Cumulative Effect: the recent Shape Open reflects on Disability and the welfare state

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The aim of  this years’ Shape Open is quite simple, though the effects are, in truth, hard to bear says James Zatka-Haas reflecting on the recent Shape Open held in Hoxton Arches, London from 1-11 November 2018.

sculpture consisting of a deckchair with wheels

Carly Jane’s ‘Strangers’. Image © Rachel Cherry

Celebrating, or rather referencing the the National Assistance Act 70th anniversary – a ‘key pillar to the welfare structure’, this exhibition explores the reality of welfare Britain today; the outcome of a once hopeful ‘cradle-to-grave’ aspiration now drowned in hate-fueled media stereotypes, strangling austerity cuts and out of touch policy, understood through the disabling effect it has had on people with impairments.

The exhibition opens with a stark reminder of how disabled people, outside of their heroic appeal, are generally portrayed. Next to the introductory text, Carly Jane’s Strangers (2013) initiates the conversation.

The piece asks candidly where disabled people – always the subjects of, but rarely contributors to the discussion – sit in public opinion. A wheelchair with an upholstered sunlounger should give a pretty clear answer. Not well.

The theme of being separate from the discussion is, to varying degrees, a common theme. Artist Jon Adams prints Arbeitsfähig onto business cards as a comment on the controversial Work Capability Assessments.

Translated to ‘Fit For Work’ Arbeitsfähig, aside from its obvious ironical middle finger to business culture, finds itself in murkier waters with its implicit reference to German history, sliding in a little too close to ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ to feel altogether innocent.

A collage with the words 'fuck the DWP sits inside a gold frame

Justin Piccirilli’s piece ‘Fuck the DWP’. Image © Rachel Cherry

Dramatic? Maybe, but this allusion to Auschwitz crops up again in Justin Piccirilli’s piece Fuck the DWP (2016), sitting adjacent.

Here, Picirilli writes “work sets you free, fuck the DWP” on a Work Capability Assessment form (WCA). The piece takes note of the humiliating and altogether unrealistic criterias that the WCA works with, pointing out that “the assessment is conducted by neither a qualified doctor nor mental health professional.

The outcome is then decided by a completely different, never present decision maker,” inevitably leading to false, badly thought out decisions.

The link might sound stretched in both pieces, but with the rise of suicide attempts in a population wrongly regarded as work fit and the seemingly pot luck decisions of ‘Access to Work’ – explored further in Aminder Virdee’s …And the Odds and Sods (2013) a six sided dice with ‘fit for work’ and ‘not fit for work’ written on the faces – the ties to a compliant, barely trained individual deciding your fate, feel a little too close for comfort.

The curation of these first few exhibits deals with the disenfranchisement of political measure, followed by several pieces, which ask if the policy understands the community it is trying to effect?

a six sided dice with the words 'fit for work' sits on a white background

Aminder Virdee’s ‘…And the Odds and Sods’. Image © Rachel Cherry

Action Space’s Tony Allen, in an audio recording, gives an account of being lost for five days:

“I look around to see who’s listening to me and if no one’s paying attention then it’s a waste of time, so I’m not going to say it again – and that’s their loss.” You Should Give People a Chance’ (2015)

It’s a simple yet accurate statement of the relationship between disability and the DWP. The structures appear to be in place, but nobody’s making them work for the community they are intended for. It leads to thousands of increasingly despondent voices who, finding there to be no open ears to hear their concerns, give up and accept the label given to them.

A black canvas sits against a white wall

Aidan Moesby ‘(in)visible’ shown at Cumulative Effect. Image © Rachel Cherry

Aidan Moesby responds to this by exploring how the measures prioritise visible over invisible impairments. (in)visible (2014) exhibits a dark canvas with the sentence “it’s not all about the visible’’ written in a similar dark grey font. You have to get up close, adjust the light and tilt your head to make out the words. It’s barely readable, pointing to the idea that psychological access needs are at best an afterthought; neither heard nor seen from a political standpoint.

a black bin with the word 'loony' on it, sits in the gallery

The Vacuum Cleaner’s ‘The City and Hackney Centre for Mental Health’. Image © Rachel Cherry

Likewise, The Vacuum Cleaner’s The City and Hackney Centre for Mental Health’ (2013) reformats the font of a Hackney Borough bin with the word ‘Loony’, a pejorative term for mental health hospitals as ‘Loony Bins’, implying the act of “throwing them in.”

The pieces shed light on the impersonal nature of the current welfare system; treating individual cases through a one size fits all approach that further disables the population it is intended to help.

Yet there can be a positive response to all this. The zines at the end of the exhibition are a friendly reminder of what we can do, individual voices offering an array of personal insights on how not to self harm for example, or why it is okay and normal not to feel always okay.

Against the disastrous policy and the disenfranchisement, these zines, such as Lizzy Rose’s Chronicillness Zine (2015) put up an empowered stance. They are made for people from others also struggling – voices that can rebuild communities facing threats from all sides of the cultural and political spectrum.

The exhibition is so much more than an overview of disability and welfare.  It delivers a profound insight into the perverse and largely incoherent reality of a system that is fractured, bruised and (probably) beyond repair. It’s an exploration of a once hopeful vision gone sour; left to rust on false perception and toxic policy.

Walking out, you might ask yourself ‘where’s the humanity?’ and in light of news that austerity measures will slob around for at least another ten years, and mainstream media’s insistence on pointing fingers at whoever they can, we will be asking ourselves this for a while yet.


Click on this link to listen to audio descriptions of each of the artworks in the exhibition on the Shape Arts website