Disconsortia: is this group of disabled artists from the North East planning a hostile takeover?

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Disconsortia is a new artist-led initiative in the North East of England, with big plans. 7 February saw the latest planning meeting, supported by Disability Arts Online, at Arc Stockton. Letty McHugh went along to find out what they are plotting.

White woman gesturing to a group of people

Disconsortia meet up. Photograph: Black Robin

This week I got to sit in on a meeting of Disconsortia, a group of disabled, creative people, artists, I don’t know what to call them exactly, they were too busy making plans to get into semantics. What were they planning exactly? Well:

“We were thinking of doing something huge, maybe shutting down the A19”.

(For the uninitiated that’s a massive road in the North.)

Any good revolutionary knows taking over the means of mass transit is like a day-one activity if you want to overthrow the existing world order. The Disconsortia artists don’t actually want to overthrow the existing world order, they want to put on, “A four-week festival that travels around the North East every year from now until the end of time.” You can relax everyone, the plans revolve around funding and partner organisations, I don’t think we need to worry about an actual Disconsortia revolution until they start hoarding explosives.

For the first exercise we all had to share one ambition we’d had rejected by the mainstream art world:

“I have been told I can’t blow stuff up, but I’ve found an explosions expert to work within Leeds.”

Group of women look at a handcrafted map

Disconsortia meet up. Photograph: Black Robin

Okay, forget everything I said. Maybe they do have some plans to overthrow the existing world order, but I’m pretty sure it’s just a plan B, so let’s hope they get some funding and we can stick with plan A for now.

Could I just take a second to wax lyrical about how nice it felt to go into a room full of new people all of whom sound like they come from the North of England? It felt really nice. That’s an important thing about this endeavour. The North Eastness of it. I have spent a lot of my life in the arts as the only person in the room with a Northern accent, I get so excited when that’s not the case.

I have no evidence for this, but it’s my experience that the people most likely to be trying to make art happen in places like Stockton or Middlesbrough or Keighley where I’m from are people who are excluded from the London/ South East art world for some reason or another. It’s people who are skint or sick or disabled or whatever it might be, so they have to move back to their home town (if they ever got chance to leave in the first place) and build something of their own. I think that the things being built by people like this, well, they might not have the same status and they won’t have the same resources, but they’ll be so much kinder, won’t they? And I think that’s important too. To hear more thoughts on this you can read my recent essay Why Would You Live Here? Or alternatively, buy me three alcoholic drinks and I’ll go on about it all night.

Next, the meeting moved onto goal setting:

“What do we want?

“Internal support”

“Like a strong gusset”

Group of people working on a craft project

Disconsortia meet up. Photograph: Black Robin

Over the last few years, I have spent hours trawling books and websites for advice for Emerging Artists and the thing I saw over and over again was some form of ‘If nobody will let you in, get together with people you know and build something for yourself.’ I used to find that to be the most frustrating advice because it was never followed up with tips on how to find people to build that new stuff with. I spoke with group member Lisette Auton about my ongoing wish for an accountability buddy, someone to give me a metaphorical kick up the arse when I’m not sticking to the deadlines I set myself. “I’ll be your accountability buddy,” she said and I thought: ‘Oh, this is that people power thing all those bloody articles were talking about isn’t it?

“I keep getting rejected for everything, so in response, I’m going to make the most fantastic piece of theatre the world has ever seen.“

It is possible that the plans being made in this room are a tad over-ambitious. You know what though? I’m a big believer in over-ambitious plans, they get you to places that are significantly more interesting than the places you can get to with plans that are realistic. So what if you set out to have a four-week arts festival that runs for all of time and end up with a two-week-long one that runs for five years? So what if you are secretly planning a countrywide revolution and you end up just creating a People’s Republic of Greater North East? So many wonderful things that exist started out as plans that seemed over-ambitious. The Angel of the North, Hadrian’s Wall, my initial idea that this list would work…isn’t the point to try?

“If we could, just quickly, write a manifesto?”

“Isn’t that what Mao said?”

Large paper boat with the word Disconsortia written on it

Disconsortia meet up. Photograph: Black Robin

Then the discussion turned to potential partner organizations, disabled artists often have to change the way they work to fit in with the mainstream, but Disconsortia want partners who’ll fit in with their needs. One way this might manifest is for partners to understand that sometimes, the project is the point. I forget the exact words, it sounded better than this. Basically, people get hung up on the outcome of a thing, but sometimes, the experience of doing a good thing with good people, that’s the thing that matters. That sums up my feelings on Disconsortia pretty well, whatever the outcome ends up being, something powerful is already happening in that room.

“What are we going to do?”

“Change the World”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to use this as an opportunity to say something nauseating like: when exciting creative people unite to help each other the world is changed. I just thought I’d use this bit to tell you the room we met in used to be a gym and now there’s a sauna full of folding tables. Weird right?

“What are we literally going to do next?”

“Sow the seeds of a movement?”

“Why do I feel like that ends with us overthrowing the government.”

Okay, maybe that is the plan A. I personally would like to welcome our new leaders the Disconsortia artists. Guys, if you are reading this after all the arts organisations and local government in the North East have been overthrown and you have created your glorious new Disabled Artist’s Republic please remember I was an early supporter and give me a solo show at the Baltic? You’re my best hope. Now, where did I put my protesting pants? I’ll meet you on the A19.