Deaf and Disability Arts Presenters Programme

A white wall with large text that says I want... and then loads of handwritten messages around it saying things like I want larger printed text and I want freedom to move

Unlimited’s Fiona Slater reflects on a recent trip to Canada’s capital city where she experienced the Deaf and Disability Arts Scene and crossed over the border to the wonderful Republic of Inclusion.

I was in Ottawa to take part in the Deaf and Disability Arts Presenters Programme from 26 to 29 June 2017, which formed part of Canada Scene Festival. It overlapped and integrated into the 2016-17 Cycle a project which began with the Summit, journeyed though The Study and culminated in The Republic of Inclusion. Confused? Me too. There is A LOT going on in Canada in the arts: conversations, exhibitions, showcases, networking events and archiving; it’s edgy, exciting and, in such a huge country, has a real sense of intimacy, community and cohesion. The programme was expertly facilitated by Toronto based Tangled Art +Disability, a small disability focussed arts organisation with huge reach, alongside their partners National Arts Centre and Canada Council for the Arts. I can’t do justice to all the amazing artists and organisations that took part in this programme in one blog but hopefully this gives you a flavour.

My trip began with a march from City Hall in a thunderstorm, led by previous Shape Arts (one of the two organisations, along with Artsadmin, co-delivering Unlimited) Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary recipient Carmen Papalia. We were marching to promote ‘Open Access’; a new approach to inclusion, proposed by Carmen, which rejects standardised access policies in favour of something more grassroots. It’s difficult to explain the concept in practical terms (for me anyway) because it’s about total flexibility, receptivity and offers sustained support based on individual needs. It’s a shift in thinking and organisation practice rather than fixed legislation or a set of policies. This sense of possibility and rewriting the rulebook stood me in good stead for the five days to come.

People are marching in the street with a man at the front who has a huge smile on his face leading the march wearing a cream top and holding a sign that says policies kill: open accessCarmen Papalia March; photo by Fiona Slater

The Presenters Programme kicked off with a panel discussion: ‘Considerations on Presenting Deaf and Disability Arts.’ Barak adé Soleil, the new Artistic Director of Tangled Arts + Disability, led a panel of multi-disciplinary artists: Niall McNeil, co-writer and lead actor of ‘King Arthur’s Night’ [sic], melannie monoceros, poet and artist, Chris Dodd, theatre maker and Director of Sound Off deaf theatre festival, and Renata Soutter and Shara Weaver of PropellerDance.

I was particularly grabbed by melannie’s evocation of Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory. Whilst this is a concept I’ve come across before (which looks at chronic illness, disability and energy levels), melannie powerfully reiterated the disabling barriers our whole system is built on – funding deadlines, short periods of R&D or studio time, an inflexible window to present your work, evaluate then repeat. How do we ensure that we don’t exclude brilliant artists simply because they can’t adhere to rigid timelines, artists whose capacity diminishes with every milestone ticked off? Back to rewriting the rule book.

We were then back with Carmen to take part in ‘White Cane Amplified’, a performance in which Carmen replaces his walking cane with a megaphone, drawing on his experience of hypervisibility as a disabled person navigating public space.

In the evening we watched ‘King Arthur’s Night’ [sic], a surreal, highly accomplished musical which was commissioned by Luminato Festival and, I’m told, has seen the largest investment for a piece in the disability arts sector so far in Canada. In the programme they describe it as ‘refined, brutal, crude and tender’ – I couldn’t put it better myself!

On Day 2 of the Presenters Programme Eliza Chandler, curator, academic and Fountain of all Knowledge on the Disability Arts Scene in Canada, gave us a whistle stop tour of artists working across the country. Eliza is leading an exciting 7 year project ‘Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life’ which will work with academic and community groups to explore new work, new technologies and assemble an online archive. The project looks at practices of disability arts, feminist arts, and community arts, to explore how ‘arts can re-figure bodies/minds of difference’. I’m excited to compare notes with Shape’s own National Disability Arts Collection and Archive.

Intersectionality was a common topic of discussion with some fascinating debates from indigenous First Nation disabled artists around the culture of ‘tick boxes’. Justin Manyfingers and Brian Solomon’s beautiful, funny piece ‘What’s Left of Us’ draws on this subject matter whilst exploring their shared experience of disability. The most surprising aspect of this performance was that, after a number of years presenting it, they have yet to receive a review.

In a session titled ‘work to go’ we were presented with short excerpts from artists who have tour ready work. Gloria Swain is a visual artist who creates spaces around her work to discuss homelessness, mental illness and the black community. Steve Keen has created a body of photographic portraits ‘Spina Bifida: Front to Back’, which question ideals of beauty. Integrated Theatre Company Jo, Jack et John performed excerpts from two very different works. Michael Nimbley adapted a quiet and considered extract from ‘Abîmés – quatre courtes pièces de Samuel Beckett’ (four short pieces by Samuel Beckett) whilst Edon Descollines created an improvised rap which incorporated audience feedback on their biggest fears. Finally, David Bobier, who is part of the Unlimited International cohort of artists, discussed his VibraFusionLab, a multimedia, multi-sensory centre which provides inclusive technologies.

My visit ended with a trip to ‘The Republic of Inclusion’ – which was essentially a psychedelic symposium hosted by Sarah Garton Stanley and Syrus Marcus Ware.

A party prefaced and ended proceedings, with attendees dancing to the amazing Lal (or bobbing awkwardly in my case). The space was relaxed, live streamed, captioned, ASL interpreted and audio described, with psychedelic live illustrations (see below).

A large psychedelic, vibrantly coloured, neon type mural is at the front of the room with people around it looking at this live illustrationLive instillation; photo by Fiona Slater

Conversations didn’t adhere strictly to set topics but segued between ideas, themes and anecdotes that gave a fascinating insight of the state of the Disability Arts in Canada. These were punctuated by yet more performance bursts, one of which was a brilliant series of short poems by Unlimited shortlisted artist Rowan James.

Rowan was supported by Unlimited to take part in The Study. You can read more about his Canadian experience in another Unlimited blog, to be released the coming weeks.

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