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> > > > Sick! Lab On the Couch: ‘Fluid or Fractured Identities’

Sick! Lab in Manchester on 10 March featured a number of panel debates throughout the day entitled On the Couch. Trish Wheatley reflects on ideas around how we define ourselves

portrait photo of author Lemn Sissay with folded arms against a wood panel background

British Author and Broadcaster Lemn Sissay featured on the couch during SICK! Lab's 'Fluid or Fractured Identities' discussion

SICK! Lab, was a 4-day programme at the Contact Theatre, Manchester of performances, presentation and discussion bringing together artists, academics, clinicians, commentators and the public to explore questions connecting identity and trauma. 

The first panel discussion at SICK! Lab was an engaging, lively exploration of ‘Fluid or Fractured Identities’. Prof. Jackie Stacey invited us to “‘trouble’ the idea that identity is an individual personal possession”, suggesting we consider that identity is something much more closely connected to the social. 

Artist and Poet Lemn Sissay responded to the question on whether or not we welcome fracture. “It seems that I’m supposed to be defined as one thing, for example Ethiopean or English, but I got fed up with justifying my identity in an either, or way.”  Sissay talked further about how categories defined by funding bodies further fracture identity. “I don’t say to people ‘I’m a BAME’. The terms limit the expectation of what I will produce; that it will in one way or another be about ‘race’.

In using terminologies defined under the DMRC’s set of ‘Protected Characteristics’ there is an unspoken, invisible privilege inherent in any conversation. Alex Sharpe, a law academic amplified this idea by highlighting that when we (in the UK) talk about race we are not talking about white people, when we are talking about sexuality we are not talking about heterosexual people. 

The terms created by the predominant group in our society are collected into the protected characteristics detailed in the Equalities Act. Sharpe also pointed out that the law is not the only or always the best solution, the list is flawed because fluid identities for which people can certainly be discriminated against such as ‘class’ or ‘weight’, are not included and therefore not protected.

Exactly who is defining us was a recurring theme through the conversation. The problematizing of identity becomes especially thorny when others define us in a way that we would not choose to be defined. 

Sissay talked about struggling for many years within the limitations of these categories before deciding to disrupt this sense of having to ‘be’ one thing or the other. So he began describing himself within a whole range of categories from being “a collection of cells’, upwards to “Human”, refusing to be limited to one thing.

The artist Hetain Patel went on to talk about his early artworks made out of anger and frustration at his realisation of ‘difference’ and others' perceptions. He described the journey his practice took, to the point of letting go of the anger that only made him angrier. “You have to fight against what’s put on you.”

He began considering what he wanted his life to be and what he wanted for wider society. This led to artistic enquiries such as his work ‘To Dance Like Your Dad’ in which he secretly filmed his father at work and then re-enacted it displaying the films as a diptych. People's responses to this work were very different, much more personal and emotional. “People told me stories about their dads,” rather than talk about the artwork in a more abstract way.

The Q&A part of the session touched on the fact that much of the terminology and thinking behind equality is constructed from the negative. An educationalist who described her strong objection to schools welcoming people “regardless of… ” as if whatever follows, be it “race, gender, sexuality or disability”, is a negative identity to possess. 

For disabled artists, this is a critical issue. To self-identify as a disabled artist can be a very positive and empowering position, but depending on the people perceiving that identity it can also be negative. The arts sector itself is at risk of forgetting how the general public (those not involved in some way in the arts) perceives what an ‘artist’ is. 

When one considers how the general public perceive the term ‘disabled artist’ there are added layers of complexity relating to disability. For instance, the majority of people in the UK have never heard of the Social Model and see ‘disability’ as impairment, rather than in terms of external barriers. They see ‘disability’ as broken or limited, the antithesis of empowered. 

Recognising that even one identity can be perceived in many different ways emphasises the challenge in convincing people who aren’t ‘in the know’ to take time to explore art produced by disabled artists. The work isn’t the issue; it’s attracting an audience, breaking through their preconceived notions and getting them through the door. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done there.
For some years there has been concern amongst the staunch Disability Arts artists that the younger generation are choosing not to identify. Arising from the discussions was a sense that identities are fluid, they can change at different times and in different situations. We are not all experiencing disabling barriers all of the time. Disability as an identity is fluid. As Dr Colin Cameron states in his definition: “Disability is a personal and social role, which simultaneously invalidates the subject position of people with impairments and validates the subject position of those identified as normal.” 

There is room for a much deeper discussion about fluid identities and when it is and isn’t appropriate to identify as ‘disabled’.