Section of an old-fashioned metal whisk, with a large green handle on a wheel for controlling the mechanism. A label is attached to the handle of the whisk, vaguely showing writing which appears to give instructions for operation.
Image credit: Zoe Partington

A look back on the Summer 2020 Micro Awards

When the arts seemed to shut down overnight in March 2020, Unlimited tried to think about what might help artists to stay afloat, even for a little while. We tried to think about how we could support them not only to keep their heads above water but also to maintain their creativity and artistic drive in a world saturated with scary news.

Although we would have liked to have had the funds to run an open award scheme for disabled artists, Unlimited was in the fortunate position to at least be able to run a micro award scheme for artists with whom we had a previous or existing connection. Rachel Walker takes us through the thinking behind the scheme and on a whistle-stop tour of some of the projects.

One of the most enjoyable tasks I’ve undertaken over the last few weeks has been to follow up on the recipients of the Unlimited Summer 2020 Micro Awards. After contacting the artists who were awarded, I was thrilled to receive an influx of descriptive replies. It is testament to these artists’ creativity and tenacity that many wrote of how they were able to make the amount of £1,000 go so far.

When consulting with artists at the start of the scheme, they told us that they wanted to be able to use the awards in different ways. Fast forward a few months and, sure enough, the outcomes were varied: some awardees created new work, others reflected on past work, some used the time to explore creative processes which were new to them. It was heartening to see artists developing and extending their practice in a time of such uncertainty. Indeed, some artists created work inspired by the crisis which was dominating the headlines daily.

We started with a pilot scheme, which was well received. Following this, we released three rounds of awards. Below, I’ve attempted to highlight a range of artists awarded, though there were many more that made up the total. Thank you very much to all of the artists who contributed descriptions!

Highlighting a handful of the Summer 2020 Micro Awards

One of the May 2020 award recipients, Byron Vincent, used his micro grant to launch the podcast – ‘Bangers and Mash.’ Byron tells us – ‘The money was spent on podcasting equipment and hosting software. We created eight episodes of the podcast and the shows contained music, editorial, storytelling, poetry, comedy, reviews, interviews, and lockdown news. It was a really great way to connect with people during the initial lockdown and we got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. Those that listened really loved it.’

Byron’s forays into the world of podcasting led to him being commissioned by Community Justice Scotland to produce, present, and edit a podcast series entitled ‘Justice Disrupted,’ exploring issues around social justice. Each episode is an interview with someone who has an interesting perspective on social/criminal justice. The first episode featured Gina Millar (aired on 3 August and now available online) and the team are currently in talks with Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart and former United States of America First Lady and President Michelle and Barack Obama.

Graphic advert for Justice, Disrupted. On a yellow background a cartoon hand, extended from the edge, holds a placard with the title on. On the right is a portrait photo of Byron, a white man with blond hair and a short beard.
Image credit: Byron Vincent.

Nye Russell-Thompson (aka Stammermouth) used his micro grant to continue creative development of his Unlimited R&D project about intrusive thoughts:

‘CHOO CHOO! (Or… Have You Ever Thought About Pushing Someone Off Of A Train Platform? (‘Cos I Have.))’

Nye found the grant useful and says – ‘we did some great stuff under the group work methodology! Especially useful given the inability to work in person at the time.’ He also used the grant to develop his producing skills.

Skills development is a theme which came up frequently when I asked for feedback on these awards. Jason Wilsher-Mills, for example, aimed to create an online ‘artist space’ where viewers could access work in a virtual gallery. He tells me that, ‘Not only did I achieve my goal of creating an online artist space, but I surpassed it, through delivering on the promise to create an artist ‘Air BnB’ for other disabled artists. I worked with Shape to create ‘Unfolding Shrines,’ along with my own space and app ‘Jason and his Argonauts.’

Being awarded a grant, for Anna Berry, meant having time to troubleshoot. Anna wanted to research and test different materials for her installation ‘Where Do You Live?’ This installation features a compressor process which she has been developing over the past few years. She was able to spend time working on this whilst the installation was on show in the MK Gallery, ironing out a few technical issues. Anna’s walk-in kinetic light installation, ‘Breathing Room,’ will be in Wakefield in October 2021.

For Aby Watson, a grant meant time to support a remote piece of practice-research called Index of Embodiment. The result is an illustrative, graphic resource which creatively documents the recurring and foundational aspects of Aby’s neurodivergent embodiment. Aby says – ‘This graphic document acts as a visual piece of creative notation in its own right, but also as a practical tool for me to take into the studio and expand on in my future physical practice.’

Zoe Partington meanwhile used her micro grant to create three experimental audio description sound files for a project that aims to capture the insights of diverse disabled women’s lives through their descriptions of ordinary domestic objects that are important to them. Zoe, in fact, will be running a workshop entitled ‘DisOrdinary Domestic Landscapes’ on this subject at the Barbican Centre on 30 September 2021. This work will inform the development of an installation in Madrid in 2022 that will share these untold stories through creative audio description, using non-visual experimentation through language, stories, sound, and colours.

Rosie Heafford explains that the micro grant ‘allowed an idea to be tested and transformed into something more concrete.’ Rosie worked with two collaborators to experiment with a new medium of audio dance for young audiences, developing short dance stories which they then sent out to families for feedback. From this, ‘Hearing Dances’ was born and the focus shifted to exploring how sighted children might write audio description for their peers. In fact, Rosie goes on to say – ‘we gained a commission from Pavilion Dance South West to develop a digital version of Hearing Dances and have just worked with a group of children to audio describe some dance films.’ Rosie invites you to join a work in progress sharing on 9 October 2021.

Ian Wornast worked with ActionSpace to adapt his artistic practice to the new lockdown situation we all found ourselves in. He says, ‘I was very unhappy when lockdown happened in March 2020. At first I didn’t do much and I was bored. There was nothing to do and I missed my friends and studio colleagues at ActionSpace. The Unlimited grant meant that I could set up a workspace at home and buy art materials. I had weekly 1:1 sessions with my Artist Facilitator Lisa Brown on WhatsApp and she organised group WhatsApps with some of the other artists in my studio group. Making artwork at home kept me busy and gave me something to concentrate on. ActionSpace put all of the drawings I did at home on their website as an exhibition called ‘From my Window.’ This made me proud that I had achieved so much while everyone was stuck at home and could not go out.’

Felt-pen illustration framed by a green border. The drawing shows bold lines and colours and makes use of London Underground imagery and iconography.
‘From My Window’ by Ian Wornast.

Paul Darke chose to highlight the 1981 United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons Postage stamps. He used the grant to create a free downloadable, E-Book for potential expansion and print of the stamps. Paul informs me that ‘the E-book will be published on 3 December, complete with five essays.’ He described receiving the micro grant as ‘a real boon.’

Composer, performer, researcher, and community music therapist, Sonia Allori, was awarded a micro grant for paid development time and to purchase music software. Sonia says – ‘I started to explore using a haptic metronome app on my Apple Watch as a way of experiencing time during rehearsal and performance. I explored some ideas for possible new works involving live voice, live captioning and auto captioning.

As a direct work of this development time, I’m currently working on a new commission for Disability Arts Online called ‘Adventures in Captioning’ which involves myself (using a haptic metronome and loops on Ableton software), a live captioner, and auto captioning software as performers.’

Mandy Redvers-Rowe, meanwhile, used her grant to develop her play ‘Shielded,’ which was shown in April 2021. When asked whether the award was useful, Mandy explained – ‘The Unlimited Micro Award really helped me. Firstly it validated my idea, made me realise that the project was worth developing. It also gave me the funds to pay contributors, get my first draft written. Whilst doing this I became more convinced that the play was important, and that I wanted to develop it further. I therefore put a R&D funding application together for the Arts Council and was successful.’

The final artist I will feature here is Maddie Smith. Maddie shared with me one of the poems that she wrote off the back of receiving this grant:

I Have Weathered The Storm

I am 29 years of age,

And my drink was spiked at University.

I spent a Spring Time on the K wards and a

Summer under care of the Crisis Team and I have been

Kissed by the lips of betrayal,

Kicked by my lovers,

Dragged around by the strands of my hair. I

Built two businesses by the

Wounds of my illness,

Illustrated poetry through sequins and puppetry,

Danced the Fandango in Blackburn town centre,

Danced Tai Chi on New Year’s Eve and I will

Grind down the chimes of

Cohesive control into

Fine gold leaf,

Gold dust,

Wild flower petals,

Pearls of wisdom,

Seashells on the shore, For

I have weathered the storm.

I have jewels made of broken moonstone earrings,

Silver, white gold, diamonds, and

Charms that dangle from my wrist and they will keep me

Sane and safe. I wear jewels made of

Magic and memories, and

I have weathered the storm.

I am strong and I will stand

Alone and on my own two feet –

Not in. drunken high heels, but

Sturdy well worn boots that I

Tramp through the

Fields in my home town wearing. I still

Live here for my

Sins and

I have weathered the storm.