Last week I delivered a presentation about my arts practice for Heart of Glass. Heart of Glass are an arts organisation based in St Helens with a focus on collaborative and social arts practice. They recently commissioned me to work on a research residency which will take place from February to April 2019.
Working alongside Emily Gee (Heart of Glass Producer) and local disabled people, I will be investigating new possibilities of articulations beyond traditional art world paradigms.
I will also be exploring issues of power, voices and intersectionality through collaborative workshops, studio time and research visits.
Watch this space for more blogs about this exciting action research.
Good news! Around the Toilet has been awarded further funding from AHRC Connected Communities to continue the project. We’ve called the next stage of the project: Arts, Architecture, Activism & Access: Taking Around the Toilet to New Spaces (or ‘New Spaces’)….
After singing pop songs Amy Coombe’s interactive ‘Google classroom’ session at this year’s Music Learning Revolution conference, Shawn Mendes’ ‘Treat You Better’ has been on loop in my head. However ‘Treat you Better’ was certainly not the only memorable aspect of this years MLR.
Meet, make music and network …
MLR is a conference for anybody working in music education, and prides itself on being somewhat of an Unconference, providing a creative setting for practitioners to meet, make music and network.
From a keynote speech by Radio 1 DJ Hew Stephens to a flamboyant fast paced ‘Gareth Malone’ style ensemble by pianist Adam Saunders, inclusion was a common theme throughout the conference. However I’m not sure the needs of disabled children were always considered when presenters talked about ‘inclusion’ – which is ironic given that inclusion is a term championed by disability rights advocates.
Very few of the workshops I attended made reference to the needs of disabled children – for example, Adam Saunders’ ‘On Cue’ ensemble. This 7-step approach to learning musical content utilises body percussion, vocalising, singing and playing by ear. And whilst this session certainly addressed some inclusion problems, as it didn’t require either note reading abilities or instrumental skills, it involved robust physical and mental abilities. In it’s current format, this would present disabling barriers for many of the children Drake Music work with.
So, it was good to see Drake Music’s Open Space Session – Imagination and Rigour – which was about overcoming disabling barriers within music education. Led by Jocelyn Watkins and Jonathon Westrup, this session focused on how to assess and accredit music in Special Schools. Jocelyn and Jonathan spoke about the Compose and Perform music qualification developed by Drake Music.
Compose, perform and include …
An Open College Network qualification, Compose and Perform has three levels. The highest level, level two is equivalent to GCSE grade A-C. Students complete four units: Music Skills for performance; Creating Soundtracks for Films; Writing Music Down and Composing Music using Chance Methods.
The qualification is very much part of the Think2020 initiative which aims to increase musical opportunities for disabled children and young people through strategic and sustainable partnership work in the music education sector.
For me, the Drake Music Open Space Session almost felt like a bit of a fringe event, unintentionally isolated from the other sessions. This was a shame because the participants obviously enjoyed the session, and there were people there who hadn’t necessarily been to a Drake Music workshop before.
I wonder if maybe a way to attract a bigger audience to this session, would be for Drake Music to run a workshop in collaboration with another organisation with a more mainstream appeal?
Choose ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ …
One of the presentations I found really interesting was David M Howar’s talk on music, creativity and engineering. Howard spoke about how children often have to choose between arts or science based subjects at A-level. He believes that this ‘choice’ exacerbates our dwindling number of engineers. He also spoke about the lack of female engineers, and how mixing up subjects like Music and Engineering, make Engineering more appealing to a wider number if students
The false dichotomy of choosing between ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ is in many ways nonsensical, when in Howard’s own words ‘creativity underpins ingenuity which sparks invention…’
Although the talk wasn’t specifically referring to disability, I could relate to the limitations of having to choose between perceivably different subjects because of my physical impairment. When talking to other disabled artists, this is quite a common problem across a range of abilities, and continues to be the case.
Which is why initiatives like Drake Music’s ‘Compose and perform’ qualification are so important for achieving real inclusivity and ‘doing better’.
Blog commissioned by Drake Music, October 2016
Cause I know I can treat you better than he can And any girl like you deserves a gentleman Tell me why are we wasting time On all your wasted crying When you should be with me instead I know I can treat you better Better than he can Better than he can Better than he can
Recently I’ve attended two MMU led events that I found particularly interesting, both of which broadly examined ‘human’ ways of being, notions of creativity and human flourishing. In connection with the first of these events – Theorising Normalcy And The Mundane– I have been working with the fantastic Drake Music Innovation Lab North on my Beyond Vocal Norms sound investigation and research project. I’ll be blogging about Normalcy and Beyond Vocal Norms later this month … so watch this space.
Extending the concepts of creativity and value…
In the meantime I will focus on the second event – VCHF (Value, Creativity and Human Flourishing) – and its relevance on music making for people with significant learning disabilities. VCHF brought together artists, academics and activists to re-examine and extend the concepts of creativity and value within different arts practices. The two day symposium had a particular emphasis on what these concepts mean for people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems. Concepts around creativity are of particular interest to Drake Music’s research into bespoke instruments, and how these developments invariably challenge perceptions of what musical expression is and how music is made.
The symposium featured nine internationally acclaimed speakers, and I will reflect on two sessions that were of particular relevance to many philosophical discussions we have at Drake Music. Drake Music has a core belief that everyone can fulfil their creative and musical potential if given the right opportunities.
One of the aims of the Drake Music Think2020 Education project is to explore more meaningful and inclusive frameworks for measuring musical development for those with profound and multiple learning difficulties. This can be difficult as mainstream definitions of creativity often excludes people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems. Currently Drake Music Associates try to overcome this difficulty by using both the Sound of Intent framework and the Youth Music Quality framework, both of which work beyond the limitations of the ‘P-Scales’ for music education.
Co-production and human flourishing …
One of the speakers, Julian West, discussed these concepts, amongst others, in relation to music making with people living with dementia. West is a Creative Music Leader, Oboist and Consultant, and has spent 14 years working on music projects with older people. He is currently working with Spitalfields Music on an innovative project called LivingArts. LivingArts explores and celebrates the creativity of residents at a care home in East London. West and a small team of artists and musicians visit the care home each week enabling residents to express themselves through music, movement and visual arts. Manchester Camerata have been running a similar project at an early dementia centre, with huge success.
The overall aim of LivingArt was to challenge public perceptions and improve wellbeing for people living with dementia, through the creative arts. In order to meet this aim, West describes the importance of working beyond conventional ways to measure outputs, and making musical expression and co-production a core value.
The LivingArts group were invited to bring various objects to make sounds with – a particularly successful object was an old typewriter that a participant found engaging as he used to work in an office. They also had a dancer who integrated walking frames, and other disability related equipment during her session there. This all happened with the participants taking a leading role in the creative process with no pressure of defined outputs, therefore providing value for all taking part. West describes how this project also helped the artists to re-examine their own perceptions of creativity and co-production.
Like West and the LivingArts team, Drake Music associate musicians continue to re-evaluate their notions of creativity, and creative potential within the field of music production. This can be particularly challenging in a culture dominated by the language of the ‘medical model’ and ableist notions of who is ‘allowed’ to be creative, and for whom.
Who is ‘allowed’ to be creative? …
Conference organiser, and speaker Dr Lucy Burke, discussed these notions in her talk – Human Trouble and the Cognitive Difference. Dr Burke is Principle lecturer in English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at MMU. Prompted by Oliver Sacks essay The Autistic Artist, her session explored the ethical and ideological implications of particular concepts of creativity, personhood and the human.
In the Autistic Artist, Sacks examines a 21 year old called Jose who can allegedly only copy draw and deemed to be ‘retarded’. Sacks recognises that Jose’s artwork demonstrates the powers of imagination and expression, and describes his work as both verisimilitude, animated and richly expressive. It could be said that Sacks is being quite progressive by inferring that Jose’s ability is more than that of the stereotypical ‘idiot savant’. However, he also describes Jose’s work as child-art and primitive, whilst paradoxically deliberating whether Jose could gain a meaningful life through being employed to draw. Burke argues that Jose’s work is put under the kind of scrutiny rarely experienced by neurotypical artists. Jose’s art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis, or beyond the belief that personhood is fundamentally interconnected with work and labour.
Music therapy or music education? …
The Autistic Artist case study reminded me of the way musicians with learning disabilities and/or autism still experience harsher artistic scrutiny and barriers to creative expression. The authenticity of their musical abilities are either considered a symptom of impairment and therefore disbelieved, or used to somehow validate their initiation into the work-based notion of personhood. And whilst this validation can be empowering, the superhuman or curative disability narrative often accompanies it. Music therapy, for example, is often based around the notion that people are broken and need fixing. On the other hand music education is becoming less about the actual learning experience and more about the potential monetisation it can offer.
How do we measure music potential and value against mainstream definitions of creativity ? Leave a comment with examples of your own experiences of good or bad practice. Also If you’re interested in these kinds of philosophical discussions visit www.valueandcreativity.wordpress.com.
Blog commissioned by Drake Music.
How do we measure outcomes against normative values about what creativity actually means?
Art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis.
The design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.
Travelling Toilet Tales …
You may have recently read about Italian creator, Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-carat solid gold toilet installation at the Guggenheim Museum, but he’s not the only artist using a toilet as an inspiration for their art. I have been commissioned to make a soundscape about toilets and utopias, which I have recently finished working on.
Constructed from a collection of toilet themed audio stories, anecdotes and interviews from the Around the Toilet project – this slightly potty sound collage is currently being animated by graphic artist Sarah Smizz.
Sure, toilets don’t usually spring to mind when talking about utopias or sound-art, but the landscape of public toilets is far from ideal for many people. Using sound and animation, Travelling Toilet Tales illustrates how the design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.
My personal interest in toilets came from the complexities of accessing toilets as a parent with a physical impairment. Part M of the building regulations advocate that accessible toilets should not have a baby change table. This is primarily because the baby change table can impede access for wheelchair users if it is put in the wrong place, or left down. But like everything in life ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and when my child was young I found the best ‘fit’ for me was accessible, private toilets with baby changing facilities – where I could take care of my child and also go to the toilet myself.
Interestingly, two of the storytellers spoke about difficulties they had accessing toilets with young children, commenting on the need for both an adult toilet and baby change unit in the same space. One storyteller described the joy of finding a baby change toilet that had a dropdown table, free baby wipes and a seat for breastfeeding.
“It really made me feel accepted whereas in other spaces you just think I’m not meant to be here.”
For her, coming across a baby change table felt like finding gold dust. And the idea of a suitable toilet being like ‘gold dust’ was common theme throughout the piece. We all have our U-toilet-opias.
Storytellers described the indignity of being forced to lie on the dirty toilet floor due to a lack of adult changing facilities, restricting what they eat and drink and being harassed for using the wrong toilet. Organisations like Action for Trans Health and Changing Places are campaigning about these issues. But for many accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces. There is, in its most literal sense ‘no place’ for them to go, making greater toilet access high on the utopian agenda.
While the storytellers came from very diverse backgrounds, many stories overlapped with common considerations of embodiment flowing throughout the piece. It’s interesting that widespread publicity around the “bathroom bills” in the USA focused on conflicts between religious freedom and equal rights for the trans community. Yet, Travelling Toilet Tales shows how gender-neutral toilets are not just a political issue for the trans community. They also benefit parents, particularly fathers, or disabled people who may have personal assistants of a different gender. A person with a learning difficulty, for example, talked about being told off for using the wrong toilet because he was struggling to read the signs on the toilet door.
“Society hasn’t grown up that much.”
Toilets, and toilet design are issues that impact upon us all. Pensioners describe feeling isolated and staying at home because they fear being “caught short”, whilst lorry drivers restrict what they drink during their working day. One of the most interesting narratives I edited was from a female truck driver, who regularly has to urinate between the load and the unit of her lorry because of public toilet closures. An issue I’d not really considered. Gillian Kemp, who runs Trucker’s Toilets UK and Public Toilets UK, explained that providing public toilets is not a statutory requirement. As a consequence, many local authorities often close public toilets when faced with budget cuts.
Making a bigger splash…
Toilets have traditionally been considered to be an abject ‘bog standard’ space, or a taboo topic – but this piece radically redefines the issue and blends the everyday with the fantastical. From the imaginary toilet of a child to the inventive use of wet tissues instead of a lota, Travelling Toilet Tales takes the audience on an interweaving journey embracing disability, age, faith, gender, class and labour.
Travelling Toilet Tales will be premiered at the Utopia Fair between 24 – 26 June. Somerset House, London – a partnership with the AHRC and the Connected Communities Programme
Thanks to the Around the Toilet team, with special thanks to the Principal Investigator, Dr Jenny Slater.
Images by Sarah Smizz
For many, accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces.
Nobody thinks of toilets when they talk about utopias and yet the landscape of public toilets is far from ideal for many people.
The Around the Toilet project has recently been awarded two funding grants by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This will allow us to continue the work we started in 2015, carry out new research over the next four months, and participate in the 2016 Connected Communities Research Festival Utopia Fair in London in June, where the outputs of our research will be exhibited.
Our first project, ‘Travelling Toilet Tales’ (led by Jenny Slater) will be an exploration into the ways in which everyday journeys are planned around the un/availability of a suitable toilet. We will be making an animated film based upon people’s experiences of these ‘toilet journeys’: journeys that can’t be taken due to a lack of a suitable toilet, journeys that are re-planned due to a lack of a toilet, imagined journeys based on an ideal world with the best possible toilets… or something else entirely!
This project is a collaboration with Gemma Nash from Drake Music, an organisation working in music, disability and technology, and Sarah Smizz, the graphic artist who drew the stories told in the Around the Toilet workshops we facilitated last year. Our collaborators will transform the toilet tales provided by our storytellers into a soundscape overlaid with animation. This will be presented as a film exploring toilets, place and utopian imaginings to be shown at events and exhibitions, and available online. Details about where you can view the film will be announced in the forthcoming months.
We are also very pleased to be working with Morag Rose of the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, who will be facilitating a city walk in Manchester around the theme of public toilets and urban space.
Our second project, running in parallel with the first, is ‘Servicing Utopia’ (led by Lisa Procter). Working alongside MA Architect students, Niki Sole and Suki Sehmbi, we will be facilitating workshops which ask attendees to engage with and construct a digital ‘Toilet Toolkit’ (the main project output). The digital/visual toolkit will be aimed at architects to promote the accessible design of toilet spaces.
We will also be making an animated film over the course of the project, documenting insights from the project workshops with architects to illustrate key themes relating to toilet and accessibility.
The films, toilet toolkit and other outputs from both projects will be previewed on 24th-26th June at the Utopia Fair, Somerset House, London, a public event showcasing a range of academic and artistic projects that engage with the subject of ‘utopia’. This year’s theme takes inspiration from the 500th anniversary of the publication in 1516 in Latin of Thomas More’sUtopia. From March to June 2016 the Festival is supporting activities across the UK bringing together researchers and communities to creatively explore diverse perspectives on community futures and what ‘utopia’ means for communities in the 21st Century.
We’re very excited to get started — please keep an eye on our progress by checking the blog and twitter, as usual!
Over the past few months I been a member of the design team for Box Society – a Full Circle Arts and Playfuel collaborative street game project. Playfuel aim to “bring together theatre performance and urban geography”, and together we have been making a light hearted but thought provoking game which addresses disabling barriers and #everydayableism.
The ‘play test’ for Box Society took place in March 2016 with Proud and Loud theatre group, and the public game will be premiered in Manchester City Centre this summer.
Watch this space for further information about this fantastic new street game!
To read more about the background to this project please see Jade Coles blog post here.
Recently I was asked to speak at an event as part the UK Disability History Month celebrations. Organised by Gill Crawshaw, Exhibitions Co-ordinator at Inkwell Art, the event – What is Disability Art? – was set up to promote a new and exciting disability arts project ‘Shoddy’ in Leeds. It also created a space for discussion around access to the arts for both disabled artists and audiences.
Crawshaw states “Shoddy is the name for new cloth created from woollen waste and recycled fabric. This original meaning is now largely unknown, and the word has come to mean of inferior quality, shabby, broken-down. We will be challenging any assumptions that our work, and our-selves, are inferior, broken-down, second-rate or badly made”.
The event included a short fictional film by the acclaimed filmmaker Liz Crow and a brief documentary from disabled theatre directors Maria Oshodi, Jenny Sealey and Garry Robson. I started my presentation by posing three questions to the audience: What is disability art? Who produces it? Who is it for? Responses included:
“Art is art, who cares about disability!”
“There can be a dual identity relating to being disabled, and being an artist.”
“Art that is produced with the intention to challenge abilist norms, or wider. society.”
The responses made it clear that ideas around disability art are not limited to a specific set of values but can vary infinitely within a creative space.
Two interlinked phases of development …
In the UK, disability art has had two interlinked phases of development. The first started in the 1970s with the introduction of the disability rights movement. Disabled artists’ focus was around questioning preconceived ideas of disability, and disabling barriers. During this period groups of arts-activists got together to form disability-led arts organisations, such as LDAF (London Disability Arts Forum) in 1986. LDAF’s Creative Director (1998-2006) and disability rights icon Julie McNamara describes disability arts at that time as “subversive and politically challenging”. McNamara refers to the satirically brilliant ‘Tragic But Brave Show’ as being a “seminal turning point for Disability Arts UK”. New, fresh and radical, this was the first time disabled artists questioned the dominant ableist narrative of being viewed as either tragic and/or brave.
“There is often a relationship between minority art forms and social movements. This is suggested to be the case with disability art.” (Davis, 2006)
The second phase was around 2005 when disabled artists created performances and exhibitions for a mainstream audience – taking disability art out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, but on its own terms. Disabled artists began to produce work that is more subtle, less confrontational and more about the notion of disability aesthetics and the affirmation model of disability. In the world of theatre and television for instance, there are many more disabled actors producing work for a ‘mainstream’ audience, and/or getting parts that are full well rounded characters. Examples of these include Laurence Clarke, Jess Thom, Liz Carr and Francesca Martinez.
Artists such as Robert Softley Gale and Claire Cunningham have toured their work internationally, in both mainstream and disability-led environments. Cunningham is currently part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Auteur Development Programme.
Cunningham describes her work as “initially rooted in the use/misuse, study and distortion of crutches … which aims to challenge conventions around virtuosity, classical aesthetic and dance, but are also her means to relate and connect to the world as an artist.”
Historical cultural references of disability …
Even in a world where disabled artists are less ghettoised, artists continue to be influenced by historical cultural references of disability – both in terms of our social oppression and fascination with historic disabled artists.
Disabled singer songwriters Johnny Crescendo and Miss Dennis Queen continue to produce work that challenge disabling barriers and misrepresentations of disability in the media. They both have a huge following of younger arts-activists and tour internationally. The ‘freak show’ genre is still being used today in an ironic way. For example, actor Mat Fraser’s Seal Boy play and the Coney Island freak show in NYC, where Fraser has also performed. Artist Frida Kahlo is an excellent example of a historic figure, whose impairment (in part) informed her practice, and continues to influence disabled artists. In 2015 Caroline Bowditch co-created ‘Falling in Love with Frida’, an interactive performance exploring the life, love and legacy of Kahlo. Bowditch draws parallels between herself and the painter, both as women and as disabled artists.
Yet, as Solvang (2012) points out, “no native homeland of disability exists”. In a world where identities are interlinked and complex, can we all use ‘disability’ – the idea that we are all non-standard – as a general lens of understanding the world? (Davis, 2006). This certainly wouldn’t apply to deaf artists, such as Ramesh Meyyappann or Caroline Parker, who consider themselves to be a linguistic minority with a very distinct culture.
Many artists feel that Disability Art is, or should be, about celebrating a distinct identity and the affirmation of the disabled body. They reject both the notion that we are all non-standard, as well as disability art being based on our ‘social oppression’.
I have thought about these different approaches whilst making my most recent work; Hanging in the Balance. I continue to question whether the images created do raise awareness of the issues we face in times of austerity, and whether it is ok to focus on, or even embrace, our vulnerabilities.
Outsider Art, Art Therapy and Disability Aesthetics …
Terms interconnected with ‘Disability Art’ include: Outsider Art, Art Therapy and Disability Aesthetics.
Until the 1980s Outsider Art was associated with art brut (raw art), and used to describe any work of art produced by an untrained idiosyncratic artist. Often these artists were perceived to hold unconventional views of the world and were frequently diagnosed as mentally ill. Art Therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. Some disabled artists consider art therapy to be a rather condescending practice.
Paraorchestra Musician, Charlotte White recalls Music Therapy as, “somebody sitting in front of you banging a drum or playing a guitar, and you’re meant to tell them all your worries about life. It’s incredibly patronising and very boring.”
Disability Aesthetics on the other hand embraces physical and mental difference as a valued form of human variation. Although Disability Aesthetics may not be about disability as a form of social oppression, it does question aesthetic standards and tastes that exclude people with impairments, particularly within visual culture. Disability Aesthetics is associated with the second phase of disability arts, but visual artists like David Hevey have been producing work about valuing the disabled body since the 1990s.
So, what is Disability Art?
As is evident from this piece it is a complex and ever shifting concept.
For me, both disability aesthetics and the fight against social oppression remain at the heart of disability art. I feel that the erosion of our rights through current government policies, for example, needs to be represented and questioned within the disability art world. However there is also a place for the multitude of excellent work produced by disabled artists that does not focus on either of these ideas.
What is certain is that it has evolved and developed over the years, and will no doubt continue to do so. I for one look forward to being involved in its evolution.
In the summer of 2015, I collaborated with contemporary and historical photographer, Michele Selway, to produce ‘Hanging in the Balance’.
Made in association with Forge Woodland Residency in the Whirligig Woods, ‘Hanging in the Balance’ symbolised the devastating impact austerity is having on disabled people in the UK.
Using wet plate processes in the remote woodland area, we photographed disability related paraphernalia (such as wheelchairs and walking sticks) hanging ominously in the trees. The emptiness of these images, along with the antique process used, creates a haunting double negative.
Suggesting a post apocalyptic scenario, these images depict the deep sense of threat and despair many disabled people feel about their future: A future that hangs in the balance.
‘Hanging in the Balance’ toured across Wales in association with Disability Arts Cymru between October 2015 and June 2016.
“Austerity exists in other countries, but no other countries to my knowledge has targeted disabled people in the way that the UK government has.” – Simon J Duffy, director of The Centre of Welfare Reform.
“My life is hanging in the balance because the fragile security I felt I had built up over the years has gone completely …. all the practical arrangements I have been able to rely on are uncertain.” – Liz Crow, Artist