Earlier this year I did a Clore Intensive – a 2-week residential course for leaders in the cultural sector. This course has allowed me to think differently about things. About many things in fact, particularly to do with leadership and the cultural sector. So it kind of did what it said on the tin – which was, and is, great.
I am an aspiring leader at the beginning of this journey – still, a solo freelance artist so a limited in leadership opportunities in the traditional sense.
I know what my leadership style is, who I get on better with, who I find particularly difficult to get on – professionally and ‘type wise’ according to which ever systemic thinking you choose to use. It wasn’t just professional development – it never is on these courses – and let’s face it if after 2 weeks on an intensive residential course you have no more insight than with which you came, then you must have been sleeping with your eyes open or you weren’t really present.
So I learnt a lot. No surprise that I clearly entered the course as a Northerner with two huge chips on his shoulders – around class, northerness, southerness, privilege, elitism, exclusion, power – just for starters. I realised these had driven me but were now holding me back. This also afforded me the opportunity to think about my deficits, of which there are many. I am good at getting people on the bus with my enthusiasm, I am definitely not a person who is good at figures or dotting the I’s. I am also someone who finds it hard not to wear their heart on their sleeve, I tend to shoot from the hip and therefore I tend not to be the most strategic person in the world. My passion gets in the way of politics. To this end I always have in the back of my mind, will I ever work again, am I on the list of being difficult to work with, have I just shot myself in the foot again?
One of the things I have been thinking about recently is Unlimited. It is an amazing program and currently has a call out for expressions of interest. There really is nothing like Unlimited as a commissioner of disabled artists who make, or want to make, high-quality work. Unfortunately, this program is due to close in 2020. I guess all good things have to come to an end. It begs the question ‘Is there artistic life and opportunities for disabled artists after Unlimited’?
I hope the answer is yes. I know that the ecology for performance is comparatively healthy. This is due, in part, to the investment in time and money to ensure that there has, and is a, rigorous process of critical dialogue within the areas of dance and performance by disabled artists or disabled led companies. As I often say, mainstream theatres across the land are much happier now than they were to put on such work because they successfully sell, and often sell out, to mainstream audiences who want to see good work. My dissatisfaction that this is not the case for the visual arts is well documented. I do not want to tread that path again here.
What concerns me here is legacy. What happens after 2020 when the team behind Unlimited hang their commissioning coats up and leave the proverbial smoky back room speakeasies for the last time, closing the doors and calling time on the organic orange juice and vol-au-vents?
Prior to Unlimited, I had never worked with a producer. Don’t get me wrong, I like having a producer. Or rather I like having someone who I am collaborating with who can cope with the stuff I can’t. Someone who can field the trickier questions, has complimentary skill sets, and who I feel safe with. But why as an artist should I have a producer? Why can’t I have a curator to work with, that is after all the model which visual artists exist within.
A curator is not like a producer and vice versa, it is not just a case of semantics. You can’t just swap one for another freely, they are not easily interchangeable – I found this out with my experience of working at festivals in 2017 with Between Stillness and Storm – an Unlimited co-commission where I worked with Tim Shaw and was Produced by Kerry Harker.
The language of Festivals, theatre and performing arts is different to that of visual arts. Even now, several years into working with producers I still don’t know what I don’t know and realise I knew virtually nothing when I started deviating from the language and processes of the art world.
I use this as means of illustrating that knowledge is power. Knowing which questions to ask, or what you are entitled to or what you should or shouldn’t sign up to is important. It’s another form of the exclusion – inclusion paradigm.
I have always voiced my issues around the producer model favoured by Unlimited rather than the curator model. This is perhaps one of many reasons why performance has made significant strides in its development, exposure and quality and appeal. Still, there is no ‘curator’ within the Unlimited staff although many producers including a senior producer. And I want to be perfectly clear this is not a personal comment or issue – I am discussing the systemic approach and model here. Unlimited has had many ‘Trainee Producers’ but not one as far as I am aware of, ‘Trainee Curator’. Perhaps this is one of the varied reasons the object based visual arts field within disability arts/Unlimited has continued to drift in the backwaters of the arts programming and remains to be taken seriously by the mainstream galleries or a wider public beyond the galleries.
So come 2020 and the last loose change of Unlimited has been distributed what happens to the acquired knowledge?
Where will the knowledge gained over the previous 8 years lie. Where does it lie now? How accessible is it? Is it distilled down and controlled by too few gatekeepers? Post-2020 will disabled artists know who the allies are, who are good people to go to, who will help us develop? Will there be a point of contact for all the information, knowledge, relationships brokered by networks and organisations to be democratically dispersed to the artists. (Sadly, I feel like I’m at a worker’s revolutionary rally against the Autocrats circa October 1917).
To be honest, and unsurprisingly, I feel less worried for the theatre-makers, dancers and performers. I do however worry a lot for the artists. Perhaps I would worry less if a curator and gallery came on board for the final 18 months, perhaps I could allow myself to feel a little bit of hope for a sustainable future as a disabled visual artist/curator.
But it’s not just me, it’s everyone else too. All the other object-based visual artists who won’t have shown in a ‘real proper gallery’ in the way many performers have been able to develop and present their work on ‘proper stages’ at ‘proper theatres’ and experienced their moment/s in the ‘spotlight’. At times it feels like I am in an anechoic chamber, but I am sure I can hear the beginnings of echoes and that fills me with hope.
Disability Arts Online, in partnership with MAC Birmingham, will be hosting a Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists, chaired by Aidan and featuring a panel including curator and writer, George Vasey; MAC visual arts producer, Jessica Litherland; and artists Sue Austin and Anna Berry.
This article first appeared here http://disabilityarts.online/producers-and-curators-the-legacy-and-power-of-knowledge/
The morning of 8th of September saw me in london for the Unlimited Festival at Southbank – a festival highlighting the best in disability arts and performance – mostly from commissioned work by Unlimited. But I had other things on my mind – I needed to return north to the closing event of Malgorzata Dawidek at VARC where she had been the first resident on a pilot project specifically designed for disabled professional artists. One month with a studio, a flat and a good stipend to concentrate on her own practice with no desired outcome or exhibition requirement. However Malgosha had produced a massive body of work in the month she was in rural northumberland and wanted to exhibit some to it. Nearly a hundred people turned up at the remote location in Northumberland to see her work and hear her talk about her experience and process.
Looking back it was a great success and Malgosha was the perfect artist. I am really pleased that VARC and Janet Ross engaged in the process of becoming more inclusive and diverse. And yes, 4 1/2 years in the making and then the month passed so quickly.
See examples of this here at instagram.
This is what she said
A few shots from the opening of the “Foreign Body” exhibition last Saturday (08.09.18).
This solo show concluded my five-week-long #artresidency with @varc_arts at #Highgreen/ #Northumberland.
My work was focused on lone #performances undertaken to explore notions of #illness, #pain, #voidness and #limitations of the body, as well its #abilities. Each performance expresses the relationship between my condition, feelings and the specific features of the chosen rural #location, and inosculates my #corporealitywith the environment.
The performances were being documented through photographs.
The residency has been one of the most incredible and #challenging experiences of my #artpractice, due to specific #ruralconditions where I was working in – the pervasive nature, cold and #darkness, immersive and spectacular #sky and landscapes views, an #isolation, and living at the wing of remarkable, XIX-century #manorhouse.
During this time I received enormous support from my hosts – the VARC Foundation, #JanetRoss, @aidanmoesby, and Cynthia and William Morrison-Bell @northumbrianhermit – Thank you all for this fantastic opportunity!
Also, special thanks to #KhosroAdibi, an amazing artist and human being, without whose help and support I couldn’t cope with many situations. !شكرا لك Dank je wel! Merci beaucoup!
I love Northumberland!
Four and a half years to be precise. Back in 2014 I received a small project grant from Creative Case North to work on a collaborative project. I wanted to place a disabled artist with an organisation to be able to do a residency which was about their professional development – no agenda, no product, no community work, no specific outcome – just time to focus on practice and make work. I am particularly keen on rural practice, so it seemed natural to partner with Visual Arts in the Rural Community .VARC usually does long term residencies and this time structure is not always possible for artists with specific needs around disabilities. The initial project was called Passing Places and this was on VARC’s site
VARC’s Janet Ross has been working with artist Aidan Moesby on an intensive Creative Case NORTH mini-residency. The residency ‘Passing Places’ was initiated by Aidan who approached Janet with the idea of spending time exploring how it could be possible to increase accessibility to quality meaningful creative opportunities for diverse artists (in particular those with disabilities) within a rural context.
On that short residency of working collaboratively to explore the potential I wanted dispel any notion that work made by people with disabilities can be of high quality. We visited Project Ability in Glasgow and The Art House in Wakefield as exemplar organisations. This set the scene for my aspirations of working with VARC. Over the following months and years I kept a dialogue flowing with Janet Ross of VARC.
I sent her examples of work made by disabled artists and talked over the feasibility of having someone in place at Highgreen, This caused a bit of anxiety. Highgreen is literally in the middle of nowhere. No street lights – a designated dark skies area just up the road, no public transport, no popping out to the nearest shop which is some 10 miles away, uneven ground given that is a working country estate and built in the 1800’s. I tried to ease the anxiety. Unsurprisingly when you are not around disability or it is not your world then there is a lot of unknowns – basically I was trying to reassure and say that if a normative person trips and falls it’s the same issues as a disabled person – legally and practically. The increasing strength of work within the Adam Reynolds exhibitions was further evidence that work made by disabled artists can stand up to rigorous critique.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2018 and the advert goes out for a disabled artist for a residency opportunity at HIghreen with VARC. Yes we got some criticism, the accommodation is up a flight of stairs, we wanted people to be able to drive so they could be independent (as is the expectation with every other artist) we wouldn’t take people to the shops. This caused more anxiety but my approach is this is a pilot project. If we can prove a success maybe we can get a grant for accessible accommodation – the artist gets a good stipend and a free flat and a free studio – it is one more opportunity for a disabled artist in a particular fallow area of opportunity. Would people prefer this not to be available due to accommodation accessed by stairs or no transport. Not all disabilities are physical or visible.
Yes the situation is not perfect – but we don’t live in a perfect world. I am proud to be able to curate / facilitate this residency and to have spent the last 4 years in conversation to make it happen. It is better than doing nothing or not offering a residency at all. It is a start. I would love this opportunity to spend a month focussing on my art work at my own pace and be paid for it. And have an exhibition if i want at the end of it. The artist has an amazing amount of agency in this situation. In addition it means that the main residencies offered by VARC become more accessible to disabled artists which run over a period of 9 months. VARC has a better understanding of disability and is firmly engaged in the conversation and process.
The first week in August 2018 sees Malgorzata Dawidek arrive at Highgreen to take up residency for a month. I am looking forward to welcoming her and wish her well for her month in the heart of Northumberland.
I wrote this originally for Disability Arts Online
After I had presented at the Southbank Festival I headed up to Glasgow to speak there about my increasingly digital practice and the Unfixed Residency. I had a few moments to reflect and wrote this for kimaskswhat.online. There is a real shortage of disabled curators and no real model that fits the producer model of performance. As a disabled Curator this concerns me. Here is a start at thinking about this.
In the last 10 days I have been at the Unlimited Southbank Festival followed by a week long residency at the Pervasive Media Studio in Watershed, Bristol. The residency brought together artists from the UK and Australia to explore Digital and Disability – a conversation which started in Adelaide last October – under #Unfixed. A collaboration between Australian Network for Art and Technology,and Unlimited.
I mention this because I have felt both incredibly supported and liberated by being surrounded by people with disabilities within this context and yet it has raised many conflicting feelings too.
In London there was no hint that you had to justify or explain your disability. You were not any less or more of a person because of it. I knew I was existing in a tolerance bubble. Outside on the other side of the world the Paralympics were going on in Rio. The heroes and inspirers – Channel Four took out huge billboard adverts with Paralympians posing and the word ‘disability’ below with the ‘Dis’ crossed out. In one mark denying so many people of their identities or part of their identity. What if you aren’t a hero, what if you don’t inspire – what then for your worth as a human being, as a person. What if you can’t get out of bed or dress yourself? What if you need assistance and can’t walk 10metres let alone run 26 miles? This insidious disability inspiration porn and the hero tropes hung over the southbank – a dark weighty cloud of malevolence.
To add to this, for me, there is a lack of representation in the paralympics of hidden disabilities. Of particular interest to me is the complete lack of Mental Health acknowledgement – no classes for us there. We are denied a presence and a voice.
In some way this resonates with me around issues in the arts and disability world. Performance by disabled artists has improved in quality dramatically over the last few years. Last year at Edinburgh Fringe Festival a huge number of disability lead performances drew in the mainstream crowds, and rightly so. This year at Edinburgh, as a writer with The Sick of the Fringe, I saw a huge variety of issue based live works. The Unlimited festivals continue to invest and showcase the best of the best in performance, dance and live arts. Long may it continue.
Conversely, as a visual artist with a hidden disability – I feel under represented, under acknowledged, not just me, but I look around for my peers and wonder where they are. I wonder where are the white cubes, the hallowed conceptual walls, the abstracted spaces of the galleries, the cathedrals of modern art to be showcased in.
I meet producers at events and I am glad of it, but where are the curators? Surely the ‘Producer’ model of performance is similar to the ‘Curator’ model of art. Somewhere there is a dis-connect, that for me, does not quite add up.
This brings me back to Bristol Watershed, the Pervasive Media Studio, where diversely disabled writers, producers, theatre makers, photographers, visual artists, filmographers and technologists met and worked together. I had a glimpse of a possible future and I took my first steps towards it.