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> > > Disability Arts, a monster, a myth

Penny Pepper gives a potted history, swears a lot and asks some vital questions about where the disability arts movement is going

Recently I did a talk for a group of older disabled people. It was a pleasant job but the remit of expounding on 'my life and work' always throws me into a state that says, you’re a boring fuck, what can you talk about? Nevertheless my burble seemed to please the gathering and at one point I was asked the priceless battered old question: why is there disability arts when we’re working to be integrated?

Cover of Penny Pepper's book of short stories Desires

Cover of Penny Pepper's book of short stories Desires

Oh God help, I mouthed, not sure to which deity. I didn’t bang my head on the table until blood poured from gaping wounds. Maybe my left eye twitched as I resisted the urge to scream and use bad, bad words like you stupid bastard, don’t utter the word 'integrated' in my presence. Anyhow, I might look like a pussy cat posing as an eternal diplomat in girlied up clothing, but sometimes the fence I try and sit on slips a sharp splinter up my ass and I have to heave myself off.

On this occasion I had to be polite. I don’t have to be as civil now. What I really wanted to rage was well you show me pal, where are the disabled people integrated into any sector of the arts? With a mainstream profile? In the sense of, whether for good or bad, what they say is listened to and perhaps changes people in the subtle way that good art can. Saying their piece as Disabled People.

I wanted to show this person Katherine Araniello’s new work Sick, a brutal and hilariously twisted outrage of darkest sarcasm on the theme of how our lives are judged as worthless. I wanted to make them all watch it. Fuck, I want the world to feel it fisted right up its tight unwelcoming arse as the soundtrack pounds from dandy dance rhythms into uncomfortably telling noise. Katherine doesn’t give a toss about the mainstream or an audience or anything other than the urgency and pleasure she derives from creating art. A purity of intention I admire and also hate her for. But it is art that should be on at the Tate Modern, embarrassing the tired old farts out of their smug, dull complacency.

Black and white still from Araniello's film Sick

Black and white still from Araniello's film Sick

I’ve been around this block so many times, my wheels grow weary from the journey. Yes, the disability arts track. Now careening through my 40s which is scary enough, but hey chaps, I sat in the back row of the D. Art gatherings in the early 80s and even though I was a brittle little creature then (self-harming and heavy doses of tranx notwithstanding) I was pleased to be there. Excited even. There was something punk about it. It had a hint of danger. We were doing this thing without permission, it was beyond user-lead, it was DIY, it had an urge all of its own. These days this chimera called disability art has no danger as it bangs its multiplying, back biting heads against the glass ceiling of the mainstream. More blood, more frustration.

My own glass ceiling has a few minor chips in it. But do I want to sell out to the mainstream, I hear some people sigh? Do I want a big fat success in the form of my crip novel selling like a Harry Potter for grown- ups? Oh fuck yes. I would like to go into a bookshop and see rows of books with my name on. I’d like to settle in a sleek giant cinema, as they show my movie, my script. I want my Big Plays on at the National, a huge production like Coram Boy, and my Small Plays on at Soho. I want to earn money from what I do well. Lots of it. I want to be annoyed that I am in the tabloids, hassled by the paparazzi. I want success and respect. Does this make me bad, a traitor, as I go through hoops to play the game, the selling myself, and perhaps my ideals down the swanny?

Let me tell you about the nearest I have come to this vagary termed ‘mainstream success’. When Desires was published in via the Innovate award in 2003, one thing money did buy me was literary publicist Tony Cowell. Brother of Simon. Yes THAT Simon. He fixed me up with interviews and then some more interviews. Desires almost made it onto Richard and Judy, and even to Oprah’s book club. Imagine that. 'Girls Wank Too' (story number one) poured over by our cosy couple. I did get an hour special with Boy George on LBC radio and did my bit on many others across the nation’s airwaves. Tony called me Tiger and said I had a lot of charisma; I let him flatter me (he cost a lot) and went on the crazy PR whizz bang ride for awhile. The fact that no one quite knew what to make of Desires was not down to its artistic merit or otherwise - I don’t think anyone out there in Normal Land quite noticed it was a piece of literary fiction. A salient factor with all creativity; how is work judged and criticised – if given a fair and equal chance? But who is really equipped to judge the subject-matter other than other crips?

The reality was no one really knew where to slot it (no smutty jokes please). What was this thing written by er, a disabled woman, wearing her labels loud and proud? It has a lot of sex in it and some very strong language. Many Normals were outside of their comfort zone; many worried that such a work would attract perverts. It did not make the pages of the press for being a collection of fiction. It was invariably shunted into 'health.' Ho hum.

But - FOR FUCKS SAKE. This is what we should all be fighting. By tooth, nail, hand, wheel and crutch. And STOP all this implicit or explicit antagonism against disabled people (from disabled people), who might just Get Somewhere. I’ve seen it more than once. We can all scratch our nuts or nipples and anything else to hand if we can reach, and ruminate like the old gits we hope some of us may become, while thinking of the good old days. We were scratching around in other ways then too – at the bottom of a pile that was underneath another pile that didn’t even get as far as art therapy in being acknowledged as of valuable creative worth. I faltered creatively forward in cripply fashion, under the names of Kata Kolbert (singer-song writer), and Penny Boot (Writer). I wrote for DAIL. I performed for The Workhouse. Usually in a squatty venue in Hackney where the accessible loo was always flooded. Memories that make me cringe and laugh, in that lovely warm way. Some of us are still around from those days, some of us are not. This world does not exist anymore, but there is nothing that has replaced it. And what the fuck is art, let alone disability art?

At the Tate Debate, I zoned in and out. Who said what? Did they? Really? The venue was posh but it felt like the same old chewing and mooing to me. And then what, we go off and start picking at each other and bickering about arts council grants to artists and who’s to blame for the rotting corpse of the disability arts ‘movement’. Which these days is a dribbly bowel movement than a thing with any focus and energy.

And to continue my bowel theme, the reality is people 'out there' don’t give any kind of shit about disabled artists and disability arts and the whole damn monster it’s become. We don’t, not really, so why should the great amorphous Them? I’ve done a slew of dry, so dry, equality training sessions for several months, very much outside of the creative (and crip) sector. Now I’m a seriously overdosed cynic. People, comrades, the gulf is huge. A cavern of misunderstanding and indifference. They might care when impairment bites their butt or that of a loved one. And then the media grotesqueries pop up afresh, still, like leering, jeering jack in the boxes to confound them; the tragedy model (Chris Reeve), the bravery model (Tanni Gray). That’s who we are to these people. I bet Melvyn didn’t think much further than this, (despite his 'depression' label) before Tate Debate. We’re brave and tragic and we like to think we can be creative from our unique perspectives. Ah how sweet. This is how they see us. Pat us on the head and give the disab dogs a bone. We might go away and let the 'real' people do real art.

Around two months ago, I did some work for Shape in a Leonard Cheshire Day Centre. Oh yes, I ventured into the devil’s camp. You can hiss and sneer. But let me put this to you. As I did my bit to stir the imagination of my lovely participants, (yes DISABLED PEOPLE) as they began to write for the very first time in their lives, did I wonder if what they produced was disability art? Or art? Did they care? It was one of the most enjoyable things I have done in awhile. I sowed a few seeds. Of dissent. Or art - well maybe.

We have to do this together. We can debate and argue and disagree, which is always jolly good fun and as it should be. But let’s remember the size and stubbornness of the actual monster we're up against and keep that as our focus for attack – not each others' raggedy arses.

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