Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows : my provocation for a public conference.

March 18, 2020 § 3 Comments

 

In this blog I share my provocation for the Public Conference – Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows at the Midland’s Art Centre in Birmingham. Anna Berry is an artist and the curator of the exhibition Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement at the Midlands Art Centre. For her DASH Arts Curatorial Residency, Anna curated this event as a public conversation. 

Anna asked panelists to bring a sacred cow of disability arts to the conference for slaughter! As she explained in an email,

‘The idea of the day is to try to create a space where people feel they can think and express their thoughts freely, and be accepting of a multiplicity of opinions, even if it’s not toeing-the-party line when it comes to disability politics.”

My approach was to unpick solidarity to share frustrations about the lack of diversity within disability arts. The conference was super-interesting and my reflection about it will be published shortly on Disability Arts Online.

 

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“I want to begin by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with my own argument (I’ll leave that up to you to work out), and that I’m treating this as being like the debating societies I was excluded from due to failing the 11+  spectacularly – because of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and being selective mute at the time without knowing it. So, this is my opportunity to be an obnoxious smarty pants! That’s the persona I’m going to adopt. 

My argument pokes a stick at Anna’s question… 

Where do mental health issues and neurodiversity sit within disability arts?  Although, I will focus more on neurodivergence stick to what you know, I always say.

I also want to ask: can we laugh at ourselves without fear of offending one another? And why does this all feel so uncomfortable? I’ll leave that out there. 

As a late-diagnosed autistic person I’m a newcomer to disability arts and think of neurodivergents as the next frontier marginals. 

So, like the youngest child of the disability arts family I’m going to misbehave royally and go for the jugular! 

My sacred cow is solidarity – that fluffy idea that we’re better together. Well, some autistics might disagree – just putting it out there! 

(This was meant to be a joke!)  

I feel solidarity contains the illusion that disabled people can all work together; that we can consider one another’s disabilities sufficiently to be good comrades in the joint struggle against our oppression. But are we? And can we? 

The definition of solidarity is “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”

Even I’ve got to admit it sounds good. So what’s the problem with it? 

Well, I want to put it to you that the notion of solidarity for such a diverse, and increasingly diverse diverse group of people is terminally woolly, and, that in 2020, it’s quite possibly not unlike trying to herd cats. How can we contain all the cats that are likely to go off message? I’m thinking particularly of some of my neurodivergent friends and colleagues who don’t even want to identify as disabled! 

I think that solidarity probably depends on a shared history and understanding, which makes it difficult to include newcomers, let alone cater for all groups and perspectives that could come under the umbrella of disability arts. 

So I argue that, however far it may have got disabled artists in the past, our solidarity today is a perhaps a mere fantasy. I argue that indeed our so-called solidarity is, in reality, a hot mess of bickering and jostling in which the specificity of need is lost and no group en masse actually has their needs met. Perhaps because the abled are just not literate in nuance and we’re too busy perpetuating our own misery by arguing. 

(At this point I noted that there were no communication badges or flapplause.)

I wonder if we’re doing both ourselves and the abled a disservice in not talking-up and educating about the wonderful diversity within our solidarity, and also if we’re not just a bit crap at meeting each other’s needs too? Shouldn’t we just admit this? 

In herding together, are we also unwittingly sustaining our marginal, outsider status? You can’t have insiders without outsiders. But, can I only be naughty and ask this because my disabilities are invisible and I’m congenitally tactless. (I think my disability and my privilege just got tangled up there.)

Shouldn’t our end goal be to destroy this outdated and delusional idea of solidarity, because it shouldn’t be and won’t be needed anymore when we’ve swallowed up the mainstream with multiple ninja infiltrations of the system. 

As I’m not really sure whether my argument has legs or even wings, I’d like to end abruptly with the assertion that solidarity is so yesterday, and throw it open to the floor with one last petulant, youngest-child-thinks-they-know-best, retort.

Aren’t we all just better off blowing our own trumpets and talking about the brilliance of our art?” 

Critically reviewing disabled artists.

January 9, 2020 § 1 Comment

 

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So last week I went to the fantastic closing event (conference) organised by Disability Arts Online as part of the Contested Spaces exhibition, at the Foundry in London, curated by Aidan Moesby.

Access arrangements were superb and the event was pithy. Succinct, and brimming with content, it was concluded with a quite beautifully poetic performance by Malgorzata Dawidek. Aidan deftly chaired the panel, which featured Jennifer Gilbert, Ashok Mistry, and Elinor Morgan. I came away enriched and energised.

I was especially struck by the lack of critical review for disability arts as a topic – though  I’m a relative newcomer to the field. This is a good moment to say that I’m autistic, and that I can’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, and that I will focus on critical review in my blog post.

Jennifer Gilbert highlighted some shocking examples of ableism in mainstream reviewing of disabled artists, Elinor Morgan suggested strategies for disabled artists to gain access to feedback and build confidence, which might in turn lead to critical review. Raising the quality of our work was also touched on in this context. I will come back to this.

I was pleased Ashok Mistry spoke about having something to loose in engaging with the art establishment for approval – our very difference is precious. It is. Our very difference is our sometimes very ‘marketable’ USP (unique selling point), among other arguably more important things. I can’t think of anything worse than contorting the self to fit in. Surely we need to infect the ‘mainstream’ with our glorious USPs rather than try to second guess it.

I left the building with Artistic Director of DASH, Mike Layward, who kindly saw me to Marylebone Station. I’m indebted to our conversation for helping me articulate what I think I feel about the critiquing of art made by disabled artists, certainly I feel it about the area I know best, autistic creatives. We are all of us outsiders by default unless masquerading as…well…just artists.

Someone (I think it was Mike) had earlier pointed out that Frida Kahlo has been assimilated by the mainstream through the erasure of her disability despite it often being her subject.

Another good point which I hadn’t considered was raised by the panel that critics can be frightened of reviewing us because they might ‘get it wrong’, thereby causing offence and also loosing credibility. Time for some tough love. Do the work. Research the field, don’t avoid it. Yes, it can be quite hard to get it right, but a lack of familiarity with disability issues as an excuse in 2020 looks as weak as a used teabag. Get on with it, because here is where the good stuff often is!

I’m autistic, so as usual I experienced a lot of upside-down thinking about this topic. I so appreciated Ashok’s comment that he’s a professional outsider! Okay, critical review is important. Informed critical review can be vital to a career, but the uniformed critic who’s anxious about getting it wrong isn’t what we need. I say this as someone who supports neurodivergent (ND) artists professionally. Often the job is to unpick the barrage of unhelpful mainstream ‘critique’ they’ve experienced over a lifetime.

These nascent artists need nurture, and perhaps most importantly autistic artists may not find conventional critique/ review helpful as a form – though of course they may benefit from exposure. It isn’t just that we need to build ourselves up. There can be a genuine cultural difference, I’ve found, whereby our need for input is simply that – different. So I think we need a range of methods for evaluating and elevating artists. ND artists may not need conventional critique so much (because it may misread or prove irrelevant to them) to improve the quality of their work, but may perhaps benefit more from access to the kinds of resources which enable better production values. Quality issues (if they exist) may be about being cash poor and unable to invest in materials or production processes. That’s not to say that encouragement and tailored mentoring aren’t vital. They can be. It’s just that the current model for artists’ elevation via critique and review is like the hotel elevator that ain’t working. We often don’t get off the ground floor and I wonder if this resonates more generally for disabled artists? What would really help you, is my question.

Little about the way many ND artists work best is reflected in neuro-normative professional practice. There can be a great deal of unlearning to do in unshackling ourselves from these tyrannies. Perhaps more needed than conventional critique is help in understanding neuro-normative codes. It’s very simple, you can’t be expected to navigate what you can’t see or even begin to process. The current system is completely weighted against us.

So my heart sinks a little at the idea of chasing conventional critiques – though ironically if my most recent DYCP ACE funding bid is successful (very slim chance), I will be doing exactly that thing, but doing so autistically and on my own terms! Surely the best critiques consist of dialogue and if reviewers are frightened then that’s a sign that such a dialogue is lacking.

So, what’s needed first is a culture shift, and projects or initiatives which dare to throw stakes in new ground. Critics need to understand what they’re viewing if they’re to be any good to us. Review isn’t just about exposure, it’s also about framing. Ah yes, and it’s about bums on seats, which is an area I haven’t yet touched on and probably won’t for lack of time.

Ashok unlocked something vital when he talked about the need for us to be allowed to be our ‘messy’ selves (forgive me if I haven’t paraphrased you correctly, Ashok!) For me this is the key to making a necessary 360 degree turn.

Critics need to know what they’re looking at to get it ‘right’ and be helpful. It goes without saying that we need disabled critics and curators, but we need ally curators too. I hope that if some of the Shaping the next ten years (Arts Council England) policies go the right way we may see a real development of ‘hybrid’ ally professionals along with more of us (of course!) I’m very keen on collaboration as a way forward.

In the field of invisible disability (which has a shorter history) I feel we are in a useful moment of transition where disruption can occur (and I hope this resonates more widely with my more experienced disabled colleagues). I don’t think that what we need is judgment on abled/neuro-normative terms, but rather that our products must be allowed to flourish as they need to and be equally valued. What I feel we need is opportunity on our own terms to create what we believe to be good, which may be very different from the current mainstream critical agenda.

We also probably won’t be equal until the boot is on the other foot and the ‘mainstream’ values and seeks out what disabled curators and critics think about its cultural outpourings. Dialogue is all.

I began my 2018 catalogue essay for the Shadowlight Artist’s Arts Council England funded RISING exhibition with the following provocation.

“What if everything you ever thought about learning disability is wrong.”

A power imbalance exists because the ‘mainstream’ gaze monopolises and is uninformed. It creates insiders and outsiders and is extremely outmoded, as Drag Syndrome are currently proving on the global stage in taking it by storm.

I think the conversation has probably moved on already and it’s now for the ‘mainstream’, so-called, to catch-up if it can.

 

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