Disabled artists have always had a healthy appetite for discussion and debate, and for getting together to create meaningful artistic and strategic opportunities for our community in the wider arts landscape. Artist-led opportunities, however, have been thin on the ground in recent years, so it is with a mix of both hope and excitement that Vici Wreford-Sinnott reports on a series of disabled artist led discussions, from the Cultural Shift Conviva Disabled-led Symposium earlier this year, and also the development of DISCONSORTIA – a disabled artist led consortium of extraordinary voices. In particular we’ve looked at how the current dominant narrative for disabled people in the arts has emerged and who it seeks to serve. Now, something new and exciting is underway, open to any disabled artists who wish to engage, building future visions for our community.
The state of play
To set the scene around dominant disabled artist narratives, what is in no doubt is that excellent work is being made by disabled artists across the UK, pockets of which are incredibly well resourced, celebrated and profiled, and reflect a rich multiplicity of work across art forms. There are enormous gaps too though. Gaps in understanding, in equity, in parity of esteem across the regions, and in appreciating the heritage of our arts movement and what that heritage means to us in the now.
Significantly, there are inadequate resources and professional support for disabled artists and companies whether they are young, emerging, mid-career or established artists. And there are differences in the levels of celebration and esteem between disabled artists from different backgrounds, companies, artforms, impairment groups and leadership, rarely based on the quality of work but more on the mainstream’s need for heroes and figureheads in the arts (more on this below in terms of how ‘heroes’ have come about).
In setting the scene, it’s important to acknowledge that many disabled artists have been having some of these conversations for years, decades even, and some of the content has remained the same over time, around an inaccessible, inequitable and unwelcoming arts world, and the impacts of arts policy changes that don’t involve or include us at the planning stages.
There are deep-seated frustrations around this, for disabled artists and those who champion us, and how we successively remain educators of new non-disabled people hitting the arts scene, and how we are intermittently celebrated and then dismissed. A lot of pain has been caused and it is important to name that, to say it out loud. It will always remain if it is not acknowledged.
There are very many examples over the years, of appalling treatment of disabled artists and audiences by very senior figures in the arts. As with our allies in other diverse communities, we do absorb and internalize much of this, but we do also move forward. These deeply affecting experiences don’t make it old news or old-fashioned practice. The poor treatment in the arts has simply added to the experiences of disabled people in all areas of society and compounded our disadvantage and our low status.
When you’re in the midst of this, it can be difficult to reflect and see clearly, it is challenging, if not impossible, not to be reactive, and it can be incredibly difficult to remain the positive pragmatists we are expected to be. Disabled people are some of the most creative and innovative people on the planet – we’ve had to be to survive.
In spite of everything, we do process our experiences, particularly ones that haven’t involved and included us, and ones which have simply trampled over us, and also our positive experiences, and we see clearly again and with foresight, discernment and planning we develop a future vision. A collaborative enriching vision to benefit all UK arts and culture.
And this is where our conversations at Cultural Shift’s Conviva and Disconsortia have led us – much of what we now discuss has actually changed and evolved according to the environment. We’ve reflected and processed our artistic experiences, the policy changes, we’ve critiqued, to some degree, and evolved our aesthetics.
The ‘old guard’ or the vanguard of Disability Arts?
The label of ‘old guard’ is often levelled at sectors of the disability arts community. How can we expect disabled people who have passionately held beliefs based on their experiences (in the face of what can often be inaccessible and appear slick, mainstreamed, middle class, white and often sanitized frameworks and processes) to just put them to one side or even absorb new views by osmosis?
Such labels are pervasively dismissive, negating a generation who brought about massive change and opportunities for those now working in the arts. And contrary to the label, many remain true forward-thinkers and visionaries; practitioners who find themselves uninvited to the table. A table that often isn’t asking the right questions. The result though, is that they are sidelined and silenced, and the appearance of the ‘new’ is presented as ‘better’. Our questions and discussions revolve around ‘better for who’?
We are yearning for new conversations, many of us are engaged in new practices, developing new forms and aesthetics, new levels of analysis and critique, new partnerships with venues and companies, and new ways of developing relationships with audiences and participants, which are genuinely led by disabled artists and practitioners.
We need safe spaces for those conversations – not to deliberately exclude allies and non-disabled people but to deliberately create meaningful, frank and honest conversations without the complications of having to contextualise for, educate, inform non-disabled people, and feel the need to curb what really needs to be said, tested and discussed freely.
We don’t need external curation to assist us with the discussions we need to have. The future depends on who is at the table, who is encouraged, enabled and supported to be at the table, actively guarding against echo chambers. And it all depends who is listening.
It is so refreshing to have been coming together with disabled artists from across the country over recent months and having fresh conversations with new aspirations and real solutions.
We decided it was important to address some of the ‘fundamentals’ about our ongoing quest for equality. Subjects that are often brushed over and assumptions made, but again, it’s essential to have them out there as part of the discussion and the journey towards effective collaborative policies and actions.
What does disabled-led really mean?
We’ve talked about the term Disability Arts a lot and acknowledged shifts in practice, content and aesthetics, and I’ll come back to this below in a section on the theme of a provocation around ‘feeling robbed’. We’ve also discussed the much-used term ‘disabled-led’ and what it means. Currently, in policy terms, if 51% of a board of an organization is disabled, the organization can call itself ‘disabled-led’ and therefore describe its work as disabled-led, and secure funding on that basis.
In our discussions the term disabled-led means something different to simple statistics, covering a range of things. It is more an ethos; it is in the accessible means and method of practice and production; it is about how an aesthetic is developed and led, and the disabled palette from which the work is drawn.
Presently, to self-define as disabled-led a couple of key things are being signified – that it’s necessary to make a specific disability distinction about the work. Why do we need to do that? Because we are creating opportunities for disabled people, who are dramatically under-represented in the arts, to be not only represented but to be the leaders of that representation.
It does not mean that non-disabled people running companies, create opportunities for disabled practitioners that then continue to be led by non-disabled people. This paternalistic model assumes that someone else knows better than disabled people, is more experienced, is more artistic, can translate what the disabled person means, has more authority, more power, and will therefore make decisions on behalf of disabled people. Entirely honourable non-disabled artists and allies – you cannot merely be guessing vessels and you cannot lead disabled-led activity.
Non-disabled practitioners, even allies, absolutely cannot know the history, lived historical, social and cultural experiences of disabled people and how that shapes our voices and aesthetics. Our work comes with a particular lens that it is not possible to put on, much the same as a non-disabled Hollywood actor ‘acting’ disabled.
You need to rethink your roles as allies and ensure disabled people are leading, and that the processes are genuinely disabled-led. If it’s about representation, equality and the voices of disabled people, you must include and involve disabled people in your decision making and listen to them, you can support it, fund it, ensure the environment is right, but you cannot lead it.
Disabled-led means that the artistic decisions of the company or project are entirely informed and delivered by disabled practitioners, and where disabled artists may require support, it needs to be an openly facilitated process by experienced disabled practitioners. This is the work of disabled artists. Disabled writers, directors, producers, makers, designers, facilitators and actors.
If it’s not, if it’s led by non-disabled people, then it’s not disabled-led. This does not mean that we want to work in separatist ghettos, but that it’s imperative to have a say in how our work is positioned and executed. It is part of a necessary trajectory that cannot and must not be externally curated, for the genuine development of our work, voices and aesthetics. We’ve changed a lot over the last 40 years and will continue to do so. But again, it must be led by us with equal resources to others in the arts and with equality measures in place to ensure we occupy main spaces.
Our discussions have also reviewed notions of ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘being mainstreamed’. Again, we’ve been discussing this for years. We want equality in the main spaces but it’s rarely within our hands and extremely rarely on our artistic terms. On the one hand, being mainstreamed might mean our work being celebrated and presented on our terms, on equal terms with other artists and companies, in dominant leading arts spaces.
It might mean that employment opportunities will improve and more disabled people will be employed in meaningful roles in the arts. It might mean that we are a less transient group of artists, practitioners and managers but actually have a long-term presence without having to consistently case make and re-package ourselves.
However, being mainstreamed might also mean we have to be cautious about our work becoming diluted, made palatable, or being made into a spectacle. We might have to caution against being flavour of the month or experimented with like lab rats to see what its like to work with us and whether we are any good. For many, mainstreaming is a holy grail, the ultimate achievement, whereas for others it signifies integration to an existing system that doesn’t work; and potentially worse, assimilation into the status quo, perpetuating tired disability stereotypes and tropes.
Achieving equality is a long, hard road with many casualties along the way. If you are from a ‘diverse’ community and you are an artist, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else to prove you are good enough. Then you have to work for free as a disability consultant, advisor, and you have to decide whether or not to be an educator for practitioners, managers, directors, executives, to achieve any chance of equality, alongside your own artistic practice.
Rocky and precarious relationships where the disabled person definitely does not hold the balance of power. Many of us do burn out. Isn’t that outrageous in a 21st Century UK? We live this disadvantage and discrimination 24 hours a day but put our professional and persuasive masks on to persuade non-disabled decision makers that we are worthy.
But we find that if we start to talk too loudly about inaccessibility and equality we are personified as difficult and it becomes easier to ignore us and shut us out. Some of us have forged strong allies in mainstream settings but quite often these allegiances are held within individuals rather than organizational ethos and policy.
It can be very transitory, and it will always be the disabled practitioner, the disability community starting over, starting again from scratch. Disconsortia have some fresh and fantastic ideas about removing the fear of getting it wrong and building relationships with venues across the UK.
The vexed question of a disability ‘ghetto’
Answering the call about being in a ghetto – a perceived self-selecting separatist ghetto. It’s often levelled at people from diverse communities in the arts, if you’re not careful you’ll create a ghetto – you’re just making work for yourselves, you’ll get stuck. If you’ll only work with disabled people you’re not going to reach everyone.
Well, thank you for your input. We have some thoughts on this too. Many civil rights groups do start out making work aimed at their own community. It’s where we examine who we are, share ideas about our cultural, historical and social experiences, and its where we garner much needed solidarity. There seems to be an inherent assumption here that because we make work with each other that it’s not worthy of main stages and platforms.
The reality is, if you are from a diverse group, you are not naturally a part of the status quo. We don’t see our stories or ourselves represented authentically. It’s a status quo which exists to preserve itself. And yet if you did a mathematical calculation (which someone far more inclined than me will need to do) of the composition of society – we’re already made up of all sorts of smaller communities. These smaller communities add up to make the whole community. It means we are a pluralist society.
However, some groups historically have held more power, around which social norms have been constructed. And so, as a culture, we believe that diverse groups are something on the outside, in the margins, others. When in fact we’re a part of the whole and always have been. We’re part of pluralism. We just didn’t realise, because of the status quo, that we could reclaim our space, take our place. The picture has always been painted, the novel always written and the play always presented ina certain way, and that’s that.
None of us lives in a disabled vacuum, we belong and live in the wide world and working with our peers is not about ghettoizing ourselves. We’re looking for platforms in the public domain, we make work for everyone to see, we want our voices to be heard and celebrated, if we were invested in to the same extent as other companies and practitioners, we wouldn’t be talked about in terms of quality or capacity.
With the correct infrastructure in place we can make work to fill the establishment with our own canons. Audiences will love our work for all its richness because it’s about humanity and the human experience. And, of course, we want to work with collaborators from our wider arts community, our wider arts family. But is has to be with respect and with the power imbalance recognized, and the expertise we bring rewarded, alongside the artistic practice.
A daylight robbery
I recently presented a provocation to one of our Disconsortia discussions about feeling robbed. I wondered whether people feel robbed of our natural evolutionary trajectory as a movement of artists, and what role this may have played in the development of the current narrative surrounding our identities and our work.
We talked about the disinvestment of the disability arts forums around the country removing all support and infrastructure for disabled artists as a community, as a voice, disabled-led opportunities and regional negotiations with arts venues and organisations. We discussed the inflation of expectation both of us and from us around the 2012 Olympics.
Disabled people were presented as super heroes, as people who overcome adversity and for whom the Paralympic narrative would represent a turning point. Temporarily, Paralympic heroes were represented on television, and still occasionally pop up on panel shows, but it continues to be about individuals and not the body of a community.
Similarly, in the arts, as actor and director Garry Robson recently pointed out in a discussion, we now have a number of disabled heroes and figureheads – the hundreds of disabled artists left behind around the country by disinvestment long forgotten. Individuals sought out as representatives and voices for a community, which of course they do not have a mandate to be.
In an arts world that celebrates the stories of the individual without connecting the neo-liberal ideology of individualism behind it; the wider, less slick, less glossy community, the body of work and the requirements of all are forgotten. There has been a conflation – in the arts generally, but also in current trends in disability related arts – of disability with illness, sickness and health, and again, heroes.
Yet, disability is a social phenomenon which is not about the body, the medical or the impairment. It’s about the loss of opportunity to fully take part in society due to barriers and discrimination. It is not about illness, tragedy or being bloody inspirational. This critique is not personal to any of our hero individuals who also require support, it’s about the system and how it has directed our narrative. It’s not about begrudgery, envy or ‘tall poppy’ syndrome, it’s about accountability, evaluation and critique.
Disconsortia will be releasing information soon about how to get involved, how to turn discussions into creative action and about our strategic and artistic plans.