How did Luke Pell experience Unlimited? What were his expectations for the commissions and the festival, and what are the next steps in his career after working with Candoco? Nina Muehlemann spoke to him to find out.
What was your role in making Unlimited what it was?
The Southbank Centre invited me to respond to the festival and to facilitate a number of talks and discussions. This happened through Candoco Dance Company, where I was head of learning and research for 6 years. It came about as a result of a longstanding relationship between Candoco and the Southbank Centre.
Jo Verrent and I were both there to contextualize the work. I felt it was really important in those talks to say that this work did not appear over night. Yes, 2012 presented a brilliant frame and moment to see the work, but it was the fruits of years of practice.
What were your expectations and hopes for Unlimited?
One of my hopes was to see some people who are not the usual suspects. There are the well-known companies like Candoco or Graeae, who are used to presenting work on a larger scale, but I was excited to see what else was going to come through. I was also excited by the whole spectrum of the work – that it was not art form specific, and that there was work by people with such different artistic backgrounds and pathways, and different positions on disability.
There were artists who have lived with a disability their whole lives, or who had acquired impairments. There were artists whose practice was positioned strongly within disability politics, and others whose practice didn't have a political affiliation. Other artists there had never presented their work under a disability arts label before. So I was really interested in what that might yield, and how the works might respond to each other.
Did you have any concerns?
The main concern I had was about expectation – For some of the organisations and artists that were given funding it was a huge amount of pressure – all eyes were on the artists, and they were expected to deliver. I think people absolutely delivered, especially considering many explored working in a new way or on a new scale for the first time. Those shifts in practice are a sensitive time for an artist, and I was worried about expectation and the vulnerability of the artists.
The other thing I kept thinking about was what would happen after. There is this level of focus and attention, and then, what next?
I think for some of the artists there are enough people who saw the work, and there will be opportunities. Most of the artists I have spoken to need to recover, and that’s fine, but the question remains: What next? And also, thinking about the younger generation: if you are an artist, or a younger person, who saw that work, and you think ‘ah, great, I want to do that. But where do I go? Where are we addressing that need?
How well did you think Unlimited did in giving a profile to disability arts?
I think the festival at Southbank, in terms of its marketing and PR, was quite explicit about the disability arts identity, with the images they chose, with the branding they chose – they were unapologetic in the branding of disability arts. But I ask myself - can the value of the work of these artists only be understood if it’s big, if it’s on a scale?
It was very interesting how those artists occupied different places in relationship to an idea of ‘mainstream’. A lot of the work could be recognized within a mainstream frame. I wonder, can we only understand quality and innovation if it is mainstreamed? Does disability art have to exist in a ghetto or become mainstream? Or can we have a whole spectrum of different things that are all being seen as artistically valuable?
Were there any surprises?
There were particular pieces of work that really moved me - there was a real honesty in some of the work, there was a real sense of living, and there were some new ways of experiencing and framing in terms of what performance or what work might be. Some work was very complex and multi-dimensional, which I felt was very exciting, and really useful for new audiences, but also very important in relation to the kind of work those artists were doing.
Rachel Gadsden’s work with the Bambanami, for example, needed to have that multidimensional element, so that the audience could really build a relationship with the complexity of that work and could almost become part of that community and the thinking.
What impact do you think Unlimited will have on cultural life in the UK?
I think politically, it is great that Unlimited happened at the same time as the Paralympics, partly because what we saw at Unlimited was very different to the values that are celebrated in the Paralympics. What it did prove is that we can deliver in this country on both; the UK is still one of leading countries in terms of this work and this way of thinking around disability. I think Unlimited has underlined the work that has been done in the past 40 years, and I think everyone involved realised that we are only here because of what has been done before. I think it also aligned well with the fact that the arts council launched a creative case for diversity last year – I think you could see a creative case for diversity across the Unlimited programme. Strategically, those artists are well networked now and have partners and supporters across the UK. There were a lot of young people involved in some of the projects, and I hope that they have been alerted to possibilities to continue developing their own creative voices.
Do you think there will be an impact on cultural life abroad?
Maybe. It would be naïve to think that we can directly extrapolate what was done here and implant it somewhere else. It shows a possibility of what can happen when things start to shift, but they have to shift in relationship to where people are at now in other countries, and that takes time.
What are the things that you/Candoco do to make sure Unlimited has an impact?
For Candoco, it was the first time they worked with disabled choreographers, and they want to continue this. They are also, from what I know, in close conversation with Unlimited and giving feedback about their experience.
I am now working independently, as an artist whose collaborative work with outliers is in response to notions of alterity, periphery, site and context. I have just been awarded international artist research money from the arts council to go to New York and DC in January, and the premise of that is that I am taking my thinking/practice from across the past ten years and this summer to engage with it in an entirely different cultural sensibility, funding climate and histories of otherness.