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> > > Trish Wheatley on Critiquing Learning Disability Performance

On Monday 23rd March 2015 Mind the Gap hosted a conference about international learning disability performance. Trish Wheatley was asked to speak on the panel about critiquing learning disability performance – the ‘Quality’ debate. The extended version is published here.

I was thinking about an instance a few years back in which Firebird Theatre Company performed at Salisbury Arts Centre  as part of the arts centre’s main theatre programme. The production wasn’t overtly advertised as a show with learning disabled actors. As a result the Arts Centre received a complaint from someone who claimed she should have been warned that the performance featured learning disabled actors. There were no other complaints about the cast or quality of the performance.

Whilst we could argue the positives and negatives of that marketing all day, I think it’s interesting and useful to observe that there are people in the world, who do attend theatre, who do think in this way. We have to ask the question, do we want them to be our audience, and more broadly, who are we making the work for? 

In his book Strength (2006) Paddy Masefield described disability arts as ‘Art by disabled for disabled people that speaks the truth about the disability experience’. I think many practitioners no longer subscribe to this definition because of the limitations it brings to the consideration of audience. This leads me to ask again, who are we making the work for?

Surely we want the world to see our work? We don't want to be limiting it to a small community of people, even though yes it will pretty much always remain relevant to that community of disabled people. In that case, it seems to me that quality or value must be pitched against mainstream work if we are essentially aiming to attract a mainstream audience. 

Outside of my work for disability arts online I am working with Sue Austin on a Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project called 360 Degrees – A New Angle on Access, which explores 360° recording and display technology. 

As part of attending related learning events, we've had the pleasure of finding out about some of the other funded projects. When thinking about this event I was reminded of Culture Counts, a project led by Cornerhouse, in partnership with the University of Manchester and the Intelligence Agency. They have been working on a project that explores big data and what it means for assessing quality of work. In partnership with the cultural sector they have come up with a set of standard questions to help assess and understand the quality of art.

They are:
Rigour  -  ‘It was well thought through and put together’
Distinctiveness  -  ‘It was different from things I’ve experienced before’
Captivation  -  ‘It was absorbing and held my attention’ 
Relevance  -  ‘It has something to say about the world in which we live’ 
Meaning  -  ‘It meant something to me personally’
Challenge  -  ‘It was thought provoking’ 
Enthusiasm  -  ‘I would come to something like this again’
Presentation  -  ‘It was well produced and presented’ 
Local Impact  -  ‘It is important that it’s happening here’ 

Culture Counts has identified the importance of looking at quality from a number of different perspectives: 


1. The artists making the work and the cultural organisations programming it
2. Peers and Critics 
The Audience 


It's the triangulation and comparison of those different perspectives where you start to get really interesting understanding of quality.

At Dao we have an approach involving all of those groups. 

1.    By providing the opportunity for artists to write blogs about their ongoing work and development process a critical self-reflection occurs that enables the artists to develop their work as it is being made. Critical friends and colleagues are also invited to feedback to help the artists think about their work in different ways and make improvements
2.    In the lead up to new performances we commission profiles and interview pieces to help give further insight into how the work was made and why these artists are making it.
3.    We then commission reviews of the performances from informed writers, people who know about the context in which it has been made.
4.    Finally, we also provide opportunities for audience feedback through our comments forums and social media

Through all these elements we can begin to build a picture of the development of quality and how it is received by those different groups. 

We already feature quite a lot of work by learning disabled artists on Dao. We have a long-term partnership delivering creative writing workshops with Grace Eyre Foundation. We also have mainstream critics, like Bella Todd, already involved in the quality debate. She attended the first Creative Minds conference in Brighton back in 2014 and started to ask some interesting questions, which you can read here

At Differently Abled: Driving Change in Plymouth last week there were lots of really articulate contributions to this debate

These are just a few:

  • People with learning disabilities need to be challenged and pushed to work hard
  • Regular activity and therefore regular funding is really important
  • Access and support needs must be met in order to succeed
  • Quality is inherent in shows that you really like, quality stays with you, something you always remember
  • Quality is always subjective
  • People don’t give honest feedback, or when they do you have to be prepared to take it if it’s negative and don’t take it too personally
  • Make sure you are showing your work in the right context for example if you play in a Heavy Metal band, play at the right venue for that music!

At Dao we recognise that we can do better to make what we do accessible for learning disabled artists and audiences. The online journal currently has a heavy leaning towards text-based content. We are working to change that. We are currently fundraising for new work that will involve a great deal more video content, collected together in one place on the website so that you can find out about artistic process and product, discovered by theme.

Assuming we are successful with funding the project, which we are calling ‘Viewfinder’, this will come on stream by the end of the year and there will be opportunities specifically for learning disabled artists to be involved and commissioned.  

Traditional art criticism is changing, the internet and social media has democratised this. The opportunity provided by creation of online videos could open up audiences for learning disabled artists. Let’s use this to our advantage. Videos can do so much more to engage an audience, offering a kind of try before you buy approach: People can see what the work is like and why artists are making it. Then, as informed potential audience members, they can vote with their feet by turning up to see it live.

We are fully aware that people come to Dao with preconceptions, by that I mean it’s very name – Disability Arts Online – takes a certain stance. You know there is going to be content relating to disability on there. For a non-disabled disabled audience who know little about the sector and have no interest in disability this is potentially a turn off. We hope that the Viewfinder project, with a more canny and subtle marketing approach, will offer an entrance point for opening up the discourse with a wider range of people. 

I like the idea of considering ‘value’ instead of ‘quality’. Thinking about value is a democratising approach to understanding and appreciating art that makes way for more diverse opinions than those offered by the ‘informed elite’ establishment. It makes way for the unconventional, that which we do not yet understand as quality, but may well be highly regarded in the future. I think of the many visual art references in which this has been the case, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ probably being the most famous, rocking the core of the visual arts with the concept of the readymade. 

Dao offers a platform in which everyone can have a voice about how they value the artwork they make and experience. We’ve still got a long way to go to attract mainstream audiences who might one day become regular and loyal.  Initiatives like Unlimited and festivals such as DaDaFest are really raising the expectations, profile of artists and likelihood of mainstream programming. It’d be great to see more learning disabled artists coming through those avenues too. Disability Arts is pushing the boundaries, and as disabled artists we need to continue to push to improve our work in conversation with all concerned, whether it be programmers, peers, critics, and of course, our audience. 


Jackie utley

1 April 2015

Recently I took two Australian cousins to a Mind the Gap production performed by actors with learning cousins confessed before attending that they were worried about how they would feel and react. After a wonderful interactive experience at MTG they both admitted that the entertainment was on a level they never expected...we all greed the exposure to the energy and creativity of MTG left us with a feel good value and opened their minds to alternative forms of entertainment.. Excellent ...I would not hesitate taking other friends and relatives.