By Jon Pratty
At Decibel 2009 there was a real buzz about the mix of genres, performers and strands of culture. This wasn’t the first time Arts Council had put on Decibel, but for 2009 they’d mixed together Deaf and Disabled culture with BME [Black, Minority and Ethnic] programming for the first time.
So what happens when you mix some genres and the different frames of reference of each culture or discipline risk clashing? Do new cultural combinations create curatorial challenges, or programming synchronicity? I took some time out on the last day of Decibel to speak to Bill Bragin, programmer from the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts in New York.
I was keen to find out what Bill thought about the decision to mix Deaf and Disabled acts into the more mainstream diversity culture that decibel is known for. As decibel had progressed, Bill tweeted [his sig is @activecultures] that he’d been really impressed with a couple of acts. Has mixing audiences and culture strands flattered, or flattened Deaf and Disabled acts at Decibel?
Here's an 11 minute interview with Bill - click the arrow on the audio graphic to play the sound file. There's a full transcript of the interview below the audio link.
[Disability Arts Online - Jon Pratty] You’ve expressed real interest in a couple of acts here at decibel09…
[Bill Bragin, programmer from the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts, New York]: The two groups I really responded to were Zed-U and Fish Police.
JP: Obviously it’s fantastic for the Arts Council to attract the interest of an American producer such as yourself. You’ve homed in on a couple of acts, one of which is from a deaf and disabled background; learning disabled. Fish Police are from that place, but you haven’t seen that, have you, you’ve just thought – “[this is] excellent.”
BB: I actually didn’t realise that they were coming from a disabled background until after I was into the set and enjoying it, and I had a conversation with somebody, it was in the middle of the show and they said; “Oh. I think they’re autistic,” and I said; “Artistic?” “No, autistic.” We had that kind of funny moment.
I just, like, found the music was really strong, the presentation was well conceived, the videos were charming and there was just the directness, the simplicity of it and the sort of honesty. The lyrics and the playfulness of it all really come across. I just thought it’s really connected and they reminded me of a number of other bands that I’d liked.
JP: I had Devo in my mind…
BB: Devo, yeah I guess a little bit of that. The people that I compare them to, there’s a band called Cibo Matto, an Japanese-American band that came up in the nineties, who actually wrote a lot about food, so the chicken song in particular. That sort of used very simple chants about chicken. Also Flight of the Conchords, Outkast, which I think, on their MySpace account Fish Police name-checked Outkast as an influence.
And also I’m very involved in the black rock coalition in the US which supports black alternative arts. I guess we’re working with a variety of forms and I could really see the connections with what Fish Police are doing in terms of mixing different genres and different styles altogether
The question is, [is it possible to bring people over] once interest is simulated, given the expense of bringing people over; [after all] a group like that won’t necessarily have a built-in fan base.
Are they [Arts Council] there at the next level in terms of supporting the group to come over and take advantage of the interest that’s sparked from the event?
But yeah, I think that Fish Police are a group that would do very well in the Indie music circuit in the US. I could see them at places like SXSW. I could see people really grabbing on to them.
JP: Where does this go from here then? Decibel's been quite extraordinary. Some of the stand-out artists here, well, it’s basically a completely level playing field. [across the disabled/non-disabled spectrum]
The idea that there is this entire scene or collection of scenes happening here in the UK, that I haven’t come across yet. There were a couple of names that I knew, the Jazz Warriors; Phoenix - I was familiar with them historically but I’ve not seen the company. Tunde Jegede and Ancient Futures.
...but mostly it was a brand new crop of artists for me. And so I decided I’m going to see pretty much everything because looking at the marketing; there were some companies I did not like the marketing material, I would have written it off. And then, as I said, you know what I’m seeing here - the scheduling [is such that] you can see everything sequentially - you don’t mostly need to decide [what to see] you just go.
JP: that’s really important isn’t it?
BB: ...and then I was really pleasantly surprised by some of the groups that I was ready to dismiss. So it also points to that gap how people talk about their art, and what it actually is.
JP: So it’s a really interesting way of presenting a mix of different kinds of people, on a level playing field?
BB: ...and then just let the work stand for itself. I think that’s the important thing.
JP: Do you think that’s the new mantra that people in this space need to bear in mind?
BB: I was having a conversation with Christine Bruno yesterday, and I only got to the tail end of that session, so I missed some of the discussion. But we were talking, I think right before Fish Police, and the question [came up] of how important is it to have dedicated events, or events with artists with disabilities just mixed into the fabric.
I think it’s complicated, partially because opportunities are limited, opportunities for artists can be limited so they so necessarily have the opportunities to home their craft in the same way.
So I do think that sometimes dedicated events that really are about showcasing people who may or may not be ready for the national, international stage [are needed]. [These people may not be quite ready] but will one day be; and they don’t necessarily have the same kind of developmental opportunities to gig as frequently, to try something out, to get the feedback.
And so I think that it’s important to have those kind of events, as well, but I do think that ultimately it should be about, “Is the work strong? Does it speak to an audience? Is it well crafted? Is it saying something new, saying something different? Is it simulating people thinking about important issues?
So that I think that in the end that’s really the end goal but I think that you need a combination to get to that point.
JP: Would you have come here if it had been about deaf and disabled performers only?
BB: I don’t know. From the standpoint of it being a group of artists that I’m not familiar with and I don’t see that much deaf and disabled work in the States, I might be. This was a case where I met Nike [Jonah, Diversity team, ACE] about a year ago, she told me about the conference, it sounded compelling.
There were enough touchstones that were interesting, that I had heard more about than seen. And then she invited me to be on the [discussion] panel so it worked out well. And just from a timing standpoint it was the right time of year for me to leave New York and go and explore some work.
But in the end I think that it [coming to see deaf and disabled only] would really depend on the nature of the work. I’ve presented a number of visually impaired artists. I presented a wheelchair-based company, so I’ve presented a limited amount of work by some disabled artists.
JP: And when you present it you don’t say, ‘this is this’, you just showcase it together with other stuff?
BB: I tend to programme in shared bills. So the wheelchair-based company, a company called Access from the Bay area in the States, I presented them on a bill with the New York Post-Modern dance company. There were some connections in terms of the physicality, some of the music vocabulary that they were drawing it from but it was designated as ‘this is my disabled programme.’
JP: And do you think that your audiences were there getting stuff from both of those companies?
BB: Absolutely and we did a lot of [marketing] work with hospital radio so that we made sure that audience members were disabled and could really respond to the work. .
..made sure that the disabled community was represented in the audience and not just on stage. But then it was just part of our season with all of the other dance companies that we were representing and it wasn’t stigmatised and it wasn’t ignored. It was part of our marketing, part of our outreach and one of many communities that we were trying to attract.
JP: OK – imagine I’m a nineteen-year-old college leaver in a wheelchair, I’m starting a dance company, I’ve put something together. What would you want to see from me in my presentation, what’s going to catch your eye? What have I got to do to get your attention?
JP: So it’s basically the same as everyone else [in the performing arts?]
BB: It’s exactly the same as everything else and I think that’s it’s one important facet of the artist's identity among many others. It’s just as important as if you are you coming from the [Merce] Cunningham school or if you are coming out of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor or influenced by break dancing and beat boy, somebody like Bill Shannon the crutch master. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him?
JP: No I’m not.
BB: Bill Shannon is a break dancer, a conceptual artist who has a degenerative hip problem where at various points in his life he’s had different levels of mobility. So there was a period in his teens where he was using not crutches, he was a beat boy, he was a break dancer, a skateboarder and his hip situation got worse and he needed to rely on crutches to get around.
So he came up with a physical vocabulary where he is break-dancing using his crutches. He’s doing a lot of the spins and windmills and a lot of the traditional break dancing vocabulary but is doing it with his crutches. He also uses a lot of skate moves and he also does some conceptual pieces where he does surveillance films, doing pratfalls struggling with his crutches, falling down the stairs losing his crutch and he has surveillance cameras to see how people respond to him.
It makes great lecture demonstrations; his work is very specifically about his disability and the way people respond. But a lot of it is also that he is a beat boy, about his body doesn’t move in this way, and he’s come up with other strategies to move.
It’s that - where it’s both present and non-present, at the end of the day the structure of the work and the physicality of the work and the intellect behind it and the concepts behind it are a big part of it.
And at the same time he does have this kind of abject prop work that very much is about how to people respond to disabled people and disabled artists. Do people look at him do they look away? Do they help, do they pretend to help, gesture to help but don’t actually intend to?
He’ll pratfall; he’s inspired by clowning. He’ll fall down a set of stairs just to shock people and to get people to contend with that. So – it’s a combination sometimes. A smart work-about. It’s the same way I feel about political work in general.
Political work can sometimes be really didactic and overly preachy, and in general I think of my work as a presenter being political work. But sometimes the most direct response is not the most effective work.