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2016 Round up: a year of ensuring disability arts is known about more widely

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When you look at DAO you’re only seeing a half of the work we’re doing to support the disability arts sector. 2016 has been an incredibly productive and busy time for us at DAO. The year began in the thick of our Viewfinder series of workshops hosted by Goldsmiths University. We’ve built up a relationship with freelance arts journalist Bella Todd over several years now and the arts writing course she ran with us has produced some terrific results.

A photograph of Liz Carr on stage at the Royal Festival hall. She is using a golden wheelchair with confetti all around her.

Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide the Musical was one of the highlights of the year for everyone at DAO. Photograph: Manuel Vason @ DARC Media.

The participants of the Viewfinder writing workshops also took part in a set of workshops we ran with Wikimedia UK. We’ve slowly but surely been populating Wikipedia with entries for disabled artists as well as updating the articles already on site.

Writing for Wikipedia has proved a sharp learning curve, negotiating their strict rules around referencing everything you say with primary and secondary sources of information. It’s been a slow burn, but Wikipedia has gained credibility in recent years; because of the religious monitoring of content on the site and having learnt the basics we’ll continue using the platform to fulfil our remit to achieve as wide an understanding of the achievements of the disability arts sector as possible.

With the appointment of Joe Turnbull we’ve also developed further capacity to spread editorial specifically related to Unlimited to further and wider number of platforms. We were able to place more than 20 pieces of content on a wide number of platforms including Culture 24 who have been a great ally in our bid to further broadcast news of disability arts.

The British Council have been incredibly supportive of the sector in recent years and it was a real coup for us to secure a contract with them to work on their website Disability Arts International. Integral to DAI are the profiles of artists with artwork and productions ready to exhibit and perform internationally. So, if you are a disabled artist ready for international touring, why not sign up for a profile? Our role has been to build and to promote those pages and to produce a bi-monthly newsletter with themed editorial that celebrates and disseminates the work being done by artists and organisations within the sector.

Our Viewfinder writing workshop participants, Deborah Caulfield, Anne Teahan, Deborah Williams, Rowan James, Kate Lovell and Elinor Rowlands have risen to the challenge and given us some great content this year. Another great find amongst our Viewfinder commissions has been Sandra Alland who we commissioned with Lisa Mattocks to work with SICK! Festival to co-curate a programme of short films that looked at the back catalogue of artists SICK! have worked with – and together came up with a playlist that explored disability identity.

Unapologetic Self-Portraits was first shown at SICK Lab! in Manchester last March, furthering our partnership with SICK! in its bid to give a new disability focus within the festivals’ arts and health agenda. Look out for SICK! happening again this coming March 2017 in Manchester and Brighton.

A screen grab of the new Viewfinder hompeage

A sneak peek at our Viewfinder video platform, launching in the new year

Soon to be launched on our Viewfinder video platform are the other commissions: Matthew Hellett, learning disabled film-maker and producer working with Jamie Beddard, Agent for Change at New Wolsey theatre, looking at what makes a good film in the selection process for Oska Bright Film Festival. We also commissioned performance artist Martin O’Brien to work with SPILL Festival to look back through their archives and create a playlist of work for Viewfinder. We can’t wait to show the results!

Last June, as well as producing creative writing and spoken word with the wonderful Daisyfest in Guildford we finally relaunched the site and archived the old site. Finally, for the first time I felt we’d got an attractive and accessible design with much more flexibility within the WordPress templates it sits on. And from the comments we’ve had from our readership to date it seems that you concur with us.

Photo of the four commissioned artists, pictured in a museum archive

The Exceptional and Extraordinary commissioned artists: Julie McNamara, David Hevey, Mark Smith, Francesca Martinez

A major event on this years’ disability arts calendar has been University of Leicester’s Exceptional and Extraordinary commission of four disabled artists to go behind the scenes of eight of the UK’s most renowned medical museums and make work from their findings. A recent website Unruly Bodies has documented the conversation about the work. A personal favourite was Julie Mcnamara’s Hold the Hearse, giving us a glimpse into the lives of asylum inmates in 19th century England. Julie is promising to create a second piece from the research she made and hopefully that production will see light of day in 2017.

Much of our time and energy has been taken up following the range and diversity of the Unlimited commissions. Another personal favourite, Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide the Musical struck an incredible balance between being a piece of entertaining musical theatre and an in-depth look at the issues and complexities surrounding the assisted suicide debate.

Much of Unlimited was ambitious in scale as well as pushing the boundaries artistically. It wasn’t all successful in terms of finding immediate acclaim and positive reception, but then freedom of artistic expression and the chance to take risks must be at the heart of such a funding commission. Much of the work sought to challenge boundaries and perceptions of what art is and what it can do. I’m thinking in particular here of Noemi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia, Claire Cunningham’s The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight and Aaron Williamson’s Demonstrating the World.

Noemi Lakmaier performing Cherophobia

Noemi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia embodied the risk-taking attitude of many of the Unlimited commissions. Photograph: Grace Gelder.

With the shortlist for the next tranche of Unlimited artists released recently, we’ll have to wait until 2018 to see many of the final commissions reaching festival-size fruition. However, 2017 is sure to see the impact of Unlimited extending and deepening, with much of the work being programmed with new audiences in mind.

Lastly, on the theme of ’skin deep’, this year’s DaDaFest proved a very successful gig with new venues across Liverpool opening their doors to the festival programme. We attended the Congress specifically, hosted by the Museum of Liverpool, which presented conversations taking a long, hard look at the challenges ahead.

Against the backdrop of the Arts Council’s creative case for diversity, aiming to open up the arts to thinking about making inclusive opportunities for disabled artists, in many ways 2016 has been a bleak year. Cuts to disabled peoples’ services, to state benefits and deeper restrictions made on Access to Work applications is continuing to make survival harder and to put further restrictions around disabled artists generally developing skills to make and show work.

On that note all of us at DAO, Trish Wheatley, Joe Turnbull and myself would all like to wish our readers a peaceful holiday season, hoping for a better new year

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3 Comments on "2016 Round up: a year of ensuring disability arts is known about more widely"

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Simon Jenner
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This is a great site. We’ve lost ours at SP. So we’ll rip off yours! A friend here (Oliver Tatum, son of Sonja Tatum, Colin’s neighbour) says the text is beautifully apportioned and presented without being text-heavy; it’s beautifully segmented and friendly to use, very attractive. Happy New Year to you all at DAO. Simon X

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