A photo in black-and-white of a wheelchair burning.
Photo by Phil Dexter

Within reason: Is it OK for art to lie?

Unlimited Trainee April Lin recaps their conversation with artist and filmmaker Justin Edgar, delving into questions of truth, ethical responsibility between artist and audience, and disability activism.

When I saw ‘Reasonable Adjustment by Justin Edgar at this year’s Unlimited Festival, I genuinely thought it was real. I was elated to learn about these radical disability rights activists and to witness this piece of history finally being told. This activist group had, among other things, stormed a live BBC TV broadcast and bombed Euston Underground station in 1991, in protest against living in an increasingly ableist society. I didn’t know there had been militant resistance against ableism in the UK, and I was surprised that I’d never heard of them before. The web exhibition, which featured an excerpt from a 1991 TV documentary, newspaper articles, and photographs of the artefacts from the movement, left a deep imprint on my understanding of UK disability activism.   

However, the more I trawled through the Forum section of the website, the more I saw messages denouncing the whole thing as fake. I instinctively dismissed this as trolling, although some commenters did seem more elaborate in their disinformation than your average 4Chan hater. So, I did some research, but couldn’t find much on this ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ movement… Had Justin managed to uncover a super hidden gem? Finally, I popped a message into the Unlimited Slack chat, where it was confirmed by my colleagues that indeed, all of it was fake. 

A screenshot from the website exhibition's Forum section, with all text in white against a black background. The top commenter has written 'thank you for sharing this footage and raising awareness. incredibly moving', to which someone else replied 'You know it's all fake, right?'. At the bottom, someone has replied 'Why are you choosing to pretend to think you feel it's fake hun?'
Screenshot from the Forum section of the ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ online exhibition

Immediately I was hooked into the art work in a completely different way. Why hadn’t I been told that this was fake? Surely, it should be disclosed on the website? Or was this feeling of revelation the whole point of the piece? What were the ethical responsibilities of tricking the audience, and of re-writing history? I tuned into the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival Q&A event about the work, where topics like ‘post-truth’ and ‘truth as subjective’ were talked about as a steady stream of increasingly aggressive comments filled the chat box. 

Justin Edgar hasn’t made any written appearances to-date where he openly discusses ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ as a piece of constructed history, so when I approached him for an interview, I was doubtful as to whether he would agree to it being disclosed. Thankfully, he accepted my offer. 

As someone who also works with video, I was curious about why he’d chosen to make ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ in the form of a deceivingly-truthful fictive multimedia piece, rather than as a standard fiction film. He’d opted out of making a conventional narrative short film, as well as a mockumentary, because he felt the artificiality of cinema on its own couldn’t convince people the movement was real. He wanted to escape the context of film, where the viewer sits down and is prepared for what they’re watching to have been falsified. This led him to applying for the 2019 Unlimited Commissions, where he could venture out into a gallery context and use material artefacts, documents, and other physical pieces of ‘evidence’ to supplement the video work and fully convey the desired flavour of ‘real’.  

Constructed political poster that features a black and white image of a burning wheelchair. At the top of the image, FREE THE BEDFORD 12 is written, the O in BEDFORD the Reasonable Adjustment symbol. At the bottom, it says REASONABLE ADJUSTMENT and UNTIL THE 12 ARE FREE, WE ARE ALL IMPRISONED. All text is in white all caps letters.
Constructed political poster by ‘Reasonable Adjustment’, featuring the ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ logo

As such, I was surprised to hear Justin say, ‘I was bit naïve as to how much they would believe it,’, considering the emphasis he’d placed on research and construction in order to make the work believable. The creative team even formatted a bespoke audio description tool in keeping with early 1990’s television aesthetics. When the audience was asked ‘How many of you thought it was real?’ at the 2020 exhibition premiere at The Art House in Wakefield, ‘pretty much everybody who wasn’t involved with the exhibition in some way put their hand up.’. This shocked Justin, and it was from this point onwards that he began considering his responsibility as the artist to engage with people who might be made upset or angry by his artwork. 

In the beginning, when ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ wasn’t openly described as constructed, its Wikipedia page kept getting edited to explicitly state the movement was fake. Zoom interviews with Justin would get ‘hijacked,’ with audience members attempting to break the truth to those who might still be unaware. Justin shares that he was receiving a copious amount of angry and offensive messages, to which he would reply, ‘I really appreciate you becoming part of this artwork and engaging with the themes and the subject. I’d really like to sit down with you and have a cup of tea.’ He never got a single response. 

As of now, Justin is happy to disclose the making of ‘Reasonable Adjustment.’ On his own Wikipedia page, ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ is described as a ‘fictional disabled armed resistance movement.’ He has also set up a dedicated email address on the piece’s Facebook page, where people are welcome to reach out directly to him with any concerns. The inbox remained empty at the time of the interview. If anyone speaks to him under the belief of ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ as real, he immediately shares the truth with them, saying that he made it. 

This retrospective extension of care for the audience combined with deliberately choosing to make an untruthful (and often violent) depiction of disabled history leaves one wondering what the work’s intentions were. Was it to engender a debate around truthfulness in art? Justin is quick to say that ‘there is danger in people focusing too much on what’s true and what isn’t true, rather than issues at hand.’ 

He goes on to list the very real concerns that motivated the ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ activists, most of which are still present today. ‘I’m holding up a mirror to real life,’ he says as he speaks of the problematic language used to talk about disabled people and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis (disabled people account for almost two out of three deaths). It is a sobering yet incomprehensible statistic to soak in: that the effects of ten years of austerity government and its dismantling of the public health system have resulted in the ‘preventable’ deaths of 130,000 people in the UK. 

This photograph is of a direct action network (DAN) protestor handcuffed to the front radiator grille of a red London bus. He is a wheelchair user and has other wheelchair users, also protestors around him some of whom are holding placards.
Protestors from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) handcuffing themselves to a London bus in 2015. Image courtesy of: PA Images

It’s a lot to wrap one’s head around, and I find my brain trying to comprehend this delicate balance between ‘not too fake’ and ‘not too real,’ and ‘violent-enough-to-shock-you-into-reflection but not-too-violent.’ When every artwork is a portal to a different universe, the artist and the audience create that universe together, each person bringing their own specific history and ways of thinking and feeling to that process. And so, art becomes a fun and subtle exercise in trust, critical thinking, and world-building — especially when the artist themselves is grounded in the standpoint that ‘truth is very subjective anyway, and that we all live in our own personal truths,’ as Justin Edgar is. 

Subjective truth is powerful. It gives us agency. But it’s also a slippery slope between seeing truth as subjective and dismissing truth’s relevance in order to avoid accountability to a common social reality. The difference between understanding things as constructed versus understanding things as ‘not being real’ is slim but important. When I find myself falling down the loophole of ‘If nothing is real, then what matters?’ (as one does), I root myself in the fact that social constructs are actually incredibly real. Race, gender, and disability are some of the many concepts that when made real by a capitalist society continues to have devastating impacts on the people it attempts to define, categorise, and limit. 

What are the ethical considerations to be made by an artist when making work that deliberately toys with people’s realities? How much can the concept of truth as subjective balance a considerable effort to persuade people of your own version of the truth? How might this relate to ways that power is handled and manipulated on a larger, global scale?  

A black and white image of a wheelchair on fire in the middle of a street, with silhouettes of the police officers standing around.
Allegedly taken during a ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ protest, this photo was actually taken during a riot in Sheffield in 1990. No attributable photographer.

As much as ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ opened up these questions for me, I also don’t have any concrete answers, and neither does Justin Edgar. Our rapid-fire conversation has left me with much food for thought, but one thing that keeps resonating in my mind is this excerpt from an opinion piece by art historian John-Paul Stonard, published in Issue 45 of the Tate Etc. 

‘…earnest truth-telling doesn’t necessarily lead to particularly engaging art. What really engages and jolts us into awareness, it seems to me, is a dazzlingly good lie.’ 

You can visit the ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ online exhibition at: 

https://www.reasonableadjustmentexhibition.com/