Unlimited: What Next? Symposium

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As part of the packed programme at Tramway’s Unlimited Festival, practitioners, arts professionals and other interested parties gathered to discuss what’s next for emerging disabled artists on 21 and 22 September. The session was facilitated by associate producer of Unlimited at Tramway, Kim Simpson and supported by Unlimited Impact (administered by Shape and Artsadmin). Review by Joe Turnbull

A group of people sit around a table debating things.

People gathered for the What Next symposium. Photograph Chris Scott

Hosting a symposium attended by up to 30 people from all sorts of backgrounds, countries and professional contexts with absolutely no pre-determined topics was undoubtedly a bold move by the event’s organiser Kim Simpson. Genius or foolhardy? There may have been snatched moments of the latter, where the fervent dialogue and furious debate seemed like organised chaos. But only in chaos do we find evolution, or indeed, revolution. And if we’re to properly serve the aspirations of the next generation of disabled artists we certainly need a bit of both.

In small, focussed groups we were tasked with coming up with the most pressing issues for disabled artists and the sector generally. These were collated and organised into themes by Simpson, the themes were then voted on until we arrived at the four which had garnered most interest. This ‘open exchange’ model, Simpson explained, is a way to deal with issues of great complexity, and the process helped us arrive at four quite neat, though intersecting themes: audiences, assessing quality, training and art as a platform for social change.

Next, a game of musical chairs ensued, ensuring that everyone was sitting at the table that would be discussing which of the themes they found most pressing. In the ‘audiences’ group we talked about the issues of marketing disability-led work to mainstream audiences; how you frame it in a way that pulls in punters without sensationalising. We talked about how the word ‘disability’ might be a turn off for certain audiences. We talked about access, and not just in a physical sense but also how important ‘psychological access’ is.

It seemed something of an oversight that there was no feeding back to the wider group at this stage. Some important topics and further discussion-starters may well have been lost in the transition to the next day of the symposium. Instead, the first day concluded with presentations by four emerging disabled artists Aby Watson, Amy Rosa McLachlin, Poppy Nash and Pum Dunbar. Each of these were lively, enlightening and refreshing in their own way.

Kim Simpson and Jo Verrent look at sheets of paper on the ground, grouping them into categories

Themes were chosen from the responses of every participant. Photograph Chris Scott

Seasoned Disability Arts heads may have contended that there was a quite a heavy impairment focus running through these presentations. But art is about experience, and for young and emerging artists especially, shining a light on their impairments via their practice can be a useful way of orienting themselves at the beginning of a long career journey.

Nash shared paintings and installations that she hopes will foster greater understanding of diabetes and the daily reality for those who have it. Amy Rosa McLachlin expressed the mixed feelings of both loss and empowerment from acquiring an impairment with a touching poem to her own body. Watson explained the thoughts behind her PhD ‘Choreographing Clumsy’ which will look at developing a choreographic language that incorporates her movements as someone with dyspraxia.

Dunbar, who couldn’t attend in person, had prepared a video explaining some of her collage work which was delivered deadpan by an authoritative male voice-over, in extremely dense though undoubtedly intelligent and articulate prose. It induced feelings of being overwhelmed, much like Dunbar’s lived experience of Autism, which is described in the video.

The second day was geared around four provocations, one devised by each of the previous day’s presenting artists (minus Pum Dunbar, whose place was taken by emerging producer Daisy Douglas), which in turn grew out of the four themes we had arrived at as a group.

They were:

  • Who decides what quality is?
  • Using art as a platform for social change
  • How does class affect diversity in the disability arts sector?
  • How can we shrink the barriers and widen the doors to entry into conservatoires and other higher education institutions for disabled artist?

Whilst we debated, despaired and devised cunning plans in our groups, artist Luke Pell eavesdropped on our conversations, taking the temperature before delivering an eloquent summary of his findings.

He ruminated on how the current systems put in place which disabled people have to deal with today are “not informed by the lived experience of diversity or difference”. He sounded a warning about equating value with monetary worth and of viewing art as a product to be consumed. But he also said he had observed “a widening of the weave in recent years” especially in disability arts contexts and hoped for “building outwards rather than upwards”. He then encouraged us all not to think in terms of deficit, to “reimagine loss” and seek the silver linings.

To this end he cajoled us all, in his signature languid-yet-firm style, to come up with real, tangible answers to each of the four provocations, ones which we could enact in the immediate future. No simple task for such wide-ranging problems. It seems as with so many of these events, when you’re working in the arts, to sort out the sector’s biggest problems we have to sort out the rest of society too.

The tangible answers that came out were mostly achievable. A common thread was to become better connected with our peers, to skill share, spread opportunities and offer support to foster the emotional resilience needed to make change happen. To this end a Facebook group is being set up for all the attendees to contribute to. The idea of a curatorial platform featuring disabled artists which does not contain the word disability was mooted. The group assessing quality called on us to abolish pedantry in arts writing and criticism.

Tackling prejudice in our day-to-day interactions, using empathy as a starting point, acknowledging our own privilege and being open and transparent both as individuals and organisations were also suggested as things we could all enact when we left the session.

Having the symposium over two days at times felt a little drawn out, but the What Next? event was definitely a fantastic networking opportunity which was reenergising and refreshingly positive, teeming with the new energy that these things often lack. It felt like a baby step in the right direction. But the (r)evolution has to start somewhere.