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To coin Simon Raven’s phrase we have to a significant extent moved into an age of Disability Arts Lite. Medical model stories of individuals and their impairments seem to be prescient within a lot of the ‘disability’ work that is being picked up within the mainstream performing arts arena.
Disability arts is wider, bigger, watered and fettered by ideas of inclusivity. Medical model language is more entrenched than ever and the sense of oppression within is heavier and more insidious. And the ‘whiteness’ of the world disability arts has grown to occupy is as white as it ever was.
In its heyday in the 1990s Disability Arts was 95 per cent white. It was a small world of “white work, for white people, in a white world”. And Sadieei Brown is right. We haven’t moved on from that entrenched position. There is no excuse. A lot of us work very hard to keep plugging identity as a key creative force within the arts but it needs to move beyond personal narrative and it needs to be a far more dynamic force.
Possibly one of the reason’s why we’re continuing to fail to attract a wider and more diverse pool of artists within the sector is because we constantly pull the rug from under ourselves by not talking seriously about the ART. And by allowing ourselves to get embroiled in the same old conversation about funding and being 'special'.
There is a subtle line where a more expansive universal story gets told. It’s everything to do with the integrity of the artist. We need to redress the balance or hand in the towel.
I was at the event and it was very depressing, in fact so depressing I had a panic attack that night after getting home. There is much of good within this original post and much I agree with in terms of the squabbling and the political vs artistic but the two things that really got me about it were.
1 - It was curated and presented in such a way as to suggest that this is something that mainstream theatre is grappling with, and that is a falsehood. There was no one in that room who was from that area of work, or at least no one who made themselves known, to offer any insight as to what they were actually trying to achieve with the concept of disability as a creative advantage. So that allowed for the in fighting and digressions to happen as they always do. It was good to have Lyn in the room as she is genuine about this stuff and goes to see things and will always put herself in a position where she is viewing something that is way outside her comfort zone. But the debate she was seeking was not allowed to happen, because we love a fight. And as a group were not intelligent enough to take advantage of her in the space and bring to the fore something positive and constructive for all of us. Which leads me to my second point.
2 - The comments so far have done nothing except prove my long felt opinion that this is white work, for white people, in a white world. There is little to nothing in what we now calling disability theatre (to appease the so called oppressor) because unless there is a label you can't exclude those who you want to. As far as I am concerned the people who collude and pretend that this is 'happening to me' are liers. They maintain the oppression by seeking to create structures that work for them and that will allow the ladder to be pulled up behind them. Usually non-disabled people who have discovered disability theatre in tow, to add validity to their claims.
The session was a real wasted opportunity, but the Lyn Gardner door is an open one I intend to push on very hard and to extend the conversation into a real one about ART and practice and creating work as a disabled person. Which is an identity not a label to gain an advantage with.
I agree with Danny's point - it is important that the subversive potential of Disability Art is not co-opted by attempts to appease the mainstream. Otherwise there is a danger of promoting 'Disability Art Lite', which might offer an appearance of inclusivity whilst offering no formal or conceptual challenge to divisive mainstream art/politics.
It's important to resist a neoliberal 'politics of the individual' (Blair). There is beauty in the type of collective action and artistic activity that the social model promotes. This need not be at the expense of a critically engaged and nuanced aesthetic.
I'm sorry I couldn't be at the event, but it obviously threw up some intense debate.
Hasn't emancipatory art always had to embrace the contradiction that its power emanates from oppression? It seems to me that the debate might well highlight the flaws in "social model" analysis. Perhaps the idea of an "affirmative model", as described by Swain and French, might be a more useful starting point?
In terms of current practice, there seem to be two areas that need addressing. Firstly, economics. As Owen Kelly once memorably said, "being a cultural revolutionary salaried by the state is a contradiction in terms". In days like these, where disabled people are generally becoming poorer, the supplicant relationship with state funding is bound to become increasingly compromising to disabled artists' integrity. Secondly, and of course related to this, the interest of the mainstream - the table in the metaphor - is problematic. It seems to me that the mainstream is interested more in form than content (although of course it's crude to separate the two). I'm not advocating for a stream of agitprop, but a recognition of the political context affecting our communities. Austerity and neo-conservative economics are devastating communities beyond the walls of the theatre and disabled people are the most severely affected. I'd be interested to see if projects such as Unlimited and Ramps end up, arguably like Paralympic sport, providing a PR job for a state that claims to support disabled people, when we are in effect paying for the privatisation of the state. I don't think this is easily solvable - resources are needed to make work and state funding streams are in some ways, for some, low-hanging fruit. I would suggest that the disability arts movement needs to start by acknowledging its own contradictions and to challenge the gatekeepers (some of whom may be disabled themselves, of course) to put disabled people's experiences of Cameron's Britain front and centre in some of the work. Graeae's 'Threepenny Opera' was a triumph in this respect - but it should be used as a call to arms to inspire other politically-engaged work that raises the debate about the state we're in.
I think some people arrived at the event already stoked up, seeking only to confirm their pre-exisiting bias. It's a real shame that there is still such small-world thinking in the disability arts sector. It's... disabling. I understand why some find the idea of disability as an advantage offensive, but no art really concerns me unless it subverts me. Makes me think, think twice. I remember speaking at an event ten years ago in Serbia to a room full of defectologists - that's what social workers were called there then. I remember being simultaneously offended and intrigued. To be clear, I am no longer "of Mind the Gap". In a sense Mind the Gap was "of" a younger, more optimistic me. I think the debate is shifting focus, with Ramps on the Moon, Unlimited, the Creative Case, we need to be more sophisticated (less shouty) or else we will, as Colin says, become just a passing anomaly. There is too much beauty to reflect in our experience to allow that to happen.
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