My name is Laura Fisher and I am a disabled dance artist and producer based in Glasgow, Scotland. I had the pleasure of attending the Unlimited Connects Scotland Event, which took place on Monday 19th April via Zoom, to pitch my work, alongside three other brilliant dance artists. Unlimited have invited me to reflect and report back on the event, so, here is a rundown of what happened along with some of my thoughts and reflections from the morning…
The morning began with the ‘Pitch and Mix’ session, involving short pitch presentations followed by a Q&A from disabled dance artists recently awarded funding in the latest round of Unlimited Commissions. The session was facilitated by April Lin (Unlimited), with presentations by:
- Aby Watson who shared details on brut, a relaxed performance for adults working with sensory design, groove inducing music, and movement from a neurodivergent embodiment (R&D award)
- Clare Adam & Lesley Howard (who work under the name Clare & Lesley Disabled Dance Artists) presented on their new dance work A Home for Hamish, a dance theatre piece for young audiences, integrating movement and BSL into the storytelling (Emerging Artist Award)
- Laura Fisher. I presented on FORGED (in the tender heat of your embrace), a durational dance performance and installation for gallery spaces (Emerging Artist Award)
I was struck by how distinct each project felt from the next: in form, style, and choreographic approach. What was shared between them, for me, were real considerations of audience experience and integrated access, and a desire to create work which was of and from the unique lived and embodied experience of each artist.
I finished the Q&A feeling excited by the potential for disabled artists to shape processes and create new movement languages in dance when they are supported and enabled to do so.
Next, attendees were invited to experience DYSCO, a digital, participatory, neurodivergent dance performance by DJ DYSCOURSE (aka Aby Watson). With a 45 minute sound-track of disco classics, DJ DYSCOURSE guided us through stages of movement with simple invitations to carry into our dancing. Some chose to keep cameras off for a more private disco while others joined in from their spaces or desk chairs. Carrying on from the Pitch and Mix sessions, it was a joyful example of a neurodivergent-centred practice in performance. If only every Monday could start with a DYSCO!
The event concluded with a panel discussion titled ‘Two metres apart but closer than ever?’ considering the impact of Covid-19 on disabled artists and organisations in Scotland. The panel was chaired by Ellie Liddell-Crewe (Unlimited), with panellists Bronwen Nixon (The Touring Network), Anita Clark (The Work Room), musician and disability activist Sorcha Pringle, and Andrew Eaton-Lewis (Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival).
Much of the discussion centred around the pros and cons of making and engaging with work online, beginning with panellists sharing positive experiences around showcasing digital work. Among these were reports of people more geographically dispersed having access to cultural offerings they would otherwise not have access to, opportunities for remote connection and collaboration, and commissions and programmes valuing and resourcing digital work more equally to ‘live’ performance.
Andrew Eaton-Lewis reflected that Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival adapted quickly to go digital for its May 2020 festival and had reached both new audiences and new artists, including disabled artists, through this shift. Sorcha Pringle commented on the positive impacts working from home has had for many disabled artists in accessing work and opportunities.
Just as digital work provides access to some, there was also recognition that not everyone has access to, nor can afford, the internet. Some find screens, computers, and phones inaccessible. And others struggle to engage with performances online. The panel shared examples of work created for remote engagement which was not digital, such as Dance in an Envelope by Company of Others.
In this shift towards online performances, questions inevitably arise about money. How do you generate revenue for online work? Are audiences willing to pay for online content? How might this affect the value or perceived value of the cultural offering or artwork?
Anita Clark shared an observation that digital platforms had offered some dance artists the opportunity to generate revenue independently through online classes, without the additional costs of space hire or a reliance on a third-party organisation to host.
The panel also discussed Pay What You Can (PWYC) ticketing models as way of generating income from online events while also offering greater financial access. Concerns with such models include reduced income difficulty projecting revenue in advance. However, several people present at the discussion reported PWYC models have been successful for them in generating steady, if not increased, income for live and digital work.
Bronwen Nixon noted the effectiveness of these models can vary depending on who, where, and how large your audience are, and suggested more research into PWYC models would be beneficial.
I appreciated the care and caution the panel showed in embracing the potential of reaching new or wider audiences through online offerings while still staying mindful of how this quick shift to digital output can exclude others and may affect the way work is value in the long term. It was also refreshing to witness a panel talk candidly about money and revenue in relation to programming, commissioning, and access.
The second half of the conversation centred around coming out of lockdown and what moving forward might look like. There was some anxiety that in the rush and excitement to get back to making live work, much of what has been talked about and learned re: access and new ways of creating will be lost.
There were several questions regarding ‘blended approaches’ to programming, offering both digital and live access moving forward. Andrew described blended approaches as ‘trying to be very conscious of not leaving people out, whatever you’re doing’, which I think explains it well.
There were also questions raised about how to ensure quality in offering remote or digital versions of live performances. How would access such as a BSL interpreter be incorporated into a live streamed performance, for example? I appreciated the suggestion from Marlo (Unlimited) to look to other sectors who are already working with streaming technologies (such as the gaming industry). Its good to remember to step outside of our own communities to look to others who may be doing things much better, especially if it feels new or daunting.
It’s clear a One Size Fits All approach is not going to work. There is no quick solution to how we think about or build in access to our programmes, spaces, and opportunities moving forward. Digital and remote offerings have undeniably increased access to, and engagement in, arts and culture for many disabled people, especially those located outside of major cities or towns and we must hold onto this option as in-person engagement begins to return.
Nevertheless, we must ensure that remote participation isn’t used as a cop out to avoid providing physical or in person access or quality digital experiences. Good access looks like offering well considered choices.
However, we only get well considered choices when we involve intersectional voices. I want to use the space to acknowledge that, in contrast to the Unlimited Team present at the event, the invited artists and panellists representing Scotland were predominantly white. I raise this to publicly hold myself accountable, it was my responsibility to enquire about who would be invited to speak before I committed and I failed to do so. And because it highlights an urgent conversation people of colour have been raising in Scotland, about the ways in which disabled people of colour are not currently afforded the same level of visibility, platform, or access as white disabled people.
Disabled people of colour need to be present, prioritised, listened to and cared for in our talks or recovery, reimaging and change and it’s the responsibility of all organisations and white people who are given space, power and platform, myself included, to ensure this happens. I apologise that I didn’t do this before and I want to direct you to these two pieces of work, which I am grateful to have read, listened to and learned from, by disabled dance artists of colour Raman Mundair and Alexandrina Hemsley.
What processes and practices might take shape if we continue supporting artists to develop work in ways which are accessible to them? How do we return to ‘in person’ without forgetting all of the learning that has shaped this past year? How do we ensure that all conversations of recovery, centre the experiences of those most marginalised by intersecting systems of oppression, including disabled people of colour?
These are questions to carry forward, but they are filled with hope. Hope that there has been a shift in learning in the sector; in people’s consciousness around access, disability, isolation, and inequality and a call to build on that groundwork with care, commitment, and diligence as we move forward.
Sharing is Caring
During the discussion a number of links were shared by both panellists and attendees which I’ve included below:
Edinburgh Horror Festival Open Call for Blended Festival https://www.edhorrorfest.co.uk/participate
Disabled Women in the Arts – https://www.facebook.com/groups/2635398936774329/
Neurodivergent Artists Network – https://www.facebook.com/groups/354124232655484/
Disability Arts Online – https://www.facebook.com/groups/disabilityartsonline/
Scottish Neurodiverse Performance Network https://www.facebook.com/groups/616030068869160/
Audio recorded version, read by Laura Fisher: