Liberty 2016 gives space for disabled performers

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Showcasing the nation’s finest talent in Deaf and disability arts, the Mayor of London’s Liberty Festival offers a day of free live music and entertainment in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Colin Hambrook went along to soak up the vibes and experience the downpour and reported back on a few of his highlights.

Mind the Gap Band by the main music stage at Liberty 2016

Mind the Gap Band by the main music stage at Liberty 2016

I love Liberty Festival. It always rains and disabled artists and audiences alike battle on despite the weather. It’s held together by an atmosphere of true grit. But then that is typical of disabled peoples’ lives, carrying on despite the hurdles thrown at us. And it makes for a wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie and encouragement. And I have to say that GDIF did an amazing job both in terms of the thought put behind access at the event and the enthusiasm of the volunteers.

My day at Liberty started by seeing Jez Colborne with Mind the Gap Band. I reviewed Contained earlier this year and it was great to hear the songs from the show again. The opening number I’m Me is something of an anthem. Jez’s simple but profound lyrics echo the threat that disabled people face every day of not being accepted or even tolerated in a disablist society.

The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble performed a piece for fun aliens titled Nodus Tollens. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows describes Nodus Tollens as “the realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you any more – that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself in passages you don’t understand…” This state of mind was anathema to the characters who revel in confusion directly engaging the audience with playful interaction. Joyous.

photo of a group of performers on the south lawn of the Olympic Park dressed in wildy colourful, makeshift costumes

The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble at Liberty Festival 2016. Photo by Colin Hambrook

photo of performer Jo-Anne Cox playing cello with a Together 2012 banner in the background

Jo-Anne Cox performing in the Together 2012 tent at Liberty 2016. Photo by Colin Hambrook

As is often the case at Liberty my favourite part of the day was time spent in the Together tent. I have seen Jo-Anne Cox playing electric cello many times in support of Penny Pepper’s powerful spoken word performance (Penny was busy compering the main music stage this year) but apart from the sound pieces she posted on DAO for a period, I hadn’t ever heard her composition in its own right. I was wowed by the intensity behind her performance. Her movement and gesture are exquisite as she becomes one with the music. Watching and hearing her is to enter into a spellbound realm as unique as it is captivating – a true privilege.

I could never underestimate the value and importance of Together 2012 in giving a chance to artists who don’t necessarily have the confidence to knock out an Unlimited application or put themselves readily in front of a non-disabled audience. As a sector we’ve lost too much of that space for ground-work to happen and Ju Gosling and Julie Newman have done amazing work in keeping the spirit of the old-style disability arts cabarets alive and kicking.

photo of dancer Malene Becker and spoken word artist Rowan James in rehearsal

Rowan James and Malene Becker in DEAF EYE.

After having supported Rowan James last year in taking his spoken-word performance Easy For You To Say to Edinburgh, I’d been looking forward to seeing his new piece Deaf Eye collaborating with Malene Becker and MC Geezer. Liberty is a great place for artists to try out new directions and focus on learning new performance skills and Rowan and his fellow performers didn’t disappoint.

Combining dance and sign-language with his identity-rap style the piece coalesces around the stories of the three performers. Each story is given a parentheses with a sterile recorded voice providing interjections about the general use of the term ‘disabled’ within the commercial world. Technology relates to ‘disabled’ from a medical model perspective – and no-matter how frustrating it is to be represented in terms of ‘what’s wrong with you’ – the paradigm this presents is not going to go away all too readily. It’s used as a clever linking device between stories supporting the message behind the personal stories with subtle effect.

Disability identity is always complex. And the struggles of disabled and deaf people to forge a positive identity haven’t always been helped by the communities established to support empowerment. These are important stories and are the backbone of the need for disability arts to reflect and reconsider its values.

All three performers had clearly gelled through the devising process and were absorbing each others strengths in using spoken word, BSL and movement. I was particularly struck by MC Geezer exploring the politics of deafness.

BSL taught me to be myself. A new language I could put into a song.
A new experience of where I could belong.
I found a place in my community, opportunity and unity.
All those feelings that were new to me.
I had the best of both worlds, but the worst of them too.
Two dimensions, but there was a third.
Not deaf enough to be deaf, not hearing enough to be heard.

Sometimes the deaf community, say that I’m not deaf enough.
Cos I can speak. But I’m like “haven’t I invested enough”.
I learnt to speak through my hearing aid, but some people felt betrayed.
Upsetting my identity in the community that I found.
All because I can hear some sound.

The Social Model has been a powerful foundation for disabled people to build on and to find a voice, but it’s misguided interpretation from a non-disabled perspective has led to some of the most disabling representation ever. Liberty in it’s association with National Paralympic Day remains fraught with contradictions as I was reminded on my way to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The advert displayed on the underground announces: ‘Superhumans Return 7 Sept’. The banner image sports the word ‘DISABILITY’ with the ‘DIS’ crossed out with a red tab through the letters. The foreground parades a macho image of a Paralympian, muscles extended, wearing hi-tec artificial running legs.

Channel 4, with its ‘Superhuman’ message is a denial of what disability means in the realm of the everyday. It stores up expectation loaded with further discrimination for younger disabled people like Rowan, Malene and Matt. They might think it clever to play on the romantic sci-fi image of technological adaptations of the human form, but the reality is that this kind of representation steeped in medical model barfs merging notions of ‘overcoming’ and ‘acceptance’ are dangerous and it seems to me – only a step away from eugenics. What happens when you don’t step up to the ideal?

What comes around, goes around. There’s no getting away from it. We just have to learn to support each other through this down-turn in what society projects onto us. The artists at Liberty all have something valuable to say and the importance of the opportunity the event presents for us cannot be gainsaid.