DNR_RND: What kind of arts phoenix should rise from the flames of COVID?


Disability Arts Online Associate Artist, Ashok Mistry introduces his new project DNR_RND (Do Not Resuciatate_Research and Development), which will consist of a series of conversations, articles and events aimed at interrogating which aspects of the arts sector should not be ‘resuscitated’ following the Covid-19 crisis, and what more progressive structures might replace them. 

Digital graphic which spells out the letters DNR_RND

As ‘our’ arts sector sits back and contemplates its survival this is a primal scream from artists on the margins who feel their sector is trying to exterminate them.

At the depths of the original lockdown disabled and neurodivergent communities watched as public bodies rode roughshod over our lives. Of all of the mistreatment that had been uncovered, the Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders pushed onto people with disabilities looked indicative of the surreptitious cruelty employed to erase disabled people from society throughout history. Clerical error, systemic failure or organised eradication, we will only know the true extent of the reasons for the problems after an enquiry. It has been revealed that as many as two-thirds of people who have died from Covid-19 are disabled.

I noticed parallels between the treatment of disabled people by society in general and the treatment of disabled artists by mainstream publicly funded arts organisations. Reading through the Equality and Human Rights commission’s 2017 report ‘Being disabled in Britain, A Journey Less equal’, one can see disparities in health, education, standards of living, healthcare and many other areas. These disparities mirror the treatment of disabled and neurodivergent artists in the arts sector. Arts Council England’s 2018 ‘Making a shift report’ found that disabled people only made up 3.4% of the workforce and at the time there was little data on the number of disabled and neurodivergent artists actively working in the sector.

These developments have motivated me to work with my fellow associate artists at Disability Arts Online to put together DNR_RND. DNR_RND is essentially a research project that aims to take an in-depth look at the effect of Covid-19 on disabled artists and the wider arts sector. We will aim to bring you a series of interviews, discussions, interventions, events and workshops interrogating what needs to change in the arts and culture sector, and how we go about achieving it.

Just imagine a world without disabled people…some of the best artists, directors and performers are disabled. So-called ‘conditions’ such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia are in abundance within the creative sector and we as a sector and society, neither acknowledge nor celebrate these traits that provide innovation and fresh perspectives. Now imagine what would happen if all of these people were given a DNR and died out…

What would the removal of different ways of seeing the world, innovators and awkward bastards really lead to? I would argue that society would be left culturally bereft. We would slide slowly into a commercialised treaclesque sideshow of banality. We need to change our sector for the better and allow disabled voices to come through and be proud of who they are.

There are some amongst the old guard that say, many of us that are shouting for change don’t acknowledge the full extent of the problems faced by major venues and why the sector needs so much in the way of resources to prop it up. What I would say to them is that we, as disabled artists, have been living with our creative aspirations crashing against the rocks for all of our lives, only, without the support of emergency funding.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, many observers have said that the arts sector will never be the same, that we should use it as an opportunity to change and we need to avoid business as usual when we are all let loose on galleries and theatres. Therefore, our idea is to understand the challenges for disabled artists in the arts but also look at what in the arts sector, such as practices, values or attitudes, should not be resuscitated. It is not about attacking particular individuals or organisations, rather examining the deeper institutional and systemic problems.

What do we not want to see return? And what should take its place? This conversation is critical at this time as we are seeing unprecedented investments going into the arts to keep the sector afloat. What we want to ask is, ‘what is that sector, what does it consist of, what should actually be jettisoned and what might a more watertight vessel look like?’

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be talking to artists, funders and representatives of organisations, working at lots of different levels to get their perspectives on these issues. You can contribute to the research too, by answering the questions here. We’ll Publish interesting contributions on the DNR_RND blog or might even invite you to participate in future events/discussions.

My next DNR_RND piece will be looking at the celebrity model in the arts sector and how organisations are rarely willing to take risks on artists who aren’t a big name. I’ll also be interviewing Dr Kai Syng Tan, artist, academic and initiator of a new neurodiversity network.

Watch this space and don’t ever sign that DNR!

If you’d like to submit artwork in any artform in response to DNR_RND and the themes it’s addressing, please contact ashok_glow@yahoo.co.uk