Unlimited International Case Study 2018:
Unlimited International Collaborations
By Sarah Pickthall
Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that aims to embed exceptional work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences, and shift perceptions of disabled people. It is delivered in partnership by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, with funding from Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, British Council and Spirit of 2012.
In 2016 an Arts Council England’s Ambitions of Excellence award, match funded by the British Council, enabled Unlimited to extend global influence principally through co-commissions with non-UK based disabled artists. These case studies extend the learning from this work.
This case study focuses on the first phase of Unlimited International’s 2017 International Collaborations, a commissioning strand for established artists from England and Wales working on research and development (R&D) projects collaboratively with artists internationally (funded by Arts Council England (ACE) and British Council). In March 2017 funding was awarded to six projects, five of which will progress through to full development and touring in 2018. This case study was undertaken towards the end of the R&D stages and was not part of the decision making process.
In summer 2016, Unlimited released the full criteria for the co-commissions, with the application portal enabling people to make applications online from autumn 2016. The objective was to find new and high quality arts projects across all artforms developing through innovative collaborations between disabled artists in England and Wales, and abroad. It was intended that the co-commission have the potential to change both the career trajectories of the artists and disabled people in both countries. In the call out it was made clear that Unlimited is about art, not about disability; some work may reference disability, some may not. In March 2017 six projects, which involved collaborations between artists and organisations in the UK, Brazil, China (Hong Kong), India, Japan, Palestine and Singapore, were selected for a research and development commission from 27 who applied from the open call.
The following collaborations were awarded R&D grants that ranged from £15,000 – £25,000, with an additional minimum of 10% match funding from other sources:
Richard Butchins – The Voice of the Unicorn (JAPAN / UK)
A multidisciplinary triptych of moving image and experimental documentary, exploring non-verbal behaviour and communication. Produced in a collaboration between disabled dancer Kazuyo Morita, artist Richard Butchins, and prominent autistic Japanese artists – Yasuyuki Ueno, Mami Yoshikawa and Koji Nishioka.
Rachel Gadsden – It Was Paradise (PALESTINE / UK)
Live artwork, performance and a series of virtual drawings that consider the effects of isolation and abandonment that have arisen from physical and psychological confinement on both individuals and the community, with the object of cultivating hope.
Billy Read – Somebody’s Watching Me (CHINA (HONG KONG) / UK)
A digital dance performance involving deaf dancers aiming to deepen audiences and dancers experience of sound.
Kaite O’Reilly – The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues (SINGAPORE / UK)
An international theatrical dialogue of difference, disability, and what it is to be human, from opposite sides of the world. The first multilingual, intercultural, disability-led theatre project created between the UK and Singapore.
Baluji Shrivastav – Antardrishti Inner Vision (INDIA / UK)
Inner Vision Orchestra, Britain’s only blind orchestra comprising international musicians, is working in partnership with innovative digital artists Addictive TV, creating music you can see by exploring the concept of inner vision, and examining sight and sightlessness.
VIVA Carnival – Alegria Samba School (BRAZIL / UK)
A new and enduring creative partnership between Embaixadores da Alegria, the world’s leading carnival organisation for disabled people in Brazil, and emerging learning disabled artists and performers from VIVA Carnival based on the Isle of Wight, UK.
What worked well/was learnt?
When asked about the success of the collaboration in this first phase, it was frequently noted by those selected that the quality of the artistic output exceeded their initial expectations. This was due in part to the support provided by some of the host organisations. As Kaite O’Reilly said, “We did not expect the high degree of technical and design support from the Singapore team that allowed us to progress the aesthetic, visual and design elements to a high standard for an R&D”. As well as providing creative support, international partner organisations worked hard to accommodate and support the complex and varied needs of the disabled British artists. “We were very well looked after by our partners there – Embaixadores da Alegria who ensured a high level of accessible learning was undertaken,” said Chris Slann, Executive Director of The New Theatre Company, about the VIVA Carnival project.
The opportunity to work together in the same place with face-to-face interaction, daily meetings and immersion in different cultures also contributed to the quality of the work and outcomes for some of the projects through this first phase. Although many of the artists and producers had worked abroad in these countries before, this funding gave them the opportunity for longer, more in depth development time than they had previously had. Clear communication, conflict-resolution and creative collaboration were each possible because of this extended period of working together. Through providing artists with the chance to travel and work outside of the UK, the commission also offered some of the artists valuable new life experiences outside of the artistic exchange.
When partners weren’t able to be in the same place physically, because of political issues outside of their control (such was the case with Rachel Gadsden’s commission when the Palestinian artists were not granted visas by the UK Home Office), social networks and messenger applications allowed for extensive and immediate communication. These tools also facilitated much of the partnerships’ communication, where it would have otherwise been difficult because of time differences and lack of access to computers.
What can others take from this?
Although many of the international partners worked hard to support the British disabled artists on their visits, cultural differences in understanding of best practice and disability culture proved challenging and at times hindered the development of the work. As Kaite O’Reilly said, “The lack of political and cultural understanding of what disability culture is, the Social Model etc., has been immensely challenging. The Medical Model and Charity Models hold sway in Singapore and working against these assumptions have proved immensely difficult.”
This lack of common understanding of disability culture had the effect of slowing the collaborative process down by forcing arrangements to be rearranged at the last minute due to factors like inaccessible workspaces and different working styles. As mentioned by Billy Reid, “Different working styles between us meant that there was frustration from my collaborator whenever plans and ideas changed a lot. This was something she had to adapt to when working on a project in the UK.”
Producers of international collaborations should be mindful of cultural differences and, where possible, would do well to establish common understanding, especially in terms of disability culture, communication methodology, before embarking on a collaboration.
Awardees frequently noted the need for considered and well planned timeframes at every stage when developing work in an international collaborative context. Lack of clear and advanced planning has been highlighted as challenge for the VIVA artists, who have noted tight timeframes in terms of funding announcements and finalising contracts as impacting on their ability to plan and programme for the future of the project. Tight funding timeframes are also problematic for an initiative such as Unlimited International, which has tight time constraints due to its own funding requirements.
Time management was also noted as a problem for Billy Reid, who said, “When working in 3 blocks of 3-5 days with every person present each day there was almost always someone doing nothing because they were not all required at once. Frustration was common especially towards the end, because of time constraints in the studio and being unsure of the plan.”
Those considering applying to develop projects such as this in the future should be aware of the administrative demands in developing an international collaboration. For example, for projects where lived experience (such as learning disability and complexity of communication methodologies, particularly working across different sign languages) there may be a likely need for additional planning (like project design against timeline). Also, more support and focus on how to develop venue partners in the partner country from the very beginning of a project may be useful. As with all projects involving disabled people, those developing collaborations should be aware that additional support may be needed at point of application.
Links and contacts
Disability Arts Online: It was Paradise
The Stage: Writer Kaite O’Reilly on The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues
Inner Vision Orchestra
Other Case Studies Available: