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 third session was held with a group of established artists, immersed to greater or lesser degrees within the disability arts sector but with varying caveats in relationship to it.
The session on 27 November 2017 was led by Allan Sutherland and Colin Hambrook. Participants were live artist Aaron Williamson, digital artist Jon Adams, film-maker Richard Butchins, live artist Katherine Araniello, composer/ writer Ailís Ní Ríain, and artist/ writer Charlie Devus.
We had expected this group of established artists to be the most questioning of disability arts, and they lived up to expectation. What was interesting, however, was that on the whole they did not so much express hostility towards the idea of disability arts as manifest a desire to preserve their own individual creative voice.
The question ‘Do you call yourself a disabled person?’ received quite nuanced responses. Most of the group felt that the label was something they might or might not use, according to context. Katherine pointed out that she didn’t have much choice: “Society sees me as a disabled person”, but felt that being “surrounded by a stereotypical representation of disability” gave her a lot of artistic material to work with.
None of the group called themself ‘a disability artist’, though they all made work that drew upon their experience of disability. Katherine found the term a bit awkward. “If I used it, it would be to create satire around that label”.
Richard said that he had been shocked to find that he was featured as an Outsider Artist. Aaron pointed out that ‘disabled artist’ and ‘disability artist’ are two different things. Charlie commented that Outsider Art is “almost entirely a marketing term”.
Asked about their experience of disability, the group talked significantly about barriers to their artistic careers. These included difficulty accessing appropriate education, discrimination within particular fields of the arts and low expectations of their abilities or life chances. Several had encountered straight denial that they had an impairment at all. (This was a major barrier, because it was used as a justification for denying essential support.)
Katherine summed up her experience of disability as, “discrimination, prejudices, zero expectation, and dangerous medical advice”.
Jon talked about how he did not accept his neuro-divergence as disability. He had severe mental health issues caused by abuse resulting from discrimination. “Growing up in a world where you’re different and your contribution is not accepted, is hell.”
Aaron spoke of becoming disabled (which he saw as a positive process, distinct from his impairment) through discovering how to make art in the realm of disability. He spoke of his work with Katherine and discovering that they shared “the same sarcastic/satirical sense of humour from entirely different biographical experiences.”
In response to the question ‘Does your art work use your experience of disability or reflect your impairment in any way?’, Katherine talked about how it provided inspiration. “I think that pretty much everything around disability is absurd. That’s my motivation to make work.” She added that, if disability is apparent, the works tends to receive an infantilised critique.
Ailís talked about the difficulty of working within contemporary classical music, an area “bursting at the seams with over-educated white people, who aren’t tolerant of a narrative.” She also raised the issue of whether she had a right to make work about an impairment (profound deafness) which is not her experience. Jon said his neuro-divergent characteristics had brought him important commissions.
Aaron said that access is about social inclusion. “I don’t want to be an outsider, I want to be an insider, I want to be right in the middle.”
The group addressed the question of what barriers they had faced as artists because of disability.
Jon talked about attitudes, expectations, lack of opportunities, determination not to recognise neuro-diversity. The biggest barriers are mental health issues caused by people not realising what he needs. Aaron described a generalised experience of barriers.
Charlie said that his difficulties in dealing with people have always been a barrier in making art. Richard said that the culture around applying for Arts Council grants was impenetrable. These were social barriers rather than intellectual.
Katherine described how she deliberately works with DIY aesthetics. “We all face challenges; it is up to the individual to use that in the work.” Ailís described the difficulties of being a deaf person attending a residency for improvising musicians, and the difficulty of sorting things out, given that “musicians aren’t talkers”. Jon picked up on how you can work with people, but when you start unpacking you see another narrative underneath; their prejudice can spoil projects. This is especially a danger for neuro-divergent people.
Asked whether they were part of the disability arts community, the members of the group expressed feelings of being on the edge of that community, mainly through personal choice and a concern that their individual creativity might be stifled by too strong a group involvement. But they were not hostile to the idea of disability arts, and felt that other people had the right to make their own choices. This was perhaps most strongly expressed by Jon, an artist who works substantially in the mainstream. “I would support the inalienable right of people to choose to define as disabled if they want. Disability arts should exist.”
Members of the group were also aware of receiving funding and support from the disability arts sector. While grateful to the disability arts community, they did not necessarily really feel part of it.
The group also disliked internal squabbling within that community, which Richard described as being “like a dysfunctional family sitting around the Christmas table”. Jon described particular tension between invisible and visible disabilities.
Katherine expressed concern about potentially being ghettoised, and said that “going to take my BA and my MA wasn’t about detaching myself from the disability arts community, it was just about finding the way to make work that could engage a wider field.”
Ailís felt being that embedded in any community could stifle artistic interest.
Aaron felt that ideas of aesthetic excellence could be disabling to people with impairments, and described how the Disabled Avant-Garde embrace a ‘bad’ aesthetic.
Jon made an impassioned argument for being able to self-define as neuro-divergent, which he said should be a separate diversity category, not a sub-division of disability but a peer level alongside LGBTQ and disability. “Neuro-divergence is an innate way of being.”
Aaron made the point that, working as the Disabled Avant-Garde, he and Katherine tend not to get a lot of support from the disability arts community, but get a lot of support from the mainstream.
The final question, ‘What do you feel have been the achievements of disability arts?’ rapidly turned into a discussion of Unlimited, with some confusion between the funding programme and the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre.
The group had a number of criticisms. They felt there was a tendency towards ‘inspiration porn’. Aaron criticised the Festival for providing “a good day out” rather than good art. Katherine said she felt that Unlimited was very corporate, and pointed out that the assumption that work will be toured creates a model that discriminates against some artists. Ailís felt that a lot of the pieces at the Unlimited Festival had a freak-show element, because it’s palatable to a wider audience.
Jon suggested that “as artists, we should be stirring and changing things. We need subversion in there.” Aaron said that he does come across “some really great work” outside the official culture of Unlimited. Ailís expressed a desire to see the work of younger artists being showcased.
Richard put in a word in support of Unlimited, saying they do fund some difficult work. Having been on one of their selection panels, he was pleasantly surprised by how rigorous their process was.
Aaron reported that there is a generation coming through who have been brought through art schools in the UK and learnt critical complexity to innovate forms of art. They want to find opportunities in the disability art world, but there are barriers to them getting in. “I want to see more innovative disability art. I believe there are people who want to do it, but will the platform be there to support them?”