What’s Changed? By Penny Pepper

The cast of Assisted Suicide: The Musical all on stage gathered around Liz Carr, with a neon sign of the show title above them and a gold showbiz curtain as a backdrop
Liz Carr's Assisted Suicide: The Musical at Southbank Centre Unlimited Festival. Photo by Rachel Cherry for Unlimited.

Unlimited: so many questions. It started quietly and we, the bemused artists, wondered what it was. Would it live up to the promises made? Was the funding really there to make work that would have exposure at a national level – and at the iconic Southbank Centre in London? Would this be a genuine development to support artists to remove barriers and manage impairments to an extent that the creative process came out unhindered?


Throughout my 30 years of involvement in disability arts practice, I’ve been to endless talks and symposiums and discussion groups and conferences and summits – and seen countless promises made and endless promises smashed as the glass ceiling hardened up like impenetrable Perspex.


It’s not difficult to be jaded, and right up to the inception of Unlimited it felt as if most progress was piecemeal and hesitant. The Arts Council England-funded Innovate Award (2000) was a mini-Unlimited; a shining, defiant beacon of optimism. It gave me, one of the award winners, the opportunity to by-pass the ignorance of mainstream publishers to write and publish my short story collection ‘Desires’. Another winner was Katherine Araniello, an artists that Unlimited has supported to reach a greater potential.


Which brings me to the performance space at Artsadmin’s Toynbee Studios, East London. It’s not huge and its age hangs in the atmosphere, a pleasant energy of good things, long done. Once a ‘settlement house’ operated by social reformers to cross divides of rich and poor, its Arts and Crafts gothic design was the perfect setting for Katherine Araniello’s ‘The Dinner Party’ on its first scratch performance outing. It was relaxed, simple yet deceptively choreographed performance. The multiple TVs were there, as was the increasingly inebriated PA-cum-butler. You never quite knew if the chaos was intended – but then our puzzlement at the artist’s intention and the ensuing disorder became part of the work and remains a key part of the Araniello ouvre.


Yes, I go back a long way with the Disability Arts movement, to the beginnings in the mid 80s. In those distant days the thrust was raw, mostly to find a literal space for arts practice and to develop a metaphorical space for a creative exploration. To understand that every expression of creativity has its place, but also to realise a hierarchy is inevitable – even necessary – if we were to challenge mainstream arts and the stereotypical way it operated in regards to disabled people.


The dusty, patrician ideas of art therapy pushed a bad smell over the concepts of art and disability that even now can linger at the edges of mainstream art thinking. As disabled people developed models that placed our challenges within the context of socio-political frameworks, we saw there were barriers to our participation and our progress in the cultivation of creative practice as much as within the barriers surrounding our daily lives.


Our purpose was not always refined. We were angry and passionate and lapped up the energy born from the punk and post punk era. We knew we had a right to an artistic voice but how we could get it, nurture it and see it shed the skin of medical model frameworks was another matter.


We even had Ian Dury, our own Spasticus-Autisticus, the crip buccaneer and pioneer, who headlined an early disability arts festival in Brent Cross. ‘Disability – Our Arts, Our Culture’ at the Waterman’s Centre, Brentford, London, also saw the Live Launch of London Disability Arts Forum (LDAF). I was there, the timid country mouse come to the big bad city, dressed in a leather bondage dress, my life changed forever by this celebrating, this frustration and the determination that burned from this gathering of disabled talent. It’s true everything was ramshackle and a bit DIY but again the timing was good with bodies such as the Greater London Council (RIP 1986) supporting and funding our burgeoning arts scene.


If the 80s was the birth, then the 90s saw young adulthood bloom. Looking back, it feels like a golden age. Despite the background of Tory Britain at the beginning of the decade, the large cities stood in opposition and in terms of creating art for us and by us we made progress. This was the first era of the LDAF – plus NWDAF – and Disability Arts in London magazine (DAIL) which flourished into one of the mostly widely read and respected disability arts magazines in the world.


Unlimited had a difficult job, as do those chosen to fulfil their projects, working against the backdrop of those 30 years of hard won progress within our arts practice. That reality of two wheels forward, three wheels back, into a new avant-garde in art, then decried as scroungers. I know because I was there, and here I am and we can debate what disability arts is or isn’t into a crip infinity, with the arguments that our artistic products require the compulsory wearing of our oppression on our bloody sleeves are likely to remain endless. Yet it’s not surprising that over the years some arts practitioners chose to not link their work and their disability in any obvious way, knowing as they did that the disability label often resulted in an instant devaluation of their artistic worth. It remains an intractable challenge but one I hope Unlimited is genuinely beginning to lay to rest.


There are many artists and many surprises within the Unlimited programme. I’ll start with poet Owen Lowery because I always feel literature is the poor relation of art forms within disability art funding. As a writer, I would say that, of course, although I understand with some bitterness that as mainstream publishing is a vast money-making business, pushing any work with a disability consciousness is likely to be tough. So I was delighted when Unlimited supported Owen Lowry: not only is he an exquisite poet, but it’s exciting that through Unlimited he was able to take his work on a literary tour and find his place within the sphere of mainstream poetry.


“Otherwise Unchanged is a remarkable collection, combining technical poise and an expansive intellectual range” The Guardian, Poem of the Week


When I watched the play ‘Wendy Hoose’ (R&D Unlimited) the hairs on my neck shivered high. With its clever and layered texts, it is a truly accessible performance making the most of humour to be found in the use of captioning, audio description and the crème egg-eating BSL performer. The young, lively actors were also superb and it struck me how far we’ve come from one of LDAF’s early cabarets, which on one occasion featured an elderly couple spontaneously playing the spoons – yes the cutlery variety. I remember rolling my eyes, writing about it in a journal with an arrogance natural to a 30 something punky singer-songwriter. I was not alone as us artistes yearned for respect and artistic validation. Who were these ‘oldies’ pretending they were like us – real talents?


I’m much less of a snob now and perhaps I’ll incorporate spoon-playing into one of my poems. There’s a lot of mileage in that these days, especially with the appropriation of the word ‘spoonie’ as a variation on a theme of ‘crip’, ‘bendy’ et al. How I love such annexing of language which we then make our own.


“[Wendy Hoose’s]…script zips along with such relentless, fizzing humour that you barely notice how much ground he’s covering – but between class, disability, soul-searching, work, play and parenthood, it’s a lot…” The Stage


One particular thrilling legacy of Unlimited is the empowerment of disabled women artists who lead the field with trailblazing work, some of which has travelled the world. Here are a few works I’ve seen, my own chosen favourites with no other reason than that.


I saw ‘Backstage in Biscuit Land’ at DaDaFest, with the powerhouse of talent that is its creator Jess Thom. Prejudice and barriers are not so much surmounted as decimated with 100,000 biscuits in a piece challenging the stereotypes about people with Tourettes in ways that are serious and silly and ultimately profound. When ‘Broadcast in Biscuit Land’ hit the BBC on the Live from Television Centre, it was a genuine moment to savour and truly a historic moment for us all.


That Unlimited funding supported Katherine Araniello to bring ‘The Dinner Party’ a very long way from its Toynbee Studio scratch to the Southbank Centre stands for me as a deliciously poisonous cherry on a booze drenched cake – that could easily feature in the work. It’s not polite to talk about impairment needs and how complex they might be, but Katherine incorporates hers into much of her art and ‘The Dinner Party’ is a pinnacle in showing how appropriate funding can free an artist to create a unique piece beyond all genres.


“The whole thing is wonderful in its absurdity. It’s an excellent chance to give Pity the finger (the fish finger, naturally. It is a dinner party, after all.) While not afraid to plumb the darker depths of social expectations, there is also a charming warmth in this performance.” Everything Theatre


Writing this, it’s a few weeks away to Unlimited launching the latest body of work for 2016 – and when it comes to Liz Carr, I’m biased. There’s no point denying that. I’ve seen her work from the unpolished beginnings and am privileged to have her as a friend. I remember Gloria from disabled women’s comedy group The Nasty Girls, brassy in leopard skin. I spent a week with her at the Edinburgh Fringe, when she did 3 stand-up shows a day. I helped with flyering on the Royal Mile as we made jokes to passers-by about Liz’s “potty-mouth” comedy. Later, seeing the development of the one-woman show, ‘It Hasn’t Happened Yet’.


Liz’s ‘Assisted Suicide: The Musical’ will be the disability arts event of the year at the very least. I can’t imagine this work receiving support anywhere else in the Western world, but then, not everywhere has a Liz and not everywhere has Unlimited. It will be in the worst possible taste and be the best possible art. It will challenge and embarrass while making you think and question until your brain melts, sauced all over, naturally, by the indicative brand of Liz Carr humour. You will be entertained, we’ll all be talking about death, and still laughing all the way home.


So what HAS changed? I detect Unlimited has stirred a genuine curiosity within the mainstream about disabled people’s creativity. We’ve scarcely been let out of the care home cupboard, and our frustration and purpose comes with it, to shrug off the abuse and damage of institutionalisation. It’s not simply that we have new stories to tell, grenades of artistic, subversive intent that also ask difficult questions – and often take a position about the human condition that is utterly new to most people.


It is not always comfortable to talk impairment over disability but I’m going to because Unlimited is a funding programme that recognises it matters when we get down to it. Money removes barriers in our society; and its lack compromises disabled artists right along the bitter line down to government policies that are decimating services such as independent living funding and cuts to the NHS. These additional barriers compromise situations that are already difficult for a disabled creative. Funding for additional support workers, for creative enablers, a point that brings us back to the hopes that we will and can present our artistic endeavours with a semblance of equality that has taken a long time in coming.


The dark, unlovely creative playing field begins to be levelled and bright, where once it was profoundly inaccessible. Unlimited proves that funding removes barriers and allows disabled arts practitioners to compete with some equality. But it’s more than that, it enshrines the belief that disabled people’s art has value in its own right – and value that connects to all human beings.


This essay was written by Penny Pepper in response to our just-published “What’s Changed?” publication, which you can read online.


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