thresholds of understanding

UNLIMITED - Extraordinary New Work by deaf and disabled artists at Southbank Centre 2012: A response to the Unlimited Festival from Candoco Dance Company (written by Luke Pell) having experienced the entire programme, facilitated key post show discussions and spent time with the artists and audience.


The Unlimited Festival could be considered as the significant, temporal alignment of extraordinary bodies

Individual bodies, community bodies - bodies of work, bodies at work - bodies at play - bodies - that have been orbiting one another for lifetimes

Coming together more brightly and harmoniously, during the course of this festival, than I have previously witnessed. The effect felt more profoundly, because - in part - of their cumulative mass. An accumulation that could – perhaps - have only happened at this time now, in the UK, in London, at the Southbank in parallel with the 2012 Paralympic Games. A cumulative mass evidencing such a thing doesn’t have to mean, one giant superficial, homogenous, tidy, shiny, modern structure.

The UK has an impressive and important lineage of disability arts, deeply connected to the strong political movements that fore-grounded individual identity and entitlement - gay, ethnic and disability civil-rights policies - that emerged from the 60’s, gradually practiced and embedded in our legislation and recently encompassed within the Equalities Act 2010.

Artists and arts organisations actively making about, out of, or alongside these politics have been key to the proliferation of the UK as a leader in this particular space of work. Organisations such as Shape, Dada Fest, Candoco Dance Company, Mind the Gap, Heart and Soul and Graeae Theatre have been mainstay players in this territory since the early 90’s. A recent wave of significant anniversaries for many of these has further consolidated their individual and collective expertise, practice and importance as contributors to what we have to offer the world, as a unique community of extraordinary artists.

Many more independent artists, activists, practitioners and companies working as part of, in response or opposition to, these organisations, means that in the UK we have a fertile crop of high quality deaf and disabled artists making work and more eager to do so. With the Paralympics providing an important focal point for 2012, across the spectrum of performance and visual arts pertinent milestones and pathways have been marked out for disabled artists of late, with initiatives like Sync Leadership nurturing voices and skills, the Live Art Development Agency’s Access All Areas symposium/publication and Catherine Long’s Eye of the Storm presenting alternative artistic explorations of difference and Arts Council England’s launch of A Creative Case for Diversity at Decibel seeking to move beyond just the legislative, towards greater articulation and recognition of the potency of diverse artists.

Equality of entitlement and resource haven't always met with this potential. Unlimited was seen as an opportunity to present ‘the best of UK deaf and disabled artists’ – the familiar and unfamiliar voices - on an unprecedented scale at a key juncture in our history. No pressure then!

The pressure of this lineage at home and worldwide, at this moment in time, with regards to politics, tourism, industry and arts - especially in the UK - should not be underestimated. Nor should the potential implications of these pressures upon the commissioned artists and Southbank Centre. There was significant potential in the alignment of these bodies and Southbank for many reasons proved it was the right creative space to ‘home’ this potential in 2012. Whilst Unlimited at Southbank framed and gave focus to these rich, vibrant, diverse bodies it also (perhaps more) importantly presented the spectrum of work and voices commissioned, each body with their own distinct experiences of being in the world, speaking to many other thresholds of understanding in multiple ways.

Things take the time they take. Some bodies are not fast, in mobility or thinking, some, are super fast, too fast, too slow, too modern, too old fashioned, too in, too out, too regimented, too inappropriate, too outside of the norm, too vulnerable, too radical, too labour intensive and too expensive.

The in/visibility of any given body is determined in part by its immediate surroundings. A slow politics has led to our arrival at this place in the UK, perhaps the pace necessary. I believe it’s important to notice where people are at, acknowledging that those of us who have been practicing in this way for some time have further layers of information than others, people make meaning from the information they are afforded. So let’s recognise that difference and find ways to explore that different experience of ground together. Distinct elements of the festival facilitated this exploration, in particular events and activities that took place in public spaces, off stage spaces, before shows and after shows. Landmarks for me being, Criptease and The Beautiful Octopus Club, where dedicated Unlimited, Heart’n’Soul, disability arts, Southbank audiences and Londoners - kicking off their weekends - met joyously and seamlessly.

It is important to note then, that the debates, the artists, the people at stake in this territory have not been entirely visible in the wider public consciousness throughout popular/mainstream histories. Yet, we find ourselves in a changing social political climate. The identity politics and activism of the individual that drove civil rights movements of the 60s and 70’s are shifting to a politics of community, perhaps reflective of the ways in which we need to inhabit and engage with the world today. Technologies, ecological fragility, austerity and evolutions of notions of equality and entitlement have changed the way we need to perceive, participate and identify in community and art.

The great success of this festival in my mind has to do with the lifetimes of practice that meant we could have Unlimited commissions and a workable festival format at Southbank. These artists did not appear over night, they have been slogging it out for decades. Likewise, the Southbank’s now tried and tested ‘festival’ model meant that intrinsic determinates of quality and artist/audience navigation were already in place. The combined expertise of Southbank and the ‘Unlimited artists’ meant the UK could show off what it is we have been doing well for many years and point towards other possibilities.

We are here because of what has gone before, we are custodians of that and whilst honouring it, the work in and around Unlimited offered up opportunities to consider, re- languaging, re-framing and reviewing these bodies of work and thresholds of understanding, their value, their resonance now and for tomorrow.

Integrated - Inclusive –– Diversity – Difference – Delicious - Divergent – Subversive - Outlier

A consideration of language, thoughtfulness, in the choices made provokes thought. Within the festival several artists practiced and communicated this through their work on and off stage.

In the discussion Hiding or Hidden Bobby Baker talked about, in ‘coming out’ as a disabled person it was crucial to find the right language for her own practice and experience, rather than swiftly lifting a pre-printed label from the shelf. This level of careful consideration - of absolute mindfulness - was exquisitely clear in the detail of her Unlimited Commission Mad, Gyms and Kitchen’s. The negotiation of self and other, of joy, despair, honesty and wellbeing were gently, precisely, generously, attended to in each playful encounter, yielding an affirming, uplifting and wise work.

Rachel Gadsden’s Unlimited Global Alchemy (in collaboration with the Bambanani, and Artsadmin) spoke to the potency and the power that owning a descriptor – the political intention and fundamental sense of community and survival that proudly indentifying as disabled within the social model of disability – might offer. That disability can be a common thread in humankinds understanding and celebration of what it is to live, rather than to suffer. Gadsden’s work throughout the festival as workshop, exhibition, performance- lecture pointed distinctly to new models of working with self and community presenting multi-facetted outputs that invite established and emergent audiences.

One of my favourite moments in the festival was walking on to the ballroom floor on a Monday morning - towards the end of a late British summer - to see families painting body maps with Rachel, the Bambanani and Artsadmin. I don't think I had ever conceived in my life time that I might see families of all ages including a four year old girl with pig tales, her granny and two gay male couples, led by a visually impaired artist and a group of women artists from South Africa living with HIV/AIDS, sharing the same creative space, talking about their own experience of their bodies through art. I know it should be possible but it has incredible power when you witness it.

Janice Parker’s Private Dancer and Sinead O’Donnel’s Caution were each engrossing, intimate examples of collaborative practice, facilitated by artists who did not remove the autonomy, specificity of experience and unique presence of each collaborating performer. Presented in what might be considered non-traditional performance spaces they spoke to immersive audience experience, to the choice audience has in participating, engaging and viewing work and how an alternative canon for performance could ‘belong’ within a historically mainstream venue.

Distinct examples of how experiencing the world in an other way can yield creative gold were evident in Miss Degeneration’s Criptease - which slinkily exploded usual expectations and approaches to both burlesque and audio-description in 4 sultry minutes - and Jez Collbourne and the Mind the Gaps Call of the Siren’s transformed his own fear into upbeat, Americana song and performance accessible to families, through the particular ways of hearing sound and pursuing inquiry that are part of his Williams Syndrome.

Mainstay players continued to prove that they do well and with increased investment can realise works of greater scale, ambition, innovation and beauty. Simon Allen’s Resonance at the Still Point of Change presented his work as a contemporary composer in a disability context for the first time, drawing together collaborators from across his life’s work he realised an exquisite, evocative, evening of music, image and word. Dame Evelyn Glenine’s accomplishment and musical virtuosity is undeniable. In collaboration with choreographer Marc Brew, we saw his reiteration of dominant notions of modern dance and ballet executed with normative bodies, claiming his space as a disabled choreographer amongst the existing mainstream canon of dance in the UK. His work with Candoco’s extended Unlimited company also pointed towards his ambition to follow the scale, spectacle and hyper-mobility seen in the work of other British dance artists like Wayne McGregor and Hofesh Shechter.

The versatility and ability to deliver with clarity and gusto appeared throughout the festival, distinct examples for me being; Graeae Theatre’s raucous roof raising Reason’s to be Cheerful – one of the best gigs/plays I have ever been to at Southbank – which gave audiences many reasons to be cheerful and anarchic and Claire Cunningham’s works Menage A Trois and 12 (for Candoco). Cunningham and Candoco together evidenced the capacity to sustain the quality of their work to date with increased scales, challenges and expectation.

One of my early concerns around the Unlimited Commissions had been around the pressures placed upon artists working to these levels of increased scale and resource, to produce works that were perhaps beyond the sum of their practicing histories. Menage a Trois was a poignant, elegantly crafted example of how these investments revealed the exceptional potential of some of these artists. 12, Cunningham’s first commission for bodies other than her own, retained the corporeal particularity, wit, humour and sophistication of her work for her body, whilst meeting the challenge of working with Candoco’s extended international cast. It should be noted that this accomplishment was in part, possible because of Candoco’s history, vision, networks and expertise in presenting work in the mainstream dance sector.

Unlimited as a festival was an example of myriad ways of being in the world, making and experiencing work. Of art forms, audiences, different kinds of expertise, thoughtfulness and values – curated and presented at a very particular point and place – that yielded significance in terms of what the future of this work and these artists might be. It responded to the question - does it have to be one or the other? We can allow a spectrum of diversity. In deviating from the norms, these innovations in practice might effect a cultural shift. This is not to say that existing practices are not making cultural shifts, but the world today is radically different to yesterday, to 10, 20, 100 years ago – in the way we engage with our environment and one another and hopefully in terms of entitlement.

The social model of disability is a useful tool in understanding we’ve built a world of hierarchies and norms that might not be sensitive or nuanced enough for the diversity of humankind. The Olympic and Paralympic games highlighted these kinds of corporeal hierarchies, and affections towards one idea of virtuosity and spectacle, Unlimited Festival as a model for presenting and experiencing work pointed towards alternatives. A creative case for diversity doesn’t have to be about mainstreaming or ghettoising. I think its lazy to set up or endorse simplistic binaries and polarisations, we can acknowledge the full spectrum of artists, in the process unsettling the pyramids.

In artist Catherine Longs 2011 Eye of the Storm symposium she explained that at the centre of her work is her bodily experience - an artist born with one arm - she is interested in how we experience others bodies through or own physicality, bodies that we do or don't identify with, Long suggests that people see what is absent for them before what is present, they project loss on to her body. This is not her experience.

The information we carry - the body carries - is unique and integral to our way of being in and negotiating the world – its not necessarily a problem, it might become key to who/how we are and how we make work. Long and her collaborator Doran George say ‘you cannot know power if you have not known powerlessness.’ Perhaps those who have occupied the periphery, what has been made the less comfortable place, are more in tune with what it is to live. I sensed this might be the case in almost all of the Unlimited Commissions.

There was an overwhelming honesty in much of the work. Whilst expectations were met and exceeded, artists had taken the time to take risks, to be vulnerable and careful. Across the festival there were expansions in form, scale, notions of intimacy and art – who it is for and who makes it. It drew upon but did not drain – this time - the resources and spheres of influence of artists who have been going beyond the limitations enforced upon them for the past 30 years, opening up new thresholds of understanding.

in dialogue

below the waterline