Liberty? What Liberty? / 9 September 2013
I found myself wondering what David Morris - one the key people involved in the creation of the Liberty Festival - would of thought of last Saturday's event? In 2010 the festival was dedicated to his memory and the festival banners had his words: “Together we can change our world” – emblazoned across them.
True, last Saturday was a good day out. I was grateful for the opportunity to see old friends - some of whom I hadn't seen for years. And there were some stunning performances. I really enjoyed seeing Marc Brew and Rachel Gadsden's Collaboration 'Cube of Curiosity'. Brew's visceral presence as a dancer - literally breaking out of a box in his wheelchair - was aptly complemented by Gadsden's role in the performance as a visual artist, recording his impression on the box made of a canvas using stylised expressive marks. Their scratch performance showed great potential for development.
I was also pleased to see Graeae's 'Limbless Knight' had moved on a pace since its outing at the GDIF Festival earlier this summer. The narrative behind the theatre/ dance performance was much more cohesive as the testimonies of the disabled soldiers - 'the limbless knights' - were integrated more reflectively into the script. This time there was also a bit less pinging of 'knights' on sway poles, which for me detracted from the important message Graeae were trying to get across in the show, that as a society we need to decide whether or not we value human rights?
In 2011 I wrote an editorial proclaiming that Liberty was no longer a festival about disability rights. I raised concerns that the branding of the festival had become anachronistic: it having become a fun, family day out, rather than an event that attempted to challenge or to educate. This year the subtext of the festival - with Liberty having been subsumed by National Paralympic Day - it was clear that the over-riding message of the idea of 'liberty' was that as disabled people we have all the rights we need. The argument follows that we should stop complaining and die quietly - or at least out of earshot of anyone with power or influence.
I've nothing against disabled people doing sports and have much admiration for paralympians. However, I agree with Penny Pepper who wrote on her blog that "this is how the government wants disabled people to be. Get sporty and then you can get work…" The work ethic was the principle behind the creation of the Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville under Dr Guttmann. So, when you consider how much Access to Work and other policies designed to give disabled people the opportunity to work, have been cut back, it really is hard not to be cynical about the underlying message being promoted to the public.
And judging by the audiences, very few people were there for disability art. The tiny performance and music stages had maybe 50 people or so attending each show, in comparison with the thousands we've been used to at Liberty Festival's in the past. The main act on the music stage - BBCs winner of 'The Voice' - Andrea Begley, didn't even realise she was performing at the Liberty Festival and kept referring to it as National Paralympic Day.
Disappointingly, she did a series of cover songs by bands like Semisonic and Bruce Springsteen, rather than presenting herself as a folky singer-songwriter. It seemed that the dilution of the event had even subsumed the will to present something original.
Where will 'Liberty' go next. Butlins perhaps…