Leeds’ Beyond Festival: Moans and Solutions

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Looking back to look forward: optimism for the future of learning disabled artists in Leeds, following the Beyond Festival. Seeking to show their city in new ways, with confident exhibitions, learning disabled artists showed their work across the city between 5 July – 22 July 2018. Review by Gill Crawshaw

Performer stands on stage holding a thumb up to the camera

Ultimate Thunder featuring Demented Dave

The festival ended with a bang with an exuberant gig at Wharf Chambers. This workers’ cooperative and member-run space was perfect for heavy rockers Ultimate Thunder, who had a welcome return there.

While covers band Skyfallers and the virtuosity of Jez Colborne would go down well anywhere, Demented Dave’s experimental and improvised electronic music could be described as niche. The audience loved his sounds, nonetheless. I fully expect to see Dave on the bill at Wharf Chambers again – as part of one of their more leftfield music nights.

This is a sign of the welcome direction that Beyond, a festival of work by learning disabled artists is taking. It’s the second festival, the first was in 2016. But things have moved on a lot since then with artists branching out into exciting creative partnerships.

The day of the Beyond Belief gig had been busy. Earlier on, the Beyond symposium, one of the key events in the programme, had taken place. This was a chance to reflect on this year’s festival and, importantly, to think about the future.

The main agenda item was how we work together to make things better for learning disabled artists. We heard from artists and organisations that support them. There was disappointment that more senior local authority and other arts workers didn’t come. I wasn’t too bothered by that. I think there will be other opportunities to engage with them, and the partners in Beyond are in a good position to do that.

performer Demented Dave smiles from his chair

Ultimate Thunder featuring Demented Dave

Beyond “celebrates the fantastic work of artists, performers and musicians with learning disabilities in Leeds, and the organisations that support them”. We’ll return to this idea of celebration later.

I’ve previously written about the visual arts element of the festival, there were many strong exhibitions and installations. Some artists have benefitted from grants, substantial in some cases, that have enabled them to explore subjects in depth and to develop expertise with techniques and media. Work has been professionally produced, such as Liam Hirst’s graphic novel The Adventures of Square and Matthew Watson’s booklet No You Can’t, Yes I Can. These have become highly desirable publications.

The festival has been quite wide ranging, and the partners involved take different approaches to working with learning disabled artists. And there were, perhaps inevitably, variations in the quality of work. I thought the work by individual artists or pairs of collaborating artists was the most exciting in the festival. The artists’ individual visions and styles came through clearly.

There was some interesting work produced by people working in groups as well. Working in groups can be an empowering and accessible way for many disabled people to create art, so it was good to see group exhibitions and performances at the festival.

The festival appointed two co-producers, Paul Wilshaw and Hannah Woods. Paul was the driving force behind the symposium and pulled together a great event. As he observed: “the symposium showed the talent that is in Leeds, especially the speakers and the workshop leaders”. Paul’s own experience as a learning disabled theatre-maker and writer meant that the discussions were current and relevant.

Taking inspiration from Stephen Harvey’s Moan Mats exhibition, there was a dedicated space for “moaning” at the symposium. Importantly though, any moans were followed by a discussion on solutions. The event was refreshingly focused on solutions and on working together to improve things for learning disabled artists.

Some of the things we discussed were all too familiar, such as access, funding and transport. Finding venues is always difficult. We suspected that some of the host venues thought they were doing artists a favour by showing their work, instead of recognising that they were benefitting by having beautiful, stimulating work on their premises.

A photo of artworks on t-shirts and placards strung up across an installation space

Moan Mats by Stephen Harvey

Many of the difficulties of curating this festival will be familiar to anyone who’s organised a large disability arts event: it’s a real challenge to organise an accessible festival in a disabling world! People involved in Beyond know that they’ve sometimes had to make compromises. The symposium enabled these to be evaluated honestly.

“I feel the questions also opened up talks that would not usually happen,” said Paul. There was a good discussion around some of the curatorial decisions and whether they’d helped to communicate the artists’ visions.

In terms of quality, one suggestion was to differentiate more clearly the work of artists who are dedicated to their art and motivated to create from the work of people who make art for social reasons, or who are joining in with an activity that their group / day centre is doing.

As the festival matures, the term ‘celebration’ doesn’t do it justice. There’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating, but not everything can be described this way. Learning disabled artists are making complex and challenging work that deserves to be taken seriously, alongside the work of other dedicated artists. This is clearly the ambition of the festival and of its producers.

Paul says: “I would love more art venues to showcase learning disabled artists’ work, but include this with non-disabled artists’ work as well”.

Please click on this link for more information about Beyond Festival