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Artists Debating Identity / 21 June 2009

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100 Metres Gold Handicap (King Midas). Aaron Williamson

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In the 1990s LDAF used to organise debates, which, truth to tell, became circular arguments centering around the question of what is Disability Arts? We somehow never seemed to get beyond celebrating difference and protesting righteous indignation that nothing should be made about us without us.

With disabled people at the helm the world was going to be a better place. Dissing the Social Model was tantamount to letting the side down and any critical debate was stifled by polemic disguised as Social Model rhetoric.

Irrelevant old Art didn’t get a massive reference. Few of the people at those discussions had ever been to a mainstream exhibition at Tate Britain or a performance at the National Theatre. Access was a massive problem then – on all counts. If you just consider wheelchair access - there was none at The Tate Britain which was fronted by an endless barrier of steps. You could go to the National Theatre – but more than one wheelchair user was said to represent a fire hazard, so you could only go on your own.

There was also little access to college education for disabled people, unless you were able to pretend you were non-disabled and throw yourself through all kinds of hoops in the process. LDAF fought for so many years for the right of disabled people to have a say and a place at the forefront of things. Had LDAF not existed would there now be access to mainstream art spaces? So much influence came out of LDAF, but times have now moved on and the conversations that need to happen are different.

The mid to late 1990s were angry times, understandably. The anger was positive in many ways, but there was a flip side to it. It meant that unless you conformed to a particular world-view within that circle, you became subject to that anger. The fire brought a lot of disabled people together, but equally a lot of disabled people trying to take themselves seriously as artists, either couldn’t relate to the rhetoric, or had disagreements with it that there was no space for them to air.

Aaron Williamson argues in his book ‘Performance, Video, Collaboration’ that Disability Arts organisations’ have become slaves to tick-box culture and the ideals behind social inclusion and as a result have been very resistant to avant-garde art or Art that presses buttons - in a desperate attempt to conform; to become ‘Normal’, as Paul Darke would argue.

One of the big problems for Disability Arts organisations has been about resolving who its constituency really are. There has been a lack of grounding in the history of Art for many disabled people working within disability-led organisations which has undermined our efforts to survive within a changing cultural landscape. Without those reference points we have struggled to support emerging artists beyond a certain level and provide opportunities for professional development outside of the Ghetto.

Things aren’t brilliant now, access-wise, but they are a hell of a lot better than they were ten years ago. The DDA has come in incrementally and the Disability Arts movement has struggled to identify its vision within a rising tide of artists who live with impairment and disability, but who are resistant to taking on the disability label.

Shape in its bid to rebrand itself as an organization that is about artists as well as audiences, has begun to host a series of evenings inviting artists under their roof in Camden to discuss. Crafted by Michele Taylor’s seemingly effortless ability to take us on a journey, we were introduced to Katherine Araniello, Tanya Raabe, Aaron Williamson, Jon Adams and Noemi Lakmaier who all presented pieces of their current artwork.

Michelle asked what it means to us, as artists, that we are disabled people? I think all the 25 or so people present, agreed that being a disabled person was part of their identity as an artist. But, crucially the degrees of identification with the term disabled artist, were wide ranging. Some marketed themselves as both artist and disabled artist, keeping all the eggs in the basket.

Tanya Raabe talked about fiercely identifying with being a disabled artist as a mark of pride. She presented some of her Who’s Who in the context of wanting to document some of the history of our movement. Disabled people have been invisible for so long and we need a sense of history in order to value what we have achieved. Work only really gets recognized for its value after it has undergone the test of time.

I think there needs to be more of an uncovering of the disability experience – work that was begun by Leicester Universities’ Buried in the Footnotes programme – a reevaluating of the institutionalization that influences peoples’ perceptions of where Disability Art is coming from. Tanya has shown her Who’s Who in 13 galleries to date. She has had 2 galleries reject the exhibition, one notably from a gallery who didn’t get the connection between the portraits and Disability Art. This success would suggest, that whilst old perceptions die hard, the tide is turning and there is a wider consciousness to embrace disability as a part of the human condition. Perhaps?

Both Aaron Williamson and Katherine Araniello are skilled at taking perceptions of disability and turning them into artwork that challenges prejudice by using a subversive humour that can shock and tease at the same time. And both have had success at taking their work into non-disability settings and gaining some evaluation from what we loosely call ‘the mainstream’.

Noemi Lakmaier talked about her work as having disability reference points. Her work is crucially about identity but whether or not this is seen as disability is not a major concern for her. It is what individuals’ can read into the work from their own experience that is the starting point for its being understood. She showed some work in development that is about ‘imposter syndrome’ – a psychological condition that stems from a lack of security in being who you are. Her portraits presented herself as an office worker, drenched with water and wearing inappropriate clothing.

Who we are, who we think we are and how others see us are such different and divergent things. Jon Adams refuted the term disabled artist as a nonsense. You wouldn’t buy a disabled car or call on a disabled tradesman, so why would you call yourself a disabled artist? He challenged the notion that Disability Arts battles against others’ prejudices asking whether the barriers can sometimes be put there by us? Jon is one of a new generation of artists making work that is about or informed by experience of disability, who is challenging how we feel about Disability Arts in a way that may enable us to move forward. The language we use and how we present ourselves is so important.

Is the phrase Disability Arts useful? For all of us there are universal elements to our work – but how important is it to reference the disability bit of it? Disability is a qualification, like a landscape artist or a surrealist artist it provides a reference point. The barriers the term creates is qualified by peoples’ perceptions and prejudices. But the opportunities it opens up for providing a bridge to an Art which is rooted in lived experience – and as such has the potential to create a deep and unique resonance. It is what drew me in to Disability Arts, having always been disillusioned with work which purely comes from an academic place, with historical reference but little or no emotional commitment.

A barrier has always been that Disability Arts communicates to other disabled people, but leaves non-disabled people out in the cold. As Aaron said during the discussion, we have reached stasis at the moment. Disability Arts has to be taken out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, but on its own terms. The challenge for organisations like DAO is in finding collaborations within the bigger picture that we can nurture in a the bid to give the work we are passionate about a wider audience.

This first event had a focus on contributions from visual artists. The performing artists will come next and I suspect will have a very different flavour. One of the greatest strengths and most undermining weaknesses for Disability Arts has been its ambition to cover all the artforms. It allows for more cross-fertilisation working across disciplines, but equally means that the separate needs of visual artists in comparison to performing artists has made the job the sector has to do in trying to embrace everything, that much harder.

There has always been a pressure on Disability Arts organisations to be all things to all people. May be this should be the subject of a future debate? Certainly there is a strong need for a platform for bringing people together to talk openly. This is something that has been very thin on the ground over the last ten years. So bring it on!

Keywords: access issues,disability art,disabled people's movement,social model,visual arts


isolte avila

12 June 2009

Dear DAO , The Disability .Arts Movement is our place, but is questioned still by the mainstream. They dont like it, too challanging, too different etc. etc.. still after 25 years or more! :AHH!!!The Question 'quality' , still , and the 'pursuit of excellence' but and on whose terms? ., and still there are questions of leadership (even after many disabled artists have been leading for over half their lives ), equality access .... everything! Disabled artists having to constantly prove themselves over & over again, to compete with hearing /non-disabled counterparts etc. etc. bow down to what is good & bold in mainstream dance and copy it to a tea/tee/titi/tutu! Maybe we just need to have more gatherings, debates, ourselves, without the questioners , mainstreamers ... Let them sulk! (these topics are stil relevant, they haven't gone away, and in the current political climate, it seems that if we don't hold on to our Disability Arts it will be a huge mess. I think the DA movement represents such a strong, exciting surge of creativity ,with a political and cutting edge . , and yet organizations like LDAF closed!. I'm sitting here on my boat in Amsterdam, getting ready to take airplane back to the UK. THERE IS NO DISABILITY ARTS MOVEMENT in Holland, unless something started today. How about the rest of Europe. Why do we rely on our own National funding only, let's go to Bruxelles! But its so hard, so much work... must keep inspired , . I was 50 years old this week ... and still dancing, thanks to Disability Arts..


tanya raabe

9 June 2009

i didn't know i was so 'fierce'!!!! but hey i do feel passionate about my identity as a disabled artist and not compromising as an artist in my work in the 'mainstream'is hard work....and we are getting ....i am fascinated by the identity of artists whose work explores disability and so i shall carry on painting it! 'a life times work' was suggested by Mr Heaton....wot do u think!

Simon Fulford

10 June 2009

Having been introduced to the Disability Art world 4 years ago when I helped Tony develop some of the planning stages for the National Disability Arts Collection & Archive (NDACA) - along with a fantastic Steering Group - it's good to see that while many orgnisations have been forced to close, the debate still rages on, thanks in part to Shape for rekindling it. Perhaps now more than ever it is time to reignite our desire to create a real collection/archive dedicated to this area. While too much can be made of physical structures and institutions at the expense of pure creative experience (for both audience and practioner) at times you need a very real, concrete (pun very much intended) "anchor" to lay claim to a space (physical and intelectual) that says, "Behold! Enjoy! Learn! ...And we are bloody well NOT going to go away!"

Trish Wheatley

11 June 2009

Where are all the comments? This is such a massive topic and deserves real attention from people otherwise the movement will just disappear.

ruth gould

14 June 2009

We are not alone - though some would like us to feel that way, bringing us out for special occasions - you know what I mean? The work of Disability & Deaf Arts changed my life...believe or not before coming across disabled and deaf artists I was isolated, felt like a burden and someone who others felt sorry for... I am now energised, passionate and determined that others can get their voices heard, their arts on show and their incomes increased....but we need people to show us the way

As a sector, we have faced enormous changes over the last 10 years - these have helped to water down our presence or even our need to exist...they are not clear cut, but the debate we need to have now is about us having a future and identity - really thinking through as a sector in a mature and grown up way...I still find the political in fighting hard to bear when we all have so much crap to endure day in day out...which way do we look - inward or outward..if we are really proud and confident in our work we will not keep it to ourselves...

Some thoughts on why things have brought us to a place were organisations are finding it hard to survive ....are we really being picked off or do we need to be more confident in what we offer and do?

1. the DDA - does this mean people think our work was all about rights & inclusion - we have a piece of legislation that says we should have no problem in 'fitting in', being accepted' and getting an arts training. I wish.... just spent 4 days in London on a Graeae course [fantastic!!], but I was told to leave 6 out of the 7 shops I went into [2 of them being Tesco's] and told I was not allowed to eat in 2 of the 3 restaurants I visited...reason - I have an assistance dog! OK, it is a little thing compared to what others have to deal with on a daily basis, but it still hurts..I did use the DDA and caused a little scene, but the prevailing attitude meant I didn't feel like eating or shopping in the place that just made me feel like a second class citizen......just a small illustration - but one that shows we still have a long way to go....just had to get that one off my chest....

2. The inclusion agenda has meant we have now diluted understanding of disability arts - many of us want to be artists first and foremost..but are the labels we use confusing us...why don't many disabled people feel proud to create work from their unique persepectives? ...surely diversity means we can opt in and out of the different labels as we choose...we are not tidy people - life is complicated and hard...disability & deaf arts can help articulate issues, throw out challenges to all disabled, deaf and non-disabled, hearing at the same is not just about celebrating our 'differences', but making statements, provoking laughter, being in your face etc

We need to strong statements - we need the leaders of the sector to identify themsleves and be proud to be spokes- people on what we have done and what we are going to do.

As a CEO of DaDa- Disability and Deaf arts based in Liverpool...I hope the vision we have will continue to see new work being created, new and emerging artists brought to the front and young people influenced and effected by positive, strong & proud role modles...if we don't do it scares me as to who will?

Jean-Marie Akkerman

15 June 2009

Great article, I am just worried about inside politics that arise everywhere, as well in our world of disabled artists, there are always those who are liked and helped and those who organisations don't recognise, because they don't fit in as well as others... some people get invited to events and talks, others get put on a side! Friends’ politics! when you're not a friend to the bodies that support, you can also get ignored and rejected... never the less those who are strong keep on fighting and trying to work their own way into recognition, and thankfully some organisations are less biased and keep on giving that helping hand! DAO & Colin thank you for your hard work.

isolte avila

21 June 2009

Ruth of NWDAF s says it well :'why don't many disabled people feel proud to create work from their unique persepectives? ...surely diversity means we can opt in and out of the different labels as we choose... we are not tidy people. Life is complicated and hard... disability & deaf arts can help articulate issues, throw out challenges to all disabled, deaf and non-disabled, hearing at the same is not just about celebrating our 'differences', but making statements, provoking laughter, being in your face etc'.....THANKS RUTH , ITS SUPER CLEAR HOW YOU PUT IT .




Jon Pratty

23 June 2009

This is a very timely and interesting piece - We need to take note of these new concerns.

Penny Pepper

24 June 2009

I was there too chewing it all over at Shape HQ, and some it the issues remain the same as they always have. I'm the writer/performer who does different flyers for different contexts, sometimes disability is at the forefront on them, sometimes it is not and another aspect of Me will be. I do always state my access needs clearly and in language I am comfortable with.

As I creep towards the big 50, I am so much less concerned with labels, but even so, know in my being I am a writer, an artist to my core and shaped accordingly by my experience as a disabled person. Colin (who we must never cease to value) is right, access is very different. When I moved to London some 25 years ago it simply wasn't there. Yet I don't see a general inclusive level of access that addresses the needs of all impairment groups. And how to bash down the attitudinal barriers most of all, when opinion appears polarised into DDA supported progress, and the darker forces 'out there' which suggest suicide is actually the answer to impairment. This leaves DA struggling in the confines of a day centre with a row of baskets to weave. And not to a pattern I choose!

On a personal level, the fight to get published goes on. And on. All mentors, tutors, peers colleagues love and value my work. I know I am a good writer. But publishers are not interested. I will not do a 'misery memoir' and my current novel - full of freaks, sex, murder and Avebury stone circle is turned down again and again, as unsaleable due to it's disability theme. This is my reality in DA. I thought about setting up a publishing company - but - who - REALLY - are the target readers in the current climate? Enough. I'm off to make a film and spoken word. Rant over. Let's not stop these debates, but keep on keeping on.