DaDaFest in Liverpool has held a big place in my heart since the early 2000s. I know there are many disabled / Deaf artists and allies who feel a powerful emotional connection to the DaDaFest International Disability Arts Festival and look forward to when it comes around. The popularity is very much down to the achievements of Ruth Gould who has nurtured and grown the organisation. On the one hand DaDaFest has always programmed radical and cutting edge work, yet on the other hand has always been nurturing and open, keeping one eye on ensuring the people involved with it are valued and recognised for their contribution.
For me it comes down to Ruth Gould’s incredibly generous spirit, the team of creative people she has attracted around her, the volunteers and the city of Liverpool itself, which in many ways has taken DaDaFest to its heart. There is something about the character of the city embodied by DaDaFest that ensures we get Disability Arts at its most open and engaging.
It’s a combination of things really – the warmth of the Scousers and the general feeling of acceptance that the city itself seems to radiate. But more importantly it’s the extraordinary gift of a unique approach to Disability Arts that DaDaFest affords.
My time at DaDaFest is always too short and this year it was taken up with putting on an event at the Bluecoat, which Steph Nicui reflected on for DAO last week. I didn’t have a lot of time to see much what was on offer, but thought I’d do a run down here of some of what I witnessed.
There is always room to give space to emerging talent at DaDaFest and this year we caught Sarah Fisher with her musical showcase, Twitch, currently on a UK tour. Sarah makes for a captivating stage presence, sharing her adventures as a musician with cerebral palsy. She is feeling her way as a performer and a musician with a bit of stand-up, some solo piano and a wide variety, fusing with rap amongst other genres.
The Unity Theatre always gives a warm welcome. I caught Kaite O’Reilly’s The ‘d’ Monologues in a series of six rehearsed readings of selected speeches by different performers to celebrate the launch of Oberon Modern Playwrights publication of three of her gems: In Water I’m Weightless, richard iii redux and the collaboration with Singaporean artists And Suddenly I Disappear.
In her introduction to the book, Jenny Sealey describes the work as “an emotional rollercoaster of raw pain, humour and resilience”. This couldn’t have been better summed up than by an absolutely incredible appearance from Julie McNamara performing a monologue called I Fall To Pieces.
Sadly Julie couldn’t make it to Liverpool and so simply recorded her performance on her smartphone and sent it just in the nick of time for it to be played on a screen to the packed Unity crowd. And all the deadpan humour, cutting observation and emotional intelligence that Julie is able to give to a description of a psychiatric patient faced by the overwhelming power of a consultation with a psychiatrist was there. It is a beautifully written monologue – sheer poetry in the way it takes you into the mind of a woman looking for ways to respond to her utter powerlessness in the face of life on the women’s ward annotated with a heartbreaking rendition of Willie Nelson’s classic Crazy.
Ruth Gould gave a compelling reading of I’m Sorry – a meditation on the human condition and the inevitability of impairment, ill-health and of dying. It was a poignant piece engaging with the festival theme this year focussed on the notion of ‘transpire’ with the title ‘Passing’ capturing the many different aspects of our life’s journeys. I think Ruth captured the ambivalent tone within the writing – it’s unapologetic underscore of the reality of just how fragile life is.
It is a strength of DaDaFest that it embraces the difficult aspects of what disability and chronic illness bring into our lives. On top of the overt discrimination that disability engenders, through barriers and simply as a result of what we represent, there are the everyday challenges that we manoeuvre because of impairment.
Until the Last Breath is Breathed – a video installation from performance artist Martin O’Brien gives an unrelenting insight into the actions that keep him alive as someone living with cystic fibrosis. Filmed over thirty hours in an old abandoned morgue the work celebrates the hours leading up to the artists’ 30th birthday – the limit given to his life from his early years. It is a sombre reminder of just how precious everything is, presenting a Christ-like image of a face seen behind a lit candle placed in a flapjack as if it were a Renaissance painting.
In sublime contrast to the elegiacal contribution of O’Brien St Georges Hall also played host to a historical exhibition of photographs and installations commemorating pre-first world war Invalid Carriage vehicles and the lives of those who used them. Simon Mckeown’s No Passengers is a project that has come out of an obsession with collecting invalid carriages.
Simon’s passion for these iconic cars and the freedom (even if limited by order of having no passengers) oozes through this quirky exhibition. The road owner of historic vehicles, he also runs The Invalid Carriage Register. A central installation consists of a Tippen Delta – presumably, one of the earliest motorised vehicles of its kind – surrounded by watchful larger than life stick figures, one standing and one seated. Danger signs and an embedded video lead you to believe these things were death traps.
The forerunner of modern-day wheelchairs are displayed in the photographs of non-motorised versions from the early 1900s, which have grand titles like The Park, Duncoln, Regency, Kensington, Bosworth etc. conveying a sense of status very much at odds with the language of disability – words like mutilated and invalid – used to describe the individuals who rode them. Often pulled or pushed by dogs or with bespoke attachments designed for the individual user, these were given out by the Army Pension Fund following the First World War. This represents the beginnings of the National Health Service who took on the role of distributing these carriages after the Second World War.
A big strength of DaDaFest is the way in which it pulls diverse themes and work together and gives them a context firmly based around the social model of disability. But aside from the political aspect of disability, there is a strong sense that runs through what DaDaFest does of telling stories of what it is to be human from a perspective that society needs more of.