Dedicated to using the performing arts to explore, broadly, the difficult stuff of life, SICK! Lab took place at the Contact Theatre, Manchester from 9th-12th March 2016, showcasing performance, discussion and presentations on the tricky themes of identity and trauma. Colin Hambrook gives an overview, taking the temperature of the collaboration.
Firstly, you might wonder why Disability Arts Online should be getting into bed with SICK!? The Viewfinder programme of short films Unapologetic Self-Portraits: Disabled and Deaf Artists on Film, curated by disabled film-makers Sandra Alland and Lisa Mattocks in partnership with SICK! was screened throughout the festival.
In this collection of short films, disabled people are taking back the camera or the stage or the poem, moving away from the pity, tragedy or supercrip Paralympic or inspirational narratives that are so common when speaking about disability – we’re telling our own stories in our ways.
The SICK! Festival has been growing over the last three years and in that time has programmed performance from artists well known within the disability arts sector, like Caroline Bowditch, Robert Softley-Gale, Martin O’Brien, and Bobby Baker.
Many of the artists SICK! programme may or may not identify as disabled artists, but their work sets out to explore aspects of life: disability, illness and trauma that are convoluted in a mesh of identity issues as a result of the law, society, media representation and individual perception.
It was never intended to be an easy ride. In March 2015 the festival themes were suicide, sex and abuse: not the kind of work you would expect to play to packed houses. And yet the quality of the work and the way it has been framed within conversations with individuals from universities, hospitals, voluntary organisations and individuals with lived experience of the issues has drawn diverse, capacity audiences.
The further down the road SICK! Festival has gone the more successful it has become in terms of giving a focus to complex issue-based work, giving performers and audiences permission to share their deepest experiences of life.
The SICK! Lab at Contact Theatre was a series of creative interventions and discussions on the theme of identity and trauma. The Disability Arts Online team was there to launch our first Viewfinder collection, and to inject a Social Model of Disability understanding into the conversation. In a conversation about identity we wanted to highlight that disability is a product of the society we live in.
SICK! has always shown an understanding of how the pathologising of ‘madness’ impacts on lives, but mental health as a ‘disability’ issue is still a misnomer. If you locate ‘disability’ within the body it becomes laden with issues around ‘what’s wrong.’ If you define disability as a product of society it begs the question: what sort of a society do we want to live in? When personal freedoms are removed by State-run authorities under the Mental Health Act it then becomes a disability issue. It begs the question what sorts of treatment of differing communities and sections of society do we consider okay? And where is the line drawn?
Broadly, SICK! is about challenging stigma and control over the social construction of identity – particularly focusing on identities subject to discrimination. On the Couch brought artists, academics, clinicians, commentators and the public together into a conversation about identity as something fluid, an aspect of humanity that we move between. It went on to discuss what brings us together and what divides us.
At the core of the idea of the self is freedom. But freedom becomes restricted as soon as we come into relationship with each other. Paradoxically, we do better as individuals as soon as we join a group in which we can reinforce our values and endorse who we think we are. The group also exists as somewhere we can lose ourselves in times when we may not like who we are.
Disability Arts has changed. Some would say Disability Arts died when the emphasis on ‘disability’ as a social construct changed and the growing focus on impairment-specific work emerged. The disability community has become so used to having a conversation within its own small circle and now, more than ever, as austerity measures impact harder and threaten our lives more, there is a bigger imperative for those conversations to be held within a wider context than the framework that ‘Disability Arts’ provides.