Together! 2019 is an international Festival of Disability Arts that offers a diverse range of free events, performances, screenings and workshops during Disability History Month. Artistic Director of Together! Ju Gosling spoke to Natasha Sutton Williams about the vitality of this festival and it’s inclusive artistic outreach.
Based in East London, Together! welcomes visitors from across the UK and beyond, with the aim of being as inclusive as possible. The festival’s events are free and non-ticketed because as Gosling states, “We know these are significant barriers in themselves. We are a pop-up festival, meaning we put on events in venues like community centres and shopping parks because of the lack of genuinely accessible local venues.”
There is an abundance of activities taking place during the six-week festival. From the Paracarnival parading through the streets of East London, to conceptual artist Alison Marchant’s new exhibition On Illness, to the international Disability Film Festival’s filmmaking workshops.
So what are some of the highlights for Gosling as the festival’s curator? “I have a particular love of the Together! Disability Film Festival at Stratford Old Town Hall from 6 – 8 December 2019. It is unique in the UK as it covers all impairment groups. We work year-round to support the work of Disabled filmmakers, often voicing concerns that individuals feel unable to raise themselves for fear of the impact on their careers. I’m also looking forward to Penny Pepper’s involvement, as our virtual writer-in-residence. Penny will be Skyping into our weekly Pop-Up Poetry Club workshop on 4 December, and stopping off in person from her Naked Punk national tour to perform at our end-of-festival party on 13 December at St Bart’s Community Centre.”
One of the most innovative works during the festival is cellist Jo-Anne Cox’s Notes From the East, on 22 November where Cox has incorporated tactile music technology into her performance. “Tactile seating consists of tabards or cushions that act as sound sources but also vibrate,” says Gosling. “Jo-Anne first encountered our tactile seating at the Together! 2017 Disability Film Festival, and subsequently attended the 2018 project workshops. She obtained a Project Grant from the Arts Council to incorporate this technology into her own live music work, and extend it to include colour responsive lighting. Working with lighting designer Charles Matthews and incorporating her own mental health story, she has produced a ground breaking show.”
Disability arts and human rights are pillars of Together’s manifesto. But in this tumultuous political climate, increasingly effective attempts have been made to dismantle human rights and disability arts recognition. “Human rights have been mocked by the present and previous governments, and given as a reason to leave Europe by Brexiteers,” states Gosling. “Together is underpinned by Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which gives us equal rights to access the arts as artists, arts workers and audience members, and to be resourced to organise and participate in our own cultural activities. Article 8 is also particularly relevant to Disability Arts, because it places an obligation on the Government to produce positive images of Disabled people. However, the UN Committee overseeing the implementation of the Convention issued a damning report last year about the UK’s failure to implement Charter rights in reality.”
Despite this government’s malign machinations, some UK arts organisations are making headway to become more inclusive, both artistically and through accessibility at their venues. However, much more work needs to be done.
Over the years Gosling has been described as a pioneer for the disabled and LGBTQI+ movement and has a wealth of experience pushing for change. She has a few words of advice on how we can better support inclusive environments for disabled LGBTQI+ artists. “It is important to understand that LGBTQI+ Disabled artists have different experiences and face additional barriers. For example, it is relatively easy for Disabled people to obtain support to attend the Liberty Festival, but very difficult to obtain support to attend Pride or any LGBTQI+ event. Research shows it is much harder for LGBTQI+ Disabled people to recruit PAs to provide support with anything at all without being closeted. This makes it vital for events to be fully accessible, because we will usually have no one available, for example, to unload us and then park a quarter of a mile away because there is no venue Blue Badge parking.”
She continues: “Another issue is the lack of inclusion of Disabled people at LGBTQI+ events, with funders grouping ‘minorities’ into separate boxes rather than considering intersectionality. Straight access organisations are rubber-stamping arrangements without understanding the different needs of LGBTQI+ Disabled people. I would like to see much greater awareness of the mental health impact on Disabled people of being excluded from events that are meant to include you.”
Gosling has spent years honing her craft both as a multi-disciplinary artist and a curatorial artistic director for festivals like Together! So what advice does she have for disabled artists looking to step into an artistic director role? “A good career starting point is to devise a project and apply to Arts Council England for Project Grant funding. Think about setting up your own organisation. Disabled people are very slow compared to other artists to create our own companies and projects, and it is important to understand that no one needs to give us permission. We are just as capable as others – if not more so – given our life experiences. ‘Imposter Syndrome’ has been identified as holding back working-class people and women, but it is a particular problem for Disabled people because we have no role models. It is important for us to demonstrate that Disability Arts are at the same (or a higher) standard as the rest of the sector, and that inclusion does not involve a loss of quality. Our Professional Development Club is open to all and I can do Skype one-to-ones. If you would like to set up a Festival in your area, get in touch, preferably in January!”
Together 2019! A Free Festival for Disability History Month runs from 2 November – 13 December. Please click on this link for full programme details.