Martin O’Brien’s Viewfinder commission has delved into the SPILL archives and emerged as a set of conversations and accompanying playlist that are sure to spark further debate and enquiry.
Disability Arts Online’s Viewfinder project is all about enabling people to find views on the world through artists videos in order to instigate meaningful conversations. The Illness and Disability in Radical Performance Practices Roundtable discussion at Pacitti company’s Think Tank became the focal point for this commission on Wednesday 10 August. This intimate setting featured discussions with Martin O’Brien, Robert Pacitti, Lois Keidan of LADA, DAO’s Colin Hambrook, Noemi Lakmaier, Aaron Williamson and Giovanna Maria Casetta.
Much of the conversation featured an underlying theme of agency and how agency is facilitated by language. Lois Keidan described LADA’s Access All Areas public programme (2011), which explored, showcased and discussed Live Art by disabled artists, explaining that “it was really important that this was about Live Art first, not about disability.”
She went on to say that at the time the event received some criticism from those who thought it should have been put together by an organisation led by disabled people. However the artists LADA were working with and the Arts Council who supported the programme stressed the value of working with a Live Art organisation rather than a disability organisation.
Lois felt it was “perfectly legitimate for LADA to lead on this, and to look at the practice of disabled artists within the wider context of Live Art not just the context of Disability Art.” Robert Pacitti responded; saying that “as a white person, my activism is in service to challenging white supremacism, and I see that as work white people have to do. As a man it’s about pushing back gender inequality and that’s work men have to do, and as someone who identifies as non-disabled I feel that there’s a sense of being in service to disability politic as well… I think it’s important to listen when people tell us what their experience is. But I feel that there’s valid work to be done to be in service. We can support the work but it remains the job of the artists we work with to lead with the politics of their work.”
I agree with Robert’s approach and feel a connection with the way I work, but there is still a strong case for disability-led events. It’s not a case of either/or, but rather both. The concern is that not all cultural leaders take the approach of using their privilege to fight inequalities in programming and ensure a range of different and interesting creative voices are heard. Part of that ‘service’ non-disabled gatekeepers must perform is to create opportunities to be challenged by, and collaborate with, disabled cultural leaders.
Additionally, disability-led events have a unique place and purpose that cannot be replaced by events led by non- disabled people. The sense of community, shared politics, and ‘crip’ culture experienced at events like DaDaFest are a powerful and important aspect of understanding the context in which disabled artists live and create artwork. This isn’t ghettoization, it is an important, empowering, shared experience that is part of the ongoing wider conversation about identity, politics, culture and art.
Giovanna Maria Casetta talked about the language of ‘illness’ and the invisibility of people living with ongoing health conditions stressing how perceptions amplify the idea of ‘dis-ease’. She gave the example of institutions, hospitals and therapeutic units being hidden away on the outskirts of towns. On language she observed that “if you are suffering, you are nursed, you are patient, you are a patient, you wait, you’re passive, you’re not supposed to be out there in this role of being diverse or dynamic – of living a life, because you are sick, you’re a patient, you’re going to be nursed… It’s infantile… passive language.”
Martin O’Brien explained that he uses the performance space to take control and to have agency over his own body, skewing the words, disrupting and owning them so that the audience is the one experiencing the dis-ease. Colin Hambrook associated this with the Affirmation Model of Disability and a more in-depth way of understanding politics around impairment.
Rounding off the discussion was a general consensus that it is the artists who should and do own the language around their work and their embodied experiences of the work. The words used by law, policy and funding bodies ghettoise people and artists should in all cases have the freedom to self-define and be creative in order to open up the conversation with the public. It is the work of arts administrators and fundraisers to make the links across language and frameworks.