Colin Hambrook talks to Tony Heaton, CEO of Shape who are lead partners with Artsadmin for the Unlimited programme, with a focus on the kinds of work that Unlimited might attract in the second round of applications, with a deadline set for 2 February 2015.
Given the success of Unlimited in drawing new audiences to Disability Arts I specifically asked Tony to talk about the programme of work being supported within an emerging zeitgeist for impairment-focused art that seems to be grabbing peoples’ attention. This year has seen Anxiety Festival in London and SICK! Festival in Brighton as well as numerous mainstream festivals across the UK presenting work by disabled artists. It can be wildly challenging or entertaining but always is prone to the danger of being seen within a Medical Model.
It reminds me of the heady days of the early 1990s and what was happening then within the Disability Arts movement. We started a conversation about the importance of disabled artists making work from their own identity, so they can speak authentically about the human condition but also to be free to make any kind of work that is ambitious.
Back then we as disabled people looked on and criticised work for being solely impairment-specific. We were always looking for a narrative that said something real about the kinds of barriers we face as disabled people, informed by a Social Model ideology. We went through those conversations within the largely closed world of Disability Arts, but there was a very limited audience for the things that we did.
It feels like we are back there, now, but the audience is much bigger and it is largely non-disabled people who are looking in and saying “this is quite interesting what these disabled artists are doing.” And it’s important that we now have similar conversations to those we had back then. But this time, with the kind of profile we are attracting with the Unlimited commissions we can have those debates with bigger audiences whilst attracting artwork with a wider range of reference points.
The work we’re promoting now and putting out there shows we’ve moved beyond the tired narrative of: “Isn’t it great they can do these things, but they’re blind. Isn’t it great they can do these things, but they’re deaf. Isn’t it great they can do these things, but they use a wheelchair”.
We don’t want to pigeonhole the work we’re looking for. Some of it will unlock the ways in which individual disabled people face barriers; some of it will challenge stereotypes. But essentially Unlimited is about going beyond the smoke and mirrors of ‘disability’, per se. We are looking for phenomenal Art rather than Art that is just about the phenomenon of ‘impairment’.
Whatever the Art it is our aspiration is that it will lead to a bigger discussion about inclusion and the ways in which society puts obstacles in the way and disavows people from realising their potential. And my expectation is that it will encourage non-disabled people to see that they can also play a part in the process of removing barriers.
With Art that fits within a disability framework we have to face up to the fact that the word ‘disability’ is always interpreted by different people in different ways. Whenever I do a soapbox talk about disabling environments I still go away with the impression that some people remain stuck in thinking of disability in Medical Model terms.
It’s as if we haven’t come up with the right word. But equally I don’t think we can bear to have another conversation about language. I’ve recently been to Berlin and the German word for ‘disability’ is ‘behindert’. I kind of like that. It’s like a word I hear in Lancashire, hindered.. It has a wonderful social model irony to it: hindered by steps, hindered by fixed seating, hindered by no space on the bus…
I’d like Unlimited to get people to chill out a bit more around the Arts. We’re very tightly repressed as a society. And I think a lot of the work Unlimited promotes challenges that up-tightness in quite a subversive way, ‘relaxed’ performances being the order of the day with ‘special buttoned-up’ performances for those who need them! . A lot of the Art that we have supported is more plain-speaking in terms of being an expression of peoples’ lived experience.
The whole concept of Unlimited is that we’re not limiting people within pigeonholes of impairment. It’s important that we look at the power of the Art, not peoples’ impairment. Hopefully by the nature of the work we’ve supported so far we’re saying “you might not consider yourself to be a ‘disabled person’, but we want to support work that gives a much broader context to our understanding of the human condition.”
We also want to say to producers “don’t get hung up about someone’s access issues”. It’s about being creative about ways to engage and support individual artists. It’s not an act of benevolence. It’s about imagining unique ways of finding accessible ways of presenting fantastic Art.
Access can be the thing that gives the artwork an edge. So we encourage artists and companies to think about using access in innovative ways. In the last round I loved the way the audio-describer engaged as a character within Birds of Paradise’s Wendy Hoose and the interaction with the sign language interpreter as a performer in Julie McNamara’s Let Me Stay.
Jo Bannon’s ‘Exposure’ explored new territory as well access-wise. When do you hear of performance produced for an audience in a one-on-one setting? It was amazing to create a piece that had that level of intimacy to it. And Owen Lowery whose level of impairment meant he had to put careful consideration into what he needed in order to be able to give live readings of his poetry. In the process of making the digital art film he wanted to accompany the readings he also thought about using images that mirrored his poetry in a way that made the film accessible for visually-impaired people. Similarly Katherine Araniello staged her live art piece as a live streamed performance, raising the bar in terms of how the production of Art can be made more accessible for disabled artists.
Lastly I want to emphasise we are inviting England, Scotland and Wales based disabled artists and companies with a strong track record in their artistic field to apply to create and present new work, across all art forms.
This round, Unlimited is looking to commission new work, which may still be at a very early stage of conception, or may have already undergone some research and development. We are looking for work in any art form, that is: innovative, varied, excellent, and led by disabled artists. These awards will fund 3 stages of activity:
1) Research & Development (this is optional, depending on the stage of
development of the project)
2) Creation & Production
3) Showcasing & Presentation
For projects applying for R&D, Unlimited will initially award funding for this first phase of activity only, reassessing the project before committing funds to the remaining stages – Creation & Production and Showcasing & Presentation.
Work funded from this round of Unlimited must be available to be part of Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival and other festival opportunities celebrating Unlimited (within the UK and possibly internationally) in late August/Sept/early October 2016.
The work may still be at a very early stage of conception, or may have already undergone some research and development. It is expected that Unlimited commission awards will range between £20,000 – £80,000 depending on scale and ambition (for Wales-based artists this is capped at £60,000).