Why Robin Surgeoner is building a platform for disability and diverse arts

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Robin Surgeoner aka Angryfish is a writer, performer, workshop leader and veteran of the Disability Arts movement. Surgeoner is organising the Why? Festival in Birmingham on 8 July 2017, billed as ‘a disability and diversity arts extravaganza’. Colin Hambrook spoke to him to find out ‘why’. 

Robin Surgeoner

Robin Surgeoner aka Angryfish performs his album ‘Black Thursday’

The Why? Festival is a programme of work developed by Robin Surgeoner aimed at engaging with new disabled and/or diverse artists, culminating in a showpiece event in Digbeth, Birmingham on 8 July. The Why? Festival has included a regular event series entitled Permission to Perform, aimed at artist development. Surgeoner explains:

“The Why? Festival is the title that I have given as an umbrella to all of the creative and development work that I engaged with in relation to Disabled and Diverse arts, and then under that there are different strands of activity, of which Permission to Perform is the largest in that is it both the tool for finding and developing new artists and delivering performance opportunities for those artists.  A number of the artists who have been a part of Permission to Perform are performing at Why? Fest 2017.”

Surgeoner’s motivation for putting on the programme seems to be both personal and political.

“My impetus for developing the Why? Festival is a combination of my own and many other Disability Arts practitioners’ shared experiences, in trying to gain meaningful development and performance opportunities that are not defined by the non-disabled arts worlds. Many have struggled for so long to try and make the square pegs that we are, fit into other people’s round holes; and the only way to do this is to shrink and chip away at the integrity and voracity of what we create by diluting it for sanitised and ‘approved’ public consumption.

The problem is that in doing so, we not only compromise much of what we are about, and lose the metaphor and message that our art intended, but very often, there is still very poor audience up-take. Sadly, the very essence of why I am doing Why? is the lack of inter-agency co-operation and shared networking that could and should lead to fantastic opportunities through collated working. So, I ran two full days of open networking drop-ins at Birmingham Central Library with massive publicity and yet the take up was negligible.

What I was able to establish is that there is a glaring lack of networking, perhaps resulting from massive organisational insecurity, particularly in organisations for Disabled people as opposed to by or with them. There still exists an incredibly parochial attitude to working with Disabled Artists, which creates a sense of ‘ownership’ of Disabled Artists rather than of joy, sharing, promotion and independence.  Thus, there is very little solidarity in aspiration to share success in a constructive way, as each organisation fights for its financial survival, funding success becomes the driving force for organisations, and not the art.

This is why we see huge press activity from the Arts Council in relation to who they have funded, but do not see anything like the same promotion in relation to the work that is created, or indeed led to the funding being given.”

Finding venues and audiences for disability arts work has been problematic, certainly over the last 15 years. Surgeoner has seen and done a lot in that time, and has some insight into why that might be.

“I think that the biggest single lesson I have learnt over the last 15 years is that unless an audience thinks they have something to identify with in a performance or the performers, then people do not recognise it as something that they would want to go to; that is except when it is perceived as pure entertainment.

This delivers something of a dichotomy to the would-be promoter or Disabled Artist. Do they market the art as ‘Disability Art’ or by ‘Disabled Artists’? Or, do they potentially compromise their integrity by not being explicit that the work is either by or includes disabled artists? Whilst not all disabled artists consider themselves to be practitioners of Disability Arts, in my own experience, if you are perceived to be disabled, your art is not seen as something for mass consumption. It is seen as something by disabled people for disabled people.

There seems to be a negligible amount of sharing of audience intelligence. I conducted research into the levels and capacity for networking amongst arts organisations, in relation to Disabled Artists, artist opportunities, and audience development. Rather than a willingness to share intelligence, there was a resounding silence from the majority of potential sources.

I believe this is due to the relationship between funding paucity and the perception of the need to hold onto to everything organisations see as ‘owning’. That ownership appears to extend to the intelligence and even artists which the organisation works with. This makes them a reflection of the very political hierarchies that most arts organisations loath and despise. Thus, the oppressed become the oppressors in a market place where knowledge is both currency and power.”

Given Surgeoner’s research and experience, it will be interesting to see how he applies the lessons learned to his own approach to marketing the Why? Festival

“Which side of the compromise did I decide to land on? I cheated! I went both sides and down the middle by making the final live event of this phase of The Why? Festival an ‘inclusive’ event, marketed as Why? Fest 2017. By that I mean that I am curating an event which brings together music and spoken word artists from a cross-section of the community include diverse music such as Country, Reggae, Folk and Punk. The idea is that established local acts who fit the bill of Diversity will bring in larger audience numbers for all artists to benefit from.

It is painfully obvious that audience engagement for Disability Arts events is disastrously low. Even some of the major events, to the outsider might seem self-congratulatory, irrespective of its integrity. I have no intention of shying away from marketing work by Disabled Artists as such. But I also recognise that an effective vehicle is needed to bring in broader audiences which reflect the wider community. This will ensure that the excellence of performers who are disabled people, and may be Disability Arts practitioners, is experienced within the auspice of a non-partisan arts event. Only time will tell how successful this has been.”

But what can audiences actually expect at the showpiece event, which will be a culmination of all Surgeoner’s efforts to develop and nurture both artists and audiences?

“If all goes as hoped then you can expect a fantastic live event from a broad range of artists delivering music and spoken word across two stages, one acoustic, and a main band stage, plus two visual art exhibitions from Disabled Artists. Not to mention face painting by the hugely talented Dareane Marie Chick, plus bar and Costa coffee facilities throughout the event.

The bill at the time of writing is includes: The Gabbidon Band, Khaliq, Angryfish, Jim McLean, Cosmic Nomad, Sam Cooper, Church of Elvis, Remi Fox-Novák, Robert Punton, Prole Position, Kuli Kohli, Georgina Hartley, Paul Munro, Weaver, Fred Novak and hopefully the event will be compered by Joe ‘Cookie’ Cook with more to be confirmed.”

The Why Fest will be at The Crossing Digbeth, Birmingham on 8 July. Book tickets here.

One of the visual artists exhibiting at Why? Fest 2017, Sam Brett-Atkin has donated one of his originals to be sold to raise funds to further the work of The Why? Festival.  Robin Surgeoner would love to hear from anyone who could help organise this auction and realise a good price for it. Email: info@whyfestival.co.uk