Interdependence and Connectivity: What Disability Arts Can Be

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To introduce their guest editorship, Sandra Alland explores the disabled (arts) futures we’re dreaming, and whether these futures should or can involve institutions. Highlighting artists who work outside the mainstream, Sandra poses questions about who’s still being left behind in our recent trend towards over-professionalisation.

As Guest Editor for Disability Arts Online over the next four weeks, I’ve planned a lot of content that examines what it’s like to work outside – or to try infiltrating/surviving inside – arts institutions and the ‘professional’ world. I’ve selected a lot of newcomers, ‘unknown’ names in UK disability arts. I’ve commissioned content by and about LGBTQIA+ disabled, deaf, ill and neurodivergent writers and artists – many of whom are also BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), poor and/or working-class. I mention this because people living at the intersections of harmful power systems are the people who experience the most difficulty getting the support they need from the state. And from the arts ‘community’.

Cover of 'Resistance and Hope'. Illustration by artist Micah Bazant, featuring a midnight blue sky with little white stars. Below is a log with mushrooms growing out of it in multiple shapes and colours. Text reads: 'Resistance & Hope, Essays by Disabled People, Crip Wisdom for the People, Edited by Alice Wong, Disability Visibility Project'. The ‘o’ in ‘Hope’ looks like a full moon.]

Resistance and Hope book cover; illustration by Micah Bazant

In moments of extremity, like with the current Covid-19 outbreak, it becomes more starkly clear how institutions fail us. How will we reassess these inequalities now that we find ourselves in a moment of major change (and after)? What does it mean to be professional, now and ever, and does this goal enrich our lives? As disability arts have become more mainstream, what kinds of artists have been rising to the top? (Why is there a top?) In times of crisis, it’s vital to observe who still has jobs, who has jobs that can be done from home (safely, comfortably, at all). And who’s already been sidelined by the dominating white, capitalist culture’s values, ways of production, individualism.

If you’re searching for sage words on this topic in these difficult times, I highly suggest ‘Resistance and Hope: Essays by Disabled People, Crip Wisdom for the People‘, edited by the always-brilliant Alice Wong – and currently free as audio, or $4.99 as text (free on Smashwords). In ‘the birth of resistance: courageous dreams, powerful nobodies & revolutionary madness’, Talila A Lewis demonstrates that disabled people, especially disabled people of colour, have been thinking about what’s not working in our world for quite some time:

“The two greatest threats to this immensely important dream work are, first, our own unexamined trust in and over-reliance on current institutions, and second, erasure and devaluation of the path-breaking work of ‘nobodies’. Institutions and institutional actors depend on us depending on them.” – Talila A Lewis

In collaboration with this month’s guest artists, I want to question the onward march of solo projects and professionalisation of the arts – and specifically of disability arts. In the past ten or so years, we’ve suddenly moved to everyone needing to have post-graduate degrees and accomplished CVs, and to knowing how to navigate middle-class funding applications. To having to speak with certain words and in certain ways, to meet deadlines even if we’re collapsing. We must articulate our practice and our ‘praxis’, and try to present ourselves as lone geniuses and inventors. And above all we must prove our worth, in ways often outside our understanding or experience. Why are we trying to assimilate into systems that harm us?

I’m more interested in radical queer crip transfeminist anticapitalist BIPOC ways of rethinking the world, especially now that our lives depend even more immediately on it. Do we want to pursue acceptance into notoriously difficult places for marginalised folk, like The Tate, GoMA, BFI, BBC or big agents/publishers? Or do we want to ensure the most vulnerable among us have soap, hand sanitiser, homes and food? It’s not that we can’t do both things, and that we shouldn’t try to find ways to make art and money to pay our (non-cancelled!) rents – but that we can’t do any of it if we, and especially institutions, carry on in exactly the same ways.

A news article screenshot with the title Coronavirus: How These Disabled Activists Are Taking Matters Into Their Own (Sanitized) Hands. Photo of members of the Disability Justice Culture Club at Stacey Milbern's house in East Oakland: Jay Salazar (pink shirt), Dana Garza (front), Patrice Strahan (black cap), Charley Bowden (tie dye), and Stacey Milbern (white shirt). (Courtesy of Stacey Milbern)

Screenshot of KQED article. Coronavirus: How These Disabled Activists Are Taking Matters Into Their Own (Sanitized) Hands

Some people have been doing things differently for a long time, and my advice is to check them out. Like the (pictured) project of community care by Stacey Milbern and Disability Justice Culture Club in Oakland California, making hand sanitiser for homeless people despite many members being immunocompromised themselves. Like the LGBTQIA+ Outside Project and QueerCare in London, or like Living Rent and Glasgow Coronavirus Mutual Aid in Scotland. Like the many support systems and mutual aid groups that have been in place for LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, poor, sex-work, sick and/or disabled communities before this current disaster. Because we have always been at risk.

As we navigate the move to home-working and online arts gatherings – achieved almost seamlessly by the same richer and abled colleagues who denied us these accommodations when we requested them in the past – we need to remember those who don’t have homes, those who have unsafe homes, those who live in fuel poverty, who don’t have Wi-Fi or even a computer. As the cracks in the system gape wider, we’ll notice who’s still making (money from) art and pontificating about how this is the time to write that great novel – and who’s risking their life for minimum wage at Iceland so they don’t get evicted and others can eat.

Have we formed our own hierarchies of exclusion in disabled arts communities? When will we let go of them if we have? And I wonder if all the ‘diversity’ work of institutions in recent years has resulted in any material change. When will we at last stop having to seek inclusion and inadequate hand-outs from our oppressors? As Angela Davis says:

“I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except that you now have some black faces and brown faces. It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference.”
– Angela Davis, University of Southern California, 2015

A poster showing a mirrored image of a row of high-rise apartment blocks in ghostly blue. It reads Suspend All Rent across the middle.

Living Rent poster by Autonomous Design Group

I hope the rich selection of LGBTQIA+ disabled and deaf artists featured in these next weeks will spark ideas about how to approach our art and our lives, and maybe also help you through some inevitably hard times. You’ll find at least seven recommendations of independent and radical books, four of them reviewed in full, ranging from poetry to novels to essays. You’ll find highlights of free online BSL (British Sign Language) films, Two-Spirit meme art, queer comedy and dance on film, interviews and pieces with/by some of our most radical thinkers, and artists bravely interrupting hierarchies and binaries. It’s a vital time to support these artists and others like them. Because creative people deeply dedicated to the future – and not focused on profit over life – are the people we desperately need.

Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.

 


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