Following our series of interviews on the legacy of the Unlimited programme of work by disabled artists, which travelled the length and breadth of the UK in 2012, Nina Muehlemann talks to Jo Verrent about her involvement as well as her hopes, fears and expectations for Unlimited
What was your role in making Unlimited what it was?
I was one of the independent panel members for Unlimited. Our role was to help to assess the applications and to help assess which projects got the funding. It was a big panel, with many different people.
What was the idea behind Push Me?
When I was on the panel, making the selection of the astounding work that was going to happen, I had a concern about what the legacy of Unlimited would be? How could it be captured?
Push Me was my response to that, trying to find a way to maximize the legacy of some of this work. I wanted to be involved in something that would take the work to people who would not normally go and see it, which would take it out of simply a disability ‘frame’, maybe enable it to reach other arts audiences.
So when The Space came along, it seemed like a really good place to put in a bid, to see whether we could make that happen. But The Space came with a bit of a caveat: You could not apply as an individual, you could only apply as an arts organisation. We had to find an arts organisation to work alongside, and we knew it had to be one of the best ones in terms of digital practice, which meant approaching an organisation we had never worked with before.
It was a real risk, but we approached Watershed and after some conversations, they said that it was a great opportunity for them, as it was for us, because we did what we meant Push Me to do, namely to make contacts within a wider field. So we were doing what we wanted the project to do, and we had to do that first in order to make the project happen.
Did you also want to make videos to make the performances more sustainable?
Yes. I think videos are not fresh for long. They have a sell-by date. But they are archived. You can go back and find them, particularly work that was made for the internet. The idea was also to create something that people could refer to as a benchmark, you know, “bloody hell, look where we got to in 2012!”
What were your hopes and expectations for Unlimited?
As director of the Cultural Olympiad Ruth McKenzie said, she wanted Unlimited to do for disabled artists what the Paralympics did for disabled athletes – to put them under a national spotlight, as equals with their non-disabled peers.
I think that was the hope for Unlimited. Putting in so much, not just resources to make the commissions happen, but the critical mass of so much happening at the same time, and the individual support that went into the commissions alongside the artistic work – the mentoring, the pairing with mainstream producers, so that the pieces themselves would be exceptional – this all would really mean we could not go back.
Caroline Bowditch put it very well when she said something like “there’s no retreat from this, I can’t make tiny, unimportant work in a shed anymore”. There is no retreat, and that’s for her as an artist, but also for all the people that she has worked with. Having allowed in a disabled artist; having seen the quality of the work, you can’t go back to a position where you assume it’s not going to be a high standard because it’s made by a disabled artist.
Did you have worries or concerns for Unlimited?
Yes. The programme was risky; people were not commissioned for work they had done before. The aim was very much about being stretched in some way. There was a worry about whether it is fair to put so much pressure on people, by putting them under a spotlight. There were concerns about whether it would do damage? Would it implode? There were a lot of concerns around the delivery and timescale of the projects. Although it seemed like a long lead-in, it was very short for what Unlimited was trying to do. I think there were cracks in some of the delivery mechanisms. It wasn’t the easiest process for the artists and I don’t think it was the easiest process for the Arts Council or for London 2012 either.
So I think there were a lot of things that could have been better in that regard. There was a real risk around bringing the work together for the Southbank Festival. Having said we didn’t want to create a ghetto, what did we risk and gain by putting all the work together? We gained a critical mass and public exposure to the work, but we also risked alienating artists who are disabled artists, but do not want to fit within that ‘disability arts’ box; individuals who made a very clear statement that this is not where they place their work. Putting them back in it was a real risk too. The Southbank Centre was the right choice, but I don’t think it was perfect for everybody.
Do you think Unlimited has given more of a profile, or a different profile, to disability arts?
For me, Unlimited was transformational, in terms of what it has achieved and what it delivered. I remember standing in the Southbank, seeing the size of the posters, seeing the range of the people who were there, and feeling – for the first time within a mainstream arts building – a sense of kind of ‘normalness’ around disability that I really had not experienced before. Going in, seeing Sue Austin’s huge installation, and watching the range of people enjoying that, was really astounding. And that feeling of ‘we have turned a corner’ stayed with me for the whole festival. It did not mean every single piece was perfect, but overall, it screamed quality – for me it was a huge success. Seeing the international delegates attending – over 50 people from 20 or 30 countries - we had not achieved that kind of exposure before.
Was that surprising for you?
There were surprises all the way along. I remember sitting in the panel, discussing Sue Austin’s application. Half the panel was going ‘this is madness, this is not going to happen’, and the other half of the panel were saying ‘but if this did work – think of the impact it could have. It’s got to be worth that risk!’ And the surprise was that it did work! And there were other surprises – good surprises, bad surprises, but all of it learning!
How did you find the media reaction?
I think disappointing. Seeing some of the interviews that the mainstream media did with some of the artists, the angles that they really wanted to push – I was just thinking “are people not tired of this yet?”
How did you feel about the audiences’ reactions at the actual events?
That was great because people actually talked about the art, which was absolutely brilliant! I met people after many of the shows, furiously arguing about what they liked or disliked in a particular piece, which I loved. I love work that is splitting audiences. Nobody was just sitting there, going, “oh, isn’t that good for them!”, there just wasn’t any of that. All of the discussions I was part of were actually about the art, which is a real step forward. I think that was because of the quality of the work.
What impact do you think Unlimited will have on cultural life in the UK?
I think it depends on what happens next. The next 3, 4 years will be tough, and it’s a difficult situation that we are in. One of the things Unlimited did have that we didn’t have before was actually quite a lot of money.
Personally, I think it would be a mistake to have Unlimited at the Southbank Centre every year – but I do think we learnt something about the power of critical mass. I hope Southbank takes – as it said it would do – some of the work and books it within its mainstream festivals. I hope that in a couple of years, we would have enough new work to bring it back together again [Since doing this interview, it has been announced that Claire Cunningham will be at WOW – Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre in March, both performing and as artist in residence!].
I think the bigger changes will be more subtle; they will be with a number of venues, promoters and producers who have worked with disabled artists and through that work had their opinions changed. The impact they can have, in terms of legacy work, is more profound, because it’s got a longer life to it.
What about the impact on cultural life abroad?
All the international delegates will have seen work to inspire them to bring that forward, and I already know of shifts and changes in Spain, Hong Kong, South Africa, Palestine, Dubai. Things have happened because of Unlimited. So definitely, there is a wave. Not everything is going to work everywhere. The impact there might be the creation of work that is locally specific. We cannot expect our view of the world to immediately resonate everywhere.
Are there individual things you are doing to ensure that there is a legacy?
We have made 24 short films for Push Me. We also made 'Total Permission' - a 30-minute documentary that was filmed at the Southbank, and that is live on The Space, now. So we’re keeping those kinds of debate alive through that work. This 30-minute documentary will also be shown at the Southbank Centre on the 6 February, followed by a discussion about Unlimited.
Personally, the big shift for me through Push Me was that I have always been a commentator of art. I have always been involved in curating work, but had not been so engaged in actually creating something before. It gave me a desire to be closer to the artistic product.
I have followed up on that and am now one of Dance Digital’s Associate Artists for 2013/14, working in partnership with Luke Pell.