Unlimited: Jo Verrent discusses the international ripples created by the Unlimited programme


Unlimited’s senior producer Jo Verrent talks to Nina Muehlemann with reflections on how far Unlimited has come since 2012, and comment on the impact of the programme with developments nationally and internationally – at a time when the political climate for supporting artists is becoming more challenging.

photo of Brazilian rapper Billy Saga wearing sun-glasses

Billy Saga

“It’s an exciting time for Unlimited. Many of the productions and exhibitions are touring nationally as well as having been programmed for the Unlimited festivals at both the Southbank Centre in London and the Tramway, Glasgow.”

“Unlimited is expanding globally. We have always created what you could call ‘international ripples’ through our connection to the British Council, but now we have funds to make this a dedicated part of the programme that we can really commit to. This year, we have brought over some Japanese visual artists, a Brazilian rapper called Billy Saga, digital artists from Australia and a blind magician from New York! We are really interested in seeing what international artists can bring to the mix; it’s not about ‘spreading a UK-way’ of doing things, it’s about collaboration and learning from each other.”

“We also have an international placement at Unlimited who is coming over from Cambodia for five weeks – Sokny Ong. We had so many amazing international applicants for this placement that we were able to persuade the Arts Council to give us funding for a second placement for a shorter period of time. So we also have plans for another applicant – Fred Batale – to come over from Uganda if his visa application is successful.”

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis face each other, Claire is off the ground on her crutches and has his hands on her shoulders

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis The Way You Look At Me Tonight Photograph: Sven Hagolani

“Collaborating with other countries opens up great new opportunities, but also some challenges. I recently spent two days in Indonesia meeting people, and on the first day so many disabled people were saying “To be artists, that’s an impossible dream for us!” By the end of the second day we realised that some of these people actually already were artists with really strong skills, but they just weren’t thinking of themselves in that way because the barriers seemed insurmountable. I think that’s something we really can do, ignite that sense of self-belief in disabled people themselves, and then we can go out and persuade others. There is a market for that work, and because of the interest of the British Council and other bodies in the work we do, there are possibilities now that we didn’t have before.”

“At the moment there are many opportunities within the performing arts that bring disability arts further into the mainstream, such as Ramps on the Moon, or the National Theatre, London showing Graeae’s ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ and the current diverse production of the Threepenny Opera. With Unlimited in 2012, we were part a shift forwards that had already started.”

two heads enshrouded in bandages are connected by a red, plastic chord, with a suspended blue hammer

Fragmenting the Code(x) by Aidan Moesby and Pum Dunbar

“In the visual arts that shift hasn’t happened in the same way, yet. Where are those projects, how can we support visual artists? For us, that is a real emphasis going forward. For musicians it has started to happen, there are some opportunities coming through, but there are still many big gaps in some art forms.”

“Although there are opportunities for disabled artists, disabled people have had to deal with many government-inflicted cuts that have taken away support that is vital. We are starting to see the effects of these cuts in the arts, despite the opportunities.”

“The decline in support from Access To Work is having a very negative impact. Many of our artists have had their package of support stopped or reduced. This means that the range of people who can take up opportunities is becoming narrower and narrower rather than more and more diverse.”

“All the lobbying that Arts Council England is involved in, that we’re involved in and that Graeae is doing some fantastic work around, amongst others, has to absolutely be maintained! I’m on an advisory panel for Arts Council England and we constantly ask how the government can on one hand give opportunities but on the other hand take away the very means of engaging with that opportunity! It’s incredibly frustrating! What is happening politically is so damaging.”

“We focus on artists making artwork across the whole spectrum and some of it is more political than others, but I’m really hoping to see more people make creative work that references this situation, because it needs to be highlighted.”

“On the Unlimited Impact website, we provide resources about making meetings, events or marketing accessible. In the actual productions, we work together with artists to ensure accessibility, too. We ask that artists consider access carefully and clearly and make responses, but we don’t dictate what those responses should be.”

“If, for example, an artist wanted to do a project entirely in the dark, because that is part of the aesthetic of the work – and there are some artists working in that way – that may not be accessible for deaf people who use sign language interpretation. We believe the artist has the right to make that work, but we would ask them to do what they can to really think about accessibility within the frame provided by the artwork.”

photo of a head encompassed by a shroud of white hair

Jo Bannon, ‘Alba’. Image © Manuel Vason

“Jo Bannon, for example, toured with four different types of headsets. In that way, many hearing-impaired people could access the work – you could have a neck loop, there was a headset that plugged into certain types of hearing aids, there was an extra loud version… but because the work takes place in the dark, it wasn’t accessible for people who need sign language. It just wasn’t possible to make it accessible for BSL-users without changing the nature of the piece. But otherwise, she absolutely did what she could to make every other part of it as accessible as she could, touring in accessible venues, having an audio-described version…”

“I think that is the right approach. Telling an artist they can’t make a piece of work because this particular person can’t access it is wrong. Noëmi Lakmaier, for example, often deliberately makes work that she herself can’t access as a wheelchair user. I think if you start using a checklist and a set of rules, you take away from the art.”

“A part of Claire Cunningham’s new commission has been developed from thinking about how to make it accessible to as many people as possible. She and Jess Curtis worked with Extant, a performing arts company led by blind and visually impaired performers to think about how they might integrate audio-description into the show.”

“Whilst we don’t dictate on access issues, I also think you have to push people to really think about what access means in relation to a particular piece, and Unlimited absolutely does that!”

The Unlimited Festival showing a large number of the commissions supported by the Unlimited programme (led by Shape and Artsadmin) is currently being showcased at the Tramway, Glasgow until to Sunday 25 September.

Unlimited Impact (led by Shape and Artsadmin) works strategically with partners to deepen Unlimited’s impact across the UK and internationally, creating new projects, developing new resources to make programmes and marketing more accessible, as well as supporting young disabled artists at the start of their careers. Please click on this link to find out more.

The Unlimited programme led by Shape and Artsadmin aims to embed work by disabled artists within the UK cultural sector, reach new audiences and shift perceptions of disabled people. Please click on this link to find out more.

Unlimited are currently looking for applications. In the video below the The Unlimited team introduce their new round of commissioning opportunities.