While thinking about writing this blog after attending Unlimited Connects South West, the thing that struck me the most, was how much it really did what it says on the tin – CONNECT!
The Zoom chat alongside the speakers reminded me how new types of connection can flow in the digital world. In a ‘real world’ event space, there’s a lot less ongoing clapping, emoji-ing, and dropping connecting links and ideas to the rest of the audience. And you rarely get the chance to exchange thoughts with everyone over biscuits and coffees between speakers – but you can do all that online. (When someone finally invents an endless supply of digital conference biscuits, there really will be no turning back.)
Where access to physical venues is not always made easy or viable for many people, the new connections and arts and culture experiences made available during the pandemic have been something to celebrate. It’s also something that many fear losing if the arts sector slips back into inaccessible infrastructure and practice. So, what might the role of technology be in the future of the performing arts, and how do we reboot an inclusive arts sector that centres disabled artists and audiences? Big questions for a Wednesday morning Zoom, starting with a Pitch and Mix where we found connecting threads between four very different artists and their uses of technology.
Lady Nade – singer–songwriter and performing artist – found new connections with audiences online as a result of opening up her ‘blockchain’ approach to digitally creating and collaborating. Instead of deleting old takes and demos in the studio, she built up an online documentation of the stages of her journey towards releasing a final music track. Audiences appreciated her sharing the experiences she was having at different stages of making her art, opening up conversations about mental health and wellbeing.
As an artist and performer working with programming code, real-time media, and audio, Joseph Wilk inspired us with his work Wheel Trails, which uses augmented reality prototyping – drawing the motion of his wheelchair in space – both indoors and making joyful interventions in public space. Connecting, again, the idea of revealing an otherwise invisible process. Technology, art, and performance “opening up new ways of seeing” was also a phrase that resonated during the morning talks.
Director, writer, and dramaturg, Stephanie Kempson, spoke compellingly about living with an invisible energy impairment, and creating accessible work for people who might appreciate a shorter form experience. Inspired by the explosion of collaborative TikToks, she’s developing a musical in short pieces about being housebound and exploring how digital theatre might evolve, perhaps connecting young people creating from home.
The final Pitch and Mix artist was Sue Austin, a multimedia performance and installation artist transforming perceptions of what’s possible. Her film generated perhaps the most intensely connective moment of the morning when we were all watching the film of her learning to fly a wheelchair. I’ve never experienced a Zoom audience to be so collectively on the metaphorical edge of our seats as we watched Sue come into land. We found connection again in the sharing of an unseen process, with Sue reflecting on everything she has to navigate for these moments of artistic flight to occur.
The second session of the morning beautifully invited us to rest as Raquel Meseguer Zafe talked about her investigations into embodied resonance in theatre and finding potential for movement, and being moved, in stillness. Her work, A Crash Course in Cloudspotting, explores people’s stories of attempting to rest in public spaces, while the audience is invited to lie down. The digital version of Cloudspotting wouldn’t be in the world if it wasn’t for lockdown, and Raquel ended with a provocation about how the sector can continue with hybrid programming, and support and commission high quality digital work to make sure no-one is left behind in the cultural recovery.
This was a perfect set up for the final session, as I switched to a different sort of active listening as Chair of a panel discussion titled ‘Reboot – centring disabled artists in an inclusive recovery.’ Representing different perspectives as individual artists, producing organisations, and venues, the panel speakers were:
Angie Bual – co-Director of Trigger Stuff
Clair Sargeant – Dance Artist, Co-Director of Far Flung Dance Theatre
Liz Counsell – Creative Producer, Trinity Community Arts
With such a huge topic to address, everyone started with one key change they felt necessary for an inclusive reboot of the sector. Here’s what came up:
Time: making space for it! The pace that’s set by cultural organisations and funders is inaccessible for many disabled practitioners, and unsustainable for non-disabled people too. It really struck me that an arts sector that only works with the people who can move the quickest, is only going nowhere fast. We talked about a full reset, embedding new models of production designed for and with disabled people.
How can we remove the exhaustion of advocating for access needs at the same time as trying to make work? A good start would be for venues and producers to take on the responsibility to ask up front about access riders, and for those to be expected and not met with “how things are usually done.”
Fear: how do we address and remove this for everyone? Fear of access needs being dismissed, fear of venues not knowing how to implement changes that are needed, fear of having difficult conversations when you are trying to get your foot in the door of the sector.
The panel emphasised the shift we need for disabled artists to no longer be perceived as constantly ‘emerging,’ but to be confidently established, and in positions of leadership. And also, to have people with lived experience of disability mentoring those in leadership positions.
There is much to be done – the We Shall Not Be Removed campaign recently released the Disability Arts Alliance 2021 report, revealing a fragile cultural environment for disabled people, full of intersectional inequalities. The campaign also produced 7 Inclusive Principles – practical guidance for arts and cultural organisations to support D/deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent people.
Jamie perfectly summed up what impact an inclusive reboot would have: we’d be back here talking about the art that’s being made, rather than the challenges being faced.
As we all waved good-bye, the chat was full of new connections, people wanting to continue the conversation and offering spaces for that to happen. I felt excited by the creativity of the work we’d heard about and for the potential for change as these bubbles of good practice connect up to become the big picture for the sector.
Thanks to Ellie and April from Unlimited for setting up a space for such connection and to Hattie from MAYK for being epic partners to make this South West event happen. And, of course, to all the speakers and audience members for connecting too.
If you’re a disabled artist or an organisation based in the South West and want to continue the conversations from this space, email Liz Counsell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, keep an eye out for the next Unlimited Connects event — Unlimited Connects London, ‘Generation Creativity: Disability Arts for Children’, which will be happening online on 29 June 10am-1pm. To book your free ticket, head over here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/unlimited-connects-london-tickets-157077802937?ref=estw.
Unlimited Allies are welcome to come along!
Graphic notetaking done by Roberto Sitta from Creative Connection, who joined us for the morning.