1 July 2005
Philip Patston introduction
Philip Patston's act was one of the great hits of Equata's Above and Beyond Festival in 2003. A dynamic writer, comedian, speaker and activist, Philip created and organised Giant Leap, New Zealand's first international disability arts festival. He is also the founder of IGODAP (the International Guild of Disabled Artists and Performers) a global network promoting disability arts and culture. Caglar Kimyoncu and Joe McConnell met up with Philip on a recent visit to London.
I believe that the last time Caglar and you were together, you both jumped in a river. Could you tell us more about that?
We didn't quite get to the river, otherwise we probably wouldn't be here today. We bungy jumped off the Auckland Harbour Bridge. That was in aid of promoting the Giant Leap Festival. The idea was to grab media attention by doing something that was on the edge. It was also about risk taking - a bit of a metaphor for putting on such a festival for the first time in New Zealand.
Tell us about the Giant Leap Festival.
It was great. The outcome was more than I had ever imagined. It lasted for a week. We had about 18 different performances, workshops and seminars. We created a really amazing space. The festival felt very inclusive and valuing of diversity. We had world-class acts. It was important to make a statement about the internationality of disability arts, because New Zealand tends to be a bit provincial and can be quite patronising around disability. It was important to have artists like Julie McNamara, Mat Fraser, David Roche and Victoria Maxwell to demonstrate that disability arts is a global thing and is taken very seriously in other countries where it is funded well. The festival was the culmination of 4 years work: promoting, fundraising and programming. It was smaller than other international disability arts festivals, but it felt like there was a real ownership by disabled people. There were non-disabled people involved in making it happen, but they were not running the show.
I love the article you wrote for www.bbc.co.uk="" http:="" href="">OUCH, some time ago, about growing up gay and disabled. Could you tell us more about your work as a writer and performer?
I guess I've been writing on and off for most of my life. Most of my writing is non-fiction. I currently write a monthly column for a gay magazine, www.diversityworks.co.nz="" http:="" href="">Express, in New Zealand.
I literally fell into comedy. I did a comedy course in 1995. I felt that life was boring and wanted to bring in some more creativity. The course ended with a performance at the local comedy venue which was a terribly inaccessible pub. I had to be lifted up a flight of stairs and was actually dropped 10 minutes before going on stage. This was a real show must go on experience. I met a producer of a stand-up comedy TV show and ended up doing feature slots on that for about 8 years. It snowballed from there up to the time I won an award in 1999 which was probably the peak of my comedy career. But I soon got sick of competing in the small comedy market we have in New Zealand.
Diversity is something that does not always go down well. For example, we have a comedian, Mike King, who makes hideously racist and homophobic jokes. He's one of the most popular performers in New Zealand. He's often included at the end of politically correct conferences to kind of make it all OK again. We once performed at the same gig where he was the link between the acts. Although he was affable and supportive towards me, he followed my performance by cracking a totally homophobic joke, which totally devalued who I am. I thought of taking him to task about that but decided not to. When you're in the artistic world and start censoring people you get into a dangerous area. Mike King obviously attracts an audience who want homophobic jokes. Until this audience stops laughing at his jokes, he has no reason to stop.
So I got sick of doing the pub gigs, the line-up gigs and having to go on after racist blokey acts and win the audience over. These days I just do festivals, conferences and a few corporate gigs. I do this alongside my other work - consulting and training. I've also been doing storytelling work with young people.
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How did you find yourself in the International Disability Arts Scene?
It all began in 2000. I was invited to go to the High Beam Festival in Adelaide, where I met David Roche and Geoff McMurchy who invited me to the kickstART! Festival in Vancouver the following year. In Vancouver, I met David again along with Victoria Maxwell. Julie McNamara and Mat Fraser's names also came up. I began to realise that there was an international network out there that was worth developing. And I found kickstART! incredibly inspiring. Tony Doyle, who started High Beam, began talking about the global disability culture. We had a seminar where we began to discuss the differences between Disability Arts and Arts and Disability. This was brought into focus by a rather ghastly act called Madame Josette's Nothing Sacred Cabaret which impressed with its product but we were all aware that behind the scenes it was a real army camp and that disabled people were not involved in the creative process.
After kickstART!, I set up the International Guild of Disabled Artists and Performers (IGODAP). IGODAP is a network and does not claim to be the only such network in the world. It was built up around a simple email group and website and has now close to 250 members worldwide. This is comparatively small but reflects a strong identifiable group of people who share an interest in aspects of disability arts. I get a lot of e-mails from people wanting to get in touch with artists.
kickstART! was also in part the inspiration for Giant Leap. I realised that New Zealand needed to be part of this international scene.
Within IGODAP, do you find that there is a shared global understanding of disability arts?
With IGODAP, I try not to get too political, because I think that getting numbers together is quite powerful. I didn't want to exclude people because they didn't have the correct political take on things. The members of IGODAP are pretty spread out in terms of where we are politically. There are even non-disabled members. It is hoped that it will become a forum for active debate. So far, I haven't had the time to do more than think about how to do that. This could be done through the website. Getting numbers is all important. We can develop the discourse when there are enough people to risk losing people who may disagree.
People come to disability in very different ways, with very different cultural viewpoints and philosophical understandings, so inevitably, I think, we are going to be quite a disparate group. Even though a lot of us would like to tighten up the politics around disability, I don't think that will ever happen. I don't think we'll get to a point where we have a majority of people working within the social model and really valuing impairment difference. The same is true for other minority groups. For example, there is more diversity of belief in the gay community than one would ever gather from what we receive through the media. Cultural and generational differences are very important. For example, the struggle for gay rights brought everyone together. Now that a degree of human rights legislation is embedded into western culture, you see the younger generations thinking they have nothing to fight for; so being gay becomes less of a statement. I think this is the same for younger disabled people. They take access for granted and often don't see it as necessarily important to identify as being disabled.
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Did you have many barriers to overcome as a disabled and gay artist in New Zealand?
I remember having a conversation with two disabled dykes in which we concluded that the people we knew with multiple minority identities tended to focus on one particular issue with more passion. How do you make a decision on what your focus is going to be if you are political? It struck us that it was a question of visibility: the three of us were more visibly disabled than we were visibly queer.
I've always found being disabled more disabling than being gay. I've never experienced outright homophobia, but I have experienced blatant ableism.
I came out when I was 19 and began seeking my place in the gay community. It was a rude awakening. I expected I would be welcomed with open arms because I was different. I soon realised that gay men can be more ableist than society at large, and were really quite distant with me. That was tricky: jumping in and realising that the waters weren't as deep as I thought.
As a performer, being gay and disabled probably impacts quite equally. The comedian community is dominated by straight non-disabled men. There is another (straight) disabled artist quite active on the circuit. I don't really fit in anywhere. Again, I thought comedians and performers would be open and aware. Again, I was disappointed. Now I just assume that people are going to be ignorant and reactionary until they prove otherwise.
Too often, what people are looking for in a comedian is a loudmouth bloke who's going to talk about tits and be able to stomp around the stage. I don't do either of those things and so I think this is why I often miss out on gigs. I think that it's often assumed that being disabled I won't be able to handle the crowd. Maybe my material is a bit too edgy and different. I've sometimes been dismissed as that queer cripple.
What is your impression of Britain? You are from the UK originally.
I left the UK when I was four. But when I came back in 2003, I got a huge sense of who I am by being here. It was amazing seeing behaviour I associated with being peculiar to my family in other people over here. It also gives me an idea of where my rather dry, self-analysing humour comes from. I have always identified as a Pom rather than as a Kiwi. There is a Maori concept called turangawaewae which means your place in the world - the place where you put your feet. The UK is my turangawaewae.
There is such a lot of talk in New Zealand about Maori people's connection to the land as indigenous people. A lot of English immigrants criticise the emphasis on this. I think it would be much more constructive for European immigrants to have a conversation about their own lack of connection to the land and what that means.
Future projects, plans, hopes…
Before I left New Zealand, I began planning a Disability Arts Conference which is to take place at the end of 2006. Otherwise, I'm in a searching place at the moment. I have a play in my head which demands more and more to come out. And I'd love to do a documentary on international disabled artists. I bought a camera recently as photography is something I've always wanted to get into.
I really want to develop IGODAP to the next stage taking it out of my backroom in New Zealand and getting a wider group of international artists to lead it.