As part of a series documenting the development of artist-led initiative Disconsortia, based in the North-east and supported by Disability Arts Online through Electric Bodies, award-winning internationally exhibiting artist Simon McKeown shares his thoughts on lockdown and the support of the collective in developing artwork responding to the crisis.
Isolation is difficult for many people. COVID has enforced a separateness which is not natural. As a disabled person, I am practised at being isolated to some extent. As a young child, I’d break an arm or a leg, and I’d be off school for weeks or months. In a sense that helped make me focussed and artistic, but I still missed people. That doesn’t mean I have relished the lockdown. It’s been super stressful and having to shield added to it.
I’ve tried to be thoughtful about how to respond to COVID. Early on I wanted to do something, but I couldn’t focus. Making sure we had food and were safe as a family as we entered the unknown COVID territory dominated my thoughts. Secondly, I very quickly had to adapt to working fully at home with a loss of childcare.
Keeping up my employment at MIMA School of Art and Design at Teesside University was very important to me, working with colleagues through the complex transition to operating fully online. I work with an amazing team, and we concluded this academic year teaching a summer school in contemporary art, which was great fun and included students from as far away as Russia. We ran it thematically rather than through art historical approach and included topics such as wallpaper and sport, which was challenging and fun and worked very well.
All the while, the threat from COVID remained very real. I received very kind phone calls from my council and from national helplines as a result of being asked to shield by my GP. It was deeply humbling when friends, neighbours and volunteers assisted, and I think that demonstrates the strength of the community we have in my area and the UK as a whole. When we succeeded in getting food deliveries, it was likewise a privilege to hear the personal and challenging stories of the drivers, some of whom were pilots.
Against this backdrop, we are faced with the dynamic of death, with thousands of people dying, I would argue, unnecessarily. The statistics were and remain frightening. The use of the words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘existing pre-conditions’ became acceptable in the press as COVID ravaged care homes and as key workers died through lack of protective equipment. I wondered when the alarm bells would ring and when those in the medical and political world who understood the catastrophe of 65,000 excess deaths [last updated by the Office of National Statistics on 7 August 2020] would react: (as reported in the Medical Express) The presenter, Piers Morgan, seemed to be one of the few mainstream figures able to be angry at this preventable loss.
As part of my university work, I developed material to inform national research bodies on how COVID was affecting equality, diversity and inclusion, but I still didn’t have an artistic response. That came much later and through my involvement with Disconsortia. Vici, who leads this collective, constantly surprised me. When the Arts Council of England (ACE) developed their emergency responses to COVID, Vici was able to mobilise Disconsortia to react. In turn, ACE developed a more nuanced response concerning disability. That was important, and it showed that at a time when we are physically isolated, we could be socially cohesive and effective. Disconsortia meetings are some of the most accessible online meetings I have taken part in and include BSL signing, subtitles and careful order.
It was Vici who helped frame my new work. As an established artist, I find it very useful to respond to calls. The pleasant pressure exerted by Vici finally focussed my artistic response to COVID and this work, supported by Disconsortia, will be revealed later this year. The work, entitled 65,000 Characters, is a conceptual installation which reflects on the experience of lockdown, shielding and the pandemic through the medium of a food box, supported by audio and projection.
I believe being part of a collective is critical. Support and discussion can be developed at a deep level quickly, which in turn can lead to success for all parties. Disconsortia connects me to disabled artists (some of the Disconsortia artists featured in my exhibition Motion Disabled) and the day to day issues of creative practice as seen through the lens of the disabled artist. I hope I provide some support in return. Meeting and often working with Vici is a privilege. Additionally, we connect on an academic level as I am supervising her PhD. Disconsortia is exciting. Watch this space.