The Great Exhibition of the North takes place this summer. According to the website it will be England’s biggest event in 2018. I’m sure you’re aware of it.

When George Osborne bestowed the princely sum of five million squid upon Newcastle to host the event, I should have taken more notice. I rather naively ran away with the notion that a fair proportion of that money would filter into the arts; into the commissioning of new work, and be a generally all round jolly fine affair for northern based artists. It’s not their fault; I overlooked the smaller print below the headlines at the time. I now understand it’s all about tourism and celebrating the achievements of the past, present and, hopefully, future. More like a Victorian trade exhibition really that takes in the whole of the ‘North of England’.

Years ago I put together a performance piece which involved me putting my head into a bucket of water. I performed it at the Slade, and the following night at London film Makers Co-op. As the audience assembled I projected a carousel full of rejection letters. One after the other they read “unfortunately at this time” etc.. you know the sort of thing I’m sure.  But still, there I was, triumphant in adversity, primed with existential angst and a certain amount of tongue in cheek, performing to my peers on hallowed ground.

In those days it took a torturously typewriter typed letter, a stamp and a photocopied CV to illicit a response. But at least most institutions were polite enough to reply despite the time and postage overheads. Either my memory is shot or these days the process is meaner and ruder than I ever remember. People (institutions) just don’t reply, concentrating efforts on their social media stream, effusing how ‘fab’ everything is in an all consuming effort to gain footfall. Artists are a plentiful commodity so require less tending to it seems.

Given this pre-amble you may well conclude that I am one of the many bitter artists who invested their efforts in applying to the Great Exhibition only to have their hopes cruelly dashed on some notorious northern coastal rocks. Well you would only be partially correct.

In fact I am the only artist I know to have been fortunate enough to actually have a new project seed funded by the GEoN (not one that has already been produced and shown elsewhere). It has not been easy and the end of this particular narrative still hangs precariously in the balance. Thus far we have had more rejection than acceptance, and yet somehow we are actually in production, with the promise of four quality venues at which to show our final video series.

I thought the least I could do was chart the progress of this journey. It throws up some issues around current art funding processes and I hope might add to the debate around whether our not so ‘big’ society actually values artists’ work, particularly that which doesn’t neatly fit into public spectacle or cuddly social engagement.

In some ways I am lucky, in that a certain serendipity (not artifice) has led me into working in a socially engaged way within my own art practice. I was involved in three proposals to GEoN when they first called for artist led project ideas. All three were rejected though, to give them their due, they did at least send letters. At this point I asked around, had anyone else I knew applied? They had indeed and all had been rejected, some sooner than others.

I have no doubt there were many amazing ideas and great projects that will have withered on the vine from lack of support. Hey that’s the way it goes and we all have to learn to handle rejection. Except there seemed something different about this. I mean, with such a large event surely SOMEONE I knew would get a commission? Oh there was a person a friend of a friend knew, they had been accepted. Great.. new work? ah no it’s been shown all over already, oh and it’s got a science connection. Perfect. But not new work, so low cost.

There’s lots of happy success stories I’m not aware of I’m sure, but my point is, expectation was high given this proclaimed ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ and now I am afraid to say that, certainly within my own artist fraternity, expectation is now flatter than a flat hat run over by Stephenson’s Rocket (at up to thirty six miles an hour).

We are not without political cunning. We have lobbied. We met with various movers and shakers during the interim of application and decision making. The low point was when myself and two interested parties had a meeting with a local city councillor. We aired our idea, that we wanted to make a work that would allow a voice for disabled people in the arts arena that wasn’t ghettoised with the ‘community art’ stigma; a work that would stand as tall as any other contemporary artwork, valid in its own right and uncompromising in its vision (ok I summarise a bit here). The Councillor listened, she looked puzzled, she suggested snow dogs. “They have been such a big hit with the general public” she enthused helpfully. Hey I’m all for entertaining the kids and drunks on a Friday night with a photo op but erm.. I think you missed the main thrust of our pitch I said; well to be honest, I implied, as I am a polite person. I tried to be diplomatic. When tourism meets art you better be a Turner prize winner or forget your even mildly challenging concepts.

In fact our backroom manoeuvres were to no avail. We were rejected too by the GEoN. Ours was high on the worthiness scale but still no banana. We received the letter of doom… with a familiar caveat. “There’s no money left” oh “but we’ll support you to apply to ACE for the funding”. Talk about passing the banana.

We should have given up at that point but instead decided to boomerang it back.  Having many years experience of applying to ACE, who I have to say have been very supportive when I needed it in the past, I knew they would at the very least require some funding input from other sources. After some debate GEoN agreed to pledge enough to cover the minimum to make an ACE application credible. As is always the case we also beefed up the bid with copious amounts of in kind support ourselves, effectively lowering our already low rates.

We applied to ACE.. which I’m sure you are aware is a big and arduous job these days. Less about content and concept and more about viewer figures and footfall. I thought we would be onto a winner with the footfall thing.. I mean it’s got to be the biggest public engagement event I’ve ever been involved in. But no. We were rejected again. The dog had weed on the banana tree and it was not good.

So finally.. back to GEoN. Surely they would want to include the ‘disability community’ (sorry for the label) in such an event. Of course they would… but  it was now autumn for the banana tree.

We reworked our idea, significantly cut back the scope of our original project; a smaller project with less people involved and no production assistance. What would that budget be we were asked? Still too much. BAE Systems had withdrawn their dubious sponsorship due to ethical protests. It was deep winter for the banana tree now.

Plan C.  apply to ACE again for a smaller amount with a quicker turnaround than the previous application, with the offer of enough funds from GEoN to begin the project but nothing for post-production. In other words – begin the project not knowing if we have the funds to actually piece the final thing together. I forgive you if you have lost track of the plot by now.

Notice I haven’t talked much about our actual idea. That’s because, overall ,the entire process has been about application forms and refusing to lie down. Very rarely have we been asked about content. It just hasn’t figured. I’m fine with that – I know what I’m doing and we will produce something really good I have no doubt. But it is rather odd. Isn’t that a bit tail wagging the dog syndrome?

I worry about our ACE application because, by the very nature of the process, we want it to be driven by the participants and that doesn’t sit very well with making the application sound all neat and tidy. For us it is about creating an environment that will allow those less often given such a voice to be heard; not about precisely what the outcome will be at this early stage. It has to be that way otherwise once again our disabled participants will find themselves being pushed in that fictional wheelchair rather than powering themselves. But open ended thinking is dangerous in these conservative times.

Still here we are… filming a project aptly called “The dog ate my wheelchair” involving a number of lovely people I shall introduce in my next post, with yours truly as the lead artist and the CEO of Disability North Dr. Victoria Armstrong as the facilitator. We have funding to start it. We are months behind schedule due to all of the above and, even now, as yet we don’t have funding to finish it. We await the result of an Arts Council application. But that’s a whole other story…

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So it falls to me to sift though the footage and see what shape it suggests. I work through my usual method, which is to cherry pick all the material I feel might be useful. I make long timelines of rough assemblages.

Being that all verbal material that makes it onto the screen will need to be in caption or subtitle format I decide to transcribe everything in the rough cut, as I want to see what potential the words have. This edit is unusual in that I am as interested in how the words look at this stage as in how the picture looks.

I mentioned some time back that the ‘challenges’ around signing for the hearing impaired were to become a positive visual reference for this piece. I had asked Tasha, a very engaging and enthusiastic member of the group, to sign everyone’s name for me direct to camera. At the time I wasn’t sure how I might use this, but when I reviewed the footage it became obvious that the very movement of her hands, and the fact that they so evocatively described something as simple as a name, could become the basis of the screen introduction to our group members. The very fact of looking at, what to many of us is something akin to hieroglyphics, is both intriguing and provocative. For me it worked.

Following on from this pared back approach, I decided to use blocks of strong colours alongside each person on screen. If they were to be mute then they should compensate by being extra visually eye catching. These two structural elements made the look and feel of the short videos and would hang them together – hopefully making them memorable if a viewer were to see others from our series around town.

Big text, ruthlessly edited, made it onto screen. It really helped that I had transcribed everything, it allowed me to pull out blocks of sentences more easily and to condense what had been expressed a number of different ways during the project overall.

Our walkabout around Tynemouth with Tasha and Gill brought up some issues. It was a very windy day, as often happens on the coast, and the sound outside wasn’t as good as it might have been (due in no small part to misplacing the external mic on location…oh dear). In itself that wasn’t necessarily a problem, as I had always intended that these sequences would be akin to overhearing a conversation, where you didn’t get all of the context.

I had the idea that I could re-film the BSL interpreter with Tasha (whose original conversation I had already transcribed) and we could film it again like it was a script. I liked that it would be re-made, it was playful and introduced another layer of how the piece might be read. In my world, the fact that the edit might be apparent to the viewer, and that this might make them question the whole process, was a useful approach and possibly something not often attempted with BSL.

The interpreter booked for our re-shoot was a different one than had been there on the first day. I liked that idea too. It would wear its own deceit on its sleeve so to speak. Interchangeable hands.

But this did not go well. Try as they may, the conversation did not flow. To my untutored eye and ears it all looked and sounded fine, but both parties were concerned that the nuances were not right. There was apparently a certain stiffness  to the delivery which did not sit well for them.

I in turn said I understood this, it was akin to a hearing person reading a script of something they had originally voiced as free speech. I put forward that it was intriguing, in that the nuances would be different and that would make an unusual texture to the piece. But we were looking at this from two different perspectives. I was arguing for hearing impaired people to be exposed to such concepts in the name of ‘art’ in the same way as anyone else.

The BSL interpreter was having none of it. To her the only acceptable way of doing things was her way. I found this in itself interesting.

We did eventually work out a compromise, but on reflection I think this is another big topic of conversation to be explored within the relevant groups. Is it possible to just ‘overhear’ BSL I wonder – in the same way one might any other conversation? Perhaps you can’t just ‘fill in the gaps’ of BSL? Perhaps ‘interpretation’ is a bigger issue here?

As I progressed with the edit, we invited the participants back to Disability North for a review of what I had put together so far. One of the things to be aware of with a group of people with disabilities is that it is necessary to factor in that it may be more difficult for some of them to attend regularly, and to keep sessions relatively short. In fact our group seemed quite committed and available, but inevitably not everyone was able to attend all the sessions.

Feedback on the day was great though…and received a big thumbs up for the way I had treated the material. It became apparent that no-one had really known what it would look like (me too!) but they were pleasantly surprised “Oh I get it now” said one person. I think they were just impressed it looked professional and that they were actually in it!

Continuing to work on the edit, having established a look and feel that seemed to work, I also needed to make the graphic interpretation for the windows. We had become ambitious in this respect, seeing that it really needed more than just some words next to the screen to be significant enough in a public location.

I came up with an approach that framed the screens with a neutral grey vinyl which I felt would emphasise the screen content. The work had to be identifiable as part of the Great Exhibition art trail, so we duly included the relevant logos, though I was mindful that I didn’t want this element to overpower the piece as there was a lot of bright signage all over the city relating to the GEOTN and I wanted our screens to be distinguishable from the environmental visual noise.

Some elements of the installation went smoother than others. Nexus installed their own widow, using my artwork. Intu provided help to install our video screen, and I arranged for an outside contractor to apply the window vinyl. Similarly with the Central library.

The master videos were all delivered to their relevant locations and I was looking forward to the fine tuning when…there is no easy way of putting this…I had a heart attack.

You could say, if you’re going to have something like that happen to you then, just after you’ve delivered the videos is good timing if there can be such a thing.

Having survived this unforeseen health hiccup, the immediate responsibility for overseeing the launch fell squarely on Dr Vic at Disability North and the launch date came and went without a hitch as I kept such tabs as I could from my hospital bed.

Given more time and more resources it would have been an ideal opportunity to run a social media campaign alongside a blog which could have involved other interest groups, and to perhaps have developed a wider sphere of participation from a potentially huge group of people. We just don’t have the means to go further at this stage although it is obvious that there is so much scope for further development.

For now, the piece is out there in the public domain and we have achieved far more than might have reasonably been expected given the set-backs we had in the early stages. We hope a larger project, like the one we originally envisaged, might now be possible given that we have proven the concept via what is ostensibly a pilot for that original ambition.

Hopefully someday soon I will be writing another blog which links to this one, describing how we brought together  people from across the country and citing this project as its proof of concept validity and viability.


Overall the structure of the piece is to comprise three short looped videos that are tailor made for thoroughfares. They are to be made short and snappy and to be intriguing enough to grab a passer-by’s attention when viewed through a window. Oh and they will be mute so any textual information needs to be big and bold. The other two videos, the ones we are calling the ‘walkabouts’ are for sit down consumption. They will be subtitled but will have a sound track that will bring our subjects into the ‘real world’. That’s the theory.

In the background there are other practical considerations. It seems a long time ago now that we were discussing venues for our piece with the GEOTN team. It is often thumbs up and all systems go at the outset of a project, but when a few hurdles appear it’s not always such an easy ride. So there goes our potential gallery space – apparently the Laing art gallery is fully committed with other work now – despite the fact that in the early days of negotiation we had been give a fair indication that it could ‘be swung.’

There does still seem to be some support from other potential venues. Dr Vic and I are sat in a meeting with Intu – the group that runs the largest shopping complex in Eldon Square in Newcastle. We were under the impression we were going to discuss which shop window we could use. But hold your dogs and wheelchairs.. this might not be so easy… better put the brakes on that chair for now. Apparently there is no available window as far as the manager is aware – window space is valuable acreage for a retailer and no one is going to give it away for free. We are sent away with a “we’ll get back to you” provoking dismal demeanors all round.

As it turns out Intu actually did come up with a window for us – they didn’t have to but they made the effort, so good for them. We can’t have it for the beginning of the GEOTN but it’s free for a few weeks so we decide to synchronise the other screens to their available dates and run for a slightly shorter period. I can already tell there is going to be a fair amount of background logistics to overcome before this thing gets onto the streets.

Good news from GEOTN. We may have a production budget smaller than a wedding videographer, but apparently there is some potential dosh for hardware acquisition. This really helps as there is nothing worse than trying to leverage favours when you don’t even have the right equipment. I price up some large monitors and we have an agreement to purchase. Eventually we also have an agreement to pay for the window vinyl’s which will need printing by an outside contractor, so we are feeling all our efforts are finally garnering some support.

Nexus run the buses and they run the metro in this part of the North East. I’ve never had any dealings with them before this project, but from an initial phone call months ago I can tell they are more than willing to do their best for us. As becomes apparent when we eventually meet, they have a long track record of sponsoring the arts and are not afraid to give creatively inclined project producers  their head, allowing uncompromised work to be shown (subject to seeing it first of course!)  It is a pleasure to be in a meeting where the attitude is ‘how can we make this happen’. We leave Nexus headquarters feeling particularly positive. Nexus will display our screen in the Haymarket bus station – a location that has a massive footfall. It will run, like the others, 24/7 throughout our agreed dates . I am particularly interested to think what late night inebriates might make of it as they wander through town. Hopefully it will provoke a smile at the very least.

Our third location is the Newcastle Central Library. My initial wish list had included a city central gallery space, particularly because I/we felt that it would give the project a cultural profile that is often not afforded disability related public work. I thought perhaps that having an ‘artist’ with a track record involved (i.e. me) might help with that profile and give us a more equal footing within the art establishment. I was wrong. There was not enough space apparently, even for one monitor, in a Newcastle mainstream gallery.

Never mind – the central library (a lovely, popular, modern building in the city centre) were more than happy to accommodate us, provide a street facing window and also give us space inside to playback the walkabout pieces, where we could hook up headphones too. If at first you don’t succeed…
In reality more people will probably see our piece in the library, but I am still disappointed  by how disability ‘cultural’ prejudice just lived up to the usual (low) expectations again.

It would have been great to go through all the material with the group, for them to shape the way they were presented and for me to act as a conduit for their ideas. Sadly that was never going to happen within the scope of this project.  Best I could do was suggest they send me any material of their own that I might include. Anything really – from stills to video shot on mobiles.

Some of the group do indeed  send in some interesting stuff.. video..stills.. links to original music. This is an aspect that has such huge potential. Working with material shot over an extended period of time by the group themselves would have provided such a rich resource for us to draw from. But that of course is a much bigger and comprehensive project; one that we are hoping our experiment here will become the pilot for.

more updates to come – for locations see:


…Quite a few of our group members have previous experience of either working with video or being the subject of video in the past. One member even brings along his stills camera as his ‘object’. For him it has been a transformative object which allows him to express emotions visually that he might not otherwise approach. Another has been the star of quite a few videos and runs her own YouTube channel. They are a talented bunch.

I am also aware though that they don’t quite know what I have in mind. I try to explain but I’m not sure my fine art aesthetic necessarily comes across so well. This piece was always intended to straddle the conventions of popular narrative and to somehow circumvent expectation a little, whilst attempting to be true to the character of the individuals in the group. It can be a tricky tight rope walk between art and expectation sometimes in these situations but I’m hoping we can make it work.

It’s session two and I have a white paper scoop backdrop in place. I have been filming general discussion as topics have evolved, but I want a more formal arrangement too to hold this piece together. I decide it’s easier to just plough on with this approach rather than explain what and why I’m doing this. Partly because I think they have enough on their plates performing for the camera, and partly because my structure isn’t actually so formed at this point that I can exactly outline how it will work in reality. I just kind of know it will.

All the participants are generous enough to allow me to just run with this. We have lost a couple of the previous weeks attendees but that was always going to be the case. One girl decided it was a little out of her comfort zone, which is a shame as I think she would have really benefited as the project progressed, and gained in self confidence, but we just don’t have the resources to take it slow at this point. This is where we learn and can treat the project as a pilot for something potentially bigger in the future. A longer, possibly gentler evolution, would certainly benefit the less confident if we only had the luxury of more sessions and wider resources.

I am very aware that I am trying to both engage with the participants and film at the same time. Dr Vic is doing her best to act as my sound person; audio was the first to go when the budget was cut. It’s a definite make do and mend approach but one I’m not unfamiliar with. Inevitably not everything will be in perfect focus and there is bound to be some wobbly cam, but it’s a case of get on and do it.

The additional  approach of having a more formal setup with tripod and scoop allows me an element of control with lighting and more considered framing. This piece will benefit from an element of formality in the tight graphic sequences and it will also give it the production values I want to project . A glimpse into other lives it may be, but we don’t want it to look off hand and ill considered;  plus I want to be able to frame the subject and allow them to talk to camera without distraction.

It turns out some people have brought more than one object. It’s becomes a problem when a song is presented as the subject as a. there are copyright issues and b. it doesn’t really work if you’re hearing impaired! Then there is a piece of brick from the now demolished unemployment office – now that is a truly evocative object once you know what it is.

Aside from group filming we also need to work on some location pairings. The idea is that we do a couple of walkabouts around places that mean something to some of our participants. There will be short, mute pieces in the public thoroughfares for the final installation but I also wanted some longer narrative videos with sound so that the character of our subjects can come alive more. We aren’t  attempting full blown social documentary, but more glimpses into lives that you might pass on the street. In this way we hope to offer subtle inroads into narratives that might otherwise be overlooked.

Ideally we would have two pairings out of our larger group who would be featured in this way. Time limitations, practical considerations and other commitments on the part of the group means that we eventually decide on one pairing going to Tynemouth and  one single group member going on a trip around Gateshead and Jesmond Dean in Newcastle. His more singular journey in fact works out very well as we are able to counterpoint his poetry reading in a leafy enclave close to the Dean with a much more urban exploration of the back side of Gateshead where he used to sign on.

more updates to come – for locations see:


Gradually the group assembles. It’s not a large group but diverse and everyone has made a real effort to be here. It’s a long time since I was in quite such a situation. It takes me back to when I first left college and worked as an art therapist. There is a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. There is also a bit of the ‘new boy/girl’ at school syndrome. I’m not totally sure what the participants imagine might happen and I think both myself and Dr Vic are fairly open minded about how it will progress.

Having said that, it would be disingenuous for me not to admit I have a germ of a structure already built in my head. The timescales are too short for us to spend as much time as I would ideally like to develop a way of working. We have had to be realistic, there are deadlines to hit and we have to produce something ‘meaningful’ in a relatively short timescale. This group may all be new to each other but they will have to gel quickly or it just isn’t going to work.

I have developed a way of working which uses objects as starting points and this is a definite ice breaker in such situations. Each participant was asked to bring along an ‘object’, a ‘thing’, that means something to them. Being that this is a group who mostly identify as disabled in some way, the implication is that it might be something that has helped or even possibly hindered them in their journey with a disability.

I am very conscious that I have no specific training in working with disability groups, but my attitude is that we are all people and that I have a lot of experience in working with a wide variety of those! Dr Victoria, CEO of Disability North, is on hand to facilitate and generally move things along so I’m not too concerned, although I am no different to any of us in the room in not quite knowing how this will go.

Looking around it’s good to see we have a good cross section of experience and age groups. So to the introductions. Gradually it becomes clear that there is also a variety of attitudes and life experiences present in the room. Some people take the position that it is best to be positive about most things in life and to show the rest of the world that it’s the ability and not the dis-ability of a person which is the most important thing to emphasis. Others offer the voice of experience and identify with both the progress that has taken place over recent years and also the various current backward steps that are evident politically and in social support. Others want to make it clear that despite it not being as immediately obvious, mental health issues can be just as debilitating as any physical impairment.

We try and negotiate a path which both acknowledges this and tries to encompass the fact that the term ‘disability’ covers such a wide range of personal affectations. ‘The dog ate my wheelchair’ hints at this in the title. Our aim is to focus on the people and their experiences, not some generic category of disability into which no one person actually fits.

Having said that, I am presented with challenges I don’t typically have when making films or chatting with/ interviewing people… I am so used to thinking in both sound and vision that when confronted with sign language I have to think again. This is to become particularly pertinent in following sessions. I am struck by the simple fact that the BSL interpreters we have are of course the centre of attention for our two hearing impaired members and consequently, when others are talking, there isn’t so obvious an interrelation with the group as a whole as I’m used to. Attention is necessarily focused  between the two signers, and this has an air of exclusivity about it which can be a barrier to wider, fluid discussion. It’s obvious, but not something I would have thought about previously. Reflecting on this after the first session I see how this might be made into something unique and positive as a framing device for our piece.

more updates to come – for locations see:


I thought perhaps we had a 60/40 chance in our favour but it seems not. Our ACE bid was rejected. We have no funds to continue our project.

Problem is, well, we’ve started; we’ve run two workshops and been on two outdoor expeditions to capture the basis of our piece. We have the material but we have no funds to finish it. We have venues to show the piece…but we have no financial support.

Like many an unlucky contestant we face the wall. Do we jack it in or do we continue despite our project not being supported? There are a couple of things here. One, the expectation of our participants and, two, the sheer unfathomability of why such a project wouldn’t get ACE support. I have to admit to a feeling of injustice but  I’m aware all unlucky contestants must feel that way. And yes, I do feel like we were taking part in some random game show.

With no other options available, we are doing what we always knew we would do; we will make the piece anyway…I just won’t get paid for doing it. Thus far I’ve used all my own gear to film with and forgone any such luxury as an assistant or hiring equipment that would have enhanced the production values. We have cut back the scope of the project in terms of amount of workshops, and yet it still seems like there is an imperative to carry on. With no budget it means I need to continue the day job and work nights and weekends. I have a mortgage… it’s that or tell our participants the deal is off.

What I feel let down about is not only the lack of financial support overall, but that the concept – that we allow the participants to have a voice of their own without pre-empting the outcome – was not seen as sufficiently compelling. It’s how I work – I let people tell their stories, taking that as my raw material. The process is such that I can’t tick a box to tell you  what the end result will be. It’s just disappointing that ACE didn’t seem to get that.

We did of course go back to the Great Exhibition people with our Tiny Tim act…but the cupboard was bare. The dog ate my budget. We plough on… art on the cheap, seemingly unviable and yet still potentially part of the greatest cultural spectacle to have been planned here since we discovered what steam can do. Oh the irony.

Just to round off this sad little episode, we put the PR wheels into motion. Disability North used their contacts to get us some exposure. One last gasp appeal to the business community. We posed for piccies. We await our sad gazes being published in the evening chronicle. I am not holding my breath.

Thus far I haven’t  given over much time to describe the actual project. In some ways, the piece always had a small ‘p’ political element to it. For me that has been heightened by its lack of support, making it even more important that we do justice to the idea. Issues of what it means to be a person with a disability, and how society values those so often marginalised, provided the impetus for this piece. Our reflections on the process thus far will no doubt form part of this ongoing debate once the piece is out there.

Next post I promise will be more positive!