#UnltdSymposium – Disability Arts Online’s hot topics


On 4 & 5 September 2018, Unlimited will be hosting a symposium as a precursor to the festival at Southbank Centre. This series of discussions and debates will consider key questions for disability-led arts from diverse and international perspectives. Unlimited are opening up the agenda with a call out for responses.

Unlimited House of Krip

Unlimited House of Krip at the House of Saurez Vogue Ball,  an Unlimited main commission. Photograph: Fotocad.

Symposia on Disability Arts are notoriously hard to get right. There is a risk that the debates may become too insular, excluding those not familiar with the very specific historical arts and civil rights movement or that they may be seen to water the political aspect of the movement down so far as to be seen as reactionary. There’s also often a tendency to obsess over the ‘mainstream’. After all we are still fighting a battle in which ‘disability’ is understood as a problem, rather than an opportunity.

Finally, there’s a danger that the same old questions get asked to the same panellists. DAO’s staff and board have compiled five topics, which we hope avoid those pitfalls.

Here’s what the Disability Arts Online staff and board think are the burning issues.

Talk about the art itself!
It seems obvious that at an art symposium you should talk about art, and not just the political and cultural context which surrounds it. But you’d be surprised how many of these types of events overlook the work itself. We’d like to see discussions which rigorously interrogate questions of aesthetics and value. Which Unlimited-commissioned works have had the most impact? Where are there gaps? Panels should consist of a mixture of artists across artforms but also people with a broader view of the sector or an in-depth knowledge of a particular artform – it could be artistic directors of disabled-led or ‘mainstream’ companies, programmers, critics, cultural leaders.

Critics, criticism and questions of quality
As the resident critics for the Disability Arts sector we review a lot of work, and have a special interest in this subject. What role does considered criticism have to play in the development of artistic practice, especially for disabled artists? We’d like to hear from both sides of the fence. What does it feel like to have your work criticised, even if it’s constructive? As a critic how do we balance our commitments to audiences and artists? What about mainstream critics – are they still too afraid to be scathing of disabled artists? Or do they continue to misunderstand the context of a disability perspective? Or does the mainstream continue to just ignore disabled artists altogether. This also raises questions about quality and how it is assessed. This is perhaps particularly pertinent for critiquing learning disability arts practice – should it be judged with different criteria? Or is that approach itself patronising?


And Suddenly I Disappear...The Singapore 'd' Monologues

Kaite O’Reilly’s Unlimited International R&D ‘And Suddenly I Disappear…The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues.  Wesley Loh from MEMPHIS WEST PICTURES

Firstly, let’s explain what we mean by ‘intersectionality’ – the point at which identities intersect, especially marginalised identities. This is often a topic debated at conferences, but we still feel it is important. Historically there has and continues to be a dearth of artists from black and ethnic minorities engaging with Disability Arts. Disability Arts continues to be the preserve of white, middle-class disabled people. This is of particular concern to DAO, as our last reader survey showed just 10% of respondents were BAME, compared to 14% of the general population. By contrast, our readership includes a much higher proportion of LGBTQ people than the general population. The question of race becomes even more pertinent when we consider international perspectives – how do we share the lessons of the UK’s disability rights movement with other nations, without reinforcing colonial attitudes? The Arts are enriched when they are informed by the lived experience of artists from a wider pool of cultural backgrounds. How do we change the goal posts and open up the platform to ensure that the opportunities are being taken up by a broader range of artists?

Reasserting (and reassessing?) the social model for the next generation
The Social Model guides everything we do at DAO. It is perhaps the single most important tool in fighting for equal rights for disabled people. Yet, we’re always amazed how often we hear people (even those versed in the Social Model) reverting to Medical Model language. It seems the latter is creeping back into accepted parlance, even in disability circles. This is even more true for a younger generation of disabled artists. The Social Model, and its corollary the Affirmative Model allow for a positive expression of disabled identity. Yet what struck us at the 2016 Unlimited panel discussions, and indeed is a general observation – is how many young disabled artists are reluctant to identify culturally and politically as such (some prefer ‘artist who happens to be disabled’) Many have still never heard of the Social Model. So how can we bridge the gap? How can we reassert the Social Model? And indeed, we must recognise the limitations of the Social Model too.

Breaking the glass ceiling – or just getting by
According to the Paying Artists survey conducted by a-n, on average, artists are paid less than cleaners in the UK. We’d wager that disabled artists are paid even less well. Rather than debate this as a panel, we’d like to see break-out practical sessions which give hands on advice to disabled artists about how they can make a living from their work. This could include balancing benefits with earned income, getting access to work, advice on applying for funding, where to sell work, how to pitch yourself to venues etc. What about exploring different funding streams and models such as crowdfunding? It would be great to hear from both artists who are getting by, funders and programmers on this topic. How to make a living from art is something we hear about time and again in our work with artists. There are of course larger existential questions around whether art is a vocation or a compulsion and how, as a sector, we can do more to ensure artists are paid probably.

So that’s our pick of some of the topics we’d like to discuss at Unlimited Symposium in 2018. Why don’t you share your own suggestions on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #UnltdSymposium