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Joe McConnell looks at the work of some of the disabled artists who received bursaries from Artsadmin for work in digital media.

 Darran Leaf


Image: Darran Leaf

Since 1998, the organisation Artsadmin has run an Artists' Advisory Service and an annual Bursary Scheme for artists working in live art, performance, time-based media, installation and mixed-media work. In 2002, funding came from Arts Council England (London) to run a new scheme for disabled and deaf artists based in London, aiming to support artists working in digital media. In this pilot round of the scheme four artists were supported: Stephen Conning, Juan delGado, Gordon McKenna and Lucille Power, with bursaries of £5,000 and in-kind support of access to rehearsal spaces and equipment in Toynbee Studios.

The focus of the scheme is on experimentation and practical research, allowing artists time to work in ideas without having to work within the frame of producing a final piece, which can sometimes involve a long creative process, and sometimes allow a recipient to try out many ideas they wouldn't normally have the freedom to. From the 2002 pilot scheme, the four artists have been able to pursue new project ideas, some towards showcases of work, or towards further funding and exhibition proposals.

In 2003-4, thanks to a one-off increase in funding from ACE, Artsadmin gave seven bursaries of £5,000 and two fellowships of £10,000 to artists selected in November 2003. In this round of the scheme Artsadmin were able to work in partnership with three organisations, London Disability Arts Forum, Shape and Space, in creating the aims and guidelines for the scheme, advising on and selecting applications, and supporting the recipients after selections were made.

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Chas de Swiet

My progression has been from a classical violinist through to a world music and ambient DJ and then on to playing in bands and producing music. A classical violin training was a good musical introduction but was turned upside down by a visit to West Africa in '92. For a while I was passionate about African drumming and the combination of set rhythms with the space to improvise within them. When I did eventually come back to the violin it was with this same approach to creating music.

My continuing journeys into different realities and the interactions with society, that having a MH diagnosis bring, have been an incredibly rich source of inspiration for my music and art. For a long period I simply had to play everyday to express what I was going through and deal with it. That immediate need has passed but more complex areas remain to be explored such as how to form an identity within such a stigmatising culture.

Highlights of the last few years have been playing Glastonbury '97 with Daweesh, releasing the CD The P4 Collection and leading The Escapists through a national tour. Side projects have included being a founder member of the sound system Sounds Anonymous and coordinating The 105 jamming space.

I have recently finished a commission for Half Moon Young People's Theatre and am currently keeping the performance side going by collaborating with dancer Silke Mansholt. I also work part time for Mental Health Media.

The plan is to use the bursary to research and explore how to simulate the headspace of a 'psychotic' person through a website. This state of mind could be recreated through a combination of sound files, still and moving images and copy.

Ultimately there could be several zones to the site such as street life, spirit, conspiracy, medication and the mental health system, social life, coping strategies, survival. I will however start the research and development stage of the site but looking at interactions between the headspace and travelling around London.

The research phase will consist of experimenting, with other survivor artists, to see how to recreate experiences such as hearing voices and other auditory and visual hallucinations. How do delusions determine what is experienced by the senses?

Every person's experience of psychosis is obviously different and the interpretation presented would initially reflect the perspectives of myself and the people I would be working with. Hopefully though through some degree of interactivity the site could look at the different ways that people react to the state of mind. A simple approach would be to include a message board or discussion forum on the site. A more complex solution would be to create the functionality for others to upload pictures, moving images or sound files.

As I come from a background in predominately sound the project will also push me into a more multi-disciplinary conceptual approach. The bursary will allow me the space and time to work into this.

In other projects there is not always the freedom to look at mental health issues in an unadulterated way. Is this music suitable for the performance, is this writing too strong, will the funders be happy? This is a chance to really express the darkest but also most curious aspects of being mad.

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Darran Leaf

I was born in Leeds in 1961, the last of eight children. After initially missing out on a formal education through dyslexia, I moved to London and took a degree at St Martin's College from 1993-96. I followed this by contributing to a series of installations and performance including the ICA and the Courtauld Institute. However, until recently, ill health increasingly limited my scope for new work. Current projects again explore issues around the interpretation of loss and identity.

I will use the bursary from Artsadmin to gain the essential skills, equipment and space to develop my work. This includes learning new skills in digital media; helping to buy the necessary digital equipment; helping to research additional themes around my work; providing the time and space to develop my ideas; providing opportunities to show work in progress and discuss work with other artists. Digital media, and the skills necessary to use them, are fundamental to my work and without the bursary from Artsadmin would not have been possible.

Laurence Harvey

I have been working in the field of performance art since 1987, exploring different ways of working as an artist (through collaboration with other artists, performing in other artists' work), as well as working in other types of performance with the likes of Ken Campbell, and Bock & Vincenzi.

In addition, I have curated a number of events over the years and have recently completed an MA in Art and Performance Theory. One of the themes that has been recurrent in my work since the earliest works is the figure of the freak show performer. Originally my interest in this subject stemmed from the (mis)representation of (auto)biography, but in researching Joseph Merrick I came across J.R.Bass (the Ossified Man in Barnum's American museum), who had ankylosing spondylitis. This 'shock of recognition' is one of the reasons why I have continued to research how this 'performed role' is constructed, and exposing this construction in order to reclaim the individual, and also to investigate whether there is anything that can be usefully gained by looking at the freak show as a form of performance.

It is for this aspect of my work that I have given presentations at the Vital Signs and Shifting Aesthetics conferences. Recently, my work has been moving towards film/video and I am involved with 15mm Films, whose first film The Electricians was shown at last year's LDAF's Fifth Disability Film Festival.

I am using this bursary as an opportunity to explore new ways of working (I have already undertaken a workshop with Japanese multi-media arts company Gekaidan Kaitaisha) and to learn new skills (especially in dvd production - commentaries, multi-angle and subtitle options) in order to utilise these as part of a 'skill pool' in collaboration with other artists (e.g. 15mm films).

The main project is an investigation into dvd commentaries, and how film fans are now producing their own commentaries. The result will be a live performance of my commentary on David Lynch's film The Elephant Man, which will be recorded on the night and made available either through the internet or a cd/dvd release. My interest is how fans are reclaiming the studios' product for themselves (many of the commentaries on the internet are from franchises with pre-existing fan-bases (e.g. The Lord of The Rings, and comic-based films such as Spiderman, and X-Men). I am interested in reclaiming Merrick's story and also that of his manager Tom Norman, who was presented in the film as a 'bad father' figure.

I also want to explore the lecture form as an aspect of performance language - taking the banal commentary to ironic extremes, using commentary as overload of information, putting a commentary on short video pieces (as opposed to feature length films) - to be used in conjunction with my own video pieces and upcoming work with 15mm films.

Samuel Makoko

I am concerned with the development of innovative forms of media inter-action both in the context of African culture and development and also of mainstream media exposure in global contexts for African voices and perspectives.

The problem with film and TV practice in Africa is that it is based upon a metropolitan model imported from the west which is hegemonic centralist; government controlled and dependent upon western TV and Hollywood film product, as the core staple for its programming. There are few African stories and when they occur they are told from a western perspective. Role models and images reflect an alien culture.

Issues of representation and access to the media are key to challenging this status quo that exists across the African continent. Independent film-makers are few and far between and most struggle for support from progressive western sources, such as exist in France or Channel 4 in the UK.

I want to develop an Afro-centric aesthetic and practice, which can engage and empower African communities. Initially this would focus on village, town and city communities in my homeland of Uganda and be a recording and celebration of our lives and culture.

This project will provide some of the most marginalized voices on the planet the access to digital technologies of the 'First World.' To develop through experimentation with digital media technologies appropriate contemporary forms to communicate the stories from the African experience to a wider global audience and facilitating new forms of discourse within the 'Developing World'.

The preliminary stages of the project have three main objectives:

  1. To explore ways in which digital technologies are being utilized within London and Europe to empower local communities.

  2. To explore and assess whether the methodologies of engagement in Europe can be transferred to an African cultural context. The starting point of this exploration will be a research exercise looking at the work of Ambient TV. (Digital Arts project specializing in the creation of alternative distribution networks for digital media Artists / practitioners).

  3. Experimentation:

  • developing a web-casting platform utilizing the expertise and facilities of the Community Media Association based in Shadwell, leading to an on-line event; (duration yet to be determined) connecting London with Uganda.
  • devising a series of formats using overtly contemporary aesthetics to produce and transmit a series of digital portraits.


Philip Ryder

My practice consists of two parallel strands using video, performance, installation and sonic art - my personal and my political work. Not being able to use my hands without pain in my every day and artistic life has directly inspired a body of hands-free works dealing with issues of hazard, deterioration and challenging artistic dexterity.

My work with the artsadmin bursary derives from attempts to find a way of using a camera without hands. Using a body-mounted surveillance camera I have found a hands-free system that inherently introduces issues of surveillance culture. Using surveillance as a starting point I began to think about related issues to do with September 11th and the 'war on terrorism'.

New legislative powers, dumbing down of the media, corporate powers, the overbearing presence of police, surveillance and consumerism all relate/effect the 'battle against terrorism' and need to be challenged. The issues are far deeper than the taboo that has been placed on the word 'terrorism'.

I don't believe in the violence of terrorism, but I do believe the way a terrorist organization functions and its interactions with their opponents provides lessons in very effective strategies. Strategies that can give the powerless a competitive edge. The current social political landscape has changed in leaps and bounds, but I never would have been able to guess a war was waged in the last year if all I had to look at, for input, was the art world.

Art has immense power and I want to use it the same way a terrorist would use a bomb. I want to create something that will be experienced in everyday life. Witnesses instead of audience. Infecting the minds of witnesses. No clues of the 'reality' they may experience will be given of it being anything but 'reality'. I want to bring issues straight into people's lives, not through a screen, a photo, a text, a sound bite or through the art world.