Will we always need disability arts festivals?

| by Jo Verrent

Are disability arts festivals the best way to see work? And what are the pros and cons of identifying as a disabled artist? As the Unlimited Festivals launch, Jo Verrent explores these arguments

Image 1 photo Rachel Cherry for Unlimited Southbank Centre Unlimited Festival 2015

Remix Gold's Touched. Photograph: Rachel Cherry for Unlimited Southbank Centre Unlimited Festival 2014

In September 2016 there are not one, but two Unlimited Festivals in the UK – one run by Southbank Centre in London and one by Tramway in Glasgow, both focusing on extraordinary disability-led arts across all artforms. They feature the Unlimited commissions as well as many other disabled artists and are calendar highlights for UK and international programmers, artists and audiences.

Festivals focusing on disability work have always been a big part of the history of disability arts in the UK – from the cabarets and rallies of the 1980s onwards – and the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) is currently capturing much of the work and spirit of that history.  From the start, both integrated and disability-led work has benefited from being showcased together – and both featured prominently within the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which kickstarted both Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival and the continuing Unlimited commissions programme for UK-based artists.

Now I love a good festival – a chance to see art, take part in debates and discussions, spend social time with artists and others – but I need to confess something. For me, the Unlimited Festivals are not my perfect place to see disabled artists share their skill.

“In an ideal world we would not need disability arts festivals, but the world is far from ideal”

Every commission we make through the Unlimited commissions programme has to tour more widely that just the Unlimited Festivals. All the commissions have to appear at other venues, festivals and events – and most of these are have no connection to disability at all. This has included a massive list of venues and events so far – necessary as the work is so diverse – from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to all areas of England, through Wales, Northern Ireland and internationally. I personally love to see the work at these events, with audiences who often absorb the artistry of the work before they look at who has made it.

Does this mean I think disability-related art festivals shouldn’t happen? Oh no, far from it. And I’m not alone. I asked a couple of colleagues for their opinions.

Actor Mat Fraser thinks we’ll need them “until disability is reflected in one seventh of all media” – so until we are adequately represented, since disabled people worldwide make up a seventh of the population. He goes on to express the importance of sharing our stories and perspectives. “Disability art is art that talks about the experience of disability in a disabled context, and until people agree that disability is just a social construct, disability arts events will be needed. In an ideal world, we would not need them, but the world is far from ideal.”

 “Disability arts is a rich, varied, creative scene driven by people who have a shared experience of being frequently disabled by society”

Image of Jess Thom holding a plate of doughnut. Photograph: James Lyndsay

Jess Thom. Photograph: James Lyndsay

Jess Thom, Touretteshero, explains the political aspects further. “Firstly, I understand disability in the context of the social model.” This model sees disability as a feature of society failing to enable ‘disabled’ people, rather than as a physical problem that needs to be corrected. “Secondly, disability arts is a rich, varied, creative scene driven by people who have a shared experience of being frequently disabled by society. The ideological answer to your question would be – no hopefully we won’t always need disability arts festivals because we will live in a society that does not systematically disable people and where the history and identity of people with impairments is reflected within mainstream culture.”

Thom goes on to talk about the benefits such festivals provide to disabled artists: "[They] have a key role to play in building resilience and resistance amongst disabled people and promoting difference and our shared responsibility for inclusivity amongst non-disabled people and mainstream venues." Liz Carr, actor in BBC’s Silent Witness and creator of Assisted Suicide: The Musical which premieres at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival in September, backs up this perspective: "I don’t know if we’ll always need them but we should always have them.  We need those places and those spaces for ourselves and for our art and our community."

So such festivals are of benefit to the artistic community of disabled artists, and also to others? Vahan Badalyan, Artistic Director of NCA Small Theater in Armenia, feels that they have many benefits. “[They] are unique platforms with great potential to teach all of us to see the world surrounding us differently. They help us move toward an understanding who we are and who are these people and how do they explore the world. If we consider art as a tool which always [focuses] on the work with [the] human being, with the man himself, his integrity, disability art festivals engage us in this process of research and development of ourselves and the different world around us.”

“There’s a great sense of solidarity that can occur when you’re not the only token crip act”

They also provide benefits to venues – and to their audiences. Feedback from the previous Southbank Centre Unlimited Festivals has been extremely positive. It’s just one of many festivals that Southbank Centre runs each year – including Women of the World, Africa Utopia, Being A Man and Festival of Love. Southbank Centre places festivals at the heart of all they do, as part of their heritage (formed as they were from the ideals of the 1951 Festival of Britain), with work spanning a diverse range of subjects and artforms and attracting wide ranging audiences, some loyal to Southbank Centre and others attending purely to see work as part of a specific festival offer.

2016 is the first time Tramway, Glasgow has run an Unlimited Festival, but it includes disabled artists in many of its other festivals as a matter of course. So why bring the work together for a festival? Because the work is some of the best that is out there, across all artforms. Chair of Glasgow Life, Councillor Archie Graham says, “Tramway’s Unlimited Festival is one of this year’s must see events, packed with brilliant new work by internationally acclaimed and emerging disabled artists. With work from leading Glasgow-based choreographers among the highlights of the programme, the best in Scottish arts will be at the fore….”   

Richard Butchins, artist and documentary maker, points out the balancing act that such festivals can evoke – and the benefits: "Disabled people will need to flag themselves as different and at the same time try and avoid ghettoisation. If the ‘ableists’ feel guilty and want to tokenise us by throwing money at us - then so much the better - we can work with that."

“There also need to be opportunities to take the work out to a wider sphere”

Image of Katherine Araniello on stage. Photograph: Dave Morgan

Katherine Araniello. Photograph: Dave Morgan

So a positive in being able to locate specific funding – what about other benefits of labelling the work in this way?

“The pros are the great sense of solidarity that can occur when you’re not the only token crip act at an event” says Garry Robson, Artistic Director, Birds of Paradise Theatre Company. He also lists a number of other plus points. “The fact organisers can plan properly for access needs and act as examples of good practice for other interested promoters. It’s a good way for producers and promoters – and indeed audiences – to see a whole lot of high quality work with the minimum of effort. Artists can learn from one another and new partnerships can be forged. There's room for experimentation, risk and failure. Budgets can allow for more expensive work, better advertising. A discursive programme can readily accompany such events. Jobs, training and mentoring opportunities can be offered through all areas of the creative industries.”

Sounds great – any cons? Robson continues, “[Festivals] can be preaching to the converted and don't necessarily reach new audiences or allow other artists and people from the creative industries to work with D/deaf and disabled artists. Sometimes unity and skill development needs a safe space but there also need to be opportunities to take the work out to a wider sphere. Funders can see disability arts festivals as a way of ticking their diversity box and then not resource other things outside the festivals.”

“I believe my impairment allows me to access a spontaneous creativity I wouldn’t otherwise have”

Tilley Milburn, a lead artist at Heart n Soul, thinks we need to work harder to shift the world to where we want things to be. “We see a VISION where NO ONE NEEDS TO BANG ON ABOUT DISABILITIES, we just get what we need access-wise but NOTHING NEEDS TO BE ESPECIALLY FOR THE DISABLED! We are getting ever closer to this situation but we still have quite a journey ahead to make this a reality… I am not ashamed of having Asperger’s Syndrome, in fact I am usually very open about it but I don't want to be pigeonholed.”

Labelling artists as ‘disabled’ can be complex, as Mat Fraser explains. “Identifying as a disabled artist can threaten people, or make them think you’re shit… At the same time, identifying as disabled can serve as a badge of honour for certain artists – such as Katherine Araniello and The Disabled Avant-Garde movement. For these artists, ‘disabled’ will never be perceived as a negative badge of identification.”

For Jess Thom, describing herself as a disabled artist acknowledges the exclusion and discrimination she faces every day. “This impacts on the ideas I am interested in exploring within my practice. It also acknowledges my impairment which I believe allows me to access a spontaneous creativity I wouldn’t otherwise have and is part of the toolkit with which I make work.” 

"It’s absolutely essential that disability arts festivals continue to happen – frequently, fiercely and led by disabled people"

Tilley Milburn performing on stage in Heart n Soul. Photograph: Tilley Millburn

Tilley Milburn in Heart n Soul. Photograph: Tilley Millburn

I think these festivals, and others like them around the UK and throughout the world, are part of the jigsaw puzzle that needs to be completed before disabled artists can truly work as equals. Many promoters and venue managers, until they see work and understand its aesthetic benefits and the quality threshold it is at, simply won’t consider booking it – for any kind of programme or event, disability-related or not. Dedicated festivals can provide rich opportunities for people looking to both book work and understand more about the artists, the politics and the practicalities surrounding it. But that doesn’t mean the work should only exist in these contexts. The more the work is widely programmed, the wider the audiences that can be reached and the greater the impact that work can have.

A final word from Jess Thom reminding us all that truth, honesty and leadership are all required: “It’s absolutely essential that disability arts festivals continue to happen - frequently, fiercely and led by disabled people. While it’s important that they’re inclusive of non-disabled people, they should reflect disability culture and not a sanitised version of it.”

Jo Verrent is Senior Producer at the Unlimited commissions programme, which opens for applications from UK-based disabled artists on 3 October 2016. As well as undertaking creative projects, she works as a diversity trainer, consultant and project manager in the cultural sector. For more about her, see www.joverrent.com and follow her on Twitter at @joverrent.


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