By Ben Gurglebop
It has been four months since the ‘Unlimited’ commissions were shown as part of the Cultural Olympiad, followed by the Unlimited festival at London’s Southbank Centre. Looking back, how do Jo Verrent, Luke Pell, Wendy Martin, Tony Heaton and Carol McFadden, five of the key ‘movers and shakers’ behind Unlimited, feel about its impact on disability arts? Nina Muehlemann has spoken to them on behalf of DAO to find out.
Jo Verrent was on the Unlimited selection panel, worked as an advisor to Southbank Centre for the Unlimited Festival, and has curated the PUSH ME films, of which the latest one, a half hour documentary, was released in November.
Talking about her expectations for Unlimited, Jo says her main hope was that Unlimited would do for disabled artists what the Paralympics did for disabled athletes – to put them, as equals to their nondisabled peers, under a national spotlight. She told me:
“I think that was the hope of Unlimited, putting in so much, not just resources to make the commissions happen, but the critical mass of so much happening at the same time, and the individual support that went into the commissions alongside the artistic work – the mentoring, the pairing with mainstream producers, so that the pieces themselves would be exceptional, and then the critical mass of so many pieces would really mean we could not go back.
“Caroline Bowditch put it very well when she said ‘there is no retreat from this, I cannot make tiny, unimportant work in a shed anymore’. There is no retreat, and that’s for her as an artist, but also all the people that she has worked with. Having allowed in a disabled artist, having seen the quality of the work, you cannot go back to a position where you think that it is all a bit crap.”
In terms of expectations or concerns for Unlimited, Tony Heaton, CEO of Shape, hadn’t any. He explained:
“I just wanted all the projects to be really successful. For once, there was a reasonable amount of money injected into the sector, it was just important that the commissions evolved. It was something that has never been done before, a unique event – but I did not really have concerns as such. I did not know what to expect, but neither did anyone else, we were all in the same boat.”
Luke Pell, who was commissioned to evaluate the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre and facilitated some of the talks and discussions during the festival, had high expectations for the programme, because it showcased a diversity around disability arts that is unusual for a mainstream arts venue. He told me:
“One of my hopes was to see some people who are not the usual suspects – there are the well-known companies like Candoco or Graeae, who are used to present work on a larger scale, but I was excited to see what else was going to come through. I was also excited by the whole spectrum of the work – that it was not art form specific, and there was work by people with such different artistic backgrounds and pathways, and different positions on disability.
“There were people who have lived with a disability their whole lives, there were acquired disabilities, there were artists who foregrounded disability politics in their work, there were others who did not foreground that in their work, and there were people who had never presented their work under a disability arts label before – So I was really interested in what that might yield, and how the works might respond to each other.”
That spectrum of work, however, also meant that there was an extraordinary amount of planning and learning to do for everyone involved. The artists were asked to produce work on a big scale and to push their boundaries, and so was the Southbank Centre London.
Wendy Martin, head of performance and dance at the Southbank Centre, admits that making the Unlimited festival happen required a big effort, but that it was absolutely worth it because so much was learnt in the process. She said:
“I think everybody at Southbank Centre, from the Chief Executive Officer to the front of house staff, were deeply committed to making the festival work, and we did an extraordinary amount of work in the lead-up to the festival, so that people had a very special experience, and I think that paid off.
“We had a lot of training sessions, and I thought the feedback we got from audiences and the artists really showed that that paid off. We learnt an enormous deal while putting the festival together. It changed the physical nature of entering some of our venues, we created a website unique to Unlimited so that it was as accessible as possible, we tried to make the venues as accessible as possible. And we will never put on an event now without making those considerations; it has become a part of our thinking.
“We are in the process of organising a renovation for the Purcell Room and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and everything that we learnt during Unlimited will go into the renovation of those two venues. By the time they reopen, the Southbank Centre will hopefully be fully and utterly accessible to everyone. But I think the deep resonance with Southbank Centre lies in the work that we saw here, the quality of discussion and debate.“
Tony Heaton doubts whether Unlimited gave a better profile to disability arts, because the difference between disability arts and art by disabled people got lost in the programme. He explained further:
“The projects were the ideas of disabled people, but not all projects could be defined as disability art. I don’t think people get that distinction – disability arts is art by disabled people that specifically says something about the experience of being disabled, in the social sense.”
However, he still regards Unlimited as a huge success and told me:
“We managed to pull good, creative work by disabled people in front of a huge audience. That’s what we need – our work does not usually get that publicity, nor does it get that kind of investment in it.”
For Jo Verrent, branding the art as ‘disability arts’ was a strong, important message that all the commissions carried. However, this was also seen as a bit of a gamble. She clarified this for me:
“I think there was a real risk around the Southbank Festival – do we bring the work together? Having said we don’t want a ghetto, what do we risk and gain by putting it all together? We gain that critical mass, we gain that public exposure, but we also risk alienating artists who are disabled artists but do not want to fit within that ‘disability arts’ box, who have made a very clear statement that this is not where they place their work, and putting them back in it, that is a real risk too.”
Other concerns around Unlimited persist, as Luke Pell admits:
“I was worried about expectation and the vulnerability of the artists. The other think I kept thinking about was what would happen after. There is this level of focus and attention, and then, what next? I think for some of the artists there are enough people who saw the work, and there will be opportunities.
“Most of the artists I have spoken to need to recover, and that’s fine, but the question remains: What next? And also, thinking about generations: If you are an artist, or a younger person, who saw that work, and you think ‘ah, great, I want to do that, where do I go?’ where are we addressing that?”
Tony Heaton stresses, for the same reasons, the importance of support for artists, whether they had Unlimited commissions or not. He told me:
“we continue working with the artists – we got this huge exhibition at Gracechurch Street right now – we got five floors showing works by roughly 30 artists, and a number of them had Unlimited commissions – but lots of them did not, and it is very important now to give a profile to that work, too.”
The commissions showed that the potential of disability arts is indeed without limits, but Jo Verrent stresses the fact that Unlimited could not have happened without all the support it received, support that is hard to get at the moment. Talking about the legacy of Unlimited, she says:
“I think it depends on what happens next. It depends on what the Arts Council does next, it depends on what Southbank Centre does next, it depends on what happens in relations to the cuts that we have – the next three or four years will be tough, and it’s a difficult situation that we are in.
“One of the things Unlimited did have that we didn’t have before was actually quite a lot of money. Personally, I think it would be a mistake to have Unlimited at the Southbank every year, but I do think we learnt something about the power of critical mass.
“I hope Southbank takes – as it said it would do – some of the work and puts it within its mainstream festivals. I hope that in a couple of years, we would have enough new work to bring it back together again. I think the bigger changes will be more subtle – they will be with a number of venues, promoters and producers who’ve worked with disabled artists and through that work had their opinions changed. The impact they can have, in terms of legacy work, is more profound, because it has got a longer life to it.
“All the international delegates will have seen work to inspire them to bring that forward, and I already know of shifts and changes in Spain, Hong Kong, South Africa, Palestine, Dubai. Things have happened because of it. So definitely, there’s a wave. Not everything is going to work everywhere. The impact there might be the creation of work that is locally specific – we cannot expect our view of the world to immediately resonate around the world.”
Carol McFadden, whose work for the British Council focused on International Unlimited commissions, is optimistic about the international impact of Unlimited and told me:
“The Unlimited Festival provided the British Council with an excellent opportunity to identify new partners to invite to London and build new relationships with. While some of these partners may already be engaged with the disability agenda in their own countries, staff were encouraged to consider partners from mainstream venues and festivals who were interested in programming high quality work and building new audiences as well as a professional development opportunity for staff to see the work ‘live’ and network with artists and key figures in the UK disability sector.
“Since the Unlimited Festival came to a close, several strong proposals are in the planning stage for 2013/14 and 2014/15. These include seasons or work in Qatar 2013, Europe, South Africa, Brazil and Australia as well as opportunities for speakers and advocates for the UK disability sector to participate on panels and debates to promote and stimulate discussion on disability issues in an international context.”
While Tony Heaton is slightly sceptical whether Unlimited has had an influence on cultural life in the UK, he too has higher hopes for its international impact. He said:
“I think it will have a big impact on the next Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, because the delegates came and saw what happened here, and took careful notice of it. We put some legacy documents together, we’ve written an evaluation for the British Council, and we are also in conversation with people in Rio, so hopefully Shape’s expertise can be useful for Rio 2016.”
In Luke Pell’s opinion, the international impact of Unlimited might be more subtle and happen more slowly. He told me:
“It would be naïve to think that we can directly extrapolate what was done here and implant it somewhere else. It shows a possibility of what can happen when things start to shift, but they have to shift in relationship to where people are at now in other countries, and that takes time.”
But he also stresses the importance of the link between Unlimited and the Paralympics, and how Unlimited, paired with the Paralympics, showed a very broad spectrum of disabled identity and of the work of disabled people. He added:
“I think politically, it is great that Unlimited happened at the same time as the Paralympics, partly because what we saw at Unlimited was very different to the values that are celebrated in the Paralympics. What it did prove is that we can deliver in this country on both; the UK is still one of leading countries in terms of this work and this way of thinking around disability. Unlimited has underlined the work that has been done in the part 40 years, and I think everyone involved realised that we are only here because of what has been done before.
“It also aligned well with the fact that the arts council launched a creative case for diversity last year – I think you could see a creative case for diversity across the Unlimited programme. Strategically, those artists are well networked now and have partners and supporters across the UK.”
The hope that Unlimited facilitated contacts between artists, venues and producers is shared by Carol McFadden, and in addition to that she hopes that it has brought on a change of attitude. She told me:
“Audiences are more open and receptive to seeing high quality work by Deaf and disabled artists. I hope that venue programmers, especially those from mainstream venues and festivals, will programme work for its high quality creative ideas and content and not label it as work by Deaf and disabled artists.”
Wendy Martin, who was in charge of the programme for the Unlimited festival at the Southbank Centre, assures that Unlimited has already brought on changes for the Southbank Centre in terms of programming. She said:
“My eyes were really opened to the whole range of artists, and I got to know them very well and very intimately, so of course I am going to follow their careers and look out for other artists I have been made aware of because of the international delegates – this Christmas, we got the Rhinestone Rollers performing in the Clore Ballroom, so we are very consciously looking for strong work by Deaf and disabled artists – it is in our DNA now, it’s part of what we do – We have done it before, but this has really fired us up to make sure that there is a strong legacy – that those weren’t just 11 fantastic days in 2012.”
A strong legacy was a huge concern for Jo Verrent from the beginning of the planning for Unlimited, and the reason she came up with the idea for the Push Me films. Jo told me:
“When I was on the panel, making the selection of the astounding work that was going to happen, I had a concern that we could have all this amazing work happen, and then it would go away – what would the legacy be? How could it be captured? Push Me, I suppose, was my response to that, trying to find a way to maximize the legacy of some of this work.
“I wanted to be involved in something that would take the work to people who wouldn’t normally go and see it, that would take it out of ‘simply’ a disability frame, maybe enable it to reach other arts audiences. So when The Space came along, it seemed like a really good space to put in a bid, to see whether we could make that happen.”
This involved a bit of a risk, since she had to approach an arts organisation to work alongside her, someone she had never worked with before. She added:
“We approached Watershed and after some conversations, they said that it was a great opportunity for them, and it was for us as well, because we did what we meant Push Me to do, namely to make contacts within a wider field. So we were kind of doing what we wanted the project to do, and we had to do that first in order to make the project happening.
“Videos are archived; you can go back and find them, particularly work that’s made for the internet. The idea was also to create something that people could refer to as benchmark that would make them say: ‘Oh look where we got to in 2012!’”
All five of the movers and shakers agree that Unlimited was a massive success, which has met or succeeded their expectations. The most surprising outcome seems to be the sense of community that arose during the festival at the Southbank.
Tony Heaton calls it “a massive team effort”, and Wendy Martin assures that that sense of generosity and community between everyone involved, whether it was behind the scenes, in the audience or on a stage, was something she did not expect, and found all the more touching. She told me:
“I think it is generally agreed amongst the Southbank Centre, that out of the huge amount of events we had during the summer, the most successful was Unlimited, and that is largely so because of the sense of community there was between the artists and the audience. People seemed to becoming back, and artists seemed to be going to each other’s shows.
“There was an enormous spirit of generosity around the events, and if we could achieve that across all our festivals in the future, we would be very happy indeed. As a programmer, I was here all day every day, and I was talking to the audiences, and I was talking to the artists. And what touched me the most was the feedback from the artists – I think nobody quite expected the incredible atmosphere and the sense of community.
“We couldn’t have asked for more. The thing that I realized is the importance of the funding support for artists, whether disabled or not. What Unlimited showed was that if artists who are talented are properly supported, they are able to fly.”