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> > > In Conversation: Discussion event on Arts, Disability and Collaborative Practice at FACT Liverpool

Building on a fifteen-year history in creative collaborations, In Conversation: Discussion event on Arts, Disability and Collaborative Practice on 1 April 2016, kick-started FACT Liverpool’s new spring programme which aims to explore disability, art and communities through a series of pop-up exhibitions. Review by Jade French.

Simon Mckeown's Cork Ignite, featuring a huge project on the facade of a grand building in Cork. It depicts two silhouetted figures sitting in chairs.

Cork Ignite. Image courtesy of Simon Mckeown.

In tandem with this discussion event is the first exhibition in the series by artist and technology expert Simon McKeown. Ever seen a building transform into a piano? Or crumble before your eyes? Yeah, me neither until I experienced Cork Ignite. Last year McKeown created a large-scale live event using six of Europe's largest outdoor projectors to create a huge artwork on a building in Cork’s city centre.  

This work came about through a series of collaborative workshops with people of different ages and with different needs, with the aim of exploring the perception and production of art which considers disability. These collaborations have now been curated into a display in FACT’s foyer titled Trace Elements, presenting a point of departure for the discussion event.

As well as McKeown’s presentation about Trace Elements, Daniel Brown – one half of collaborative father-and-son duo Brown and Sons – spoke about his ‘generative’ art exhibition due to open at FACT on 8 April.  With warm humour Daniel talks us through his life and how his artwork came about: from his birth in Liverpool to a successful career in the digital arts, to then acquiring a spinal injury resulting in his disability.

“There’s lots of disability experts in the room here today” Brown comments, “But that’s certainly not me”. What I took from this statement is that disability is not the prominent subject or motivation behind his arts practice. Although disability may not be key driver of his work, it has shaped the ingenious technologies he uses in order to create it.  

It is this nuance that seems is still up for debate. Is disability art solely art made by disabled people in order to challenge normative ideals? Or is it something broader and trickier to define? And importantly, who gets to define it?

Daniel Brown's Darwin a digital artwork depicting a very detailed flower.

Daniel Brown, Darwin: Still Frame, commission for the D'Arcy Thompson Zoological Museum, University of Dundee, 2013-14

Following this was Becky Waite, the facilitator of Bluecoat’s learning disability arts studio, the Blue Room.  The Blue Room is emerging as a successful model in how learning-disabled people access art and culture. Instead of day-service provision, people use their direct payments in order to attend weekly Blue Room sessions based amongst Bluecoat’s artist studios. It struck me that being located in an art gallery, as opposed to a day service, provides this group with not only more opportunities for collaboration with creatives within Bluecoat, but perhaps a better quality of collaboration.

However, Waite points out though fantastic opportunities are on offer through the wider gallery programme for the members, in reality without the support from families and carers, there is little to no engagement.  Richard Hayhow, the Director of Open Theatre Company, recently wrote about how some organisations are “investing in creative enablers”.  These are professional support workers who not only meet a learning-disabled artist’s practical needs, but also their creative ones.

The final panel discussion included DaDaFest’s Artistic Director Ruth Gould, Pádraig Naughton, the Director of Disability and Arts Ireland and Eoin Nash, Head of the arts programme for COPE Foundation. Over the past couple of years, DaDaFest have been making strides in collaborating with disabled artists and disability-led organisations internationally. From photographic exhibitions to international conferences, Gould reminds us of the importance of collaborating outside our locality. However, despite all the benefits this brings there are also challenges.

Gould opened up an honest discussion about the reality of international collaborations. They flag up the spectrum of language and attitudes still used to describe disabled people in other countries, which in the UK would be illegal, let alone offensive. Yet she suggests for international collaborations to flourish “we mustn’t be too precious”. By collaborating internationally, disabled people are actually a very large minority across the world, and as Gould reminds us, “if we haven’t already, we’ll all experience disability at some point”.

Whilst the event was engaging, I felt it could have benefitted from more discussions (perhaps breaking out into smaller groups?), than traditional presentations. The organisers perhaps missed an exciting opportunity to put some of the collaborative working practices endorsed into action.

That said, the event was closed with a beautiful performance by participants from Cork Ignite, who danced to a violin solo. During the piece the performers broke away from the stage and handed out imaginary objects to people amongst the audience, who proceeded to pass them along to each other.  Now this is collaboration in action.

Brown & Son's Scouse Roots: art that makes itself is on at FACT Liverpool until 1 May, see here for full listings information.