I attended the Dash Arts and Mac Birmingham curated event Awkward Bastards on Thursday 12 March. It was a fantastic day in many ways – I hooked up with old friends, met new artists whose politics, thinking and aesthetics I admire and feel inspired by. There were lots of affirmations about the culture and community I’m part of and best of all had a couple of ‘in ya face’ provocations which have really made me think and re-assess ideas I have about my practice, my identity, and my place in the cultural landscape – just the small stuff then!
The day was about ‘challenging and exploring the concept of diversity’, and about exploring the links and barriers between cultures. For me this is heavy duty thinking as I’m concerned about where we seem to be in our national perception of ‘diversity’ and the need to justify its existence. More of that at a later date.
My brain was literally sizzling at the end of the event. There were a mix of presentations from academics, artists and activists. We had been taken on a journey from 18th Century disabled beggars, eccentrics and aristocrats, through the Black arts Movement, filling the gaps in history, disabling and queering the museum, a reflection on the history and contemporary of disability arts, and presentations from artists on the subject in the title of this piece. There was so much I wanted to say, so many questions I wanted to ask, so the much needed sleep on the three hour train journey home never came.
I’m an ‘out and proud’ Disabled artist. But I acknowledge that it is still uncomfortable/awkward to say that in certain situations and in ‘certain company’, and it is awkward for some people to hear me describe myself in that way. Many people know nothing about the Disability Rights Movement as a Civil Rights Movement in the UK. It is neither presented nor represented as such in any notion of 20th Century British history. Fewer people still know about the international body of work known as the Disability Arts Movement, the last Avant Garde Arts Movement as Melvyn Bragg called us.
So without the historical and political and aesthetic contexts, I realise that the word Disabled is loaded with all the old stigma, mythology, negative perceptions and stereotypes. For me the term Disabled artist, or Disabled person is a political statement. I’m using it in a political way based on the Social Model of Disability. But who would know that? Who outside the Disability Rights Movement / Disability Arts Movement would know that? It doesn’t have the same power, recognition or identification with being political as when I describe myself as a Feminist. There aren’t the same associations in wider society, in wider culture, with politics. With taking a position.
It is awkward to describe myself as Disabled as to most people it is heard in a medical model context, it is a loaded term. I’m instantly ‘other’, instantly inhabit an ‘other’ space outside what they know and perceive of art and culture. I’m potentially second rate (never darlings), special, do community art, am an amateur, never realised my full potential, someone you need to be careful of in case I go doolalley right in front of your eyes.
And then if I’m Disabled and I have an opinion about something – especially if its human rights, diversity disability equality – I’m ‘other’ again. Moany, chip on my shoulder, exclusive, extreme, niche. If I speak up in diversity contexts aimed at mainstream arts I can see peoples’ faces drop, eyes glaze over, disengage, and painting myself into yet an ‘other’ space. As an activist and equality campaigner, and as someone who has held both national (in the Republic of Ireland) and regional (North East England) Chief Executive roles in development organisations with the responsibility to promote the cultural equality of disabled people, believe me, I’ve experienced this a lot.
There is a duality at play here though and I’m not unaware of it. If I position myself as a Disabled artist / manager / strategist then the two sides of how I am perceived will come into play. Perceptions from all sides will put me in a box of some sort (Boxes are for shoes as the Vacuum Cleaner said). Hmmm. Awkward.
I’d love it if we could come up with a more activist term on a par with feminist for disability activism, one which doesn’t pitch us into a ‘victim’ position.
So, the journey I’m on at the moment, as a professional, talented, amazing Disabled artist (over compensating?) – I dipped out of view for a while due to mental ill health. I hard to recharge everything I had after ten years in CEO positions with a responsibility for promoting the cultural equality of disabled people. I burned out. Again awkward. I came back refreshed, full of vim and vigour (I know), and am repositioning my voices within the disability arts movement. I’m excited to be writing and directing theatre. Disability Theatre.
None of my questions are new here, they are an ongoing dilemma for talented artists socially engaged in disability rights. Are we in a new wave where we can finally challenge the old guard? For now I’ll remain, Vici, playwright and director, thinker, trickster, ‘out and proud’ affirmative Disabled artist, privileged to be contributing to the international body of work created by the Disability Arts Movement, but am excited by all the new thoughts my head is thinking.
I’m not sure that we did re-think diversity as a Symposium, but there are certainly some amazing people are actively engaged in the process, and there is a lot of common ground between different cultural communities. As I said at the end of the event, Diversity is a process and we all know what it looks like. Equity is our goal and we need to decide what that actually looks like to effectively explore the path of reaching it. What does come next I wonder? How do we continue the converation together, led by the people it affects the most?