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.”