As part of ‘Electric Bodies’ we have been running a series of three workshops discussing attitudes to disability arts and the disability arts community among disabled artists from a variety of backgrounds. This first session was held with a group of people who could be seen as established disability artists.
The session was led by Allan Sutherland and Colin Hambrook. Participants were writer and musician Robin Surgeoner, visual artist Simon McKeown, playwright, theatre director and performer Julie McNamara, visual artist and writer Dolly Sen, theatre director and former CEO of arcadea Vici Wreford-Sinnot.
This group all self-defined as disabled people, and placed that within the Social Model. They were united in seeing this as a political issue. Comments included ‘Madness isn’t a disability, but I’m disabled by society’, ‘It’s a political decision and a cultural identity’, ‘For me it’s a political noun; I was living the social model before I’d ever heard the term’.
The group were somewhat more reluctant to self-define as disability artists, partly because they found the term unfamiliar. Generally, they wished to give a slightly more nuanced answer, such as ‘I’m a disabled artist who works in Disability Arts. There’s a distinction.’ They emphasised that Disability Arts is a cultural movement. Several of the group wished to emphasise their identity as mental health system survivors, with comments including Dolly’s ‘I’m a mad artist or survivor artist. Artist first, then disability second.’
Some group members felt that identity was thrust upon them by the visibility of their impairment. Thus Robin stated, ‘I’m a punk, guitar player and singer. None of these are affected by my wheelchair. Am I a disability artist is a much harder question’ but added ‘I can’t go anywhere without presenting as a disability artist’. Simon emphasised the right of disabled artists to make work that is not about disability, so that ‘disability artist’ is not a full-time identity.
The group’s attitude to Disability Arts was an approving one , summed up by Simon’s statement that ‘This is a serious undertaking by serious people’. There was general disapproval of a perceived tendency among younger artists that was ‘very medical model’.
The group were then asked whether their work reflects their experience of disability or reflects their impairment. There was general rejection of the second suggestion. Again, several people mentioned the social model. Vici described how some of her work deals specifically with mental health stigma ‘but social model’, and of employing disabled actors. Simon described working with groups and taking them through ‘the social model journey’.
There then followed a discussion of empowerment and ‘inspiration porn’. Dolly stated that, through her work, some people learn that ‘they don’t have to hate themselves’. Vici described the tragic narrative of disability: ‘They cry at us, then don’t have to think again.’ Robin, a gold-medal winning Paralympic swimmer, drew a parallel with how people in the sports world don’t want to hear his voice. Julie Mc stated that she didn’t agree with some of the debate. Theatre is about reflecting society. Each piece of work should try to change people.
Julie Mc described her work on ‘Pullen’s Giant’. Vici talked about ‘bringing history’ to what she presents to audiences.
Simon drew attention to representations of disability by non-disabled artists, such as Marc Quinn’s marble sculptures or Damien Hurst’s giant version of a Spastics Society collecting box and asked ‘what story do they bring?’. Julie Mc stated that the best aspect of the latter work was when Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson made a piece of performance work in response to it.
When asked the question, ‘What barriers have you faced as an artist because of your disability?’, the group largely described more generalised barriers they had encountered in life. Robin commented that ‘physical access is often a nightmare’. Simon felt that there were ‘systematic barriers from the top down’. He had done a PhD in order to be able to be heard. He felt that it is possible to change organisatins, but only if they’re willing.
Julie Mc described an occasion where she had applied for a job, been told that she had been successful, and then been turned down on the basis of a medical based solely on their notes about her.
Dolly described how, when she was doing a project with Tate Modern, they had demanded that she be accompanied by a nurse. (Her artistic response to this demand got her banned from the building.)
Julie Mc felt that she had sometimes not been taken seriously as a disabled person. The National Theatre had told her that she was ‘not disabled enough’ or ‘not properly disabled’. Dolly responded that she gets that as well: ‘You’re just mad, not obviously disabled’. Colin commented that, ironically, she was being disabled by that response.
The discussion moved on to the subject of identity. Disability is always seen as an identity. If seen as cultural representation, it becomes something else.
Vici stated that this was a massive question, which underlies everything. She could not be an artist without being an activist. The biggest barrier is attitudes and assumptions, which are systemic.
Asked whether they felt part of the Disability Arts community, and what they had gained from that the group responded overwhelmingly positively. Julie Mc described it as a ‘trusted tribe’, and listed such items as support, colleagues who get it, ‘people I can rely on’, solidarity, understanding the social model. She stated ‘I trust the experience here in this room. And beyond. It’s a big tribe!’
Dolly agreed. ‘You’ve got a whole bunch of people behind you’.
Robin agreed about the solidarity and said that he could remember when he decided, ‘I’m an artist. I’m a disabled artist.’
But Robin also described his experience with his album ‘Lend Us Your Ears’, where he found that disability arts organisations would not help publicise it. He felt that there was jealousy between organisations.
There was general agreement that there had been a reduction in infrastructure from ten years ago. Funders do not take Disability Arts as seriously as they should. Julie Mc drew attention to the former DAM Network (Disabled Artists as Managers). She said they had all been picked off as organisations had had their funding withdrawn.Julie Mc felt that people inside the movement had become passive recipients, with a learned helplessness, waiting for permission. ‘We relied too heavily on the Arts Council.’
Vici stated that ‘ I am part of the Disability Arts Movement. I haven’t always felt part.’
The group was asked what they felt had been the achievements of Disability Arts.
Simon stated that ‘We have developed a culture, a confidence in a band of people who didn’t exist before. That culture can continue to challenge our situation in society.’
Julie Mc talked about changing people’s attitudes, and said that she thought “‘Postal Strike” was brilliant’. (‘Postal Strike’ was LDAF’s postcards project, created by Allan Sutherland.) Robin described the first publication of his spoken word in DAIL magazine. Allan made the point that we as a movement have kept a record of what we have done.
Robin talked about the development of skills: ‘we had to hone what we do’. He said that Disability Arts empowered a movement, and described a time when he stopped a bus during a demonstration. ‘Being an artist gives you the confidence to do things like that.’
Vici stated that ‘we’ve made disabled people visible, vibrant, dynamic, colourful. We’re not there yet, but there are opportunities because of the people who’ve gone before. Julie Mc added that almost every theatre in the country has heard the term ’Access Aesthetic’.
Colin made the point that there is ‘a massive sense of community’, but that Disability Arts suffers from being seen as community arts. Julie Mc asked which communities are included? And pointed out a need to make opportunities for minority ethnic artists. ‘We need to confront out own racism,’
Robin talked about breaking into disablist communities. ‘We have to be resolute. You’ve got to have this iron attitude.’ Vici talked of the need for our leaders to change their policies and for funders to change. Simon described the ‘Ignite’ project – hugely successful, then closed down.
Vici asked ‘where is accountability?’.
The workshop finished with some discussion of peer support and professional development. Simon said it was important to mentor up-and-coming artists. Colin described the survivors’ movement in the ‘90s, and stated that the Disability Arts movement ‘was always a bit more fractious’. Allan suggested that this was partly because of reliance on Arts Council funding.
Robin said that the identity among survivors was what gave that movement strength. Disabled people don’t have the same homogeneity of experience. Julie said that it was more than identity politics. There is ‘a shared crafting of our art’.
Colin recalled Dolly’s statement that ‘we live in a mad world’. It’s about a shared experience.