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.
Access to the World – Unlimited International Travel:
Throughout the course of the programme, Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent, and other members of the team, have embarked on an extensive course of international visits to engage with curators and disabled artists, often in very different contexts to those encountered within the United Kingdom. Focussing on Jo Verrent’s trips to Singapore, Indonesia, Germany and Brazil, along with Programme Coordinator Fiona Slater’s stay in Ottawa, Canada, this case study will look into the reasons for this extensive programme of travel, and the benefits and learning it brings to the Unlimited team, the host nations and the wider international arts ecology.
Each of the visits made were characterised by different ways of meeting people, different contexts of making art and different formats of events organised by the host nations. Each of the host nations brought their own social, political and economic contexts to the question of disability art. Indeed, some were just beginning their journey in recognising disability art as a separate entity in need of support. After each visit, Unlimited publish a blog to share their learning, and as the blogs by Jo and Fiona indicate, each journey was as individual as the countries visited.
In Singapore, Jo encountered a small, but well curated event. Shaping Perspectives, Enabling Opportunities brought together disabled artists who were already making work, but for whom ‘Disability Art’ was an entirely new concept and where the emphasis was on access to all art, rather than creating a separate sector. This trip to Singapore was followed by Jo paying a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia where she spent a couple of days speaking with young disabled people, artists and organisations. Here, initially, the idea of being an artist seemed implausible to the disabled young people she met, faced with steep economic obstacles and having internalised some of the attitudes they had encountered in their lives. However, over a few days of conversation, and recognising the art they were already making, they began to identify as artists, in a moment of tremendous transformative empowerment.
In Canada, Fiona attended the Deaf and Disability Arts Presenters Programme, part of the Canada Scene Festival in Ottawa, followed by the Republic of Inclusion, a ‘psychedelic symposium’ where a relaxed, accessible space allowed a free flowing exchange of ideas and anecdotes, punctuated by irreverent performance. Fiona noted the immense care the Canadian curators and artists took around language, and the respect for intersectional identities; both in the art made and in the curation of the Presenters Programme by Tangled Art + Disability.
Jo’s stay in Brazil, to speak at ENTRE arte e acesso, an event about Art and Access held in partnership with British Council, made her very aware of how the social and political context impacted on artists and specifically disabled artists. Faced with a funding structure that can be withdrawn literally overnight, a culture of spontaneity has sprung into life, where the cultural policy and long term planning model of the UK would struggle to gain ground, but where the spirit of carnival permeates everyday life and rapid improvisation is a survival skill for both artists and curators.
By contrast, in Cologne she encountered the impact of the very large investment of pan-European funds at the Sommerblut Festival, billed as a festival under a broad definition of inclusion, rather than specifically focussed on disability. Here she reflected on the very different approaches between Europe and the UK towards disability. She noted that access was still a surprise event at Sommerblut, rather than provided as a matter of course. Much of the work she saw was inclusive of disabled artists at the performance level, but had yet to take the next step to being disabled-led. Furthermore, she heard of the great difficulties of organising a pan-European festival, in terms of logistics and the potentially prohibitive costs of disabled work. This was particularly compounded by the lack of any European equivalent of the UK’s Access to Work scheme (a government scheme that provides advice and practical support to disabled people to enable them to work along-side their colleagues). This led her to better understand the global variety of journeys that each country has in relation to disability, and that in terms of approach, one size does not fit all.
What was learnt? What worked well?
Despite the diversity of experiences encountered by the Unlimited team within each host country, each trip was united in the belief in the efficacy of face to face meetings. In this digital world there are many ways to encounter art made globally, whether through online resources, policy documents, emails, and skype calls etc. However, as Jo says, sometimes only face to face conversations can “make people change their mind”. This is the basic underpinning of Unlimited’s travel strategy. Actually spending real and considered time in each country enabled a quality of conversation that is already having an impact on the UK arts ecology, as well as in the host nations.
For example, during Fiona’s trip to Canada, she encountered shows such the National Arts Centre’s ‘King Arthur’s Night’ and Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon’s ‘What’s Left of Us’. Although she was not there specifically to scope for work, she saw opportunities to bring these artists to the UK in the future. In Brazil, Jo came across Brazilian rapper Billy Saga and Unlimited was subsequently able to bring him to the UK for a national tour. These visits make Unlimited staff very alive to the opportunities for global engagement in their conversations with UK producers and curators.
This highlights an important feature of the Unlimited approach, to view these excursions as part of a continuum of conversation that extends far beyond the trip itself. Jo recognises that some of these collaborations may not bear fruit for many years after the lifetime of Unlimited, but once made these connections cannot be undone and will have lasting legacy on the type of work programmed in the UK and influence British disabled artists.
However, the team are very careful to avoid, what Jo termed as ‘a form of imperialism’. Unlimited is not there to export the UK model or lecture on best practice. A feature of all of the travel made by Unlimited team members was a spirit of open minded curiosity and the desire to make partnerships.
The experience of travelling has revealed some important learning for the Unlimited team. Fiona noted it took a while to acclimatise to the country once she landed, in terms of the context in which the art was made, and she thought an orientation meeting with one or two local artists and curators would have been very useful. Jo placed great emphasis in asking a lot of questions by email before her arrival, to give her that orientation and make sure she maintained good relations with hosts.
Furthermore, the need to throw out preparations and improvise was also noted. In Brazil, Jo was to offer a PowerPoint presentation at an event that, at the last minute, morphed into a street festival for homeless people. Jo gamely threw out her preparation and took to the intercom system, answering questions such as “How can I tell my (disabled) daughter she is beautiful?” She felt this produced some of the most valuable moments of the trip, when she was forced to throw away the props of engagement often used in the UK and become more human as a result.
What others can learn from this?
Unlimited’s strategy of international travel has brought about a flourishing of engagement between disabled artists and curators at an international level. Surprising partnerships grow and fruitful conversations have started that will, if approached with open minded curiosity and commitment, bring about a greater breadth of perspective in the work of artists globally.
For the host countries, inviting disabled artists not only allows the cross fertilisation of ideas between artists, but can help change minds and attitudes more widely and allow all to see the validity of disabled people.
It’s a two way process – there is always as much to learn as there is to pass on.
Preparation and clear communication are very important to the success of international visits, as is the spirit of open mindedness and respect for different models of disability.
There are the beginnings of a global marketplace for disability art, and there is funding to catalyse artists work outside their own borders. This opens up the possibility of more sustainable careers and a dialogue between artists on an international scale.
Both Art and change are best made by face to face conversation.
Links and Contacts
Deaf and Disability Arts Presenters Programme
It’s hotting up: Arts and Disability in Singapore and Indonesia
Intoxicated in Cologne
Brazil the clock is ticking
Shaping Perspectives, Enabling Opportunities
Tangled Art +Disability
ENTRE arte e acesso
‘King Arthur’s Night’
‘What’s Left of Us’
Unlimited Supports Brazilian rapper Billy Saga’s first UK tour
Unlimited video lounge
Heart n Soul presents Beautiful Octopus Club 2016
Other Case Studies Available: