Electric Bodies: disabled peoples’ lives matter

Photograph of man holding some paperElectric Bodies examines the origins and development of the Disability Arts community, the tensions that have arisen within it and its prospects for the future.

That community was originally formed, by disabled artists and disabled people who wished to pursue careers in the arts, in response to exclusion and discrimination. They came together around a set of ideas such as: the experience of disability makes a valid subject for serious art;

the experiences of disabled people matter; the work of disabled artists does not have to be validated by non-disabled people; the most important audience for disabled artists is other disabled people; all events should be fully accessible to all disabled people; disabled bodies are interesting and distinctive, not ugly and repellent; a common experience of disability matters more than differences in physical impairment.

Those are strong ideas. They have inspired artists as varied as Kaite O’Reilly,  Tony HeatonMat Fraser, the Disabled Avant-Garde, Adam Reynolds, Tanya Raabe, Penny Pepper , Liz Carr and Colin Hambrook, to name just a small selection. They have driven such groups as Graeae Theatre Company, Vital Xposure, Heart ‘n SoulSigndance Collective International and Mind the Gap. They have produced events ranging from Liverpool’s DaDaFest  to the opening ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics.

And yet some disabled artists, especially younger disabled artists reject or have problems with this tradition. They insist that they do not want to be disability artists. I am not talking here about artists who have an impairment but simply want to make another sort of work, which is in to my mind a perfectly valid decision. I’m thinking for example of Turner Prize Winner Yinka Shonibare, a leading artist with a significant physical disability who has for most of his career been more interested in exploring his black identity.

But there are younger artists who, based on their work, one would expect to see as part of the development of disability arts, its emerging future, who insist that they want nothing to do with disability arts. I don’t know what’s going on there. But I hope that by the end of this project I will.

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