An invitation to a global arts festival form Jo Verrent, Unlimited’s Senior Producer, is guaranteed to thrill. All the more so during dreary lockdown, with UK festivals and traditional performance spaces mandatorily mothballed. As they await the uncertain return of jostling crowds and packed auditoriums, our cultural sector remains on a COVID cliff-edge.
Magically, Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival 2021 was saved from pandemic cancellation thanks to its super-swift metamorphosis from a ‘traditional’ live event (originally scheduled at Southbank Centre for autumn 2020) to its ingeniously, globally accessible, reincarnation in January 2020.
The culmination of intense creative collaboration between Southbank Centre and Unlimited’s dedicated teams, the fifth – and first-ever fully digitised – Unlimited festival exploded the festival beyond its traditional confines in London. In exponentially expanding its global footprint, the festival became a techno-artistic installation in itself, set to further amplify the voice and vision of disabled artists worldwide.
The aim of the festival, from its inception as a biannual event in 2012, is both strikingly pragmatic and stunningly progressive: to embed work by disabled artists across all art forms within the cultural sector, to reach new audiences and, not least, to challenge perceptions about disabled people.
These ideals had already begun to take root across the global cultural ecosystem, building on Unlimited’s existing partnership with the British Council and its international Allies programme, but as Verrent herself emphasises, ‘there is much more work to be done.’
Ever more inventively, this year’s festival continued to champion the artistic vision of disabled arts practitioners through a vibrant, five-day programme featuring a dazzling kaleidoscope of dance, performance, comedy, film, talks, workshops. All this alongside a comprehensive ‘Industry Programme’ for professionals in the sector, incorporating a lively ‘meet and greet’ opportunity and a live international discussion forum, and a ‘Pitch and Mix’ advisory session for artists exploring Unlimited’s celebrated commissioning programme.
With most events entirely free and a mix of live, participatory, and on-demand viewing options, the festival found itself organically tuned to lockdown times, not least for its thematic potency in confronting such intensely human issues as social isolation, discrimination, and alienation.
Boldly emblazoned across Southbank’s exterior façade – the festival’s unique on-site ‘banner exhibit’ – Susie Larke’s ‘Unseen,’ a street-view gallery of projected fine art photographs, re-opened the now all too familiar conversation around mental health and wellbeing. Gravity-defying portraits, in which Larke sometimes positions herself and her subjects as ‘floating’ in mid-air while ‘frozen’ in movement, captured the sense of social-spatial detachment which Larke acknowledges she has struggled to articulate. She says she prefers to express it visually with others through her project: ‘Well, when I went through a dark place, I couldn’t explain what I was going through.’
Also touching on sensitivities around mental health, Aidan Moesby’s poignant 50-minute performance broadcast, ‘I was naked, smelling of rain,’ explored the impact of the external physical and social weather on our internal psycho-emotional landscape. An arts and health practitioner, Moesby’s explanatory introduction to his show encapsulates his unique poetic vision, in which language serves as gateways to interior landscapes of the mind, as he goes on to interrogate uneasy contemporary realities affecting us all:
‘We are at a critical point of the climate change and mental health crises.
We are the most connected ‘on demand’ generation, yet seem to have lost touch with who we are and where we fit in the world.
We mediate our life through technology and screens.
Are we ever truly where we are and present?’
Definitions of ‘dance’ were pushed and pulled in Sonny Nwachukwu’s cathartic interdisciplinary choreopoem, ‘Circles,’ which explores themes of trauma and healing through the lens of acute personal experience. ‘I wrote ‘Circles’ in response to myself…a strong narrative statement regarding trauma emerged.’
Through the impassioned interplay of African dance movement and spoken word, the characters were transported to an astral reality, catalysing them to interrogate such existential themes as Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Love, and Community. This heartfelt work deserves incorporation in future artistic appraisals of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Similarly pro-active in tone and meticulously recording the often violent struggle of the late 1980s’ disabled activist group RAD, Justin Edgar’s exhibition, ‘Reasonable Adjustment – The Disabled Armed Resistance Movement,’ showcased over 30 artefacts from his personal collection under the chilling by-line: ‘This is RAD. There is a bomb in Euston Underground Station. The code word is Tractor.’ This significant and often shocking archive is set to make an invaluable contribution to the documentary history of modern disability activism and also to conversations around fake news and art. After all, as in the light of nine years of austerity cuts to disabled people, some might say it’s as though RAD never happened at all.
A final personal highlight of the festival was the unusual invitation ‘to take part in the subversive act of lying down in public, and experience an audio-visual installation that articulates something of what it is to live with chronic pain,’ as part of Raquel Meseguer Zafe’s live online project. ‘A Crash Course in Cloudspotting (the subversive act of horizontality)’ is a 24-minute play with words and light which questions the etiquette of public spaces and bravely aims to change perceptions around people with conditions that require them to rest or lie down.
As an ‘ode to invisible disability and to acts of bravery we don’t see,’ this project stands as a metaphor for all that was best in 2021’s Unlimited festival.