On Wednesday 11 March, Anna Berry hosted a public conference, Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham as part of her curatorial residency there. Panellists included Aaron Williamson, Aidan Moesby, Trish Wheatley, Sonia Boué, Tom Shakespeare, and Manick Govinda. Sonia Boué gives her reflections on the themes raised.
“The idea of the day is to try to create a space where people feel they can think and express their thoughts freely, and be accepting of a multiplicity of opinions, even if it’s not toeing the party line when it comes to disability politics.”
Admittedly, we live in a time when the parameters of public political discourse seem to have narrowed to a stranglehold. A sizeable dose of anxiety for some conference speakers about critiquing disability arts demonstrates the need for more oxygen. I feel it’s significant that Anna identifies as Neurodiverse* (ND). It’s almost an ND person’s job to ask awkward questions. We’re often the truth-seekers yanking at the trunk of the elephant in the room while others frantically signal, don’t go there! This is just one reason why disability arts needs diverse minds.
The conference space being adjacent to the exhibition Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement, also curated by Anna, presented us with a perfect symmetry. Like a Dr Dolittle pushmi-pullyu, we could look backwards and forwards at the same time. Many were the layers of Anna’s curatorial savvy in guiding us to consider the future.
The day could have been as bloody as the title sounded, but the event was way gentler than the verbal fistfights of my worst imaginings. Instead, a plea for radical kindness from Anna, a series of thoughtful provocations from speakers and panellists, and many good-humoured contributions from the floor. Were we all too polite? I believe not. If anything, this day taught us that we don’t need to ‘let blood’ to open our minds.
“A performative conversation”
Anna opened the event with exceptional writing (which will be published shortly on Disability Arts Online). Congratulations are due not only on the exhibition, but also for her courage and intellectual rigour. It’s easy to underestimate how brave this day was. Curating the conference as a ‘performative conversation’ also aligns with her creative practice as an artist. Conceptually speaking, we were invited to join her in making art. This felt to me like ND creativity, and I understood Anna’s design as kindred in spirit to the “living, breathing entity” that was my own, Arts Council England funded, NUNO Project. I hope it will be recognised that this curatorial project has been an important cultural work on many levels. The strength of Anna’s vision truly carried the day.
A spirit of experimentation meant there were gaps in access, but this conference exuded good will, and as a performance, it succeeded in allowing us to be most human. There was an awkward moment during questions as Aaron Williamson (artist-activist) had to look at the BSL interpreter and not the questioner. “Are you going to look at me, young man?” Such slips are natural. Aaron’s shrug-and-carry-on attitude was a joy. With Anna’s invocation we were able to prise open the parameters of our discourse and be forgiving. But can we do this as a movement?
Art or disability?
Can’t we just talk about art? This was the question on many lips. Yet banging the drum for disability has got us where we are, so can we afford to stop? It was another curatorial coup to snag two such articulate main speakers at seemingly opposite poles in their practices.
Aaron’s keynote on the theme of art criticism shone light on the absence of critique for disabled artists by sharing examples of collaborative work with Katherine Araniello as the ‘Disabled Avant Guard’. I urge readers unfamiliar with these works to find them on YouTube – their subversive eloquence is beyond description.
“The eggshells problem”, as Aaron puts it, is the fear of offending which often underpins our reduction to objects of pity or inspiration porn. ‘Disabled Avant Guard’ used ‘Crip Art’ as a counter to this failure to critique disabled artists as equals. Disability tropes, which wouldn’t wash in the mainstream, leave us bereft of this vital capital. ‘Crip Art’ wears disability on its sleeve and its politics with a capital P.
Despite this failure in critique, Tom Shakespeare (social scientist, bioethicist and artist) ventured that disability arts is “getting good”. You probably couldn’t get much further from ‘Crip Art’ with the idea that art is better when the message is buried. This was a powerful evocation of art-making as a space for freedom and productive uncertainty (in which we can reinvent ourselves). Art with a capital A. Even in this heady zone, we can’t escape the politics of privilege. There’s a real need to support artists who don’t make work about disability, but I’m not sure I believe that ‘quality’ – a loaded term at best – is the measure of good art. Good art can be anything to anyone. Good art is often art which moves us because it is authentic. We’ll bang the drum, or not, as we choose. There is no dichotomy between art and disability. The nut to crack is mainstream arts.
Unstructured conversation can be disabling for some. Lighting was well-calibrated in the conference space and quiet rooms were on offer to mitigate sensory stress, but there seemed to be no alternative means for participation from the floor other than via a mic. Invisible disabilities would perhaps have remained so, if not for an impromptu intervention. We need adaptations to enable us to stay in the room, not just the promise of sanctuary if we’re so stressed that we need to leave it. Trish Wheatley (CEO, Disability Arts Online) highlighted impairment hierarchy as needing conversation – invisible disability should feature.
I was moved to ‘unmask’ aspects of my autism at the suggestion ND is trendy. Such casual erasure, and the absence of communication badges or other adaptations for an event centring on conversation, signal we are yet to arrive, but this conference quickly adapted and we did adopt flapplause. It’s easier when you’ve set the tone (as Anna had), and that’s a powerful message. We need to talk less and listen more. Art helps us “shut the fuck up” as Tom Shakespeare observed.
Love thy ally
Aidan Moesby (artist-curator) talked about an inflated sense of entitlement among some disabled artists which he feels risks alienating our allies. Entitlement and access became hopelessly tangled in the discussion, with good reason. Gained through increased opportunity, this insight into a cultural chasm (between mainstream and disability arts) raises a valuable point about perception. Such boundaries are hard to gauge when untested due to lack of access to opportunity. Disabled artists can experience immense isolation and are deprived of critical dialogue, as Aaron’s keynote suggests. The need for more professional development support couldn’t be clearer.
There’s also wisdom in the belly of Aidan’s sacred cow – a thought echoed by Mike Layward (Artistic Director, DASH Arts) in the breakout session – “our allies are few and we should nurture them”.
We must turn to allies like Trish Wheatley for their honest and invaluable reflections of what we could do better. Stop sacrificing art to identity politics, for example, and work harder on diversity. We should embrace critical friends.
Conceived as a curated performance, this conference was unusual. This was its absolute strength. As a conversation, it was curiously immersive and open-ended. Experiential is the word that comes to mind. Enlightened or nonplussed, it succeeded because we experienced what it feels like to suspend judgement in these fevered times. Performative work has the power to stay with us, and to be transformative. For me it was, and I hope its spirit can inform future debate.
*I have adopted Anna’s term of identification, although I prefer neurodivergent in all my writing. In this article the abbreviation ND is used interchangeably.