Shoddy hosted an event last week for International Day of Disabled People (3.12.15) which asked the question, What is disability art? This attracted an audience that included disabled and non-disabled people, Deaf and hearing people, artists, students of disability studies and disability arts, alongside people who’d never heard of disability arts and people who were curious and had their interest piqued.
Gemma Nash had agreed to do a presentation early on in the event planning, so I knew we’d have a great event. Gemma and I first met at DAN (disabled people’s direct action network) actions back in the 90’s and she’s now a multimedia artist with a particular interest in sound and photography, based in Manchester.
Gemma will be writing a blog about the event and the subject, so I won’t write too much here. But I’d like to thank everyone involved for making this a really successful, thought-provoking event which left people with an appetite for more. This was the aim of the event: to raise issues about disability arts and access to the arts – for disabled artists and audiences, and to begin discussions about this in different forums.
Thanks to Hammerson plc for funding the event, Inkwell for hosting and of course Gemma for a brilliant presentation.
One of the early posts on this blog was a round-up of disabled people’s writing and definitions of disability art, and I introduced the event with a definition: disability art is art that’s made by disabled people that reflects their experiences of being disabled. But in preparation for the event, doing further reading and thinking, this began to seem ridiculously simplistic and only part of the picture.
Disability art isn’t mere “propaganda” for the disabled people’s movement – although sometimes there is a place for this. And surely all art reflects and is informed by the artist’s experience and life, so does that mean that all art by disabled artists is disability art? And can people such as family members or other people who have experienced disabling barriers through their association with disabled people produce disability art?
Many disabled (and other) artists react strongly against the idea of being labelled and think that disability art or being described as disabled artists is restrictive and unhelpful. Others, however, see this as empowering, supportive and important for visibility and diversity. Is disability art still a relevant idea? Is it a label that’s more harmful than useful?
One of Gemma’s first questions to the group was, Who produces disability art? And what is it for?
This got people talking in small groups and the conversations carried on all evening. People talked about their experience as artists , art audiences, from working with disabled people and from their academic studies. We touched on the affirmative model of disability – which challenges any ideas of personal tragedy and draws on the idea of disability pride – and the idea that Deaf people may see themselves as a cultural or linguistic minority.
It’s certainly timely to be discussing these issues in Leeds, with art high on the city’s agenda at the moment. British Art Show 8 is currently on at the Art Gallery, and the city has developed a brand, Unfold, representing the Leeds visual art scene in all its diversity. Leeds will be bidding to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. What will that mean for disabled artists? Other capitals of culture have included disability arts festivals in their programme, notably in Liverpool in 2008, organised by DaDaFest.
Elsewhere, the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive will be a home to the heritage and rich history of the disability arts movement. So clearly disability art has some relevance.
While not reaching firm conclusions at the event, we enjoyed the debate, which had been respectful, good humoured and inclusive. People were keen to hear what others had to say and there was a feeling that we were all learning something from each other. Disability art, identity, creativity, access, protest, representation – the issues are closely interlinked. Ultimately I think where we did agree is that we want disabled artists to be more visible and disabled people to be able to enjoy the arts without barriers – and for that not to be a big deal.