Man wearing a hat and smiling.
Artist Tarik Elmoutawakil gave a presentation about his Unlimited-supported work Brownton Abbey at Firstsite in Colchester.

Unlimited Connects in Colchester: The disability arts label

We’ve been hosting a series of events called Unlimited Connects around the UK for artists and allies to meet and discuss the issues that matter to them. In October we were in Colchester. Blogger Karl Knights reflects on the day’s discussions about disabled artists being treated as equal to their non-disabled peers.

When Christy Brown (of My Left Foot fame) published his first novel, Down All The Days, in 1970, it received stellar reviews. The Irish Times called it “the most important novel since Ulysses.” Despite the novel’s prestige, a large amount of the press focused on Brown’s physicality and how he wrote, rather than the quality of the writing. A reviewer for Life magazine wrote “Hats off to Christy Brown… who has written a whole novel with the little toe of his left foot. How he even manages to shift the key on his typewriter amazes me.” Has the way the disability arts is received and reviewed changed since 1970? This was the question that Unlimited asked, a question that far too few arts organisations are asking.

The day of the panel discussion and artists’ pitches was housed at Firstsite, Colchester. The building is slightly off-kilter, composed of strange angles that make you feel like you’ve wandered off into a hall of mirrors. The building required a recalibration, and throughout the day of discussion I was struck by how this is what disability art, any art, asks us (or in some cases, forces) us to do. The other thing that stood out immediately was a strange, white tunnel that had been set up next to the building’s café. I am early for almost anything I am involved in, and the day of Unlimited talks was no exception. As I sat with a coffee, I stared at the breathing room installation. It took me about ten minutes to realise it was moving, slowly and calmly. Anna Berry’s Breathing Room installation is a small tunnel, whose walls are lined with small white cones. From the outside, the white tunnel is supported by small levers, which enact the tunnel’s breathing. Almost immediately, it reminded me of the lever mechanisms on iron lungs, the way the lever would turn and compress, then decompress. Throughout the day I wondered what it meant that I immediately saw Breathing Room in a disability context.

As the day began the crowd gathered for the first, and main, event of the day; the panel discussion on how disabled artists can be critiqued equally, and whether disabled artists’ work is placed in a ghetto and ignored. The panel was chaired by Jo Verrent, and featured Chris Pavia, a choreographer at StopGap dance company; Linda Rocco, an artist, curator and writer;  and Aidan Moesby, curator and artist. Jo introduced the panel:

We’re here to talk about how can disabled artists be critiqued equally with our non-disabled peers? Is disabled art placed in a ghetto and then ignored? Do critics focus on the disability, and not the art? And if so why, and what can we do around that? In terms of academia, is there enough academic rigour around the work of disabled artists? Or does it pigeon hole disabled artists into particular pigeon holes? We’re gonna unpack all of those in a panel conversation.

Many of the tensions present in disability arts today were discussed and probed extensively, such as, do artists who are identified by critics as disabled align themselves and their art with that label? Here is Chris, a choreographer from StopGap dance company:

Chris: I don’t see myself as a disabled artist.

Jo: You may not see yourself as a disabled artist now, but when people write about your work, do they see you as a disabled artist then?

Chris: I don’t think they do. I work for StopGap, and they don’t see me as a disabled person. That’s why they treat me as I am.

Chair: You think the work is seen as a piece of contemporary dance, without any of those labels?

Chris: Yes.

Aidan noted how the reception of a work differed depending on its context:

So when I show work, as an artist or a curator, if I show it in a mainstream organisation with no reference to disability, and it may be the same work, if it’s within a mainstream institution, it gets reviewed, it gets looked at, it gets treated in a totally different way to when I show or curate work in a disability arts context. When I’m in a disability arts context, my work is lesser, I’m lesser, I’m less of a professional, I’m less of an artist, I’m less of a person.

Elsewhere, Linda Rocco reflected on how the label ‘disability arts’ can restrict a festival’s growth:

The fact that it was branded as a whole disability arts festival, I’m not sure was really the right thing to do, simply because there was a lot of different kinds of performances you know? And I was just thinking, if we would have advertised singularly each show – you know, a dance show, a comedy – that would have worked better, cause lots of people they stop at the ‘disability arts festival,’ they don’t see themselves relate to the festival itself, whereas I’m sure lots of people could empathise and relate to the work, but because of the label with which the whole festival was advertised, it was hard for it to get to the average person […] in terms of opening up, putting the label disability arts, closes down.

Jo: I’m old, I’ve been doing this work for 30 years. It’s really quite sad if we’ve reached a point where only through erasing our identity as disabled people can we attract wider audiences and therefore wider critique to our work. Are there other ways? Ryan Gander, an artist who very much dislikes the term disabled artist, and will not have that word associated with his name, he feels it marginalises the work and puts it in a particular box, is this what we’re going to have to do? Are we just going to have to focus on artists and their exceptional talents, and erase that part of our identity?

After this, there was a silence, as if the audience were appreciating the gravity of Jo’s question. Aidan broke the silence by saying:

I think it’s time to change the rules. For far too long, we’ve been trying to get into the institutions and play by their rules. When I go to a lot of galleries I’m unimpressed by the work, a lot of the stuff I see beyond the gallery, that’s where the really exciting work is happening now. A lot of it is about agency, I hate gatekeepers, particularly gatekeepers who keep the ladder up and keep the door closed. They are invested in keeping the status quo.

The lunch hour after the panel was quiet, as if every audience member had been consumed by the questions the panel had provoked, and couldn’t speak until they had begun to answer them. My work is largely centred on researching disabled literary history, and the similarities and the differences between disabled literature and disabled visual arts was striking. Visual arts inhabits physical space in a very different way from literature. The space in which a work is seen is almost as important as the work. As Aidan said in the panel discussion, “disability visual arts is generally in the corridor by the toilet. It’s very rarely in a mainstream, full gallery, premier space.” Does the work of, say, Judith Scott or Maud Lewis ever escape the boundaries of their disabilities? Had they been critiqued at all, or seen as curiosities, as Christy Brown has been seen in 1970?  And Jo’s question echoed, “are we just going to have to focus on artists and their exceptional talents, and erase that part of our identity?”

The second half of the day seemed an answer to this question, an emphatic ‘no.’ This was the audience’s opportunity to hear about work in development from seven disabled artists today. Almost every work placed disability front and centre, staking out space for the disabled body as a space worth legitimate intellectual inquiry. We heard more about Anna Berry’s Breathing Room we saw on the way in. A shocking pitch came in the form of Justin Edgar’s latest project, provisionally titled Reasonable Adjustment. Reasonable Adjustment were an extremist group, active in the late 80’s, who etched ‘nothing about us without us’ in Braille in the side of their AK47’s. Their actions included shooting a prominent geneticist who advocated euthanasia in utero for disabled foetuses. The audience heard about probing short films, freeing dance collectives, and upcoming art exhibitions. The questions that loomed heavy from the earlier panel discussion had begun to be answered, and discussion began.