Kate Lovell reflects on a selection of workshops and performances that took place on 30th November the first day of the Festival of Minds and Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, London
Disabled people’s relationship with museums has been chequered; collections with a medical connection, such as Wellcome, even more so. We haven’t always been willing participants in our bodies, or our minds, being exposed: on display for the amusement or curiosity of non-disabled people. This history, and the need to overturn it, is part of what made the Festival of Minds and Bodies at the Wellcome Collection an especially joyous and important takeover by a plethora of D/deaf and disabled artists from across the UK. The Festival had curatorial input from Jess Thom and presented work where disabled artists invited an audience to be in awe of the artistry created by their minds and bodies, in control of the lens through which they were viewed.
Turning a gallery corner to be greeted by the bright blue and pink silks of Blink Dance Theatre’s Tangled was a magical way to enter the festival spirit. An octopus-like parachute bounced and offered its many tentacles to audience members, connecting a group of people of all ages, from toddler upwards, to join together in a simple rhythmic dance, led by anyone who wished to branch out and experiment. Giant neon elastics joined the melee, allowing people to dance in duets, trios or as a whole group, the springy strings creating a safe way to dance with a stranger, a gentle threaded bond, a physical object to play with and focus upon. Blink Dance’s ability to include everyone in a way that is meaningful and exciting is something that embodies the spirit of the disability arts movement: to get involved, you simply need a body, nothing more.
Straight from a non-verbal, physical experience, into Dolly Sen’s witty and subversive Anti-Social Prescribing session, providing some much-needed satirical nourishment for the austerity-blasted mind. A table sprawling with adults and children alike embarking on a mindfulness colouring activity, with a choice of the nation’s politicians to scratch your mark upon – that’s if you could find a pencil sharp enough to use. I opted for Corybn, not feeling robust enough to stare into the eyes of a Tory, even in 2D form. But the rough-around-the-edges style is, of course, deliberate: a comment on the woeful “art” activities offered within psychiatric settings.
It’s an ongoing issue, where certain professionals seem to believe that those struggling in the depths of mental distress will have their self-esteem rebuilt through activities usually aimed at primary school children. Seated at the art table, Dolly and I talk about how the quality of the activity and materials on offer as part of the ‘social prescribing’ tidal wave that is so in vogue, speaks volumes about how you are valued and perceived. Childish colouring-in sheets and broken pencils are an insult, indicative of our worth in the eyes of others. I am reminded of taking part in a drawing workshop with Daily Life Ltd a number of years ago: held in a light, comfortable room where we were given beautiful watercolour inks, a canvas, and a professional artist as our tutor. The day of art-making was restorative because we were valued and treated as having talent.
Dolly invites us on a ‘Walk to Nowhere’, which amuses with its spot-on exposé of the now age-old adage, “why not go for a walk” that we are ‘prescribed’ time and again on crisis helplines or by under-trained support staff. A discussion with someone working in social prescribing for the NHS takes place, where it is agreed that whilst many of these suggested activities could add up to a healthy way of being, but are currently ripped out of context and applied like an Elastoplast to a gushing artery. I recall being told to “have a glass of wine and a hot bath” on a crisis line, whilst trapped in the middle of London, gripped by a raging panic attack, sitting on the cold ground, unable to fathom how I was going to get myself home. A hot bath might be a part of a healthy routine, but no-one can warm-water their way out of a panic attack in a public place. Dolly’s riffing on these clichés and the inadequacies of social prescribing under austerity measures is enriching: calling out what is happening is the first step in making change, and satire is a beautiful medium for this amazing activist artist.
Blink Dance present their latest dance-theatre performance piece, Girl Meets Boy: Unravelled, with learning disabled co-artistic directors Frances and Delson both taking star turns: Francesca led the audience in a cheeky and fun mini-drag workshop, sporting sequins and dazzling us with her booty-shaking, where Delson played Doctor Love, offering romantic advice in the form of song snippets and audio recordings carefully prescribed from his iPad to love-sick audience members. The tone of the show is lightness and fun in Girl Meets Boy; the very act of having young, learning-disabled black men in drag and dispensing romantic advice, is a strongly subversive statement in and of itself. Too many think of disabled people, but especially learning-disabled people, as non-sexual beings. Blink Dance are always small ‘p’ political, making their point with grace simply by placing learning disabled artists front and centre, allowing these unheard voices to lead in every performance, never shying away from meaty, universal subject matter.
The festival’s nightcap arrived in the form of a heady cocktail of queer disabled performance, curated and compered by the newly formed collective, Quiplash. A veritable cornucopia of sequins, seditious audio description, BSL poetry and of-the-moment spoken word was served to us by visually impaired drag king, Tito Bone and their drag queen, Ophelia. It was delicious to see a queer-crip collective transform an otherwise rather staid-looking auditorium into a stadium of sparkling innuendos and bawdy cabaret. A perfectly rebellious cherry on the cake of a far-ranging, superbly curated festival: more of this, please, Wellcome Collection, and beyond.