Aidan Moesby is an artist, curator and activist, currently working on his latest Unlimited commission, I was naked, smelling of rain. Moesby is also currently an Associate Artist as Disability Arts Online, as part of which he is hosting a curated conversation at Midlands Art Centre (MAC) Birmingham with George Vasey, Jessica Litherland, Anna Berry and Sue Austin on 23 November, which will be livestreamed on Disability Arts Online. Ahead of the event, Moesby sat down with Joe Turnbull to talk about his career thus far.
Picture the scene, if you will. Two bearded Geordie blokes having a natter over a pint on a Friday afternoon, setting the world to rights. In your mind’s eye, what are they discussing? Football? Birds?! At a push, Brexit? None of the above (except birds, the avian kind, indirectly when discussing the environment). In fact, Aidan Moesby and I have a wide-ranging conversation about activism, the nature of curation and the invisibility of disabled artists.
“I’m staunchly Northern,” Moesby muses. “Until recently I’ve had two very big chips on my shoulders. I’m relatively classic Northern working class. And I’m disabled.” It’s hard to tell if there’s a pun intended with the mention of chips in juxtaposition to his working-class, Northern identity. “All the power is held down in the South,” he expands. “It’s provinces. Disability is the provinces of a normative world. The North East is a province, a forgotten hinterland between England and Scotland.”
“I grew up with Thatcher in power. I’ve always been politicised. Whether it was environmental, or left-wing politics, or disability politics,” says Moesby. His political activism and his journey as an artist are inextricably linked. Early on, Moesby was an environmental activist who studied a BA in Environmental Studies. He then became a therapist, doing an MA in Art and Psychotherapy.
Moesby only started taking art and writing seriously when his mental health was too fragile to continue as a therapist. “At that stage, no one was talking about neurodiversity,” he recalls.
“If you didn’t understand – you were thick. Once I became very out about having a severe, enduring mental health problem, the phone stopped ringing, I lost a lot of work. There was a lot of stigma attached to it. I’d never really experienced any of that before – also, I was used to being on the other side of that – being the professional. To experience it as a ‘service user’ as an artist, it’s really hard.”
Moesby came across disability arts and was offered a residency with the now-defunct Disability Arts in Newcastle. “Disability arts just felt like a natural fit, I really identified with it,” says Moesby. “I related to whole ‘Outsider’ thing of not having the networks, not understanding what it was to have a career as an artist, because I hadn’t gone to art school”.
“My initial artistic practice was all text based, because of the importance of language in therapy,” he explains. “Although I’m very clear what I do isn’t therapy – for me or the people I work with. My work has evolved to be more visual and object-based, but conversations still underpin all of my practice.”
Identifying as a disabled artist may have resonated with Moesby, but it is not without its drawbacks.
“It’s clear to me now, whether I work in a mainstream or a disability context that you have no cultural, societal or economic value as a disabled person. Your artwork is seen as less professional. You’re a non-person. How do you address that?”
“For me, saying I’m a disabled artist is a political act. But I don’t know how relevant that conversation is to today’s generation. A lot of young people don’t identify with being disabled or with the disability arts movement. We need to construct a new conversation about what it means to be disabled but have a professional arts practice.”
In 2011, Moesby undertook a residency at Dundee Contemporary Arts, aimed at making the institution engage with more disabled people as artists and audiences. “That was a big turning point,” says Moesby. “The conversations were happening where you didn’t have to fail – you could manage your health and your time and put things in place to make it a success and they were working with me to make it a success. Rather than fulfilling that trope of ‘disabled people can’t do anything, they’ll never deliver’.”
Moesby had himself fallen foul of this trope, because so often on previous projects his access needs hadn’t been met. “There’s no workshop that you can go to that tells you what an access need is and how to ask for it,” he reflects. “I didn’t know that asking for a room to have a window is an access need. It was key to my professional development in identifying as a disabled artist.”
Moesby is passionate about an expanded notion of access. “Psychological and emotional access is important but rarely considered. We know that we need ramps at a certain angle. But do people consider we need a bit of softness, or some plants?”
The disparity between meeting psychological and physical access needs is related to what Moesby describes as a “hierarchy of impairments”. He expands:
“In a Scope survey, mental health problems were the impairment that disabled people would like least. Going back to the 17th Century when people made money on the streets as ‘freaks’ disabled people with very physical impairments would get more money – so they had the economic power. Taking that forward to disability rights activism, and the visual symbol is people in wheelchairs chaining themselves to buses”.
Moesby believes this is inherently related to our culture favouring the highly visible and the immediate. It’s for similar reasons that Moesby believes there’s also a hierarchy of artforms, especially within disability arts. “We want the big spectacle, the instant hit,” he explains.
“That’s why performance really works. Those intimate moments of wonder where you can engage with an object and really spend time with it, are important but devalued. It’s the difference between reading a book and seeing it on Netflix. Culturally and economically it’s easier to sell a big wow. As a result, object-based disabled artists with hidden impairments are an invisible entity.”
Frustrated with this multi-layered invisibility, both for himself and others, Moesby decided to undertake an MA in Curation. “It was a very political decision to do curation, because of the position of curators within the artworld,” he explains.
“It is a powerful position, but I don’t necessarily want that power. I want to democratise and open up. Because being a curator gives you credibility, that allowed me to get the tables that I wanted to be at, to begin conversations that I want to have, which weren’t being had.”
Having become a bit of a vapid buzzword which is used to describe everything from arranging your bedroom to your social media presence, I ask Moesby what good curation means to him.
“If you go to the root of the word curation, curare – means to take care of. So, for me, I think about what it is I’m taking care of: the artists, the artworks, the audience and possibly the place in which it is shown. How do you get a conversation going between them and how can it be as rich as possible?”
“I also always want to have something broader and wider and bring in not just an art audience. I want to hear what other people can bring to the conversation. It’s a cross-fertilisation of professions, interests, perspectives, practice. The curation takes in all of that. Who are you curating for? Are you curating for the gallery or the space? Or for the work, or the artists? What about access?”
“I don’t think many mainstream curators really consider access. There’s such a codification around how art is shown. The language of that space is largely inaccessible. Both metaphorically and physically.”
Armed with a little extra credibility from his curation MA, Moesby is now intent on shaking up the sector. “I hear a lot of organisations who are scared of getting it wrong on access and disability,” he says. “But actually, it’s better to just do it, get it wrong and learn from it; have the conversation about how to do it better.”
“I think there’s always an issue around who has the power and I think we need to share it around more. When there’s only one or two voices being heard the conversation gets dominated and it becomes the ‘truth’ even if it’s not necessarily the best way. It actually needs to not be about power, but about agency.”
“I don’t want to become what I’m criticising, I just want to have a more open dialogue about how we can improve things for everyone. When I see the visual arts being left behind, if we can’t be more coherent and collaborative across the disability arts sector, how can we expect the mainstream to do it?”
Aside from agitating for change as a curator, Moesby’s artistic practice has also developed significantly in recent years. His latest work, ‘I was naked smelling of rain’ is currently undergoing an R&D, funded by Unlimited.
“I’ve come full circle now. From being a climate change activist to obsessing about the weather, and being a therapist. Now all of my previous incarnations have been distilled around this new project trying to address those issues of climate change and wellbeing. I want to do that through the art itself but also through conversations.”
You can join Aidan Moesby for Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists via the livestream on Disability Arts Online on Friday 23 November 2-4 pm. Join in on the DAO Facebook group or via the hashtag #InterrogatingInvisibility.