At the Table is a digital exhibition of work by 17 disabled artists from North East collective, Disconsortia. It features poetry, visual arts, film, performance and a podcast amongst other things. Review by James Zatka-Haas.
Disconsortia is an arts collective who brand themselves as a group of revolutionary, ingenious, tenacious and resilient artists from the North East. With a focus on raising the profile of artists from the region, their work – or rather this body of work – comes together through different forms; aiming to fight back at the lack of cultural recognition, as well as grappling with the wider experience of being disabled and its place within mainstream culture. Yet more than that, ‘At the table’, their first exhibition – a digital one –exists, perhaps semi-consciously under the reality of COVID as well, and the importance of that can not be downplayed.
The preface to the exhibition opens with ‘At The table’, a poem by Vici Wreford-Sinnott:
Apparently there is a table.
Some people know that they automatically have seats there –
they don’t hesitate to sit down,
taking up their place.
A place of power.
What we are presented with, or what is made clear from the outset, is that ‘At The Table’ is an exhibition of disjunctures; a series of 15 artworks that explore the gulf between being disabled and not being disabled, being powerful and being powerless or, in other words, being present or being excluded from ‘The Table.’ Appearing before the exhibition, Vici’s poem provides the underlying structure; something like an apparatus, or guiding hand for considering the works ahead.
Gobscure’s haunting ‘night gale’, a visual work with an accompanying soundscape, explores the artist’s experiences in a psychiatric unit. The piece begins with field recordings of birds overlaid with mimicking synths, whilst In the background, an unsettling ambient drone laces in and out. Gobscure’s voice floods in with the opening lines of Joni Mitchell’s Fiddle and the Drumm, a song later taken up, rather defiantly, by Iraq war protestors. The 15 minute piece, along with the accompanying visual works, is like a dream collapsing around the edges. Clarity is left behind here, being replaced instead by a murky atmosphere that renders time and place into outlines. The speaker mentions the windows, bookshelves, Jeffrey Archer, Tony Blair and the nurses neglecting care for Hello Magazine – images that capsize into a fugue like state being played out again and again.
A tertiary reading points to the monotony of the institution (‘all we wanted to do was watch trees’), but on closer inspection we find strange and unsettling connections – the link between Joni Mitchel and Tony Blair in Fiddle and Drum, The COVID Reference in Bluebell Wood and the multiple instances of institutional neglect. These all emerge in subtle ways out of repeated listens, and allow the work to take on a sort of misdirection; and It’s for that reason, its ability to talk about personal experiences on the one hand, but also war, COVID and negligence in the same breath, that makes the piece stand out for me.
Likewise, Kev Howard’s Prostheatascape presents us with a dazzling hall of mirrors. A series of photos toy with the utility of prosthetic limbs, occupying a similar territory to Norman Ackroyd’s abstract pieces, as well as early futurist works that took advantage of an optical sleight of hand, to construct worlds out of purely functional objects. Each photo gives weight to its indebted form – the pronounced gears, the bends in the steel, the clock-like mechanism – as to then transcend it. What emerges are environments built from the smoke and mirrors of Howard’s technical knowhow; brutalist architectures and dark carbon interfaces that subvert the legitimacy of function. They are photos that bind the space between access and – dare i say it -– aesthetics, and through doing so achieve something totally unique and enthralling.
Aidan Moesby’s ‘Words from the Margin’ places us on the outside looking in. Projected onto a theatrical red curtain framed by open french doors, we read lines of text that have been, so Aidan tells us, picked up from elsewhere out of context. They include lines from Greta Thurnburg speeches, a statement against ableism and an image of a wheelchair in competition with dogs. By assembling these disparate statements, by making it clear that they are ‘about’ disabled people, Aidan is giving voice, literally opening the doors to a rebuttal from the other side. It’s a subtle hands up to the versatility of language, using phrases like ‘How Dare you’ or ‘We live with the consequences of your (in)action’ or ‘is it really too much to ask?’, for example, that take the widely acknowledged problem of climate change and, through some sort of contextual shift, apply it to disabled people, creating a vital link that otherwise would have been ignored.
I think it’s fair to say Disconsortia don’t have a specific agenda when it comes to what they produce. Their output ranges from the visual arts and film, to literature, poetry and podcast. Other highlights include Sarah Crutwell’s ‘Fuckable’ podcast, a raunchy and honest look into disability and sexuality, Kim McDermottroe’s unsettling creatures in ‘Story of a Sketchbook’, a visual work; and poet Colly Metcalfe’s, 4 senses, a sign poem exploring the ways in which visual language can reach both deaf and hearing audiences.
The specific works are not the focus here, but rather come together as a whole to mark out the territory, giving voice to the collective’s regional aims, as well as highlighting what life under lockdown has been like for disabled people. It’s an approach that pays testament to age old battles, and although the artists are approaching the task from different points, they emerge together as a unified body, proudly bearing a flag that could very well put them on the map at some point in the future.
Full list of works: