Three tiny models of wheelchairs placed amongst branches.

IntegrART 2019: ‘Being alive is a form of resistance’

Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, travelled to Zurich, Switzerland in May to attend IntegrART, a European conference on disability and the arts, with the theme of Different Perspectives, co-directed by Nina Mühlemann and Tanja Erhart. What were her highlights?

A two day conference often feels like a week or a month. The different speakers, provocations, artists, attendees, and then further connections as you link to a new place, a new country.

The range of perspectives shared at Gessnerallee was indeed diverse – featuring artists, funders, academics and many whose practice stretches across these divides, all coming from a wide range of experience and backgrounds. It was great to see Unlimited alumni Claire Cunningham and Jo Bannon presenting their perspectives, amongst others including Marc Brew, Kate Marsh, Amelia Cavallo, Edwin Ramirez and more. In the audience too there was diversity, including two artists we had supported to attend, thanks to finance from British Council – Kai Syng Tan and Rachel Bagshaw.

The event balanced presentations, performances and discussion groups as well as the chance to eat and socialise together with the other attendees, sharing thoughts, opinions and contacts. The theme of different perspectives was constant, but not just in the moment, also considered over time. How do our own perspectives change as we develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a topic or the sector, as we see work and meet people that challenge our views and make us think differently, as we commit and recommit to taking action and making change happen? Quality was also discussed – again, not as a static judgement, but as a process, as a result of commitment, attention and time.

‘Access isn’t a product, it’s a process’

This quote came from a panel discussion dissecting access in relation to Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis’s performance The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, an Unlimited commission from 2015 which is still touring and which was presented at the end of the first day at Tanzhaus.

The conversation moved quickly away from the tick box narrative of access and into discussions of reality and privilege. Can we achieve access for everyone? Can we at least be clear about who we are aiming to provide access for? The event ended with a great example of this with Amelia’s burlesque performance, with embedded audio description which also served to further involve the audience as active participants in its creation.

The need for access riders to become as common as tech riders was discussed, allowing for both practical and social support, and the emergence of new access requirements such as remote access was discussed.

‘How do theory and lived experience inform each other?’

Another session I particularly enjoyed was contrasting the social model with both practical and emotional situations, where a formal single angle approach might work less well. As a dancer Tanja Erhart commented that she often has to assess from her body outwards rather than just identifying external barriers to remove. The very specificity of her unique body gives her valuable information about what she needs to do to function, create and perform at her best, and when married to the social model approach, this can truly release her potential.

Academic and activist Colette Conroy gave us both a history lesson and some extremely pertinent analysis of the social model – which we are hopeful we can soon bring to our series of blogs looking at different perspectives on models of disability.

‘why aren’t rare diseases protected on the plea of biodiversity like rainforests?’

My favourite thing about travelling to new places is meeting artists I don’t yet know, and in Zurich I met Finnish artist Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen. Both deeply humorous and political, all her varied work spoke of empowerment and resistance, and was relevant to not only the specific political situation disabled people are in within Finland, but more widely too.

She brought part of her exhibition ‘Disrupting Purity’ to the space in a pop-up form. She positions disability not as defect but as a part of human variety, celebrating unconventional beauty and aesthetics. She works across visual arts, film, installation and performative interventions.

The work on show included decorative prosthetics, highlighting violence against women and looking at the future of mechanised care (in a short film called ‘Reflector of Living Will’), her work was engaging, fresh and compelling.

One of her pieces in particular, really spoke to me – ‘Planting seedlings of wheelchairs’ in which 3D printed mini wheelchairs were growing within plants – commenting on the sheer volume of assisted devices that are created, and the lack of attention given to ecological options and sustainability within the current models. I’ve brought back a few seedlings, so if you happen to see a small wheelchair seedling growing… bring it some attention and treat it with love.