Jo-anne Cox settles scores against the recovery model and disability assessments with her Defiant Journey project


Defiant Journey is a ground-breaking interactive electric cello experience, blending music, activism, storytelling and digital and sensory arts. At the end of a research and development phase with the project, artist Jo-anne Cox talks to DAO about her experience and plans to develop the show into a touring production.

Production shot

Defiant journey. Photo credit: Oliver Cross

There were many highlights to Defiant Journey this year. We had a development day at New River Studios with Charles Mathews and discovered cello reactive lighting as a medium for expressing emotional intensity, reactivity and sensitivity – at the real heart of what is so damagingly labelled Borderline personality disorder (BPD).

I thought it would make me more nervous performing with lighting design, but the experience of basking with my cello under the lights designed by David Abra for our Stratford Circus gig helped me to relax and let go into playing.

Another highlight was discovering Vibrotactile tech with Together 2012! I found out that many people find the vibration of sound therapeutic for different reasons. For me personally, the powerful impact of wearing my own bass riff cut through the oppressive and depressive cloud of culminative PIP stress. In that moment I felt properly alive for the first time in ages.

Working with artists from Together was another great moment! I let each person take the lead whilst improvising with audio to light technology designed on the project. It was a great moment as it meant the technology had achieved everything we wanted in terms of facilitating audience creativity on an equal level.

Charles Mathews created an awesome interactive bedbug app for the audience to engage with. The bedbugs / recovery model robots represented PIP assessors and mental health practitioners  who preach the recovery model in an institutionalized and thoughtless manner. The bedbug app was also presented in combination with the electric cello soundscape. It was a great creative revenge for everything such people have put me through so performing this in public was really cathartic.

photo taken on stage

Defiant Journey. Ready to settle some scores against, recovery model, disability assessments and to celebrate difference. At Stratford Circus Arts Centre 11th April 2019.

I have worked with Ivan Riches and he came along as an audience member to witness the show:

“Having seen this in Stratford, I am convinced that this live immersive artwork/performance merits a tour, to enable more people to see it. Defiant Journey is fully accessible, with an exotic musical storyline and acerbic witty anecdotes delivered to the audience, in live ‘in your face’ story telling by Jo-anne Cox, with absorbingly joyous aplomb. Jo-anne Cox is as skilled in the delivery of her storytelling, as she is with her masterful heartfelt bow and fingering, coaxing her electric ‘Dragon Cello to hypnotically instruct her audience to move and sway in their seats.

People stood up to dance as they would at a live gig. And Jo-anne incited her audience’s movement, by handing out colourful gossamer scarfs. And amongst this lively audience, I swayed and waved my bright bandana. The audience was let free to wander up to the stage and join in and jam on iPads and percussion instruments. Jo-anne is an amazing accomplished musician and after seeing her live performance, I discovered that she was also an amazing storyteller.”

In terms of the response of partners. Together! 2012 came up with ways to extend the workshops, seeing future potential for using audio to light technology in dance and movement and creating an exhibition of art made in response to electric cello. Together!2012 have invited me to perform an excerpt from the show as part of Together! 2019 Disability History Month Festival on Friday 22nd November .

Disability Arts Online gave some helpful feedback which will inform how we present the work to venues, the interest and encouragement from DAO has helped develop the show.

Although not a partner organisation I received much support and interest for the R&D from Drake Music. In the summer I was invited to present Defiant Journey at Somerset House for DMLab and ended up being illustrated and quoted in the Private Eye magazine (along with other ground breaking artists, makers and technologist at the event.) This made me realise the technology and message of Defiant Journey is creating genuine interest.

I learnt a lot from the responses to the sharing events as part of the R&D. More explanation is required in the script about what the tech is doing. Some people did not realise when the iPads were triggering the interactive lights on stage. This also led me to consider having some kind of pre-show introduction to the tech for the audience

Defiant Journey will benefit from a dramaturg, to better link the story and music and to contextualise the references to austerity politics in the script. Sadly I was made aware that the wider public (in general) is not aware of the dire effect of austerity on disabled people.

The derogatory label of BPD, will have to be given some further explanation in the script but in a way that does not further stigmatise me.

Whilst the Vibrotactile tech kindly lent by partners Together! 2012 was put in the show for access reasons it greatly enhanced the overall experience of electric cello for the audience. It was described as “exhilarating” and “an implosion of vibes.”

The touch tour whilst welcoming needs further work especially in that essential information for visually impaired people needs to be communicated assertively and confidently rather than the VIP’s having to be assertive to get the information they needed.

The relaxed, and informal performance was described as refreshing and helping to make the show accessible, so we know to continue this approach on tour.

We are looking for venues that are fully committed to programming relaxed performance and are supportive of disabled artists.

It’s important that we find venues who are a suitable match between my needs as an artist, the aims of the Defiant Journey tour and the venues. We also want to ensure the best most welcoming experience for audiences and to achieve maximum reach.

We would like venues where multimedia work, interactive digital and sensory arts, electric cello and authentic, lived experience storytelling will appeal to their audiences. Venues who have existing links with audiences in the community (including disabled audiences). Ideally it would be good to build a relationship so we can be part of plans to create artistic journeys for audiences that last beyond the workshop and the show.

More information about Jo-anne Cox’s Defiant Journey