By Allan Sutherland
As part of ‘Electric Bodies’ we ran a series of three workshops discussing attitudes to disability arts and the disability arts community among disabled artists from a variety of backgrounds. The second session was held with a group of disabled artists with a history of engagement with disability arts practice.
The session was led by Allan Sutherland and Colin Hambrook. Participants were writer and visual artist Deborah Caulfield, visual artist, curator and arts administrator Michelle Baharier, writer and performer Rowan James, producer Lou Rogers and writer and stand-up comedian Stephen Portlock.
Most of the group felt that they were disabled people, though with some caveats. Deborah stated that she did so ‘in some circumstances’. It was ‘the thing that fits best’, but she didn’t always want to make anything of being a disabled person. She described the importance of the social model for her. Previously, she was pretending, trying to be normal, with a foot in both the disabled and non-disabled worlds. She also described being undermined by people who say ‘You’re not disabled’. She commented, ‘I’ve had that from both sides’.
Colin described how in about 1998 he read Allan’s book ‘Disabled We Stand’, and realised that he had been facing barriers all his life. But he had internalised them, was unable to express them except through art.
Michelle said that at the age of 9 she had been given the label of dyslexia and had to develop coping devices in school. Like others of our interviewees, she found punk very liberating. ‘It was really useful; everyone was like a misfit. It didn’t matter about the level of your diversity. Everyone could fit in to that jigsaw puzzle of being different.’
Rowan stated that he ‘probably wouldn’t express it in an ownership way’, but ‘I experience disability discrimination on a regular basis’.
Lou stated that, though she came from a family where disability had a large presence, including the fact that her father was physically disabled, she had never called herself disabled. But she then added, ‘I don’t know what normal is’.
Stephen felt that he was a disabled person, for reasons of visual impairment and OCD.
The question ‘Do you call yourself a disability artist?’ elicited relatively complex responses.
Deborah stated that she had identified as a disabled person before identifying as an artist. She found it harder to think of herself as an artist than as a disabled person, and could feel a bit of a fraud doing so as a result. In the ‘90s she had been involved in disability politics, but not arts. She felt a bit of a split between politics and art, couldn’t quite bring them together.
Deborah also made the criticism that had been made in the first workshop, that a lot of disability arts was increasingly impairment-based. This was counter to her background, which was about identifying barriers to inclusion. She summed up her overall position with a wry, ‘When it suits me, I am’.
Michelle said that she identified as a disabled person. She doesn’t set out to make work about disability, but it’s who she is. Her photography, for example, is part of the way she avoids renumerating thoughts. ‘People don’t understand diversity or range, and I think that makes the whole disability art world very courageous, because it explores that diversity.’
Rowan stated that it’s important not to lose sight of what art is, ‘a way of distorting information to try and tell the truth’. His work has always dealt with equality. His early work was more around disability than his work now. ‘I use disability in art to try and tell a greater truth about society’. He described his work as contributing to a political and artistic conversation about disability.
‘It’s my job as a disabled artist to not make it easier for people to understand., so they have to have these long-winded conversations. ‘”What’s your disability?” I see it as a political discourse not to go down that road.’ ‘I find it a lot easier to identify as a punk than I do as a disabled person.’
Lou said that she struggles with both terms. ‘Artist’ made her feel like a fraud. With funders, she’d noticed that as soon as you mention disability, or say you use disabled performers, ‘You see something change in their eyes. That’s when you want to punch them in the face.’
Stephen said that he was better at starting things than finishing. He used to think that if a disabled artist wasn’t reaching out to the mainstream, they had failed. After a conversation with a disabled artist (possibly Mat Fraser), he had decided that there’s a place for reaching out to the community. Stephen also stated that too often people feel more comfortable when disability is tackled by an able-bodied person. Casting issues were one aspect of this. He would rather not define as a disability artist, but if it was a necessary way in would do so.
The group were then asked if their art work uses their experience of disability or reflects their impairment in any way.
Rowan stated that when you experience disability discrimination it’s from people whose thinking is quite rigid. His work has always been rooted in social commentary and equality. ‘My art, my work deals with those issues…how we attach value to people. I consciously use disability to try and look at society, and disability is one vehicle for doing that. My poetry comes out of a way of communicating intelligence and communicating an unfair world that I was navigating. It’s steeped in disability experiences.’
Lou said that collaborating was really difficult. Dance is quite forward. TV is years behind. She also pointed out that ‘diverse work is a lot more interesting’.
Stephen spoke of some of the difficulties of doing stand-up: ‘I’d be offended if a sighted person did the routine I did.’
Deborah stated that, ‘impairment art is easy, but not that interesting. It just annoys me, to be honest.’
Michelle stated that her work sometimes reflects the experience of disability . She cited the example of the Largactyl Shuffle, a series of ‘art walks’, which were informed by people in her life including someone who had been prescribed the neuroleptic drug Largactyl. The underlying point was to highlight that when you meet someone with a mental health issue, ‘you are meeting a drug as much as you are a person’. Michelle described putting her work on show at the Maudsley Hospital and having it criticised with the words ‘That’s not very Outsider Art’. She was shocked being told in a hospital setting what her art should be.
Rowan gave the example of his poem ‘Spazz’, and commented that it is not about disability, it’s about the context of how you use words and language, and different relationships with different friendships.
At the start of the afternoon session, the group were asked what barriers they had faced as artists because of disability, what they did about it and whether adequate support was available to them.
Lou said that there were endless barriers to making work. There was difficulty getting funding, difficulty making the work, it was hard to book tours, and there was a problem getting over people’s stereotypes.
Stephen said that networking and research were both harder for a blind person. Getting to the right people was more difficult, which is why there is a need for disability arts as a context.
Deborah stated that ‘the biggest barrier I face is me’, but also described her anger at people who tell her ‘lack of confidence isn’t a barrier’. This is a very medical model approach; her lack of confidence is the result of things that have happened to her. Lou agreed with this. Rowan stated that, ‘it takes a lot to get to the point where you’re taking matters into your own hands. Deborah’s absolutely right.’
There then followed a discussion about Access To Work. Lou said that they don’t understand the wider context. Deborah said that she had had repeated battles with Access to Work to get what she wanted. Rowan felt that you have to learn to separate off your identity and see it as a game. Deborah described how she needed voice recognition software, but Access to Work demanded that she write a business plan. Lou described them demanding to speak directly to a person with a learning disability rather than deal with her as the person’s representative.
Michelle said that she would love to have a studio. She described how she had once had work removed from an exhibition organised by the Big Issue for being ‘too political’, but had then received Arts Council funding to take her work abroad to an exhibition of censored art. She said that she had raised millions for CoolTan Arts, but part of her ability to write funding bids came from speech software. ‘Computers have opened up the world for me.’
Rowan played devil’s advocate to defend the Arts Council. He said that if you want money, you should be able to make the case that your work’s worth it. He talked further about his own barriers, saying that, ‘These things have disabled me. It’s really hard to run other jobs concurrently and do my art. It’s hard finding a way of touring work, finding where your work fits. If you get money responding to commissions, you may be making a piece of work that’s not commercially viable.’
The group were asked whether they felt that they were part of the disability arts community. Stephen expressed feelings of being an entrant rather than an old hand. ‘I hope I will be, but not yet if I’m honest.’ Deborah stated that, ‘I belong there. I just don’t think I am there. I feel a bit of an observer. It reminds me of being hospitalised and seeing the world over there.’ She also made the intriguing comment that, ‘It seems like DAO was part of it, now it’s about it’.
Michelle said that she had quite a different story. She got involved with Disability Arts quite early on, in the 1980s, at The Diorama, then went on to run CoolTan, and began interacting with other Disability Arts organisations.’ She described being ‘really pissed off’ by the Women of the World festival at the Southbank, which had two male speakers from Disabled People’s Organisations. ‘It is really hard for disability arts to go into the mainstream, because then they get blocked by all the other prejudices.’
There was then a discussion about the economics of audio-description and sign language interpretation. Lou made the point that you can’t get access provision funded. Rowan described working at a college which had lots of facilities, but surrounded by red tape so they didn’t get used. ‘People were being lazy, and using those health and safety measures as a reason to say no.’
Rowan said that ‘I straddle scenes and communities. I feel part of lots of communities as the art community’s pretty mixed.’
Lou answered the question with a mixed response. She and Colin have been working hard to bring in people who don’t feel part of the community. She described a ‘great day’ at the Brighton Fringe a few years ago where they suddenly had a load of new young disabled artists. Those, she said, are the people who need the support. She said that it is difficult for people to break in. It’s harder when you’re a disabled artist, especially when so much of the provision is for under-25 year olds. For a disabled artist, it often takes much longer to get anywhere by their mid-20s.
The group were then asked ‘What do you feel have been the achievements of disability arts?’ but did not find this a particularly stimulating question. One comment spoke of ‘managing to hang on in there’ and raised the question ‘Can some more be carved out?’.
The group were asked from what communities they drew peer support. Michelle felt that it was not about communities, but ‘personal friendships, much wider spheres, other user-led organisations, people I’ve worked with in the mental health world’.