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Some reflections on DaDaFest International Congress 2014

Firstly, many thanks to Ruth Gould and her brilliant team at DaDaFest in Liverpool for inviting Dao to be a part of what must be one of the most important International Festivals of Disability Arts in the world. It was a powerful feeling to be part of a Congress of disabled artists from different parts of the globe coming together to share work, process, experience and ideas.

In the UK our sense of being part of a disability arts community has been fairly battered over the last decade or so with the disbandment of so many of our organisations and the whittling away of the values that were so strongly shared back in the 1990s.

One of the key things that DaDaFest 2014 gave us, aside from a reappraisal of the work that we’ve been so passionately committed to and the history of our movement over the past several decades, was a strong sense of how the messages of disabled peoples’ empowerment through the Arts, is trickling out to all quarters of the globe, to the Middle East and to Africa. It was fantastic that the British Council were able to bring representatives from the Middle East. And that artists Zahra AlDhamin from Saudi Arabia and Safiya AlBahlani from Oman whose artwork featured in Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor project, were also able to attend.

DaDaFest Chair Jane Cordell opened the Congress saying that “being disabled is being human, writ large”. Allan Sutherland gave the first speech about the journey so far, giving an impassioned critique of where we have come from as a movement and how we are slipping back in the UK with notions of disability access and disability rights being ever eroded in a backlash in attitude change prevalent as a direct result of the recession. We are living in difficult times. 

Allan reminded us of Jayne Earnscliffe’s ‘In Through the Front Door’ - an Arts Council publication about good examples of access in the visual arts first published in 1992. And how, incredibly wheelchair-users can no longer enter Arts Council’s main London office in through the front door, which carries with it a powerful symbolic message about the extent to which disability arts has failed in maintaining its relevance in the increasingly competitive climate of recent years as Arts funding becomes ever more difficult to procure.

Later during the Congress, Sir Peter Bazalgette Chair of Arts Council England gave an impassioned speech describing his sense of the value of disability arts within the context of diversity as a whole: “all forms of non-conformity are precious… for relevance and freshness of the arts”. He further advocated that the most potent arguments we can make are “by producing life-affirming art that carries important messages widely”. He implored disabled and deaf artists to apply for Arts Council funding, recognising the importance of our contribution and the will within Arts Council to fund work that advocates for social justice.

Our Art is so directly connected to our lived experience of a disabling society. And that is what makes it excellent. As Chris Smit, Director of DisArt Festival, Michigan succinctly put it; disability arts is a dialogue between personal experience and public expectation. As a global society we live within a cultural context where “we have been socialized to fear physical and mental difference. Disability is all too often painted with cultural representations in film, television and art, enshrouding us in “…mystery, pity, and confusion”.

And so it was disappointing and worrying that despite a strong presence at the Congress of representatives from Arts Council England that none of the local Liverpool-based National Portfolio Organisations were present. And only a smattering of mainstream venues and organisations were in attendance. 

And this despite the strong presence of British Council. Carole McFadden laid out the organisations’ strong agenda to support disability arts internationally. Having taken work from Unlimited to Brazil and Bahrain in 2013, they are now committed to a major disability arts festival in Qatar in March 2015. She encouraged disabled artists to apply for a further showcase next August and to submit details of work to their Disability Arts International website.

There were a host of presentations I could write about further here, but I think the talk that left the most indelible mark on me came from US Black writer and performer Leroy Moore, creator of Krip-Hop Nation and cofounder of Sins Invalid. He talked about ‘intersectionality’ and the need for disability culture and disability politics to widen its frame of reference to reach out beyond the narrow framework of ‘I’ to embrace ‘we’. 

Krip-Hop’s agenda is firmly rooted in social justice within a family of artists across the globe. His was a clear and passionate call for us to work together, to be critical in a bid for social change globally in recognising the human rights of disabled people.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 December 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Figures: A new project to make visible the human cost of austerity

Roaring Girl Productions and artist-activist Liz Crow are launching a new project. Figures is a mass-sculptural performance that is setting out to make visible the stark human cost of austerity and urge action against it.

The intention behind the project is to build strong emotional connections with difficult facts in order to encourage deep public questioning and debate that will continue long after the work is over.

Over a period of 12 consecutive days and nights, on the foreshore of the Thames and in the run-up to next year’s general election, Liz will sculpt 650 small human figures from excavated raw river mud, each one representing an individual at the sharp end of austerity. 

The number echoes the 650 constituencies throughout which the effects of austerity are felt, as well as the number of MPs whose choices determine those of others.

Once dried, the figures will be toured en masse in a mobile exhibition that will visit city centres along the route of the M4, from west of Bristol to London, over five days, the figures creating a talking point to involve diverse members of the public in discussion about the questions raised by the work.

In London, the figures will be returned to the foreshore and raised into a cairn. A bonfire will burn into the night, firing the figures, while their corresponding stories of austerity are read aloud, until the returning tide douses the flames. At first light, the figures, fired, burned and broken, will be reclaimed, gathered and ground down to dust.

In the final phase of the performance and on the first day of the new government's tenure, the ground remains of the figures will be scattered from a tugboat on the Thames alongside Parliament. Figures will end with a poignant reminder of the human cost of austerity and a completion of the lifecycle of the work.

The 650 stories of people at the sharp end of austerity, across a range of topics, including benefits reform, local authority spending, homelessness, malnutrition, NHS rationing, etc, will be read whilst the bonfire burns into the night. Alongside this roll call of experience at the sharp end of austerity, the project team will engage members of the public in discussion about the issues raised by the work.

Figures will raise profound questions about how we treat each other, what kind of society we want to be, and what role we might each of us have in bringing that about.
We need your help to get Figures off the ground.

To make Figures a possibility, Roaring Girl have started a crowdfunding campaign and need your help.

To find out more about the project and to make a donation, please go to

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 28 November 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 28 November 2014

Disability Arts versus Pudsey Bear

I often ask myself what is the point of Disability Arts? Every board meeting we have discussions about how we are swimming against a tide in our desire to raise the stakes for equality for disabled people. The attitudes that keep us in chains abound everywhere we look and our small attempts to challenge collectively are consistently ignored.

Just last week we suffered the BBC’s annual celebration of everything Tragic but Brave in which Pudsey Bear struts his stuff to let the world know how lucky it is to be ‘normal’. According to the Guardian an average of 8.3 million viewers watched Children In Need. 

Disability is a role imposed on us as bearers of abnormality. The BBC ups harp music to the max in order to play on peoples’ fears of impairment, using the wit and charm of Sir Terry Wogan to preach their disabling message. At its core that message is that we can only make sense of our impairments in negative terms; that our worth as human beings can only be measured through a discriminatory lens.

Children In Need exploits the poor, needy and desperate straits of children and young people in order to remind us of the value of normality and to ram home the message that unless ‘normal’ people want to experience stigma, they’d better keep on conforming to disabling value systems and keep their own little idiosyncrasies and abnormalities well hidden.

And so it goes on… I don’t think anyone could argue that many of charities the BBC’s fund-raising marathon supports are not doing good work. This year Children in Need raised a record £32.6m for disadvantaged children and young adults in the UK, £1.6m more than last year.

The reality is of course, that at the end of the day it is disabled people who pay for the appalling piece of marketing that the BBC is so proud of. Disabled People Against Cuts are now estimating that the average number of deaths directly or indirectly attributable to austerity measures has risen from 32 deaths per week to 73 deaths per weekAttitudes proselytised by campaigns like Children in Need only serve to justify the human cost of discriminatory attitudes. 

Meanwhile events such as DaDaFest are still attempting to raise awareness through showcasing artwork that presents conversations about the experience of disability and of impairment. 

Art of the Lived Experiment, this years’ curated show at the centre of DaDaFest International 2014 has had a piece of work blacked out in protest by one of the exhibiting artists who took offence at his work being labelled as Disability Arts. Quite why Mike Carr would agree to have his work exhibited in a Disability Arts festival if he objects to the term is not clear. DaDaFest says what it is on the tin. What this act does demonstrate, in my mind at least, is how high feelings run in the running away stakes.

Disability arts still has a role to play in allowing conversations, not marred by media spin, that demonstrate the realities of living with imperfect, impaired bodies and minds in a way that is balanced and real, rather than tainted by negative sensationalist attitudes.

By Colin Hambrook


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 November 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 November 2014

To define or not to define: the dirty 'disability' word

A stimulating discussion unfolded on Dao’s FB group last week in response to the Shape Open Exhibition, which was launched at Shape’s Gallery in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford last week.

The call-out for Shape’s annual Open Exhibition was for the third year opened out to disabled and to non-disabled artists specifically asking for work on the theme of [in]visible.

The question posed was whether Shape should be supporting work by artists who didn’t necessarily see themselves as disabled people?

When I got into Disability Arts in the 1990s there was a massive energy from disabled artists making work that was based on real-life situations. I was attracted by the fact that disabled artists were making work that had a correlation with the reality of stuff that happens in everyday life.

In the 1990s there was a swell of activism by disabled artists. Indeed Shape’s CEO Tony Heaton was at the centre of an agit-prop Art protest that received massive media attention.  Shaken Not Stirred had a knock-on impact on ITVs telethon and indeed that particular charity fundraiser defining disabled people as poor, needy objects of pity, was abandonned.

In the 1990s there was a lot of action by disabled people against the charities that are supposed to represent us, who largely – then as now – are very adept at playing the ‘worthy cause’ card to fundraise, but actually do little in the way of providing the kinds of services we actually need or to even employ disabled people within their workforce.

The Social Model defined ‘disability’ as the problem society has with accommodating anyone different from the ‘norm’; and it was key to a collective politicised will for change. Then around the year 2000 the climate went through a dramatic transformation.

The Disability Arts Movement had been very effective in drawing disabled people to it and creating opportunities for disabled people to take part. Disability Arts had largely been about disabled people entertaining other disabled people. In the 1990s there had been a thriving scene of Disability Arts cabaret, which gave disabled performers an opportunity to talk about discrimination. The DDA came in and the Capital Lottery Fund (with massive insistence from people like Paddy Masefield) had disability access provision enshrined into planning as a rule for any public building looking for money for new build or refurbishment.

Disability Arts was largely seen as Community Arts and key funding bodies like the Arts Council who had supported Disability Arts changed tack towards what was termed ‘excellence’ in the arts. And disabled-led organisations that had been incredibly effective in supporting and empowering disabled people were suddenly put into the position of having to think of ways to ‘mainstream’ the disabled artists they worked with, in order to survive. There was a bid to get curators and producers from wider arts organisations to recognise the ‘quality’ of the work that they were supporting.

Paul Darke saw the writing on the wall back in the late 90s when he wrote a dissertation called Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe He realised that the political will for Disability Arts to follow the Social Model and to subvert the idea of being ‘normal’, was being overturned by the idea of inclusion: that disabled people could become part of the fabric of society with a move towards an enlightened dismantling of the physical and attitudinal barriers backed by access provision.

And so a message went out that the job was done and the majority of disabled-led arts forums fell by the wayside. Shape has survived by stealth. Tony Heaton, Shape’s CEO, inspired by Adam Reynolds, saw the potential for Disability Arts to rise out of the ghetto and to take a more ‘mainstream’ focus. 

Part of Shape's aims are about getting the work of disabled artists into mainstream galleries and through programmes like Unlimited, supporting a new wave of Disability Arts that is focused on the Art and which perhaps expresses disability politics in more subtle ways. [Or less subtle, perhaps if you consider the recent Adam Reynolds bursary winner Carmen Papalia using the services of a brass band to announce his access needs.]

But there is another strain of thought of behind the principles of the Shape Open. There has always been a real difficulty in promoting the understanding that ‘disability’ is constructed by society. A significant number of disabled people have always resisted defining themselves as disabled people because of the stigma that comes with that identity. My own father, who is ageing rapidly and has become severely impaired, won’t see himself as a disabled person, because he sees it as ‘giving in’. He can’t be persuaded to use a wheelchair, because although it would obviously give him more independence and quality of life, he sees using a wheelchair as immediately defining him as ‘dependent’, as ‘less’ or as ‘other’.

And so by making the Shape Open available to disabled and non-disabled artists, there is an attempt by Shape to allow entry for artists who might define as disabled people, but are uncomfortable with framing their Art within that definition. By asking artists to respond to what [in]visible means to them, there is an opportunity to attract work that expresses what ‘disability’ means within a broad parameters and so at least to get people thinking about it.

Whatever you think of the idea of society becoming more inclusive and the agenda for inclusivity, it is perhaps the sole idea that remains – and that only in a very piecemeal way from what was a thriving movement. Unless there is a new surge of energy to organise and make some noise that rattles the cage of the status quo, then disabled peoples rights will continue to rapidly diminish, as they have done in the last four years.

By Colin Hambrook

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 27 October 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 October 2014

Mad Genius?

The Basement in Brighton who produce the SICK! Festival are putting on a series of events, debates, forums and performance to mark World Mental Health Day.

I've been asked to be part of a panel discussion on the concept of the Mad Genius, so I thought I'd post a precis of what's been going through my mind.

The dictionary definition of ‘genius’ is “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc. By definition a genius is someone who thinks about and understands the world in a way that is different and can often be oppositional to the consensus. Copernicus and Galileo are classic examples of scientists who understood a truth about the relationship of the Earth to the Sun that was in opposition to the all-powerful Church of the 16th century.

There are a number of ways that the world can drive you mad; and being placed in opposition to a consensus is one of them. Antonin Artaud wrote of Van Gogh that he was “suicided by society” – that he was placed on a pedestal in order to be shot down. Van Gogh’s art wasn’t ‘mad’.

His style of perspective and mark-making were developed from a study of Japanese art and years of hard work developing his craft. When you look at how his style with the use of intense patterning and flat perspective is consistently interpreted as the expression of a deranged mind you can see the truth of what Artaud says.

In turn I think it underlies the problem with the stereotype of the ‘mad genius’. It is so often a romanticisation of an individuals’ suffering that is the direct result of having been rejected by society. And the mad genius stereotype becomes a way of covering up that rejection by deeming us as 'other'. The artist isn’t the agent of their creativity. It is said to be the result of a ‘divine intervention’ or a ‘spiritual imperative’, rather than as in Van Gogh’s case, the study of Japanese art.

Susan Sontag's excellent essay Illness as a Metaphor explores in particular the history of perceptions of TB and cancer. She analyses texts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, which illustrate unhelpful mythologies. In the process of uncovering and comparing myths about illness, she argues that 19th century romantic notions that surrounded TB have been transferred to 'madness': "In the twentieth century the repellent, harrowing disease that is made the index of a superior sensitivity, the vehicle of 'spiritual' feelings and 'critical' discontent, is insanity."

I think madness is often a sane response to living in an insane society. We’re brought up to believe in values of cooperation, fairness and truthfulness and then we’re thrust into a competitive, dog eat dog world in which values of selfishness, greed and competition are the norm. Anyone with an empathic nature within their genes is likely to become victim to that massive contradiction between the moral imperative and the harsh reality.

More than anything it’s that ‘spiritual’ association with being mad, that goes with the idea of ‘genius’, that sets people apart and becomes a barrier. Antonin Artaud wrote an eloquent angry essay called Shit to the Spirit – attacking the stereotype of the mad, spiritually-gifted genius. That was written in 1943. Since then little has changed regarding the sterotype although the definitions awarded by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has widened the scope of human behavior that is clinically regarded as mental illness by psychiatry.

Mad equals creative is a myth that is ripe for subversion. Few have challenged it. The work of liberal thinkers and social reformers has often only served to reinforce it. As Artaud put it: “It is as if it were understood for life that the body is this filthy stuff the spirit takes its footbaths in.


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 October 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 25 April 2016

Should disability arts reflect society?

I very much see Dao as a bridge between the aspirations of the Disability Rights based, Disability Arts Movement of old and the current, confused notion of disability arts, which draws largely from the inclusion agenda, and seeks to encourage disabled artists to work professionally within the Arts.

Back in 1989 Allan Sutherland wrote an essay for DAIL Magazine ‘Disability Arts, Disability Politics’. He said “I don’t think disability arts would have been possible without disability politics coming first. Our politics teach us that we are oppressed, not inferior. Our politics have given us self-esteem. They have taught us, not simply to value ourselves, but to value ourselves as disabled people. 

Watching the Ian Dury biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll on tv the other night reminded me that Disability Arts, as a movement, emerged in part at least, from the anger of disabled people segregated into Special Schools and subject to intimidation, bullying and a pretty damn terrible education in equal measures. Disability arts was an outcry against the bid to isolate and to ‘cure’ us.

There has been more integrated education around for Disabled kids over the last 25 years. So the core of their relationship with the world is bound to have changed, but the voices of younger disabled people haven’t emerged as strongly. It’s not clear how that fundamental change has affected their experience, but I would suspect that their is less of a disability identity.

Meanwhile discrimination against our community, generally, is on the rise. The move to label, dismiss and demonise us as scroungers has been achieved by the media. Disabled people are dying with hardly a murmur of protest. Disability rights are being undermined left, right and centre, with the running down of the Access to Work Scheme, the dismantling of the Independent Living Fund; and doing away with Disability Living Allowance. 

As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: “And so it goes…” The dominant attitude now is that human life is measurable in terms of currency, not quality and as such, disabled peoples’ lives are at the bottom of the heap. 

In contrast the efforts of schemes like Unlimited seek to programme work by disabled artists, to create new work and to get it seen, discussed and embedded within the cultural fabric of the UK. This isn’t a politically-motivated move, nor is Unlimited about disability arts as a medium for telling issue-based stories, necessarily. It’s more about encouraging disabled people who are artists, to find a space for their work within the cultural fabric.

There are more disabled artists now, who are doing what they want to do in terms of making and performing the work they want to make, who don’t see themselves as part of a community, as such. There is a sense of them getting support from their disabled peers, but their aim is to make art that will be received by a wider audience than a disability audience. They’re doing what they want to do and using their experience to inform what they do.

As such I see what’s happening as a move to put impairment on a map where it is understood as a part of everyday experience, not something to be lamented. And surely disabled artists who are making work that talks about their experience with the intention of dispelling myths about being tragic but brave objects of fear and pity are doing something that is aligned to some of the intentions of the Disability Arts Movement of yesteryear?

But the question is how does one work as an artist in the fabric of a culture that detests any notion of human rights - and simply ignore it? For the arts to be in any way meaningful they surely have to reflect the realities of the society in which they’re produced? If not, what’s the point?

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction at the core of the oft-repeated mantra about ‘mainstreaming’ as if ‘good’ art means ‘popular’ art. If you would judge Art by whether or not it has changed the way people think, it’s probably true to say that the work has often been challenging and / or angry. I’m thinking in particular of movements like DaDaism and Surrealism and artists like Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud spent large periods of his life incarcerated in asylums and achieved minimal success as an artist within his lifetime. 

Artaud was possibly the most successful failure within the history of theatre. Without Artaud we arguably would not now have the idea of a physical theatre, or a performing arts that seeks to express ‘the body’ itself. Artaud’s battle cry was to rally against theatre that sought to ‘represent’ reality, rather than to present it, as it is, in its raw form.

And so maybe Unlimited, in looking forwards to an Art that addresses access creatively and seeks to innovate, also needs to look back at the lessons learned in the past if it seeks to reflect society?

Colin Hambrook

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 30 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 25 April 2016

In Memoriam: For Dao Poet Richard Longstaff

On Saturday 6 September Richard Longstaff’s wife Rachel rang to say that he had passed away, peacefully with his family beside him.

Richard first told me the devastating news of the cancer at the beginning of last June. And it was soon evident that it was terminal. The last time we spoke was just over four weeks ago. He hoped to write some more for Dao, but the pain and exhaustion from the illness had made it impossible. 

My sincerest condolences go out to Rachel and to their daughters. Richard was a trooper; dedicated to his family and his passing is a sad loss for many, including us here at Dao, enriched and entertained by his poetry and the stories attached to his words.

In November 2013 I wrote to Richard having discovered he¹d sent me a wodge of poems, buried like a jewel in amongst a mess of emails. There was a refreshing depth and an honesty in his words, never shy of searching for the truth of human relationships. 

The selection Richard sent described the end of a working day in a northern town, time spent in hospital, a friend’s struggles with alcoholism, a family funeral and his own love for nature (his doctor had encouraged him to go for country walks and he found a love for wildlife photography) and for poetry (George McKay Brown was one of Richard’s favourites. He loved the descriptive power and simplicity of Brown’s language and so Dao commissioned an article as part of our Dao Poets on Poetry series).

Poetry was dear to Richard’s heart, but he¹d never shared his own efforts with anyone except his wife and daughters. “I found your site and chanced my arm” he wrote. “I take inspiration from nature, a world that offers me a escape from the pressures of this ‘Normal’ world in which we live. I find comfort in the beauty of simple things all around. I also use my disability to find things that inspire me. I find the autistic mind sees things that others miss.”

We never met, but Richard and I built a friendship through email and lengthy conversations on the phone. I encouraged him to contribute a poetry blog to Dao: 'Beyond Watford' he wanted to call it. He took up the mantle and the second poetry blog A Natural End to Things told the story of the ‘loss’ of his son. We shared our grief: both of our families victims to the scourge of home-farmed ‘skunk’ that has swept across the country over the last fifteen years, filling mental hospitals everywhere with our young men.

Following those exchanges, aided on the computer by his daughter Laura, Richard sent in a steady stream of work, always inspiring, he described his favoured method for writing poetry: deciding on a theme and then building a word list. His work delved back into his youth in the seventies, and the realities of life for those of us who came along in the shadow of the second world war.

There is a power in the straightforward, honed detail in Richard¹s words. The confidence in the blogs he sent in grew at a pace with a depth of humanity and humour in his storytelling. One of my favourites was the story of Old Joe the scrap merchant, a bitter man, feared by all in the village Richard grew up in. 

Over the course of a summer, young Richard and his brother sold Joe back his own lead, until he cottoned on and that was that. ‘Mad Dogs’ tells Joe’s story: a man held in contempt and isolated by narrow-minded attitudes that judged him for his lack of war service.

And that was Richard’s gift, to be able to think through a story and find a deeper truth than what that which lies on the surface.

Thanks for those conversations mate.
May you rest in peace.

Colin Hambrook

For Richard Longstaff
I never quite believed you¹d be leaving us
though you said the cancer was terminal.
You said you hoped to be able
to put a few thoughts down on the computer
if you found enough strength.

We never met, but talked on the phone
about our families, our fathers and sons
our daughters and wives, cherished;
the line of hopes and joys that move us forwards;
the losses that held us to the earth.

And now you¹ve gone, it¹s like being transported
at speed to a place where life looks map-like
distant, far from the self on a thin chord of poetic licence
defined by the depth of words shared
a love for nature, poetry and truth.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 15 September 2014

Together! Pop-up Poetry Cafe in Newham host a Dao poets event

I’ve been working hard behind the scenes developing Dao’s performance poetry presence, applying to produce our own gigs and recommending Dao poets to other producers.

We did a gig last May at DAiSy Fest with Allan Sutherland and Penny Pepper. I'd like to extend a big thank you to the Together! Pop-up Poetry cafe at the amazing House Mill, on Three Mills Island, for hosting myself, Wendy Young and Bonk for an evening of poetry performance.

We performed in the cafe to 30-40 people, many of whom are regular part of Together’s ongoing programme of poetry workshops and performance managed by Sarah Hughes.

It is very impressive what Together! have nurtured in Newham with an ongoing free programme of events, which is as accessible as budgets allow. The Pop-up poetry event had Live captions and a BSL interpreter. I didn’t envy the job of Kris Pryer, particularly when it came to signing my own poetry, much of which is pretty dense, written in a visual, abstract language. Between poems I tell the stories behind the words, to illustrate how the imagery relates to lived experience of psychosis.

It was interesting to get feedback from Kris saying how important it was for the deaf people present to hear the stories in order to get where the poetry was coming from, as much of the words were difficult to translate. And it occurred to me how interesting it would be to work with a Deaf poet to create choreographed piece that fused BSL and English.

Wendy Young’s performance was gritty gut-wrenching stuff! Her words pour out with an equal measure of humour, compassion and cynicism for the kind of world and the kind of people we are supposed to emulate according the values we see in the media, in comparison with real people, and real lives, which are much more interesting and noteworthy. Wendy shines a light into some of the darkest, most unholy places with humour and humility.

Bonk did the final spot with his mate Paul who came along to play some guitar to accompany his raps and rhymes. Dressed as the Clown of Justice, complete with policeman’s helmet with blue flashing light, he presented an explosive set of poetry, talking about his experience of the mental health system. He ended the set with ‘Chameleon’ a raw, shocking evocation of his life story.

The song has an authenticity that sends tingles down your spine. Much of Bonk’s work talks about the benefit system and ATOS. ‘Are You Mad Yet?’ is another favorite, with a direct message on what’s happening politically, annotated by a catchy rousing chorus.

The reality is that the pressure on people with a history of mental health issues is growing steadily harsher. There were some very distressing stories that came through in conversation afterwards of loved ones who have committed suicide under strain of what is happening as the austerity measures hit the weakest, the hardest.

The disability community is under so much stress with the combination of media spin and benefit cuts and the kinds of ventures that Together and other community arts organisations, produce are essential lifelines - even if they have become so much harder to fund that ever before.

There’s more to come at the Southbank Centre during the first week of September. Dao has produced a ‘Special Editions’ event: ‘Perceptions of Difference’ at the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall on Wed 3 Sept 8-9.30 as part of Unlimited 2014. In collaboration with Survivors’ Poetry we’ve put together a celebration of the organisation with sets from two founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay as well as John O’Donoghue (former Chair) and Debjani Chatterjee (patron).

Together! are also producing a set for the Liberty Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London on 30 August, where you’ll have an opportunity to see the talented Wendy Young perform again.

On 11 October a further Outside In event is happening at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to celebrate World Mental Health Day

Watch this space for further news of poetry events being produced by Dao, and if you are interested in having your work promoted on Dao please get in touch with me, Colin Hambrook, via

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 23 August 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 23 August 2014

Congratulations to Mat Fraser for the recent award given to Cabinet Of Curiosities: but isn’t Disability being firmly put back in a box?

It was good to hear that Mat Fraser has won the Arts and Culture Award category in the Observer Ethical Awards 2014 for his show Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box.

I interviewed Mat before the show went on tour and was wowed by his performance in the Science Museum earlier this year. For me it was akin to the kinds of cabaret performance we, in the disability arts movement, were lucky to see Mat do 20 years ago: Mat, angry, proud, projecting a cynical humour advocating for disabled peoples’ rights by giving exposure to the Social, Medical and Charity Models of Disability.

Always anarchic, linking karate-kicking raps with observations of how 'disability' is a personal and social role, which simultaneously invalidates people with impairments and validates those identified as 'normal'.

So it surprised me to read in the Guardian’s coverage of the award by Rhik Samadder that the journalist interprets the show, by saying “One of the show's aims is to normalise disability.”

Disability will never be ‘normalised’. Paul Darke, argued back in the late 1990s in his Now I know Why Disability Art is Drowning in the River Lethe paper, that the inclusion agenda was always in danger of sanitising disability to the extent that endangered disabled peoples’ rights.

The assertion of the potential normality of disabled people to fit in - went against the principles of Disability Arts precisely because it sought to ally with the cultural agendas of the arts establishment, rather than the values of the disabled peoples’ movement.

And it looks like Paul’s warning is coming to pass as the current dismantling of the welfare state continues to threaten disabled peoples’ lives. With precious little comment from the media, measures which, under the pretext of saving taxpayers money (but which with a  terrible irony are costing more than the sums allegedly saved) are leaving more and more disabled people in a desperate state of poverty.

The latest epistle under the reign of the current unelected government, is to do away with the Independent Living Fund - a fund set up because it was realised from an economic viewpoint that it was more cost-effective to give disabled people direct support in their own homes - as opposed to locking people away in institutions. So we are going to see disabled peoples’ support needs taken away and replaced once again with high cost institutions allowing little, if any, quality of life.

I wonder if the subtext of Mat’s show should be How Disability is being pushed back in a Box. In his show Mat compares Nazi propaganda images and asks how easily those images can be applied to the strategies of Atos and the DCMS, working specifically to disenfranchise disabled people.

The ILF helps over 18,000 severely disabled people to live independent lives in the community rather than in residential care.

The government announced on 6 March 2014 that it will close the ILF in June 2015.This is the second attempt by the government as last time the Court of Appeal found that the government had breached the equality duties.

The government now claims to have got around the court findings and says it will devolve the money to Local Authorities for 12 months with no ring-fencing.

After June 2016 there will be no additional funding for already cash-strapped local authorities to meet their legal obligations.

Please, help us in the campaign to stop the government's latest attack on disabled people.

Four easy steps to campaign:
1.    Email your MP now to help save the ILF and encourage all your friends and family to do the same
2.    Sign the ILF petition to government
3.    Tweet #savetheILF and Facebook the link to the e-action - - so others can join the campaign

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 16 June 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 26 June 2014

Dao: putting the disability back into disability arts

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DAiSY Fest 2014 - held in the cavernous GLive arts centre in Guildford, yesterday, left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. And I guess at the end of the day, there’s no greater thing that the Arts can bring into your life than a sense of belonging; a sense that you have a recognised place in the world.

And so a big thanks to DAiSY for inviting Dao to come and put an event on. With the calibre of performance from Allan Sutherland and Penny Pepper there was no doubt in my mind that it was going to be good. There was a great buzz and a warm and engaged reception from an appreciative audience. We were blessed by the fact that both Jo-anne Cox who plays cello with Penny, and Jennifer Taylor, whose life story was the subject of Allan’s performance, were both able to make it to the event.

Jennifer’s story; Proud (One of the cycles of transcription poems from Neglected Voices), was a real testament to the strength of the resources that many of us have to draw on - as disabled people - in order to survive. I think even Allan was surprised by just how powerful his selection from Proud, was. And it was great to hear from Jennifer how encouraged she has been by her collaboration with Allan. And that she is now looking for ways to tell more of her story.

Jo-anne’s contribution adds immensely to the depth of Penny’s performance, emphasising the rhythm within her words and enhancing the meaning by adding extra nuances to Penny’s expression. When Penny exhorts her audience to “come to Cripplegate”, we have no choice but to follow. Lost in Spaces - Penny’s one woman show is going to get it’s first full public airing on 8 September at the Soho Theatre, London. I can’t wait. She is destined to knock her audiences for six with her captivating performance and the quality of her writing.

Penny has been working with another Dao writer, John O’Donoghue who has been mentoring through the writing of Lost in Spaces. He is also encouraging her to produce an autobiography from the diary writings that the show draws from. It was interesting that one of the main points that came through the question and answer session was to do with the importance of disabled people putting our stories out into the world; partly because the world will always endeavour to tell our stories for us if we don’t. And the discussion was also about how we choose which aspects of our stories to tell.

For Allan the heart of the transcription poetry process is about allowing space through interview for people to find their voice and tell the stories that they want to tell. For Penny, who described the frustration of always being pushed by publishers to talk in detail about her impairments, it was very much about avoiding styles that would allow for a tragic but brave interpretation of her life. 

We’ve been through a period of over a decade now during which disability arts, has been doing its level best to kill off the ‘disability’ word. How often have I heard: “We’re artists. We don’t want to be defined by disability. We want our work to be taken on its own terms: not to be tainted by disability, (by which what is mostly meant is impairment, anyway, and not ‘disability’ at all.” 

So, a warm level of thanks are due to Penny and to Allan for reclaiming the ‘d’ word with a pride and a sense of celebration.

It was really satisfying for Dao to have had this opportunity to present some of the work that has been at the core of what Dao does online, but in a live setting.

I am currently planning some further events this summer/ autumn with Together in Newham and with the Poetry Library on the Southbank. So watch this space, as they say! 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 5 June 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 6 June 2014

A question of life and death raised by the Art and the End of Life Symposium held as part of Brighton Fringe Festival

Over the last few years, especially since the failure of the amendment to legislation around the issue of assisted suicide in 2012, there has been a flurry of theatre work taking a positive stance on assisted suicide. 

This year Brighton Fringe Festival hosted Sparkle and Dark’s Killing Roger - a well-executed, if predictable polemical theatre piece about the failures of the care system and the decision of an elderly man to inspire help in having reached a conclusion that he’d lived long enough and wanted to bring his life to an end.

In conjunction the company held a symposium to talk about the issues of the right of an artist to tackle challenging biomedical issues and the ethics of performance exploring issues of life and death.

There was no doubt in my mind that all present would be sold on the idea that there is an important conversation to be had about a human right to choose one’s destiny when it comes to life and death. I don’t doubt the sincerity and authenticity of the writers and companies that produce these worthy pieces of theatre. 

However, I went because I wanted to ask why disability arts practitioners - and their perspective on these debates - are so often excluded? Rarely do we hear the viewpoint of the disability lobby. (A rare exception being Liz Carr’s eloquent and passionate stance on a Newsnight debate chaired by Jeremy Paxman in 2011: aired following the screening on the BBC of Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. 

So I went specifically to talk about work that won’t be programmed for the Brighton Fringe (typically the venue for Killing Roger was inaccessible).

Citing the example of Katherine Araniello’s performance piece ‘Assisted Passage’ made with Aaron Williamson in 2007 I explained how the performance consisted of protest on a university campus petitioning people to sign a request to an airline to allow Katherine to fly to Zurich in order to go to the death clinic. It was one of a series of performances by Katherine highlighting how people see her and disabled people like her, as an object of pity and would not question her wanting to die; illustrating an inherent assumption within society that disabled peoples’ lives are not worth living.

There was a cry of disbelief from theatre practitioners on the panel. I was told categorically that the general public’s impulse would always be to support the sanctity of life and to question an individuals request to be allowed to die - even given that the subject be a wheelchair-user with restricted mobility. 

There would have been a credible challenge in that the issue I was raising in regard to Araniello’s Assisted Passage is separate to the issues raised by Killing Roger: these are opposing takes on the assisted suicide debate; both of which have validity and both of which are in urgent need of consideration, given that death and dying have become both more remote and more prescient in equal terms.

But from this panel there was no conception of the work I was trying to describe. Just a blatant dismissal! And it occurred to me that these people have never embraced disability arts; have probably never encountered a disabled artist like Araniello.

And so it occurred to me that Disability Arts in one very practical sense is about we, as disabled people, fighting for our lives. There is an unacknowledged, quiet euthanasia going on in the background. The austerity measures in operation are majorly reducing disabled peoples’ life expectancy. Atos have been proven to be wilfully and strategically cutting disabled people off from support in order that we will die.

The question remains as to how quietly we are prepared to go?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 23 May 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 25 April 2016

From the archive: Gini visits the Sky Tree in Tokyo

I’ve been going through Dao’s archive in the last few editorials. My intention is to continue highlighting a few favourite articles from a decade of Dao.

In last weeks newsletter I asked what pieces of content you, dear Dao reader would like me to highlight?

Richard Downes came back with a comment expressing how much he enjoyed Gini's exploration of Japan and technology, during her trip to Tokyo in September 2013.

He says: “I liked the way she presented her diary and composed poetry on a daily basis and I liked the way she presented the work with prose explanations. I hadn't seen that before and the style appealed to me. It was wonderful that inspiration seemed to come to her so easily.”

If you go back into Gini’s entries during her trip to Japan her love for the culture comes through her writing, as in this blog poem referring to the Sky Tree in Tokyo during a visit on 23 September 2013.

The charm and despair confuse me.
The longing to be close, just close
to the people who hold my heart
would anchor me, yet the distance
will always seek me out, draw me away,
break me apart in conflict of needing.
I whisper names, recall voices, dream
of other skin; the lure of distance
paused while I dream of forever.
Bask in the momentary embrace of love.

Gini’s seemingly effortless writing has been an inspiration for me, also in seeking to shape the kinds of content that Dao encourages.

I loved the diary entries; Gini’s unique voice taking you into her world and completing the experience with a poem encapsulating something ‘extra’, something revealing in a subtle and evocative way. 

Since then I’ve made a point of encouraging and supporting more poetry blogs on Dao. Some are loud and proud; some are earthy and some, like Gini’s have a quieter more essential quality.

Click on this link and have a read of Gini's blog and you’ll see what I mean.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 21 May 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 21 May 2014

From the archive: the impressive asymmetry of Mark Ware's digital imagery

I intended at the beginning of the year to celebrate Dao's tenth year by writing a monthly blog reviewing key works  that have helped to shape what the journal is and who it is for. Earlier in the year I looked back at Peter Street’s war poetry, published in December 2006, which has left an indelible imprint on my consciousness.

Back in 2004, I was running the site from a computer in the Mind offices in Lewes, kindly offered by the Director, Paddy Mobbs. I can't remember how I was introduced to Mark Ware. But from my own experience of playing with photoshop I was impressed by his images.

There was a painstaking exactitude to the asymmetry of the digital stills from The Dog that Barked like a Bird - and the extent to which the work was made to illustrate Mark’s ‘ways of seeing’ - to quote John Berger.

Mark Ware's artwork coming after decades of experience of professional artistic practice, broke rules in an informed and unique way, precisely because it was coming from personal experience of impairment. Mark's story of how the work was intended to describe the impact of a stroke, which left him with sight that registered at different speeds in each of his eyes, was fascinating. 

His work illustrates the impact of an impairment giving him a much enhanced depth of field. It felt right that Disability Arts Online should be open to showcasing artwork that talked about impairment from an informed, yet positive perspective that told a story that cut through the worthy / victim narratives that are all too often told about disabled people.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 11 May 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 21 May 2014

Trish invites you to fill in our Dao readers survey…

Hand written multicoloured text reads: News Listings Reviews Blogs Interviews Galleries

This is the third consecutive year that we’re asking you to take part in our annual reader survey. It is absolutely crucial to our role in the arts to remain vibrant and interesting:  This is your chance to tell us what you like about Dao and how you would change or improve on our website, social media interaction and our activities out in the ‘real world’.  By giving us this valuable feedback we can make changes so that everyone gets a better service.

Last year lots of people suggested we should deliver more video content and we started to do that with our Diverse Perspectives project. This year we are planning a whole new section of the website for audio/visual content from individual artists and organisations.  We’ve added a question specifically about this so that we can build your feedback into the project and importantly use those comments for funding applications. If you’d like to take a more detailed role in the planning of this project then do contact me directly

We had some really great feedback last year, which helped us secure three year core funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. This covers a proportion of the running costs of the organisation so that we can continue to bring you up-to-date news, listings and insights into the arts from a disability perspective. We still need to raise funds to cover the rest of the running costs as well as projects including commissions for disabled artists.  

Just a few minutes of your time to answer 20 questions will help us to achieve this.  Plus, one lucky person will snap up £50 of online vouchers as a thank you for taking part.

Click here to take part in the Dao 2014 readers survey now. Thank you.  

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 8 April 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 8 April 2014

Vital Xposure produce one of their best productions yet with 'Let Me Stay', which has just received Unlimited funding

I am delighted that Julie McNamara and her company Vital Xposure have received an Unlimited award for Let Me Stay. I’ve known Julie a long time now – through thick and thin you might say. And I know her well enough to say that she puts everything into whatever she turns her attention to.

Let Me Stay is a treat. I saw Julie perform Let Me Stay in a makeshift theatre space – the sort of space that proves that you can make theatre anywhere, if you are good enough and committed enough to what you’re doing.

Okay, so it probably helped that Julie had loads of mates in the audience; so that when the stage lights stopped suddenly, she was able to improvise, calling out “somebody lend them 50p for the ‘leccy”, slipping into her mums character like a well-worn and much loved frock… or shoe, possibly. Let Me Stay involves lots of shoes.

Julie moves effortlessly between herself, her mum, and a massive cast of do-gooders, ne ‘er do wells and various motley bods.

The tempo is loud, brash and full of warmth and heart as Julie takes us into her mother Shirley’s world, before and after the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Let Me Stay lifts the lid off the taboo of Alzheimer’s and gently, good spiritedly confronts the audience with their fears to lead us into a humane space, undressing the nuts and bolts of being human and finding that when the mind unravels, yes there is darkness and despair, but there is poetry too.

If there was a weakness to the last round of Unlimited it was perhaps that much of the work was too ambitious and therefore too expensive for any but larger venues, like the Southbank Centre. This round will show a larger variety of performance for big and small venues.

Vital Xposure’s Let Me Stay engages with issues that affect people from all walks of life. It's great that the Southbank Centre is taking it, and the kind of family orientated audience you can expect there, will see it, but it has the potential to fit a range of types of theatre space and therefore to be seen by a host of different types of audience.

I’ve just found out that Let Me Stay has been selected for the PULSE festival on Thursday 5th June as well as for the ANXIETY festival running from May through June 2014. 

If you can get to see it, I'd thoroughly recommend it.


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 April 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 January 2015

Trish comments on the Arts Council's No Boundaries conference.

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As someone involved in the running and development of three cultural organisations Arts Council's No Boundaries conference was a must-see event. I for one was very grateful that the live-stream was an available option given an extremely busy programme of project planning and fundraising that has taken up the first two months of 2014.

Dipping in and out of the stream over the two days, and then having the opportunity to return to the talks I missed the first time round or re-visit some of the more interesting ones, opened up a whole new way to experience and gain valuable insights from an event like this. No Boundaries had sparks of brilliance, moments of inspiration and an abundance of affirmation. By affirmation I mean that hearing from other people and their experiences helped to reassure me that we are on the right track with our approach to building Dao into a valuable cultural organisation.

No Boundaries wouldn’t have been out of place billed as a Creative Case for Diversity event, particularly with the access vastly improved since other similar Arts Council sponsored events (Jo Verrent talks about the access in more detail in her Huffington Post blog), and featuring speakers such as Nii Sackey and Kwame Kwei-Armah on the very subject of diversity. From Nii it was a kind of call to arms that said yes we’ve progressed, but we still have a long way to go. He said that “naturally we gravitate to what we know” and suggested that we “start to get comfortable with the uncomfortable”.

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s talk resonated with stories about disabled artists, describing how being an outsider is “both brilliant and horrible”. The narrative emerging over the past few years within disability arts has been underlined by an attempt to show that the unique perspectives of creative disabled people have a wider relevance within our society. Kwame concluded by saying

“The challenge of the 21st century artist is how to be culturally specific and yet universal, how to not allow the history of our artforms to exclude, but to include. How to use our tools and our talents as advocators for a better world, and not just as 'entertainers'?"

This helped to re-affirm for me that the task of the disabled artist is no different from any other artist, provided the barriers to participation for our community of creative people are removed, and that our disability arts community has a valuable and vital role to play in this wider debate. That is really is the Creative Case in a nutshell.  

17-year-old Sophie Setter Jerrome brilliantly challenged the live and online delegation, speaking from her unique position of being the youngest person invited to contribute to this TED-style live-streamed multi-location congregation of arts professionals. She criticised indiscriminate marketing as 'unhelpful' and told us that “cultural organisations should be at the forefront of inspiring movements”.

Vikki Heywood, Chairman of the RSA, posited a brilliant idea, almost a ‘creative case for creativity’ itself, that artists need to be part of boards outside of the cultural sector:

“Artists need to be on the boards of businesses… to make sure our voice is in the room when decisions are being made and therefore our value is recognised. So we can really increase the understanding of how artistic contribution can and does enrich society and enhance our cultural identity and play a valuable, central role.”

This innovative Bristol-York live-linked event again produced another Creative Case example in Russell Willis Taylor, President and CEO of National Arts Strategies, to argue the case for resilience and its reliance on the diversity of ideas.

No Boundaries may have been really fresh for some people. It was certainly interesting and inspiring to hear other people’s experiences and thought provoking to apply their ideas to the context in which I work. From me though, it felt like those ideas resonated because I was already aware of them through our work on the Creative Case for Diversity

I emerged from the conference still sitting on my sofa being left with two resounding words which seemed to have become underlying themes throughout the conference: community and authenticity. Russell Willis Taylor summed it up beautifully by encouraging us to “build communities, not audiences”. That is what I take away from No Boundaries and that is what we at Dao continuously strive to achieve.

All the No Boundaries talk are available to watch online at


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 March 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 10 March 2014

Creative Minds asks how do we assess 'quality' arts practice next week in Brighton

I am looking forward to the 'Creative Minds' conference coming up on 10th March in Brighton. Altogether 26 learning disability arts organisations have been working to create a series of conferences / events in various regions across the country.

Carousel have taken the lead on the Brighton event. There will be performances, art and talking from: Action Space London, Chris Pavia, choreographer with Stop Gap Dance Company, Corali Dance Company, Face Front Theatre Company, Oska Bright Film Festival and Rocket Artists.

Within these groups there are learning disabled artists whose work I'd really rate; individuals who've worked hard at developing their skills and honing their craft. Over the years I've seen the quality of performance and artwork by learning disabled artists improve, partly I think because the attitude of people facilitating the training has improved.

My lack-lustre introduction to the sector happened in the mid-1980s. I'd been on benefits for many years and had to go to a workshop run by Chicken Shed Theatre company as part of a government-run 'back to work' scheme. I was appalled by the patronising way the 'workers' talked to the people they were supposed to be working with. I walked out on the workshop, thinking 'these people might have learning disabilities, but they're not stupid.' It made me angry.

I've not been to see the work of Chicken Shed in recent decades. But back then the company clearly had an ethos where they thought the way of working with people was to tell them what to do. What counts for me, in terms of quality, is that the creative expression comes from artists themselves. I know from my own artistic endeavours that it takes confidence to think of yourself as an artist. And you can only get confidence through trying different things, making mistakes and taking on board advice about where you're not hitting the mark.

Looking through comments on the Creative Minds Forum, I can see how my thoughts on what makes for good Art are echoed by others who also believe that there is a pool of unique experience of the world to be tapped through encouraging and facilitating learning disabled people to become artists. 

For example Oska Bright Film Festival has been hugely successful because the decision-making is controlled by people with learning disabilities. As an audience we are offered a truly original glimpse into a way of seeing that is hidden from the mainstream world. 

There are two big questions as I see it. Firstly, how do you connect that notion of an 'aesthetic' or something that is original, to the notion of 'quality'? And secondly how do you go about telling artists with learning disabilities if you have an opinion on where the work falls down? You want to be encouraging, but equally you don't want to patronise people by telling them their work is great when you don't think that is the case.

There are lots of comments in the talking area of the Creative Minds website and I know Carousel are hoping more people will take part in the discussion, so if you have an opinion add your pennies worth at

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 March 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 16 March 2015

Look backing through the Dao archives and rediscovering Peter Street's war poetry

We're continuing to reflect on the last ten years of Dao and part of that process has been pulling out highlights for David Hevey who is coordinating the next stage of the heritage bid to build a disability arts archive. 

I could never resist Peter Street's poetry (there is rather a lot of it on Dao). I first met Peter at a Survivors' Poetry conference in Coventry in the late nineties. As I recall it was not long before Peter pushed himself to realise an ambition to become a war poet. The story went that he got himself to Bosnia at the height of the conflict in the 90s. By bluffing his way through his connections with the local BBC radio station he hitched a lift with a relief unit…

For Peter it was the most devastating thing he'd ever done in his life. For Poetry he did a massive service, crafting incredibly powerful and totally overwhelming descriptions of what he witnessed. 


An ex-serviceman
rattles his big tin
under our consciences.
I slit in some change,
confess to him that I've seen action.
“Good man!” he smiles.

Walking home
I feel my stitches, holding those scars
of war, burst. At first the traumas are
stubborn, like trying to blow a cricket ball
down your nose.

Then everything pouring out; snipers
and that wall splashed crimson,
where bits of bone and brain
clung like wool to a barbed-wire fence
and that camera-man who left me
when those guerrillas pulled out their

Guilt spills and restlessness splashes
the pavement.

Peter Street's collection Still Standing contains all the war poetry he wrote about his time in Bosnia.

Please click on this link to find a selection of Peter Street's war poems

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 14 February 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 September 2015

Colin discusses Unlimited asking can Art and politics be separated?

It seems to me as we enter deeper into the New Grim there is a need to question further what the role of Disability Arts is, currently. In a conversation with Mat Fraser recently we talked about why it is more pressing than ever for him to weave a discussion about the three models of disability openly and creatively into his one man show ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’.

Back in the late 1990s we always knew the Disability Discrimination Act was half-hearted. We persisted in face of barriers being removed, but failed to attract younger artists. In the early 2000’s access within new and upgraded public buildings became enshrined in law, so why should younger artists feel the need to embrace Disability Arts?

And we became more confused about our efforts to push the idea of ‘disability’ as a way of thinking about the world that does a disservice to people who don’t fit the perfect framework of what society expects, largely in order to fit our art to funding criteria. Some felt we were getting somewhere in getting mainstream recognition for work by disabled artists. Others, that we had taken a backward step.

But as Mat said in conversation: “at what point was it that we took our eyes off the ball?” For the first time since the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany we are suddenly living in a time when our lives as disabled people are being judged by the media purely in monetary terms. Politicians like Cornwall’s Collin Brewer are fine with openly declaring that "disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down."

So, in the light of how society is changing, what is the role of Disability Arts in this decade? Is it to challenge or comply with values of mainstream entertainment to support the status quo? I saw a lot of references to Unlimited 2012 as being about ‘celebration’ rather than ‘politics’. I didn’t agree with it, because what I saw of the festival contained a whole gamut, emotionally, politically and in terms of accessibility. For example Sinéad O'Donnell's 'CAUTION' was extraordinarily challenging.

But why do we so easily forget that all art and all entertainment is political: whether it is Lord Sugar extolling the virtues of a capitalist free market economy on ‘The Apprentice’ or Matthew Bourne creating an adaption of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with an all-male cast or Mat Fraser getting his kit off in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to show an audience at the Young Vic how a disabled man with shortened arms and no thumbs washes his bottom.

The context for each of those randomly chosen cultural phenomena has a political stake in affecting societies values and judgments. My choosing of those specific examples is in and of itself a political choice. As someone proud of my working class roots Sugar represents everything I hate about the working class and I’m prone to screaming fits in the unfortunate situation where I happen to be in a room when he is on the telly. Equally, I have known and loved a lot of gay people and will always support Gay rights – so would applaud Bourne for challenging notions of masculinity. Beauty and the Beast – although very adult in content – represented the most grown up piece of Disability Arts I’ve witnessed. Julie Atlas-Muz talking about encouraging her mother into the open about having discriminatory values was extremely moving. It was the first time I’ve seen a positive, compassionate spin on encouraging openness about ignorance. Attacking ignorance dismissively, has historically been a core value within Disability Arts – and although it has its place, it does little to change the attitudes of those subject to criticism, unless they actively want to be challenged.

So what is the place of Disability Arts now? Within its criteria Unlimited says that “We are looking for work that is innovative, varied, excellent, led by disabled artists. Unlimited is about art, not about disability.  Some work may reference disability, some may not.”

I’ve seen interpretations of that statement declaring that it means Unlimited is "not for disabled people". I disagree. ‘Disability’ is a role (as much for disabled people as for non-disabled people); it is a journey and where an artist is in relationship to their impairment will define whether or not they are at a point where they are comfortable with referencing ‘disability’. There is no getting away from the fact that Unlimited has a social and political context. It is born out of decades of disabled people striving for a voice in the world – a part of that being the struggle for artistic freedom. Whether or not the work that comes through Unlimited 2014 references disability or not – there will be a judgment of that work from the perspective of a disability arts aesthetic, simply because of its context.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not Art and politics cannot be separated. As a painter I know how key self-delusion is to the process of making Art. Traditionally, painting has always been about creating a 3 dimensional illusion of reality on a 2-D surface. The question is whether Unlimited 2014 can break out of a narrow idea of what is Art to present something that has meaning for disabled people?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 February 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 6 February 2014

Colin kicks off 2014 with a look at one of Dao's most accessed pieces of in-depth content

Happy New Year to one and all. As a theme running through DAO's tenth year I want to draw attention to features in our back catalogue for those who may not be aware of the depth and breadth of the content in the journal. 

Many of you will be aware of the value and importance of the Social Model of Disability to the history and development of Disability Arts, but may be confused or sceptical about the Affirmative Model of Disability which attempts to bring the theory into a 21st century understanding.

One of the most consistently accessed pieces of content on DAO over the past few years has been an interview I conducted with Colin Cameron in 2009 whilst he was researching a PhD on the Affirmative Model of Disability. Colin has a knack for illustrating disability theory with lived experience - and in the process often refers back to Disability Arts as having been instrumental in his personal understanding of his relationship to disability and impairment.

It's lengthy and time-consuming to read, but I would suggest that it's essential for anyone working within disability arts to develop an understanding of the discussions which have laid a cornerstone for our movement. 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 January 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 January 2014

Colin wishes all our readers the best for the festive season, looking forward to 2014

Trish and I have had a busy year. Firstly I'd like to thank everyone for supporting Dao in 2013. We’ve had a fantastic year with many achievements. Many of our Arts Council funded Diverse Perspectives commissions led to further showcases of work, particularly for performance artist Liz Crow and wordsmith/ visual artist Gini who presented work at the Personal to the Universal Symposium with LinkUp Arts at Salisbury Arts Centre last April. 

We're delighted to announce that earlier this winter, we received notification that the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation has agreed to give Dao funding for the next three years. This will pay a portion of our part-time salaries and allow us time to develop the stability and sustainability of DAO to ensure its future. It will allow us to continue commissioning reviews and opinion pieces from our writers commenting on disability arts and related discussions which inform the disability arts debate.

Looking forward to 2014 - Dao's tenth anniversary - we are planning to publish work exploring a theme around perceptions of disability and difference. We know that disabled people choosing a career in the arts face additional barriers to participation in the networks that open doors to real opportunities. Our hope is that through unpacking those perceptions and the changing attitudes towards disability we can continue to address those barriers. One way we do this is by making information available about what opportunities there are, through our listings and news service, so if you haven't already, please do sign up to our mailing list.

We will continue to engage artists, audiences, thinkers, and arts professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds and expertise, seeking to further programme and commission of work by disabled artists. With that in mind we hoping to secure funding for an exciting major music commission. We are also planning to up the ante on the amount of poetry and prose we publish on Dao and to secure funding to facilitate the professional mentoring of two poets to create their own published volumes. In tandem we are planning to programme a series of live spoken word / music events at a range of festivals and venues around the country to celebrate our tenth anniversary year.

Disability Arts Online is a repository of thousands of articles: blogs, news items, reviews, interviews, galleries and creative writing by artists and writers, writing on disability and the arts, which have been published since 2004. Through monthly reflections pulling out highlights of the work buried in Dao's archives we want to pull to the fore some of the rich legacy contained within the website. 

We had a major facelift earlier in the year - but all our old content is still available online. To begin I'd like to draw your attention to Disability Arts Moments. Asking "what drew your interest in Disability Arts?" this page gives a series of comments from disability arts practitioners talking about seminal works they would like to see remembered or preserved for future generations.

Meantime, from everyone here at Dao we wish you all the best for a happy festive season! Signing off until 2014!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 20 December 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 20 December 2013

Colin writes about Creative Future's Literary Awards and Dao's plans to celebrate our tenth anniversary

In the run-up to Trish and I putting together our next literary project to celebrate ten years of DAO next Spring it I went to have a conversation with Dominique De-Light, Creative Future Project Director.

I was very pleased by the success of the Creative Future Literary Awards - not least because three Dao writers, Dolly Sen, Penny Pepper and Lynne E. Blackwood were amongst the 18 writers who received awards including a share of cash prizes. Up to summer 2013 Creative Future invited submissions of flash fiction and poetry on the theme 'The Spark' and were overwhelmed by the quality of writing submitted and the geographical reach of the competition.

Held at Charleston House, East Sussex, as part of the Small Wonder Festival at the end of last September the Award ceremony was hosted by award winning poet, Lemn Sissay, with guest speaker, and prize winning author Ros Barber. The event was the first awards ceremony for a national competition for marginalised writers - with plans for a second national competition for flash fiction and poetry in 2015.

You can read a selection of the award-winning entries on the site for Myriad Editions who were one of the sponsors of the Awards. I've been a fan of Dolly Sen's lightbulb antics for some time, so it made me chuckle to see two of her lightbulb poems in there.

Dominique told me that during the lead-up and in the aftermath of the big event at Charleston Farmhouse - that they were able to track an audience of a staggering 1.7 million who had found out about the awards and the publication, The Spark - mostly through online reviews, news and listings.

Paul McVeigh - Deputy Editor of the Word Factory, a London-based short story literary salon and blog which also offers mentorships to emerging writers - featured a blog about Creative Future's Literary Awards. Paul's blog is well worth looking up for the latest opportunities in the literary world.

It's very gratifying to find word about Dao getting out there - especially in light of our plans to develop the poetry side of what we publish. We want to begin inviting work on a theme of 'perceptions of disability and difference' in line with our remit to further a conversation about what disability, impairment and marginalisation mean to us in our daily lives. 

So watch this space for further news...



Posted by Colin Hambrook, 22 November 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 22 November 2013

Colin salutes Oska Bright International Short Film and Digital Media Festival

Oska Bright has played an important part in my life since it launched in Brighton in 2004. Learning disability organisation Carousel's effort in showcasing short films made by and with people with learning difficulties is a spotlight on a largely hidden world. It's success is largely down to the committee of learning disabled film makers and artists who choose the films, run the festival and take screenings worldwide through their On The Road programme. 

Dao has carried a blog for Oska Bright On The Road since January 2008 and it's been a great device for following the adventures of the Oska Bright team as they've taken screenings to communities of people across the globe, encouraging others to get involved with film-making through their workshops.

After attending several sessions at Oska Bright 2013 over the past couple of days, it's very apparent how the quality, breadth and possibilities of the imagination explored in the films entered into the festival, has developed over the years. What these films do so effectively is to give a platform for a broad range of concerns in the lives of a community who remain the most invisible of all disabled communities. 

According to a 2010 survey by the charity Scope nine out of ten British people without a disability have never invited a disabled person into their home. The same report found that just two out of ten British people who identify with a disability have non-disabled friends. 

For those of us who support the importance of integration, for whatever reason, these statistics - underlining the isolation that impairment across the board brings with it - are staggering. I would hazard a guess that for people with a learning difficulty the segregation experienced is greater still - and increasingly so with the effects of the cuts hitting services for this community more than most.

For all these and more reasons the impact of giving a voice through film is a lifeline. Filled with humour, pathos, fun and beauty I am always taken aback by the selection of films chosen by Oska Bright. For me it is the quirkiness of the subject matter and the techniques employed above all else that open a window to the soul.

When Oska Bright began, most of the films entered into the festival were animation. As it developed so documentary opened up as a genre. As the work has evolved under the careful guidance of the Oska Bright Team so other areas of the arts - notably dance and music videos - have come into the frame. The storylines have become more sophisticated and developed and the expression of how discrimination impacts on the community has become more subtle.

The Oyster Projects' Timeslip had a strong message about the history of discrimination as the heroine of the film slips back into Victorian times to find herself faced by attitudes that dominated society damning any right to an education or independence at any level.

JUMPcuts film Best Interest sensitively explores the right to having a relationship. Paul makes the big mistake of letting his brother know he fancies Sam, who tells his dad, who tells his support worker… and so the plot develops, each family member and support worker believing they have what's right for Paul at heart, but not realising how their efforts conspire to break him and his girlfriend apart.

This year there was also a first of a screening of horror films. My favourite was Station 17's Die Koenigin which has some beautiful affects and stunning choreography.

Cuts to the UK Film Council have meant that Oska Bright has had to be run on a shoe-string this year. As a result four screenings had to be cut from the Festival and the amount of screenings that are subtitled, audio described and sign language interpreted limited to two screenings over one afternoon. The festival's funding has come from Arts Council, Brighton and Hove, with a small but much appreciated contribution from Creative Skillset and in-kind support from the Brighton Dome and a number of film enthusiasts.

Who knows what the future will bring? I look forward to seeing how Oska Bright - with their plans to develop other digital platforms, and other places to project - evolves.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 19 November 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 10 November 2015

Colin Hambrook celebrates a JODI commendation for Liz Crow's Bedding Out

This years Jodi Awards for equal access to culture for disabled people are soon to be made public. I'm pleased to say that an initial announcement made yesterday revealed that Liz Crow's Bedding Out received a Jodi commendation. 

The pilot for Bedding Out - shown initially at the SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich in November 2012 - was a Dao 'Diverse Perspectives' commission, which just goes to show what far-reaching results can be achieved from a relatively modest investment of £1500. Nominated for accessibility and planning, user involvement; innovation; legacy and impact, Bedding Out was a performance about UK benefits system changes and their impact on disabled people's lives.

Liz Crow's 48 hour ‘bed-life’ performance in Salisbury Arts Centre was livestreamed, reaching 10,000 participants in over 50 countries, using twitter to facilitate a conversation controlled by disabled people. The artists' presence in a bed positioned in the altar of the reconditioned church that is Salisbury Arts Centre conveyed, in my mind, an image mirroring an appeal for asylum. In allowing the voices of disabled people to come to the fore, there was a sense of gentle revolution unfolding at #beddingout

Congratulations also go this week to Anne Pridmore, Gabriel Pepper, Stuart Bracking, Paris L'Amour, and John Aspinall for their successful legal challenge against the high court decision made last April to close the Independent Living Fund. Closed to new applicants since June 2010, the battle is yet to be won on re-opening the fund for all disabled people and putting an end to the two-tier system of support that is currently in place. Whilst the public perception is that disabled people are being supported into work by the current government, the grim reality couldn't be further removed from the broadcasts being propogated in the media through programmes such as BBC's Britain on the Fiddle.

As long as we can survive Dao has a duty to challenge those perceptions and fight for equality in the Arts. We know it's a tall order. We continue to bang our heads against brick walls and in recent years it has felt like the moves forward have been far outweighed by the moves backwards with the closure of so many of our Arts organisations. 

Which brings me to 'What Next?' - a new movement seeking to enhance the national conversation about the value of arts and culture. Chaired by David Lan, Artistic Director at the Young Vic, What Next? hopes to facilitate "productive alliances and collaboration in public engagement and advocacy." 

At a time when we see the Arts being devalued with the introduction of a baccalaureate qualification which will see arts subjects banished from our schools, I wonder what happened to all those empty promises to support Britain's creative economy released in the pre-election Arts Policy documents produced by both the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems.

We need to find constructive ways to challenge and to determine the role the Arts play in our lives. As dispiriting as it is having to continue to fight for accessibility (what accessibility you might argue?) the reality is that things will get a lot worse if we don't pull our heads out of the sand and seek creative partnerships with organisations and individuals who share similar values. 

And for those reasons Trish and I are planning to go to the Diversity ‘Long Table’ being hosted by What Next? at Sadler's Wells on 27 November. They calling on all venues, organisations, artists, creative practitioners, leaders, thinkers, across generations, art forms and sectors, to attend. If you can make it, please let us know?


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 November 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 12 November 2013

Avant-garde or art as activism? Colin Hambrook discusses Disability Art in relation to Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures and Liz Crow's In Actual Fact

Since 1948 the BBC have been broadcasting an annual series of lectures by leading figures of the day addressing contemporary themes. It's over twenty years since there was last a Reith Lecture on the place of the Arts within society, so initially I was a bit non-plussed as to why Grayson Perry had been chosen to deliver a series which I normally associate with heady science or hearty politics.

I listened to the third of the 'Playing to the Gallery' series of talks 'Nice Rebellion: Welcome in' immediately seeing how the title might relate to Disability Arts. The Disability Arts sector has a legacy going back to the 1980s, of looking to produce art that challenges attitudes towards disability - the kind of art as activism that seeks to challenge institutions and institutionalised discrimination.

True to the title of his talk Grayson argues convincingly that the idea of rebellion within art is a tautology; that everywhere art institutions applaud Art that dresses itself up as going against the grain; and that the cultural zeitgeist of the Western world has reached a point where 'subversion' is as much a target for commodification as anything else. "…the lifeblood of capitalism is new ideas," he argues, because "they need new stuff to sell!" And when seeking the shock of the new, what better product than subversion?

So where does the concept of Disability Art fit in with the idea of seeking to challenge? Some years ago at the 2007 debate held by London Disability Arts Forum in Tate Modern, Yinka Shonibare described Disability Arts as 'The last remaining avant-garde movement'. If we think of the idea of avant-garde to mean "at the forefront of rebellion", I'm not sure that is completely true. Feminism may have moved forwards into the mainstream to a greater or lesser effect, but it strikes me that the artists who popularly most exemplify 'art as rebellion' at this moment in time are the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. In the aftermath of a public performance of a punk prayer to oppose the unscrupulous vilification of women through the sanctification of State by Church in Russia, they have put their lives on the line. Recent BBC reports of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova say that after going on hunger strike following abuses in jail, that the Pussy Riot member has disappeared, and is feared dead.

As much as Grayson Perry talks about the globalisation of Art practice, it is very evident that the rules that apply in the Western world are different to those in the East. And that attitudes towards human rights are equally very different. Or are they? What is the life of a disabled person worth in a situation where so many of us can be declared fit for work, whilst on our deathbeds? And what does it mean when the fact of so much misery and suffering can prevail against the most vulnerable members of society with hardly a murmur raised in opposition in our media?

Personally I'm not sure whether the term 'avant-garde' conjures up the idea of something that's controversial. It perhaps says more about where we've come from than where we're going. Again with reference to one of Grayson Perry's stories from his lecture, the term describes Duchamp's Urinal but not Brian Eno's recent ploy to fill it with piss.

And so I'd very much doubt whether avant-garde is a term we'd see as applicable to our movement. However, to my mind Liz Crow is one of the few disabled artists seeking to present art as activism - and to use the precept of Disability Art as a form that speaks about the experience of disability, rather than the experience of impairment.

Her counter-propaganda site In Actual Fact, was created to give actual facts about benefits and public services cuts - and to counter the political use of austerity to justify the deaths of disabled people who are being cast aside. Tomorrow is The People’s Assembly national day of action against austerity. Crow is urging people to tweet (and Facebook) from the In Actual Fact site, adding the #burnausterity hashtag at the end of tweets.

On Wednesday 6 November 9.00pm, BBC will broadcast ‘Britain on the Fiddle’ (the first in a series of three). This is a chance to show In Actual Fact working to counter propaganda. Crow is calling for mass-tweeting on the #britainonthefiddle hashtag, answering every single lie with relevant tweets from the IAF site.

In Grayson Perry's mind sincerity may well be 'problematic' and by implication a disguise for much 'bad' art. But then as much as I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of his series of Reith lectures, I doubt he would ever give disability art the time of day, or indeed see the critical nature of what we're trying to achieve.

Please click on this link to go to the In Actual Fact website

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 November 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 November 2013