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> > > ‘Defying Definitions: disability arts in the mainstream’

Alan McLean gets under the skin of a thought-provoking symposium produced by Dash, at the Arena Theatre Wolverhampton on 2 December 2011.

Some years ago I recall an International New Media and Performance conference with a large proportion of UK delegates in Dublin. An invited curator was heckled for refusing to include Willie Doherty in a Sculpture Biennale in the Netherlands because his work was in her terms  ‘parochial’.  At the time performance-based work was treading lightly around the edges of being seen in galleries. The curators’ resistance to Doherty’s issue-based work was reinforced by her dismissal of the location of the event and of the Irish artists present (who were in the minority).

The fact that 30 years after the event I describe, there is a Willie Doherty retrospective at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (WAG) is a sign of how things have moved on. It indicates the ambition of Municipal Art Gallery curators who are clearly confident that their choice of artist will reach Guardian and Independent readers top five exhibitions “to go and see.” Willie Doherty is also – like many disabled artists - an artist with purpose, identity and politics. He also resists simple interpretations and his work is deliberately ambiguous. 

And so it is encouraging that WAG is showing Object/Female by Noëmi Lakmaier (in the gallery adjacent to Doherty). She has cleverly used paintings and sculpture from WAGs art collection, to produce a ‘living installation’ that describes a sense of the overwhelming insignificance of disabled women in art. Noëmi Lakmaier has delivered what Visual Arts Manager Paul Darke describes as "live art as a vehicle to make the most powerful Disability Art."

photo of a group of disabled people in a field in Wales

Camp DAG gather around a fire in a field, somewhere in Wales

Such interventions by disabled artists do not, in the majority actually happen in a mainstream gallery space. But that's all right it seems. One of the things we learnt from the Symposium was that “actually" the contemporary space that artist’s dwell in can be anywhere. As with Aaron Williamson and Katharine Araniello aka Disabled Avant-Garde (DAG) (the art stars of Outside In) occupying a field in Wales, was a highly attractive proposition.

‘Camp DAG’ (very nearly) took a village by surprise, occupying an adjacent field overnight. Full marks to DAG for a film of a performance which responded to the context of Outside IN’s premise to comment on the (in)visibility of disabled artists - and for DASH for establishing a legacy for Welsh disabled artists, who made up the numbers on the ‘happening’. DaSH’s strategy to reject the politics of disability arts whilst maintaining the term disabled artist was a decision that put everyone on the same page - artists, curators, galleries and themselves as an arts organisation. As a result DaSH attracted a further five galleries - Herbert Art Gallery, Shrewsbury Art Gallery, Mac Arts Centre, The Public West Bromwich and Arnolfini Bristol; (which like New Art Gallery Walsall is best suited to accommodate artist-led interventions like ‘Outside In’).

Artist, Sean Burn and curator, Zoey Renilson talked about how a mutually beneficial and ongoing artistic relationship had been established at the New Art Gallery Walsall. The way in which the galleries programme is constructed allows artists to engage at different points and importantly, to return. Sean Burn had a six week 'Outside In' residency at the gallery, resulting in 'd/rift' - a short film, animating selected visual poetry and 'cracking up' – a durational performance.

In the mid to late 80s and early 90s using new media and performance was connected and inseparable from a politics of identity in the UK - a politicking which filled galleries with thematic exhibitions, like ‘Mothers’, ‘Empire Stories’. Disability arts was arguably at the centre of this identity politics (think ‘Mary Duffy’) - and had an ability to provide individuals with multiple identities, Black Disabled, Women Disabled.

The journey that led Paul Darke and Tanya Raabe before him, to create opportunities for disabled artists to make disability art in galleries is an extraordinary one. Littered with assumptions, pre conceptions and value systems, what's been learnt is that the politics of collective identity and of disability art has no place in the negotiations to make these marvelous events by artists take place. It is only the fact they are, ‘Disabled artists’ who will, when given the opportunity realise and enact Disability art in the mainstream, that allows it to happen.

Those who remember a thriving disability arts scene may find the performances of Kim Noble, (who opened Defying Definitions with You Are Not Alone) preposterously offensive with an emphasis on individualism. Alternatively his audience may find this new ethos in disability art, liberating. Our political sensibility as a collective group is forgotten. Only the term which many Disabled people worked so hard to position is carried forward. But perhaps Disabled artists have always been resistant, to making disability art. Defying Definitions tells us, their wish, now more than ever, is to make art. And the role of galleries is to facilitate this. Long may it continue to open doors.

Object/Female is on show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until 7 Jan 2012 
Sean Burn’s soundscape for the New Art Gallery Walsall ‘not losing yr marbles’ is available to download from

To find out more about Dash go to

Alan McLean Biography

photo of author alan mclean

Alan McLean was given a dyslexia test when he started his Fine Art Degree at Sheffield Polytechnic. It was a time of new media. He began to explore his identity of failure and struggle through performances for camera. This led to critically acclaimed work, awards and commissions.

Constantly moving his practice Alan began collaboration, finding authentic material in the lived experience of others. His understanding of negative and discriminatory barriers has led to pioneering arts development to include more Deaf and Disabled people in the arts.

Find out more about Alan McLean's work in the Black Country at