of several Labour MPs using twitter to send messages of support in favour of the students who attacked the Tory headquarters earlier this week. The Labour Party's support of violent action is not unprecedented, of course. They took us into Iraq despite the million march and a national sense of the injustice of waging that war.
Reasons took us further back in time - to the beginnings of Thatcher's reign of power in 1979. It was a nostalgic trip back to the days before the reconstruction of the male psyche. The musical is a full-on, energy packed evening, reveling in Ian Dury’s up-front obsession with sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Graeae's cast of ne'er-do-wells were totally up-for-it - using BSL and captioning to give further emphasis to the pure inventiveness of Dury's lyrics. The show was a wonderful tribute to the man as a poet of his time. His songs are full of characters on the periphery of society, like Plaistow Patricia - ducking and diving in the pursuit of "a little bit of this and little bit of that! Oh Oh!"
The story tells the tale of Vinnie, his mate Colin – doing all they can to get tickets to see Dury at the Hammy Palais in 1981 – Vinnie’s mum Pat and his dad Bob. Bob lives a parallel life to that of Dury himself. He is dying of cancer and yearning for younger days of love, made to the music of one of Dury’s heroes - Gene Vincent.
It is a simple tale of ordinary folk, nicely pivoted around a tender rendition of 'My Old Man' - telling the story of a father and son come together in front of death’s curtain:
Seven years went out the window
We met as one to one
Died before we'd done much talking
Relations had just begun
All the while we thought about each other
All the best mate, from your son
All the best mate, from your son
My old man
And of course, Reasons is a tale about disability – reaching a crescendo towards the end of the first half with the ground-breaking Spasticus Autisticus:
Hello to you out there in Normal Land
You may not comprehend my tale or understand
As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks
You can be my body but you'll never read my books
Dury’s comment on invisibility of disabled peoples’ voices is as relevant now as it was back in the early eighties. Thatcher’s reinventing of British society around the values of consumerism has now reached its apex. Disabled people in residential care are now labeled ‘customers’ who receive ‘services’ – as if care was just another commodity to be valued by quantity.
Reasons draws conclusions about similarities in the political climate now – with the cuts to benefits, beginning to undermine disabled peoples’ independence. But the world is much more complex with the flow of information afforded by the internet.
In Thatcher’s time, everything was a foregone conclusion, with tight, unrelenting control of the media at the heart of her campaign to change the way we think and feel. What’s going to happen next? Will there be fisticuffs in the House?
Hopefully, at the very least, Graeae will get an opportunity to do a further run of Reasons to be Cheerful at a theatre near you!
Reasons to Be Cheerful ends its run at Royal Theatre, Stratford, London on 13 November 2010
Another day, another poem, dragging through the ether. There are lots of twists and turns down the mental health road; no easy solutions, just lots of conundrums and silence scattered with unhealthy, stigmatising epithets of goodwill and brave wishes.
Love and Possession
Me and my shadow
kick an old leather football
back and forth across
a blackbird infested
patch of grass
inside the compound.
A wire mesh looms above us;
the taunts of twittering suburbia
are held by the rhythm of each thud;
the same old line tossing the
old argument back and forth.
Do love and need ever exist
I make it through the reality check
and land on a bench dedicated to
Shirley 1943 – 2009;
a bunch of dead dream flowers
lie gaffa-taped above a memorial:
“I am the gentle sea breeze”
love and possession held fast
by stark yellow-black lines,
long after the last sod
has had its final say.
© Colin Hambrook
I am pleased the way that the blog section of DAO has taken off in the past few months. Having the opportunity to publish work continues to be a pleasure that I am very grateful for.
When you've grown up with the idea that you need fixing in some way it makes parenthood even more of a challenge...
This baby place
and a way of holding
the little finger
as if grasping an invisible
cup of tea
at a garden party.
you transformed lives;
brought the seemingly
eager to climb rocks,
when even crawling
I grew several
heads in a bid
face for self-belief
as a father.
Love was easy
in the woods
of our soft
fall into you -
a place of stories
plain as pudding -
not like now,
shun a mans' suit;
without hands or feet;
and barely a mouth
to describe the new
to grow into the gap
© Colin Hambrook
In the 1990s I put together a visual arts exhibition called 'Dreams of the Absurd' which got shown in various galleries in the UK and abroad.
It was an extension of a series of large-scale paintings, prints and writing about experience of mental health issues. During research I did whilst still at college I connected the work with the representation of 'madness' within the history of art.
I've been trying to get back into making and showing my own work since the those days... With encouragement from other artists engaged with DAO I'm putting tentative feet back in the water...
So here is a poem that relates to my experience of growing up in a psychotic household and dealing with issues of psychosis personally from a tender age...
On Healing my Childhood
On RD Laings' fit of promise
I gave you a magic potion, hidden
in a steaming plate of baked beans.
You held your demons in suspension
for a while. I hoped you would find forgiveness
in the small hours and learn to be kinder.
Building a time machine with sticky
back plastic, you concocted a
spell; attempted to undo our births.
I put a band-aid on each moment that hurt you;
went to the moon for help, but couldn't find
my way past the myriad of therapists
who crowded the path to the place of no pain.
The universe exploded with nazi meditators
surrounded in light oozing from every orifice.
I travelled to the end of London and back
to find a potent enough medicine to calm your
nerves; put schizophrenia in remission;
denied its existence to release the guilt.
I tried remembering everything you had ever said;
confessed to the time doctor who gave you yet more
electricity in the name of healing. When
you blamed the next-door-neighbours
I wrapped myself in a ball and sent myself to the talisman.
Calling on blood and stone; I found the faces of change
in the place where the gods live and empowered
each memory with a prayer for healing.
You listened to my heart, made promises for every secret
and bound our love to the four corners of the wind
before your white blood cells dried up and died
of largatyl, chlorpramazine, depixol and modicate.
I try hard when writing poetry… sometimes too hard. Scanning this drawing into the computer somehow gave it an even more oppressive feel. Playing with the contrast made it that much starker.
The drawing wasn't made for the poem, but the mood of the drawing sums up some of the suppressed rage in this poem. There is a central figure in battle with demons and strange fizzing machines rising above him. So many of my drawings express different aspects of psychosis...
In many ways my life has been shaped by the moment the psychiatrist took me into my bedroom, aged ten, and subtly demanded to know all the 'mad' things my mum had been saying, on a promise he would make her better.
He took her away and gave her so much ECT she couldn’t remember her children when we came to see her in hospital.
Held fast in the youth chair;
you are a broken cup
a little more
to pick you up.
burns my skin
reminds me of
that recurring dream
haunting early childhood
a black and white
movie picture of mum
the smell of burning
night on night
They burnt her temple
lobes with their 'all
for the best' ethos
that’s fucked us
I've been thinking of posting some of my poetry for some time now. Poetry is one of those things I do to keep going when life gets tough.
I love Jean Cocteau's 1949 retelling of the story of Orpheus. I was born in the underworld. So-called schizophrenia came knocking on the door when I was still in the womb.
Going through mirrors, down holes, into the labyrinth, is something I'm overly familiar with. It's defined who I am. It seems to me that Jean Cocteau understood something about being 'outside.' This clip from Orphée, sums up some of that feeling.
(with homage to Jean Cocteau’s ‘Orphée’ - La traversée du Miroir)
At birth, Orpheus
the parentai bedroom.
The jewels he offered,
gloves that shlurped
a lifetime in Hades.
Watching from the outside -
it is enough to incite
laughter; endure war;
believe the smile of the
pin-stripe; walk on water,
and move through
liquid glass -
silica turned to h2o.
We are a family
and we follow;
it's in our genes
gin and so-called
I feel strongly about the sense of being part of a worldwide disability community that DAO invokes - and which guides my sense of editorship of the journal. The engagement that DAO stirs in its audience and the sense of ownership by the contributors - is something irreplaceable.
At least ten per cent of DAOs 6000 plus, visitors per month come from outside the UK. It's maybe not massive numbers comparative with other online arts journals - but the difference is that DAO has a dedicated audience, shown by the amount of interaction we receive.
Nothing demonstrates this more than a recent email I received from Suzanne Robertson editor of El Portavoz Newspaper, (The Voice Carrier) - a publication from Costa Rica, designed to provide a space where disabled people can freely express themselves, encourage discussion on disability topics and help to represent a more accurate and positive image of disabled people.
With kind permission Suzanne has agreed I can reproduce her communication here:
"I am a keen follower of the DAO website, and I would like to congratulate yourself and your team on creating such a powerful tool in promoting Disability Arts in the UK.
In terms of disability legislation in Costa Rica, we are very far behind in implementing practices outlined in national and international policies. One main area of neglect is the provision of equal access to culture, a fundamental human right that our organization is actively fighting for.
The term disability culture is a concept that has not arrived here yet. We still live in a society that is just barely adapting to the social model of disability, let alone trying to introduce developing discourses such as the Affirmative Model.
Although we have a long way to go, we are determined in getting there! We are passionately aware of the artistic talent that disabled Costa Ricans have to offer and of the abundant disability history waiting to be uncovered.
Through our publication we have amassed a wealth of knowledge that we believe can be directed in helping to create initiatives that promote Costa Rica's own Disability Culture. At this present time we are presenting a proposal to the national government body on disability in
order to create a collaboration plan to support and make this initiative a reality.
Whilst looking on the internet, for definitions of Disability Culture, I came across the excellent article by the poet Simon Brisenden, entitled;What is Disability Culture; originally published by Disability Arts in London Magazine.
I think it would be a powerful element to not only include as a reference in our proposal, but to also republish in our newspaper; especially as literature regarding this subject over here is literally non-existent!
On the DAO website, I noticed that you managed and edited this magazine for many years. Do you have any knowledge on who to contact in order to obtain permission to republish this article in Spanish, how to correctly quote when and where it originally appeared and if there is any more background information on Simon Brisenden."
Sadly, Simon Brisenden passed away at least ten years ago, now. I have been following leads to touch base with his sister Diane who I believe holds Simon's estate in trust - which includes intellectual copyright on the many excellent discussion pieces around disability arts and culture that he penned.
It is a testament to the strength of the disability community that the voices of individuals like Simon Brisenden can continue to echo around the world. If anyone knows how I might get hold of Diane Brisenden would they contact me via email@example.com
Outside Centre is a disability arts oganisation, working within the Social Model of Disability, whose primary objective is to celebrate and promote disability and disabled people through arts and culture.
They have produced Stamps of Disability - an online collection of postage stamps from across the world that depict disability. Searchable by theme and by country they cover everything from Beethoven to Princess Diana's Anti-land Mine Campaign.
In many ways postage stamps play a similar role to the flag - as cultural objects. Primarily, obviously, they are a means of payment for postal services.
They commemorate; celebrate; confer meaning with less prescriptive meanings and provoke a much more variable sense of the value of the territorial rights of nation states.
As with all images - their meaning is always tailored by the context in which the viewer finds them. There are some interesting debates raging on Outside Centre's Facebook Group - primarily in response to a postage stamp of Moshe Dyan posted onto the Outside Centre FB site.
Especially at this time when protests against Israel are mounting after the recent attack on the aid ship, destined to provide relief for Palestinian refugees, a postage stamp of Moshe Dyan seems at best to be encouraging a counter-productive idea of disability arts as an artistic activity that challenges in order to 'celebrate and promote disability and disabled people through arts and culture.'
Paul Darke says "the stamps are a perfect record of the socio-political and cultural oppression of disabled people in a small perferated form. That is, for me, is what makes them so fascinating." But isn't there something missing here; something that's been missing through the relatively small history of disability arts - an awareness of the fact that more people are disabled through war than any other human activity.
The disability arts movement has worked religiously to overturn and subvert the oppressive, cultural accepted association of 'disability' with 'suffering' - as a cipher. But somehow disability arts has never got to grips with what disability means in the context of war.
Whoever makes or breaks war; and whatever the arguments for justification - it doesn't happen without human suffering. In the process of celebrating war or war-makers, there will always be a sense of furthering the notion of disability as synonymous with suffering.
I saw the last show of Fittings Multimedia's Raspberry at the Clocktower, Croydon on 14 May. It was (almost) everything I hoped for with some great songs; a fantastic cabaret-style performance from Garry Robson in the role of Spasticus - a cockney-rhyming pastiche of everything that made Ian Dury great!
The off-setting of Garry's play-along delivery with the superb vocal range of Sally Clay, made for engaging entertainment with a disability message. Sally sings a mix of soul, jazz, operatic and classical styles - and if you get the chance to catch her and Garry as Blind Gurl and the Crips I'd thoroughly recommend it.
Christine Bruno as Rita, was a great choice. The plot line between her and Jem Dobbs as her Dad, could have done with a bit more development. You saw the emotional crisis coming and there weren't enough changes happening in the relationship to give it any depth.
The characters of David 'Stickman' Higgins as Albert Einstein and Sally Clay as Ray (Charles) attempted the surreal, and Albert had some lovely, mad moments. But some of the writing was a bit thin. They were brilliant musicians, but as characters were dramatically, a bit thin on the ground.
Enjoyable and captivating nonetheless. You can read some of the pithy lines that carried this performance in Colin Cameron's review on dao.
It's exciting news to hear that Graeae are continuing the Ian Dury theme with their next production Reasons to be Cheerful, coming to theatres in East London and Ipswich in October 2010.
Ian Dury was a Graeae Patron and supporter in the early years of the company. This show explores the spirit of 1979, with the backdrop of political change and violence, that formed the attitudes and expectations of a generation.
I lived opposite Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, London, when the riots went off. I remember the fear that gripped us and took me into dark so-called 'schizophrenic' waters. You had to be 'mad' to be sane to have lived through the Thatcher years and the scale of selfishness, greed and corruption that epitomised her reign.
The equality movements were birthed as a direct consequence of those oppressive times. The Disability Movement had its first teething years then. Now we are older (although not necessarily wiser) and our presence is here to stay no matter what comes...
Living with disability can get extreme sometimes. For me, living in the wake of so-called 'schizophrenia' has meant a lifetime of juggling the darkest emotions like tennis balls. My relationship with the illness has been a lifelong struggle... one of those things you are not meant to own up to.
It's a guaranteed conversation-stopper. Even within the disability community you are not guaranteed an empowering response. Reference to the illness can be a great way of losing acquaintances you are not particularly keen on in the first place.
The best you can expect is a conversation about how much better the medication is these days... as if the pharmaceutical companies were engaged in quality control of the neurological issues, heart problems and effects on the central nervous system which are endemic to all the anti-psychotics.
In an interview about definition and language on BBC Radio 4s Word of Mouth, Francesca Martinez asked "why not redefine people with schizophrenia as 'overly imaginative.'" In context she meant it as an understatement challenging the media's tendency to capitalise on the instant shock value to be gained from adding the 'schizo' word to a headline.
I saw a great ad at a multi-screen cinema recently... 30 seconds of blurry camera and dramatic sound introduce the oft-used cipher 'schizo' - leading you into thinking you're about to see a trailer for a violent horror movie. And then the image is cut with an ordinary family situation. A middle-aged man addresses the camera, telling the audience how he has lived with 'schizoprenia' for 12 years and has been able to live a full life with support from his family.
There needs to be more responsible open discussion of so-called 'schizophrenia'. As an illness it is all about irrational fear - as effect and as a cipher. Living with overly developed fear responses, is incredibly debilitating and hard work for those around you.
Societies mindless, sensation-grabbing responses don't help. Alison Wilde sent me an interesting analaysis of the nature of fear's companion, evil - in an article on a book titled On Evil by Terry Eagleton in The Independent.
It seems that we've never quite recovered from the boring name goodness and virtue made for themselves during the Victorian period. Despite the banality that accompanies evil; we have become obsessed by painting evil as romantic and glamorous.
During the Thatcher years we saw a reinvention of selfishness as 'altruism', in the desperate game of justifying greed. It set us up for a lot of fighting... and of course, we were the evil ones in demanding that support of our communities was a necessary part of finding strength to lead fulfilling lives.
But our community does continue to thrive... and will continue to thrive as the going gets tough...
I apologise for not writing for a while. I've been falling out of trees - Oaks mostly - under the misty moon-breathe of a schizo heart.
No dwelling place where explosive smiles burp on every street corner, taking you down to where the walrus begins. And all the demons turning into butterflies. You wish!
Very little makes sense when the periodic table takes a hold of all the thoughts that trail the world forever: in peace the last upwards spilling rain, soaking the sky and telling me with a swagger that there are no holes in the galaxy next door.
They said it was real, taking my brain before it was born - and planting it on the other side of the rabbit hutch, where everything was sacred in the wide beat of wind, casting the smell of leaves in the rain.
You wouldn't have credited it, when the sea came to call and swept everything but the smile on to the edge of a motorway leading to the last aubergine. It made a strange but beautiful sound. Imagine... fresh and purple... and then no more!
"To say you're only human. To say you're just a man. What does that mean? Coz I checked it out and it's easy to be a half. A half of nothing but another man in a scarf. Avoiding confrontation don't look me in the eye... " *
You gave me cauliflower cheese and extraordinary methods for splitting the last fragment of me. It was the imprint of 'The Eternal.' Could you have written it any other way? This groundhog day; this blissful telling of war carried down the seasons - and over the hill into the house within the house.
Mirror and reflected light - never doth the two part! And all the grey doves cooing couldn't put her back together again... after the lightning shaft of E.C.T. (Electro Convulsive Therapy) hit the brain and travelled the spine... strange how mental illness always gets worse once the psychiatrists get involved... makes you wonder whether they have an investment in keeping people insane!
Meanwhile in a tin bath at the bottom of the garden, a group of sticklebacks and salamanders perished under a relentless, hot, youthful, summer sun. The sky fell down and all the echoes off all hills across all the countries of the world, landed inside your head.
Sometimes, all you can do is be mad; In the underground of it all!
*A quote from Robyn Hitchcock's 'Ordinary Millionaire' from 'Propellor Time' 2010
Colin Hambrook responds to Tony Heaton’s talk about his sculpture as part of Shape’s ‘Animate’ programme on 4 February 2010
I’ve known Tony Heaton since 1993. He’s always been very enigmatic, passionate and down-to-earth in his approaches to the projects he takes up. I came into the disability arts movement in the wake of Shaken not Stirred - a piece of performance art installation that became a defining moment in disability arts history for many people in the disabled peoples’ movement.
The title came from a quote from James Bond who always liked his martinis shaken not stirred. Apparently Ian Fleming didn’t know how to make a martini, but that was the last thing on peoples’ minds when Tony created some media attention when he threw an artificial leg, complete with doctor martin boot, into a seven foot high pyramid of charity collecting cans. It was part of a protest against Telefon – ITVs fundraising marathon to raise money for disability charities, regardless of whether those charities actually represented disabled peoples’ concerns or not.
I say it was a defining moment, because at the time it was still regarded as sacrilegious to question whether or not charities listened to the disabled people they represented. It still is. But at that time Tony Heaton made a lot of disabled people sit up and think “we don’t have to take this any more.”
The slogan that stirred our imaginations was “nothing about us, without us.” It became a calling card for disabled peoples’ engagement, demanding consultation and employment at the heart of organisations working in our name.
It kind of begs the question “where are we now?” Some would say we’ve gone further backwards; there is more poverty in our community and largely disabled people remain outside of the decision-making processes. Others would say there has been advancement; that disabled people are within the public gaze like never before. There are many projects – like Animate – that have been funded to bring disabled people into the limelight to raise awareness of our culture and history from our own perspective.
Tony Heaton has been undertaking commissions over the last 21 years. He’s not been a prolific artist, but everything he’s made has been meticulously and with a rigorous thought process behind it.
When I was but a new kid on the block Tony came up with Great Britain from A Wheelchair – a map of the UK (minus Northern Ireland and the Isle of Wight) – made from the parts of two charity-issue wheelchairs.
In a way it made me nervous. Here was this massive statement, saying “disabled people aren’t going to hide away any more, so you’d better learn to deal with us.” A lot of us are shy of being open about the disability aspect of our lives. We don’t want to be seen as making mountains out of molehills. We get tired of being made to feel that we are crying out for special dispensation. We face barriers to being able to do things in all kinds of life situations, that are largely taken for granted by the mass of people.
So here was this amazing piece of sculpture that took the ubiquitous symbol for disability – the wheelchair – and made it into something we could aspire to. It was an eye-opener. It made me think a lot about shame and blame – the attitudes I’d grown up with that formed a cloud around the disability bit of my life.
I didn’t actually get to see the sculpture in person until it came on exhibition at Holton Lee in the late 90s. Although I knew the size of it, I’d built it up as something enormous in my mind, and was slightly taken aback seeing it for real, standing only 6 foot high.
We’ve been dogged by an attitude of fear and loathing towards the impaired body and mind since Greek civilisation. Great Britain from A Wheelchair will come to stand for a moment in time when disabled people stood up to confront those attitudes.
Tony Heaton’s sculpture tells stories about geometry and integration. It’s a journey of self-discovery – finding new bits to identity integrated out of disability. He tells his stories very eloquently, in objects and in words. As such he is perfect subject for ‘Animate’ which is continuing to take an in-depth look at the legacy of the disability arts movement.
Artist and Writer Allan Sutherland talks about the work of artist Tony Heaton, part of the Shape Animate series of workshops.
[Transcript of podcast]
Alan Sutherland: As an artist, I really like Tony’s work. I like its – it’s elegant but it’s witty and it’s always thoughtful. It’s always worth talking to Tony about what he’s doing with a particular piece. But you always find there’s this whole kind of superstructure of kind of ideas around what may seem like quite a simple piece. It’s actually – and then you think, “Oh, right.” He makes you feel a bit slow sometimes. "Oh, so we should have got more out of that."
But I was going to talk a little bit about ‘Split’. I will but very little given that you’re being asked to form your own opinions. I think that’s a kind of quite quintessential Tony Heaton piece. The way he’s taken the bit of wood with a split. Is that the term? With a crack in it. And actually made what would have been seen as a flaw – a reason for throwing a bit of wood away by other sculptors – as the heart of the piece. What the piece is all about. And something that’s very positive and meaning-bearing.
And obviously that sort of reversal has big implications in terms of disability and how disabled people are judged and what disabled people can do. And all of that stuff. The classic Tony Heaton work I think is ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair.’ A map of Britain made from two Ministry of Health wheelchairs.
I looked up an article I wrote about Tony some years ago for dail and I found a quote from him. He said message those wheelchairs originally convey is, “This is for some sad bastard.”
And he’s completely reinvented that - and made like a joyous, amazing, extraordinary piece of art. I have to admit that he told me about it. We had a phone conversation when he was just starting to think about it. He said, “Oh yes I’ve got this idea, just get some wheelchairs for me.”
And I’m not an artist. I don’t have that kind of visual imagination. And I thought, “He’s lost it this time.” (Laughter) And then I just remember that moment. It was in Leeds where I first saw it exhibited. And initially, it was like one of those, you know, those 3D things that were on sale where you like sort of peer at them and then suddenly they click into place.
It’s just like all these bits of wheelchair and then suddenly – bumph! It’s Great Britain. And that’s extraordinary. And disabled people, you know, we are everywhere, we are everything. We are all powerful. We are interesting and wonderful. All of that.
And then the other side of Tony’s work – when he became director of Holton Lee. Holton Lee, yeah. Tony has struck me as – at least until you started taking effect there as kind of an odd place. A charitable trust that was a kind of a little bit spiritual and a little bit stuff for the cripples and a bit ecological but… I always had in talking about Holton Lee, difficulty kind of finding a term to sum it up and saying, “It’s a…” What?
But while Tony was there, he really turned that rather odd kind of mish-mash into something that’s a strong part of the disability arts scene in this country. A bit of a – in its time, a bit of a powerhouse.
I don’t know whether it’s going to stay like that. Or whether it’s just gonna purely be part of our history. But with an extraordinary talent for finding funding for capital projects. It essentially created the first Disability Arts campus.
And now, he’s starting to do much the same thing for Shape. And my guess would be that the workers at Shape actually haven’t quiet realised how much their organisation is changing for the better.
Tony Heaton: But don’t tell them. (Laughter)
Alan Sutherland: I don’t know. I don’t – my guess would be, you don’t know because that’s the whole thing. It’s that ability to take just take something and keep moving forward and finding out where you get to. I guess that’s – I never thought of it like that way before. Like putting an artist’s way of working to running an organisation.
Tony Heaton. This is your life. (Laughter)
Tony Heaton: Thank you, Alan. (Applause)
2009 was a year of extreme highs on the dao front and lows in terms of dealing with personal impairment issues. Big thanks to all our writers and bloggers for helping us bring disability arts online alive - and to Jon Pratty for taking over the reins.
Crippen's irrepressible humour has kept us entertained all year. I think his Old Farts cartoon probably has to be the one that sums up the challenges ahead for 2010.
We've been secluded in our disability arts tower for years now. The signs are on the wall that the disability arts scene will disappear, unless we change and adapt our approach; finding ways of reaching out and opening opportunities for younger disabled people - or just disabled people who don't necessarily identify with the old rhetoric of the social model.
When we finally published our first big commission in August 2009, I was incredibly proud of Allan Sutherland and Nancy Willis' pieces of work 'Explorer' and 'Transformation' Nancy's digital media piece was made in response to Allan's poems.
There is a lot of depth and soul to both works. They give a naked insight into disabled peoples' experience, from a place of strength. A big depth of gratitude goes out to Joe McConnell, without whom this work wouldn't have come to fruition.
I look forward to publishing more sets of Allan's transcription poems in 2010. They are a unique, creative way of documenting disabled peoples' oral histories.
Another biggie of 2009, was Liz Crows' seminal live performance on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square. It was a much-needed statement about the lack of equality for disabled people at a time when disability is getting less recognised as a form of oppression.
Alison Wilde joined us towards the end of the year with some great film and tv reviews. I felt a real sense of disability pride on publishing Alison's brilliant summing up of the uniqueness of Cast Offs.
I loved interviewing one of the disabled writers of the show - Jack Thorne. In terms of disability broadcasting for the mainstream, Cast Offs set a new standard - showing disabled people living real lives. As a family of cousins, we don't necessarily do the pc-thing in relation to each other. Cast Offs stripped off some of the layers of worthiness and gave us permission to laugh at ourselves.
The Ian Dury bio-pic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll will be released on 8 January 2010. With reference to Cast Offs it will be interesting to see the reaction from the media of putting non-disabled actor Andy Serkis in the lead role. In the wake of Cast Offs there is no excuse for Cripping-up any longer. The disability arts world has proven professional talent.
Who would you have liked to have seen playing Ian Dury? For my money I think Daryl Beaton - who did such a fantastic job in Graeae's Against the Tide - would have given the lead role a brilliant sense of authenticity.
Other personal highlights of my year were Russell Jones' paintings. This artists' work felt like the kind of painting I would be making if I weren't spending most of my working time on dao. I feel those tree of life narratives in my bones. The connection with nature in all its fragility and beauty, that Russ brings alive, have a resonance I can truly relate to.
I am also very grateful to Cate Jacobs whose poetry collection 'Climbing Mountains in the Dark' I reviewed. Her narrative about living and surviving with AIDs, brought home to me the importance of writing poetry for survival.
Another highlight was David Feinberg's fantastic gallery of images describing his experience of life with bipolar disorder, seizure disorder and ADHD. His surreal, disturbing images sum up how you can use impairment to give your life meaning and purpose, despite the discrimination.
My big highlight of 2009 was a trip to Australia where I met some of the leading disability arts practioners from down under. Gaelle Mellis of Restless Dance company, made my trip a real pleasure, introducing me to the disability arts scene in Melbourne and Adelaide.
I really enjoyed attending the Art of Difference Festival in Melbourne. I got to know the work of Back to Back Theatre, Restless Dance Company and No Strings Attached, as well as that of a myriad of fantastic artists and performers.
It was a whirlwind experience. It gave a chance to see the work of UK disabled artists Liz Carr and Tom Shakespeare in a completely new setting. Liz was on fire. One of her quips summed it up: "Last year I performed in the Furnace in Liverpool; now I'm in the Gasworks in Melbourne. It's getting to become a bit of a theme."
The two of them teamed up with New York actress Christine Bruno - to outrage the Melbourne audience with an impromptu version of the famous ouch! podcast disability game show - 'Vegetable, vegetable or vegetable!' Maybe Damen Rose at Ouch! will send it international in 2010.
There are too many people to thank everyone individually for turning dao into the vibrant publication it has become. But I want to wish everyone the best for 2010.
Happy New Year!
Dao has been working with Parliamentary Outreach, Rethink and artist Rachel Gadsden on a project which looks at the relevance of the parliamentary process to people who have been through the mental health system.
We reported on the pilot project Breaking Barriers and are due to film a story about the Rethink Parliament workshop programme, which is being rolled out across the UK until July 2010.
John Bercow MP launched the Rethink Parliament programme in the Jubilee Room on 5 November 2009. He said he felt Parliament had a duty to find ways of listening more to the mental health community; of finding ways to tackle the stigma and encouraging people to engage with the parliamentary process.
He hopes through the Rethink Parliament initiative that Parliament will develop a greater interest in giving prominence to people from the mental health community.
He also stated the law of averages means there will be a number of Members of Parliament with a personal knowledge of mental illness; and that there needs to be more honesty and openess generally.
Rethink chief executive, Paul Jenkins, talked about the theme of the project being about encouraging individuals to ‘find a voice. He said: “If you’ve experienced mental health problems you will be all too aware that you lack a voice. It all too often means poorer physical health; less chance of getting a job; being banned by law banned from being a juror or a company director; and that you will be disqualified from being an MP. You will encounter negative attitudes in the media; from neighbours and family; from the police and from within the health service. Negative attitudes that often equate you with being dangerous.”
He went on to say that “...Rethink Parliament is about Parliament reaching out to people; saying that mental health matters.” He hoped in tackling stigma, the project might inspire more honesty and openness from within Parliament.
There is a need for a voice amongst those of us who have been affected by the stigma and taboo that having a mental health label has imprinted on our lives. I have struggled all my life - as most disabled people do - to find a way of having some power over even some of the most basic choices.
Mental health groups were the first people that Parliamentary Outreach particularly chose to work with, in recognition, perhaps, of how disempowered people with mental heath problems feel.
It may well be that the best we can expect are small cracks in the barriers which prevent our voices getting through. I think some acknowledgement is better than none. I look forward to finding out how this programme is received by the Rethink workshop participants in the New Year.
On Thursday 15 October Shape held their second informal conversation, led by Michèle Taylor - this time targeted at performing artists. Recognising the current lack of a platform for disabled and Deaf performers to come together to share ideas and talk about prevalent issues, Shape has created an ongoing event where 20 or so disabled and Deaf people can come together to talk openly and honestly.
Michèle set the tone by opening the debate with a showing of Liz Crows’ film about her iconic piece of performance on Anthony Gormley’s plinth, which was created to coincide with Resistance - a moving image installation, which is currently on tour. Liz Crow's performance has now reached the Guardian's Top Ten, which has been selected from the 2400 people who have each spent one hour on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Liz Crow’s performance was deliberately provocative. It consisted of her appearing dressed in a veil which was drawn aside to reveal her in nazi uniform. Significantly the performance took place on the 70th anniversary date of the Nazis Final Solution programme intended to end the existence of disabled people, amongst other minority and ethnic communities.
As well as drawing peoples' attention to a bit of overlooked history, it is truly about making people think about discrimination as it exists in the present day. In conversation, several people said that the atmosphere at Trafalgar Square on the night was electric.
The film gave an opportunity for people to discuss how there seems to be little space these days for people to talk about their experience of discrimination. These are not the kind of conversations that we are having as disabled people any more.
Disability arts became established through the cabaret circuit. It was a safe space for many disabled and Deaf performers to hone their craft in a space where they knew their audience would understand where the work was coming from. It was also a campaigning ground – especially for pushing access issues to the fore.
The fact is that we still live under a cosh as to whether or not we are ‘persons worthy of living'. The more ‘normal’ we can present ourselves as, the more likely we are of getting through the net of who is and who isn’t 'of value’.
I say this from a personal and emotional space. My mother was killed by a psychiatrist - one of the many Dr Shipman-types who inhabit psychiatry because of the lack of accountability that makes it possible for some psychiatrists to basically do what they want to you without fear of any comeback. As a ‘nutter’ you won’t make any sense anyway – so what does it matter if you complain?!
There is a notion that things are different now; that we have acceptance etc. But only six years ago when I tried talking to a GP about my mothers’ death. She told me that if my mother hadn’t died of the medication, "she would certainly have died of the schizophrenia.”
I come from a line of three generations labelled as schizophrenics. I am proud of being a human with a brain split into two halves. The challenge is understanding why people are so scared of a fancy medical word invented with a bit of Latin jiggery-pokery. ('schizo' means 'split' and 'phrenic' means 'of the brain')
The identity debate provided an opportunity to air some our stories. Julie McNamara talked about a Survivors’ poetry gig where she was told by a dignitary that she thought it "marvelous that mentally ill people are allowed out these days to do their own thing.”
The position now is that we don’t see ourselves as a Movement. We have lost cohesion and don’t consistently have the opportunities for conversations about the politics of disability that were part and parcel of the scene up to ten years ago.
Tony Heaton made the statement that we are struggling to get through a glass ceiling. Without critical debate we can’t move on as artists, writers and performers – yet there isn’t a coterie of professional disabled journalists who understand the issues who can write critically about the art and performance.
Mandy Colleran made the point that recently there has been a proliferation of research PhDs around disability performance, but they are all written by non-disabled academics, who cannot ever own the space, or truly understand the voice that the disabled performers’ experience is drawn from.
I think we struggle within the movement to fully grasp each others’ access issues. It can be hard enough to even own our own access issues, let alone moving into other impairment territories. There was a lot of discussion around how certain disability performing arts companies have made choices that have excluded impairment groups – another part of the division which has brought us to where we are.
The real dilemma that we face, is that we are stuck with the fact that people from outside the disability community will more often than not look at us and at our work from a medical model perspective. Liz Bentley talked about having to feel comfortable that what she delivers is going to be understood by her audiences. As a performer fairly new to the Disability Arts scene, it is only in recent years of doing disability gigs that she has developed disability material. Before going on she therefore has to make a decision about her audience and chooses what material to give them, based on a quick judgement.
The politics of disability arts has been diluted by our efforts to move into the ‘mainstream.’ Stephen Hodgkin made the point that we have been colonised by mainstream thinking. We find ourselves struggling with the fact that our voices and experiences are being owned by others with a medical model attitude.
I guess it comes down to motivation. What drives you to get up on a stage in the first place. I can’t attempt to summarise much more of the conversation here, so I’d like to leave it on an unequivocal statement from Katherine Araniello that for me summed up my feeling about why the hell keep banging on about disability arts in the first place. She said she is driven to make the work she makes because she hates the world - with all the stereotypes and tight-fit ways of representing difference as tragedy and loss.
I’ve been at sixes and sevens the last couple of weeks. You know how it is – sometimes impairment can get the better of things. I count myself lucky to be in a position where I can do work which affords me the comfort of allowing me to manage the daily slog of M.E. related restrictions.
I have just met with Gaelle Mellis – the dynamic artistic director of Restless Dance Company in Adelaide. We talked a lot about that thorny issue of identification. It is so understandable why disabled people don’t want to be saddled with a label – but the fact is that our fight to get equal participation in society won’t happen without facing what disability means to us – the ways that discrimination impacts on us in our daily lives.
At the fine edges of attitudes towards disability is the fact that there are so few role models of disabled people to counteract the argument that if we can’t be cured, our lives are not worth living. Debates around the assisted suicide bill have been raging on dao through the summer – thanks to the Julie Birchall of Disability Arts – otherwise known as Crippen.
In response I just wanted to publish a link to Clair Lewis’ moving and well argued blog against the rationale behind assisted suicide on Heresy Corner
Titled ‘My life is unbearable - don't fix it, just kill me’ Clair argues that we should be fighting for inclusion, independent living and assistance to live – rather than assistance to die.
Getting disabled people having fun on the streets of London is one way of countering the notion of ‘tragic lives’ that is the generally accepted view of impairment. I enjoyed this years’ Liberty Festival as much as ever – despite the fact there was no LDAF-run film tent. On the plus side the stages were much better set out to accommodate the lively mix of arts that is Liberty. It’s the one big open event in the disability arts calendar – when disabled people gather to catch up with old and new friends, and see some of the latest work coming out of the disability-related arts scene.
There is always an emphasis on the performing arts with several stages for music, dance and a tent for comedy, cabaret and spoken word. One of my highlights was seeing Sophie Woolley perform excerpts from When to Run
Described by Irvine Welsh as a "A stunning, electrifying show full of imagination and verve," the show comprises of four compelling monologues from a teenage athlete, a highly strung professional, a lifestyle guru and a dog walker. The writing is gripping, dark, with a fast paced hilarity, matching the intensity of the various characters running exploits.
Generally, Liberty presents a mixed audience of disabled and non-disabled people who are generally fairly subdued and difficult to play to. Aside from the smattering of disability arts regulars Liberty is largely giving exposure to a crowd who are experiencing the work for the first time. You can tell from the quizzical looks on peoples’ faces that they are finding their way into it. I think this is one of the festivals greatest strengths – even if it makes it hard for the performers.
The biggest crowd pleaser this year was Kuljit Bhamra who did a great job of getting the audience to take part, chanting Liberty and humming themes on the hundreds of plastic kazoos he handed out. He is a celebrated tabla player and composer who is lauded for having bought Bhangra to the UK. He was the perfect act to end the festival on, conveying warmth and passion.
This years’ festival seemed to showcase dance more than anything else – possibly because dance works well in an outdoor space. It all looked very sleek and professional. Blue Eyed Soul did a sterling job entertaining the crowds with a variety of aerial dance work throughout the day.
One of my favourite acts was Penny Peppers’ spoken word spot in the cabaret tent. Call me old school, but I think there is more of a need than ever to name those disability elephants which hold us back from taking part. Penny’s spoken word stuff does just that, in a sexy, humorous and engaging style. I think if she could find a way over the hurdle of performing from the page – she’d find a way of making her act that much more dynamic.
Going back to my meeting with Gaelle. She is looking at ways of getting the fantastic Oska Bright Film Festival over to Australia. The Team of Learning Disabled Film-makers who head that project have done amazing things this past year and half. The Oska Bright Festival coming up in November is bound to be a highlight of the year.
Carousel, who are the learning disability arts organization who facilitate Oska Bright have just come up with another great initiative called ‘Shut Up and Listen!’ It is the culmination of a years work with people with learning disabilities who have an interest in music. It will be an outlet for their music to be heard and promoted through a learning disabled led radio show.
I’ve been away for the past week, staying in Dunbar with friends. I thought I’d pop in on the Edinburgh Festival to see what disability-related arts I could find in the theatre section. From looking through the brochure it seems there is some mental health-related work amongst the enormous panoply of shows, exhibitions etc, happening this year.
So I made it into town to see Steve Walter’s An Acute Psychotic Episode (II) – billed as “a good-humoured, confessional, raw, honest, sometimes shocking account of breakdown, setting out to challenge common perceptions.” It did everything they said it would do on the tin – although from personal experience, I wouldn’t have called it ‘shocking.’ In fact, if anything, it impressed on me that maybe there is some hope that we are moving away from the punishment model of psychiatric care, that I grew up to fear and loathe.
Accompanied by singer/ song writer Steve Antoni An Acute Psychotic Episode (II) was a moving and powerful piece of dramatic storytelling. It was deliberately paced to take you on what felt like an urban train ride through the writer / performers’ life-story. It began appropriately with Brain Damage and Wish You Were Here – two songs written by Pink Floyds’ Roger Waters for and about Syd Barrett who died last year after 40 years of being labelled insane.
Steve Walter’s prose was filled with the pacing of hospital corridors and questioning of what happens when you become psychotic; how scary that sense is, of not daring to believe what your own mind is telling you. It is very hard to put into words what that fear is like – when everything your mind and senses are telling you is true, you know rationally cannot be true. Where do you turn? How do you gauge reality? And if you are unfortunate enough to get locked up for having ideas others don’t agree with, how do you contain the frustration?
I felt not a little admiration for Steve Walter as I have personally been trying to write my own life story, in an attempt to make sense of it, for some years. It is not just that the writing down is incredibly painful, if you are totally honest. But there is also the fear of making yourself even more vulnerable, by opening up to others. Even those you think you can trust, cannot be trusted to use your honesty against you. Such is the stigma of mental health.
I feel passionately that this kind of clear, concise storytelling, breaking through the silence – is needed more in theatre, and in the arts in general. I bought a copy of Steve Walter’s book Fast Train Approaching, which contains a lot of the poetry and prose from the theatre piece.
I’d recommend the website Making Connections Matter . Here Steve explains a lot of his search, research, poetry and ramblings on all things from spiritual awakening to a request to hear from others who have had experience of mental illness for a new book in the pipeline.
I have always been reluctant to write about my impairment issues. Such talk always leads towards a medical model, victim mentality. And that is why the disability arts community has always, rightly, made room for self-definition. We’ve been labouring against medical model labels that brand us as tragic for a long time. And certainly the weight of media still continues to represent us as victims of our conditions and to define us with negative stories about our lives; or dressing us up in the emperors’ bravest clothing.
For some time we have been labouring to get to grips with the Social Model thing about celebrating difference and understanding how the barriers to equality of opportunity etc. have been imposed on us by society. There has been a lot of mileage in those ideas; questioning the medical model and societies attitudes to disability. They have given us room to build the disability arts movement.
But now we have the DDA and a lot of positive change has come over the past ten years, in terms of accessibility and equality of opportunity. But there is still a weight of discrimination to fight against and I am not sure that any of us know where the disability arts movement is going? We have consistently failed to come together to debate our vision and purpose and to fight our corner for self-determination as a whole.
There is a case for saying that the disability arts movement has done disabled people a disservice in raising expectations of ourselves as artists beyond what we are capable of. In many ways it was simpler when we were plain ‘community art’ and had no truck with ‘excellence’.
For me a big motivating factor is still that creativity belongs to all. But somewhere along the line the political debates have outshone discussion about Art and aesthetics. It has become a case of the cart leading the horse. There is a big question to be tackled about why social and political issues have been conflated with art-making?
Why is a socially excluded disabled person expected to be an ‘artist’ as well as a person with a political grievance? I don't think there is a requirement, but I do think that the conditions of living with discrimination, means that we often become artists because or in spite of ourselves.
The nature of being in the public gaze and experiencing otherness influences our artistic sensibilities. And I have found that making artistic responses to discrimination has been essential to my survival – whether or not the work I’ve created is ‘good’ art or not.
During the heyday of Disability Arts cabaret we saw a lot of work that took a critical look a the Charity sector from the likes of ‘The Tragic but Brave Show’ and a host of performance artists that performed on that circuit. In recent years we’ve seen a lot of interventionist work from the likes of the Disabled Avant Garde that explores societies’ attitudes towards disabled people.
Not to forget Paul Darke’s spoof of the Leonard Cheshire website. The Charity sector has been responsible for many works of anti-disability art in the guise of self promotion – and these have been fuel for many disability creatives’ fire. The game has got more subtle as the Charity sector has either cottoned on to better marketing or has tried to do a better job, generally.
One of the most all-time personally hard-hitting pieces of anti-disability art was the poster campaign that launched Marjorie Wallace’s organisation SANE. It was 20 years ago when she plastered every high street across the country with sensationalist images representing people with mental health labels as dangerous murderers. One of the main campaign slogans read ‘He thinks he’s Jesus. He wants to kill you.’ And a central graphic, used a distorted manipulation of a bearded face intended to reproduce the idea of what it is to go through psychosis. It was an image influenced by Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but which turned the meaning behind his work on its head. SANE’s agenda then was to actively promote fear of disabled people. It inspired hundreds of us from the mental health community to take to the streets.
Discrimination is more subtle now. Such blatant examples of misrepresentation don’t get through the net so easily, but is the Charity sector more responsive to the needs of those they purport to serve? Today, I would still actively question SANE’s motives as an organization.
The job of reflecting back still needs to be done. And I would maintain that we still need disability arts to do that job. But as things move on questions about quality and aesthetic may prove to derail us unless we embrace constructive ways of opening up opportunities for education in the arts – and learn to face critical appraisal of what we put out in the public realm.
Pivoted as we are between making art for a community of disabled people and making art for a wider audience is there any wonder we consistently fail to attain the agenda for excellence? I have just been to the performance arts festival in Greenwich where a host of disabled and deaf companies were programmed and aside from Graeae’s exceptional ‘Against the Tide’, much of it was poor in comparison to the non-disabled work on show and is unlikely to get used again.
To accommodate change I wonder if disability arts, as a form that questions discrimination, may well have to die? It seems to be a prerequisite of human activity that we don’t recognize the value of what we have until it disappears. There is another important question to be asked in how we develop quality art in a world where the increasing pressure is to create work that has commercial viability. There are many and complex problems to overcome.
What do you think? How would you define disability art? What do you feel about the current climate within the movement as a whole?