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.
At the start of this year’s UK Disability History Month, Ispoke to writer, actor and funny guy Laurence Clark about his latest show Independence, disability rights and ‘speaking proper’.
Laurence came up with the title Independence back in January, although it bore no relation to the UK’s EU referendum result, little did he know just how topical it would be by now. His show is less about Brexit, and more about the true meaning of ‘independence’ for disabled people.
From idiosyncratic needs assessments to the funny side of other people assisting you with personal care; “Life sometimes throws up the unexpected when you depend on someone else to fasten your jeans for you”- his show challenges notions of independence in a sharp witted, good-natured manner. And after my grueling assessment for Personal Independence Payment, this is one hot topic that certainly appeals to me.
Journey to comedy
From an early age Laurence wanted to pursue a career in drama and comedy, but was warned by the careers advisor at his school that he would never get any work. So at University he opted to study Computing (BSc) and Molecular Biology (Ph.D) — subjects he may have excelled at, but didn’t hold his passion.
Like a lot of disabled students, his success was very much dependent on the help of a variety of disability related allowances — including Independent Living Fund and Disability Living Allowance.
Laurence feels that the abolition of these funds will be absolutely disastrous for future disabled students.
Whilst at University Laurence became involved in an exciting new disability based arts and academic scene in Liverpool, run for and by disabled activists.
His Ph.D may not have covered these interests, but it did enable him to carry on living independently in an adapted University flat. Ultimately these additional ‘interests’ led to the launch of his impressive comedy career. Now spanning 16 years, the career has included 8 critically-acclaimed solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.
For Laurence, anecdotal humour is where the best material comes from; otherwise, he says, “you are just someone telling jokes”. His comedy is about his experiences, and that happens to include being disabled. “It would be hard and disingenuous to do a show and ignore that, after all nobody tells Graham Norton to stop telling jokes about being gay”.
He considers that his most controversial show was ‘Spastic fantastic’. The premise for this show was about reclaiming the word spastic — which involved a speech impaired boy band singing a ‘name that tune’ game show with the audience.
“I got a lot of disabled people come up to me after a show saying that they came prepared to hate it’ Laurence recalls, “which I never understood. If you are going to be offended why bother giving it the time of day? But people said it was not what they expected, and I really liked that.”
And his most enjoyable show was ‘Moments of Instant Regrets’, which focused on Laurence’s misdemeanors. He wanted the audience to laugh at some of the bad things he has done, often unwittingly. “I don’t think it worked as well for a mainstream audience” he states, “it’s hard to get them to laugh at a disabled person, which is what I was trying to do.”
Laurence feels having speech impairment disables and limits him the most, and it’s an impairment that always seems to get forgotten about. He explains “There is always a big debate about whether to subtitle me or not. Part of me thinks why should it be a big debate? It’s not like people can’t understand what I am saying.”
At his Special School it was really unusual for someone with a speech impairment to get a named role in the yearly school play, Laurence recalls. So when his friend with a speech impairment got a part in the play, Laurence was jubilant. However that jubilance soon wore off when he read the script and discovered his friend’s part was a character that had his tongue cut out!
Laurence said that he usually got minor roles, but did some directing, that was their solution. This is probably more impressive than my childhood amateur dramatics; I was once ‘a doorbell’.
“People are not used to hearing people with cerebral palsy and sometimes panic when they hear voices they are not used to. It’s similar to when people hear a strong accent — they panic and switch off.” notes Laurence.
I would agree with Laurence, speech as a bodily activity has been subject to the enforcing of normalcy throughout history, and this intriguing subject is the focus for my latest sound investigation — Beyond Vocal Norms.
Currently Laurence is working on a pilot comedy project, a TV sitcom co-written and directed by Matt Holt. The premise for the sitcom was an equality awareness course for particularly unaware employees. Funny, irreverent and sharp, the pilot aims to make equality politics, and its academic theories and concepts, more accessible to mainstream audiences.
“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with, and probably aren’t the worst offenders…. if you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”
You can read more about Laurence’s work at www.laurenceclark.co.ukand catch Independence on Fri 25 — Sat 26 Nov at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool (as part of DaDaFest 2016).
“If you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”
“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with”
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.
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!
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
As a digital artist who uses both assistive and mainstream technology, I am disturbed and excited by the idea of augmentations that provide an alternative way of experiencing the world, and for me, assist me to make my work. I currently work in a variety of digital mediums and recently took part in the D2art project for disabled visual artists (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by the University of Birmingham – in partnership with DASH).
The aim of D2art is to explore the use of technologies to remove barriers experienced by some disabled visual artists. The project focused on software and computer based graphic design and editing programs, such as Photoshop. I use programs like Photoshop on standard computer equipment with a specialist trackball instead of a mouse for editing. Using my trackball for prolonged periods of time has caused RSI problems, and existing dictate software is impossible to use because of my speech impairment. So I was keen to explore a few possible alternatives to both my trackball and dictate programs.
During my session I used Tobii EyeX (left), Enable Viacam, Finger Mouse, Leap Motion, Oculus Rift and Steady Mouse. The most useful software for me was the Tobii EyeX – a fairly reasonably priced eye tracking software. Although I found it was too fast for fine control, I could see the potential use it has for screen jumping and scrolling in conjunction with my existing trackball.
Dr Chris Creed, leading the research, explained that other participants had experienced similar problems. He discussed the need to develop a whole new photo editing software that is made specifically for use with assistive technologies, such as eye tracking. Exciting stuff!
When it comes to assistive technology for producing art there are revolutionary ways of making music, including using your brainwaves, in real-time. D2Art did make me wonder whether there will ever be a similar programme for visual artists? Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?
Enhanced Artists …
The prospect of technology that enables disabled artists to be more enhanced than their non-disabled counterparts might seem farfetched. But since the 2012 Paralympics this phenomenon has come into mainstream discourse for disabled athletes. Sportsperson’s prosthetic limbs, such as those used by Oscar Pistorius, surpass the capabilities of biological limbs – making these athletes ‘enhanced’ rather than ‘disabled’.
Bioethicist, Andy Miah, refers to the prospect of these types of enhancements as becoming the optimal for “faster, stronger, further and more accurate performances”. Guardian journalist, Jemima Kiss, recently wrote an article about the climber Hugh Herr and his bionic legs. She explores the idea of bionics becoming so appealing that some people may choose to amputate just so that they can augment their bodies – creating a far more profound human digital divide: the augmented, and the unaugmented.
This divide not only questions who exactly is disabled, but also raises questions about our relationship with technology and what it means to be human in the twenty first century. Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’. In this context, are contemporary philosophers such as Braidotti right – is the human an out-dated phenomenon? Critiques of the technological society often seem obsessed by a fear that what is happening is profoundly unnatural, that we are becoming post-human, entering what Professor Sherry Turkle has called “the robotic moment”. I certainly found eye-gaze software slightly disconcerting in this way, but perhaps this is no different from early anxieties about the telephone. Lets not forget we were once fearful of the telephone’s unnatural ability to separate the voice from the body.
Appropriate use of technology…
I really do support initiatives in new technologies, particularly ones that focus on removing disabling barriers and improving quality of life. But I also feel that we sometimes need to question when it is appropriate to use technology. Sometimes I find it helpful to take part in more kinaesthetic ways of learning or creating work even though these methods are physically difficult. Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more:
Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory … and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand…who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used laptops.
Certainly the module I did the best at during University was one that happened to be in a classroom with wide enough desk space for me to handwrite notes, where I would normally have taken notes using a laptop. Of course it needs to be recognised that using technologies is crucial to some people who may have little or no alternative.
And if there is one thing I did take with me from three years at university it is this; always finish an essay with the opening ‘title’.
‘To augment or not to augment … that is the question?’
“Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?”
“Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’.”
Last month I was fortunate enough to interview disabled artist and anti austerity activist, Liz Crow. I first met Liz twenty years ago through disability activism, and have been following her artistic career spanning the last fifteen years. My own recent work ‘Hanging in the balance’ is somewhat influenced by Liz – bringing the effects of austerity on disabled people visual representation through art.
Specialising in film and live performance art, she is probably best known for her hour on Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square dressed in full Nazi Uniform. Her hour of brilliance took place at 10pm on a Saturday night, and was something she describes as being ‘one of the most terrifying’ live performance pieces she’s ever done. This controversial performance earned her eighth place in the Guardian newspaper’s top ten plinth contributions in 2009, and accompanied her Resistance project – a powerful film about the Aktion-T4 programme of murder.
As a disabled artist myself, I was curious to find out more about her journey, and discuss her views on the current austerity situation in the UK.
Liz has been a disabled person since she was ten years old, but it wasn’t until she experienced discrimination at university that she began to question her identity and rights as a disabled person. As a medical student, with an undiagnosed impairment, she faced layers of institutionalised discrimination and was eventually forced to leave. This situation led her to attend a disability equality session run by two disabled women where she discovered the social model of disability. Liz states “in about 20 seconds flat everything changed for me, absolutely the course of my life changed that rapidly because I could suddenly make sense of the last ten years”.
Following this moment of political epiphany, she got involved in disability equality training, and joined a variety of disability rights networks, including London Disability Arts Forum.
Liz describes herself as being quite artistic as a child, interested in drama and performance. However, she says, “that kind of got knocked out of me in teenage years, probably quite a lot to do with impairment and discrimination”. In the late 1990’s, her passion for arts resurfaced after she read a book about female anti militarists. One of the women featured in the book was Helen Keller, and Liz couldn’t quite believe that this was the same Helen Keller she had learnt about at school. The Keller she had learnt about, and subsequently loathed, was famous for being a tragic but brave figurehead. But it was clear from this book that Keller wasn’t just this all American icon, but a radical socialist who was way ahead of her time, tracked by the FBI and supporter of women’s rights. Liz knew she wanted to get that story out to people, so she approached a film maker; Anne Pugh, and together they made a film about the real Helen Keller.
From making ‘The Real Helen Keller’ Liz has gone from strength to strength, producing hard hitting and thought provoking work about a range of difficult subjects. Much of her latest work has been in response to the austerity narrative and the scapegoating of disabled people.
“I think one of the effects of austerity is a kind of unleashing of petty cruelty, though I am not sure it is even petty.”
“I wanted a really strong distribution across the different experiences of austerity. I wanted it to be a range of things; from zero hour contracts to NHS rationing, you name it. “
Her most recent work ‘Figures’ was a mass-sculptural performance creating a visual representation of the human cost of austerity. For Liz ‘Figures’ was a particularly challenging, as well as interesting, piece because it involved working with natural elements and lots of physical labour. A lot of the time she worked on her own and was quite isolated, invoking austerity symbolism, however Liz also worked with a team of people to help her get on and off the foreshore: “I really liked working with natural elements and natural materials. There are all sorts of creation mythology, globally, about human beings coming out of the mud and returning to the mud. I like the idea of the isolation, the idea of working with the tides and natural features, the contrast with that and the social structures that are doing so much damage.”
During this process, the team needed to work in absolute harmony, which in many ways depicted the values the project was trying to put forward. She suggests this is something that society should be moving towards; cooperation, and interdependence, all those sorts of values that we need if we are to move beyond the austerity and the damage that austerity does.
Alongside the sculptures are a collection of online narratives of those adversely affected by austerity. These narratives tell a chilling story from different viewpoints: “I wanted a really strong distribution across the different experiences of austerity. I wanted it to be a range of things; from zero hour contracts to NHS rationing, you name it”
At the most extreme there are people who have died, for example David Clapson in Oxford, who starved to death due to benefit cuts. However, for the most part these narratives show the emotionally draining fear about insecure futures.
One narrative that really stayed with Liz was about a man who was required by the Job Centre to go on a training course despite his son being in surgery on the same day. Liz recalls him saying the course trainer said she couldn’t understand why he was really resistant to switching off his mobile phone. Fortunately she asked him why and he told her his child was in hospital having surgery that day, about to go under anesthetic, and the Job Centre had told him if he didn’t attend the training he would be sanctioned. Although in this instance the trainer took pity on this man and made sure he got to the hospital, the situation represents an alarming shift in the type of inhumane behaviour that is now considered acceptable.
“I really liked working with natural elements and natural materials. There are all sorts of creation mythology, globally, about human beings coming out of the mud and returning to the mud. I like the idea of the isolation, the idea of working with the tides and natural features, the contrast with that and the social structures that are doing so much damage.”
“If you look back at history in Nazi Germany, it started at stage 1 and worked it’s way through to the absolute extreme. So when people are dismissive of somebody drawing those parallels… it is foolish to be so complacent.”
Beware the Beginning
Liz and I discussed whether she felt there were links between current austerity measures and the experience of disabled people during Nazi Germany. She said that although there was a danger in making absolute comparisons, if you look at the values that permitted the beginning of those events – they are very similar. Quoting an expression, ‘Beware the Beginning’, and highlighting plenty of evidence about the 8 point scale of genocide she suggests the pattern is there. The 8 point scale starts off with the kind of insults that you might get in in the street (we have seen those escalate in the last few years) and then it builds up from there. It builds up through physical violence, it becomes increasingly institutionalised and early on ‘jokes’ made about certain groups. Liz argues that “if you look back at history in Nazi Germany, it started at stage 1 and worked it’s way through to the absolute extreme. So when people are dismissive of somebody drawing those parallels… it is foolish to be so complacent”. Continuing the link Liz suggests: “I think one of the effects of austerity is a kind of unleashing of petty cruelty, though I am not sure it is even petty.”
One of the most profound moments of the ‘Resistance’ project was visiting the cremation ovens of the death centres. There were portrait photos of all the people who had been killed there. Liz says, “You look at them and they are all of us. All ages, different ethnicities, different classes, women and men. They are all there, and if you are there with other disabled people you see them in these portraits. The mannerisms, or facial expressions or characteristics of a person. For me it felt very profound that I was able to connect it to now. Looking around the group I was able to think ‘wow how many of us would have been here”.
Indeed, how many of us would have been there – Beware the Beginning. Liz’s work continues to be at the forefront of disability arts in the UK, and with austerity becoming increasingly severe, her work serves a greater and more meaningful purpose, viewed by many of us as a necessary visual representation.
“There were portrait photos of all the people who had been killed there. You look at them and they are all of us. All ages, different ethnicities, different classes, women and men. They are all there, and if you are there with other disabled people you see them in these portraits. The mannerisms, or facial expressions or characteristics of a person.”