DaDaFest: Allan Sutherland and DAO on the merits of gaining a disability identity

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As part of DaDaFest and to mark the International Day of Disabled People, Disability Arts Online put on the event ‘Are we living in an era of post-Disability Art?’ at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. Steph Niciu went to find out more.

Panel sitting in front of a screen

The panel at ‘Are we in an era post disability art’

Disability Arts is a Movement that provokes a lot of discussion when presented to disabled people. We were at this event to talk about the meaning of the term, how our understanding of it has evolved and what barriers artists face when it comes to producing authentic work that accurately represents us as individuals and connects with our community.

To begin the event Trish Wheatley, Chief Executive of Disability Arts Online, introduced the research programme D4D – that is investigating the evolving ways in which we as disabled people express, perform, experience and practise ‘community’. It is led by Bath Spa University and DAO is working with Allan Sutherland on a project called Electric Bodies, which sits within D4D.

After Trish’s introduction Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, praised the work of DaDaFest as an organisation that is an “innovator and game-changer” when it comes to Disability Arts. He highlighted the importance of disability artists saying that their “talent is vital.” Henley focused on how change is happening as more works are reaching a mainstream audience, citing Reasons to Be Cheerful at Leeds Playhouse and Samuel Beckett’s Not I at Battersea Arts Centre, as examples.

Allan Sutherland

Allan Sutherland presents his transcription poetry

The history of Disability Arts was looked at in detail as way for us to gain a better understanding of what it means to us. Allan Sutherland read a selection from Thalidomide Acts, a cycle of poems based on interviews with the actor, Mat Fraser produced as part of D4D.

Essentially, Fraser highlights how society’s attitudes about disabled people have changed over time – at least he hopes that is the case. But, most significantly, he focuses on the issue of identity and the difficulty with coming to terms with being disabled and how that impacts on your life and art.

In the poem Punk he talks about how becoming a punk was initially a positive identity that was accepting of his disability, but which later took over:

I’m telling you right now,
it’s an upgrade,
because it’s not about the thing that
everybody thinks is negative and embarrassing,
your disability, you know.

Later in the poem No More Crusty Fraser says:

I need my identity,
I’m fucking disabled damn it.

Through experience Fraser finds more nuanced ways of accepting himself as a disabled person. He is empowered by disability arts to look at the world differently and more positively gaining a new-found sense of understanding from association with it.

Following the reading DAO’s editor Colin Hambrook introduced a panel discussion, drawing on some of the thoughts raised through Thalidomide Acts.

Identity was a key issue that ran through the panel discussion. Lisette Auton said that she spent 10 years of her life feeling a sense of shame, resisting disability and that now she has been able to “claim the title with pride”. She said that she is disabled “personally, politically and it’s now part of me as an artist”. As a result of accepting her identity, Lisette told us that she is now producing her “most innovative and creative work”.

The acceptance of identity is important for disabled artists, as artists and as individuals but people’s understanding of Disability Arts depends on their understanding of it – and of its history. Ruth Gould, the Artistic Director of DaDaFest, commented that we are in danger of dredging “old ground again and again” but that essentially we need to remember that “art is part of the resistance”.

It is significant that we acknowledge the past to help us to inform the future. Disability Arts is not only about the art that is created but the community that brings it together. As Colin said: “I was born an artist. Being an artist meant that I could cope with disability. I found my home” and Allan said: “I have been part of Disability Arts for 40 years, it’s changed.” Both panellists emphasised how vital community is to the movement and it was often praised during the event.

The barriers that the Disability Arts Movement has faced are substantial. Benefit cuts and changes to policy have as Vici Wreford-Sinnott said “diluted and hijacked” Disability Arts. Lisette commented that “austerity is terrifying and disabled people are not supported in their everyday life and as artists”. We are living in an ableist society in which a term such as ‘reasonable adjustments’ is being used to justify our oppression – that society “has done what it can, and it doesn’t need to do more”.

Colin Hambrook

Colin Hambrook speaking at the event

The internet as a new technology was talked about as a way of bringing the Disability Arts community together and promote what artists are doing via social media. Colin mentioned that it can be “limited and fragmented”, and he said that you “can’t beat getting together. It’s important for us to have face to face conversations.”

DAO’s event gave us the opportunity to discuss Disability Arts in depth. I found there was no one definitive answer to the question: Are we in an era of post disability art? It was interesting to gain a better understanding of what it means, how it has progressed, and the ways different people relate to it.

Personally, I feel Disability Arts is something that is constantly evolving. As Darren Henley commented, there has been a key shift in the way that Disability Arts is made. It is no longer for a disabled audience but a mainstream one. I enjoy being part of a community whose aim is to create art for a mainstream audience, even if this audience is not always so accepting of our work.

This aim is something we have a strong sense of unity about. Although, there are barriers involved, I think that we need to keep going but continue to think outside the box when it comes to how to produce it. For example, using YouTube to create a vlog (video blog) or recording a podcast that is low on budget if you are unable to leave your home.

Essentially, there are many barriers that can be difficult to deal with, but however difficult to navigate they will not stop disabled artists from creating work that has a strong sense of identity that represents our experiences of disability in a truthful way.