Audio version of this article - press play directly below left
end ov the nineties we were working across the north-east in community arts. we didnt wear a tie, were poorly paid but we made things happen. self-taught, coming from disability, bisexuality, homelessness & more, our creativity wznt valued tho we were allowed to help others in gaining voice. power-plays from within as much as without made it clear we were to offer ourselves as 'community ally' & not discuss our disabilities for e.g. this would allow status quos to continue & individuals rather than collectives to keep hold ov narrow territories.
were hit by a car chased by the police & without help / support ('services', arts, legal etc) couldnt continue working. life happens. gatekeepers in services then work hard to keep yu out, retraumatising. arts largely copy the same power-structure as 'services' (an average artistic director is close to psychiatrist or ward-manager, think about it), try asking them for a voice they then re-retraumatise. lanyard-spreaders ov these worlds unite. restart in west yorkshire having to also contend with librarians (?is a shudder ov librarians their collective noun). held at gunpoint outside our towerblock, without help / support we become homeless (again), sectioned (again), end in a homeless hostel a long way away trying to return to be housed in the north-east & also be heard creatively.
we were fortunate to meet cardboard citizens (homeless / ex-homeless theatre) & Augusto Boal & learn about 'spect-actors' & 'cop-in-the-head', how our brain boils down the essence ov theatre ov the oppressed - a technique ov reframing narratives, regaining voice, rewriting futures. we made it back to the north-east, just where Vici-Wreford-Sinnot did her best supporting us & others collectively help make change via arcadea, & much more recently at Arc Stockton. in recent times others have also helped - including Greyscale Theatre, sound&music, the NewBridge Project, Alma Zevi Venice, Graeae, Third Angel, Slung Low, Museum of Homelessness, Futures Venture radical independent arts fund. Vici wrote the successful application for provoked to tour safely, the first time solo work ov ours has received arts council funding. (2 theatre companys included our writing in their ace-funded work). despite being in the clinically extremely vulnerable category we managed to safely & ethically tour & contribute to local foodbanks, homeless, refugee, trans / queer & other projects along the way. we've also created a body ov work on the shared DNA ov homelessness & disability called 'housing contains the word sing' with & for Museum ov Homelessness & Disability Arts Online (were associate artists with both). provoked ... show was made possible by Third Angel, Slung Low, Museum of Homelessness, & our brilliant access support worker Lindsay. CPT seed commission & Arc Stockton residency also supported the work while the 'set' & e.p. ov sound-art was exhibited thanks to Dolly Sens Art ov Protest in Bedlam; zines & original artworks have also been distributed; & our bilingual (BSL & spoken-english) film cant start revolutions sitting on yr arse has now been viewed over a thousand times.
it took 20year to be supported to safely / ethically tour 'provoked 2 madness by the brutality ov wealth' about some ov those homeless experiences while collectivising & placing it in a historical context & offering 'spect-actors' (active audiences) ways to reframe narratives, regain voice, rewrite futures. cardboard citz said the shows title wz the best ever. its a phrase from Engels conditions ov the working class we read in a homeless hostel after a 'support worker' said 'what dya need books for yr homeless?' Engels was writing about the Seaham miners during the 1840's co Durham miners strike. our show provoked is about revenge. revenge by 13year ov reading, graduating from the open university, 2016. its also about our current council flat subsiding on the Heaton colliery mining disaster ov 1815 where 75 men & boys died underground because the local mine owner cut corners. its also about artist Hieronymous Bosch who painted those visions & torments having watched his home town burn as a child & whose art gave us meaning as a teen when thatcher was provoking us to madness. Bosch's hometown is where most red tape was manufactured binding legal documents to say oi, this matters. red tape saves lives. this show reframes narratives, tells good news stories, invites more 'oppositional defiance disorder' (its in that psychiatric bible, the diagnostic & sadistic manual). housings not difficult, its a human right.
'a moving, powerful, eloquent show.' Slung Low Leeds
'what a beautiful energy yu brought.' Colchester arts centre
'majestic.' MGC Futures
'insightful & imaginative ... lots ov food for thought as always.' Mandala Theatre
'beautiful & important & yr words about small islands will stay with me.' Unfolding Theatre
‘’dizzying & hypnotic, cutting edge social commentary, part creative resistance & part performance. ... spellbinding’’ Museum ov Homelessness
https://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/gobscure-reframes-personal-stories-to-create-a-bigger-picture-in-their-latest-show/ DAO review
were so proud ov provoked & those who support us, angry that systems have kept us out until our life is this limited.
there will be a launch ov 4 miniature films from the world ov provoked shot by brettinthecity at slung low leeds, supported by third angel, spring 2022.
what next? again supported by Third Angel & MGC futures, were working on heart-felt - a new solo show about hearts & heartlessness. alongside our two heart-attacks as 'side-effects' ov enforced antipsychotic medication, expect politicians (not much heart), doctor who (two hearts), octopi (three hearts, they produce their own ink, & yu cant burn their libraries - theres evolution!) & edible loveheart poetry. love&rage
As a photographer and filmmaker recording events meant that I was a witness to and, for a time, in the Disability Arts Movement at what felt like a more cohesive time than we have today. As someone fairly new to disability arts in the 2000s I felt like disabled artists began to be taken seriously on mainstream stages.
Years of fight had gone into this of course, it didn’t just happen. It was work and perseverance of people like Geof Armstrong, Tom Shakespeare, Paula Greenwell and Lindsay Carter, among many other artists and activists, which would continue to be carried forward even to today. It wasn’t that there was a sudden understanding in the mainstream arts sector I don’t think, as that battle still continues. The early pioneers created both space and a visibility that could no longer be ignored. Important voices were being heard. Making themselves heard.
I worked at Arcadea but also I had begun documenting the work of disabled artists both here and in my home country of Ireland so that the work would not be forgotten. There are archives about Disability Arts – the brilliant Allan Sutherland’s Chronology of Disability and the NDACA Archive – providing excellent records of the national picture. Having the materials specific to the North East, which I believe has it’s own history, role and voice in the movement, it felt important to find a way to share that. We are indebted to the artists on whose shoulders we build and make progress.
The 200os have been described as a ‘golden age’ in Disability Arts – the cohesion, the body of work produced, the raised platforms and a sense national connection through the regional disability arts agencies, and a pocket of funding over a number of years ensuring that disabled artists were supported.
A couple of stand out memories for me are The Mimosa Festival which brought together a huge array of disabled artists from all over the country, and showcased disabled artists based in the North East. It lasted for a month across September in 2006. It felt busy, productive, relevant and it felt like something really important was happening. It felt like we made inroads into venues, which might previously not have programmed disabled artists. There was a very eclectic programme across a wide variety of artforms including film, dance, comedy, photography, conceptual art, live art, painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, and music. There were a mix of scales of work shared – from the Divine Disabled Divas and theatre at the Sage, to more intimate interventions like the transformation of the early Star and Shadow space, where we made it our own in a way no-one had before or has since. It was unique. As Lindsay Carter said at the time – ‘the space has the spirit of the people who fill it’, which can be taken literally in the case of the Star and Shadow, but also of the Golden Age of Disability Arts. It was filled with action, art and hope.
An exciting part of my work was 21: The Last Avant Garde which celebrated the 21st anniversary of self-organised disability arts in the North East by presenting 21 portraits of disabled artists who had worked in the North East. There was a photographic portrait each of 21 artists, who also supplied a written statement and an object of significance described by them and shared on a small shelf next to their portrait. I felt proud to be able to capture this group of artists and an opportunity to promote their work, so there was a ripple effect from the exhibition. It marked their contribution to the arts. No-one from outside our community was doing that – gathering the work or capturing the contribution. It also felt like a moment of solidarity and showed that publicly. It needs to be seen – that we feel like a community and that we feel excluded and judged differently to other artists. The exhibition was held at Waygood Gallery and also did a mini-tour to different locations and was used in schools to share information about disability generally and also the work disabled people do. This could have been on a much bigger scale and had a much bigger impact. The launch event stays in my mind because of how much of a celebration it felt – we had food, live music, all the disabled artists were there, friends, family, and people from the arts. The artists felt celebrated.
It was a time that disabled artists felt connected and included, despite the struggle for equality. Since that time the face of disability arts has changed in many ways. In the North East, having spoken to many disabled artists over the last 18 months, people have felt disconnected and fragmented for almost a decade, but there is a feeling of a resurgence of the necessity of disability awareness, of disabled peoples’ place in the cultural landscape. There is amazing talent out there and disabled people are finding each other through different groups like Little Cog and Disconsortia, creating connections and new platforms. With a commitment from organisations like ARC Stockton to include disability art in their programme there is a definite ripple effect as we see more organisations realising that they need to do something. They probably need to upskill and gain knowledge and learning from disabled people but the arts landscape definitely has the potential to be more inclusive of the work of disabled people.
This piece is written almost entirely from memory, so any factual errors relating to the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network campaigns and procedures are mine. I was unable to find any coverage of this demo at all, so have tried not to include details of any individuals who were present as I can’t verify the facts. The piece contains strong language and the song No Place Like Home is a powerful depicting of conditions from the imagined perspective of one of the people who died as a result of the shameful practices and lack of care provided at Cawston Park Hospital, which some people may find upsetting.
Newcastle City Centre, Gray’s Monument, 2001
‘Our homes, not nursing homes! Our homes, not nursing homes…’
Over and over, the words shouted by the voices of angry people split the air, some in wheelchairs, some with guide dogs, some signing the words, some wearing black T-shirts with ‘Piss on Pity’ flashing across their bodies in shrieking pink. Occasionally a lone voice would holler ‘Free our People! And the chant would change.
‘Free our People! Free our People!’
It was thrilling to see the gathering of disabled people at Gray’s Monument in Newcastle, many clutching white crosses which were being handed out by Direct Action Network (DAN) officials and whose number represented the number of people living in nursing and care homes in Newcastle and Gateshead. A shaven-headed beauty with a Mohican and a studded dog collar told us to hold on to the cross as we would be planting them in the ground later to acknowledge and pay respect to those disabled people who were living in these homes without their consent or agreement.
With my former partner Neill, who was my accompanist, and poet,actor and performer Lisa Dennis, we stood in front of the imposing tower of the Monument and began to play,
‘I woke up this morning with a bad pain in my head
In came a care assistant, to drag me out of bed
They tell me it’s for my own good,
that I must go for training
I’ve been training twenty-seven years,
besides, it’s fucking raining”
The Fugertivs No-hope ATC (Joyful Noise)
Continuing with ‘The Bus Driver’, then Melissa, I remember feeling elated and choked when the crowd joined in when we chanted,
‘We want rights, not charity, we want rights, we want rights, not charity! Rights, rights rights not charity, cos charity keeps me where you think I should be!’
The Fugertivs Rights Not Charity
We finished to an enormous round of cheering, and, still holding our crosses, were invited to the head of the line behind an enormous DAN banner bearing the Free Our People campaign colours. Neill began playing as we walked, and the crowd, led by Lisa, who wrote the song, began,
Let’s riot on the buses!
Let’s riot on the trains!
Let’s riot in the taxis!
And on the planes!
The Fugertivs feat. Lisa Dennis, Let’s Riot (Joyful Noise)
The crowd behind us took up the chant and again I was overwhelmed at the feeling of belonging. Following orders from the DAN officials, we moved to the middle of the road, and settled down to annoy the Saturday afternoon drivers, all the while shouting ‘Free our people!’ as leaflets were handed out and some people gave us nods of encouragement, while others just made their displeasure known!
Lean on your big horn, you fat bastard
Curse me across the road,
The blind school never taught me
How to use the green cross code!
Karen Sheader Band, Planet of the Blind (Planet of the Blind)
When we had made our presence felt sufficiently, we moved off towards the gardens by Eldon Square. Silently, people placed their crosses in the earth in rows which reminded me of the cemeteries of Flanders. I can’t recall exactly how many there were, but certainly the number was in the hundreds, symbolizing hundreds of fettered lives, open to abuse, ignorance, ill-treatment and sheer boredom, unable to live, love, indulge their own dreams and desires. We stood silently for a couple of minutes. Then somebody broke the silence and the sombre mood.
‘Play the Bollocks song!’
I wondered for a moment if it was disrespectful to sing something so irreverent, but the crowd were having none of it!
‘Play the Bollocks song!’
‘Play the Bollocks song!’
So we struck up again, in the cold sunshine which was beginning to fade, with the crowd joining in delightedly at the end as scandalised shoppers gave us a wide berth:
‘You reckon that you’re our champion
Defender of all poor crips
Well I just can’t believe the crap that I’ve heard
That comes pouring out of your lips
You like to keep us where you think we belong
With sentiment and prejudice
Well I hope that some tosspot talks shite about you
Next time you go out on the piss!
Bollocks to you, and Bollocks to you, and Bollocks to you
And Bollocks to you….
The Fugertivs, Bar-room Bollocks, (Joyful Noise)
The chorus went on and on, disabled people venting their frustration and anger in a shared musical protest. Then this happened.
The people in chairs, people with dogs, and sticks, and those with their PAs and family members and friends, and those who shared our identity without visible impairment, and our non-disabled allies, gathered round us.
‘Long live The Fugertivs! Long live The Fugertivs!
‘Long live The Fugertivs! Long live The Fugertivs!
It was a moment I could have stayed in forever. Thanking everyone after the impromptu performance, one guy in a wheelchair beckoned me over and showed me ‘Bollocks to you’ tattooed on his neck! What an honour!
Writing this from a distance of more than 20 years it seems almost unbelievable that all this happened.
And sadly, for the residents of Winterbourne View,(closed in 2010) Whorlton Hall (closed in 2019) and just this year, 2021, Cawston Park, it might just as well not have happened.
Upon seeing the events at Cawston Park, Norfolk, being exposed on the BBC Six O’clock News I cried to think that after all this time these horrific places still make colossal amounts of money whilst torturing and killing their ‘guests” or ‘victims’
I wrote this song, No Place Like Home shared in the video below, in response to the report I read in Learning Disability Today, which you can find here (please refer to the content awareness statement at the beginning of this article)
The lyrics are below the video, which is just underneath this text.
No Place Like Home
I can’t say it very well, but in my eyes you can tell - I’m terrified!
I talk with my hands, and they say they understand me but they lied
They claim that they’ve heard, but they don’t understand a word
They crash in through my door and they pin me to the floor
They put a needle in my arm and they tell me it will make me calm inside
Before I used to love to sing, my very favourite thing was karaoke
And every time I got the chance I loved to dance, even the Hokey cokey
Now they hardly use my name, and every day is just the same
We sit around and watch tv, but nothing that I want to see
There’s nothing else to do, and sometimes I don’t make the loo and they prod and poke me.
Who’s going to get me out of here?
Maybe it’s my Mum
I ask her please, take me back home
Every single time that she can come
She doesn’t know what goes on here
Cos they all act like everything’s so good
If she knew what it’s really like
She’d come to take me home, I know she would
I’m not doing all that well and I wish that I could tell them how I’m feeling
No matter how I try, I’m always left to lie and stare up at the ceiling
My chest begins to heave, and I struggle hard to breathe
Stuck here by myself with nobody here to help
Today I messed my bed, and then they slapped me round the head, said stop your squealing
Who’s going to get me out of here
Cos I feel really bad.
I ask them with my eyes, please listen,
I just want to see my dad!
They tell him that I’m ok, I’m doing fine,
I’m just under the weather
Now all I wanna do is close my eyes
And drift away to sleep forever.
Who is going to get them out of there
Cos it sounds a lot like hell
Who is going to open up and speak
For the ones who just can’t tell?
Who is going to open up the doors
And lead them out into the day?
Cos if we all do nothing, then in hell is where they’re gonna stay.
Karen Sheader Band No Place Like Home
My eyes are resting on the middle distance. I am trying to go back in my memory about the wheres and whens and the who and the why. This is not where I should have been, or thought I’d be more precisely. But I do know how I got here. I got here with the good fortune of meeting some amazing people along the way, who took the time to listen, to see me, to explain, to answer the naïve questions, to hold my hand, to pick me up, to point me on my way and wait for me when I had need to repeat or deepen the learning.
I got here through the patience, tolerance, kindness, generosity, care and love of so many people. I got here despite the myriad of rejections (which still come), despite being difficult to be around at times, despite of the naysayers and despite of the endemic, pernicious, ableist systematic barriers of the cultural landscape. I say I got here like I am done, I’m not, there is still far to go and the road ahead is long and not without its struggles, I am resting. Pausing. Reflecting. Thinking of the where I’ve been and where I may be going.
When in 2005 I met Vici Wreford-Sinnott at Arcadea, I didn’t even know what disability arts was let alone identify as disabled or an artist. It was the beginning of my recovery as an individual and it gave me meaning again. The first steps were shaky and uncertain. I wish I remembered meeting Vici for the first time and able to recount some amazing story worthy of a raconteur, but sadly I don’t remember any of those times that I can’t piece together through notes and photos. But I know meeting Vici was pivotal. I showed in the Mimosa Festival in 2006, gained some semblance of a disabled community in the north east. I showed some work at the Mushroom Works and spoke to Jeff Armstrong. I didn’t know it but we would be in each-others orbits for the not enough years which were left to come.
I was lucky to be selected for a development residency at Waygood/Harkers. I had a massive studio and I filled it with ‘stuff’ and played and made. After 6 months I had an exhibition and had to clear up and leave. It gave me a glimpse of a possible future and I am forever grateful for that. This lead to working with the Art House in Wakefield in one of its’ many incarnations and I worked with Anne Cunningham which lead to my working with Kerry Harker, who I still work with today. Back in 2011 Colin Hambrook from Disability Arts Online was a saviour at a doomed event in New Zealand which fostered an ongoing personal and professional relationship. Within all this I met Alisdair Cameron, head of Launchpad, now ReCoCo. Whilst not involved in disability arts directly he is the glue which held many of my projects together and remains a great advocate of the arts and mental health. We worked together on the Mind the Gap exhibition at Discovery and delivered training for TWAM. Most long term was with Tess Denman Cleaver on a theatre project with the early intervention in psychosis team for 4 years.
As things come full circle and people weave in and out of each others lives I re met Vici initially through ARC Stockton, and no modern recounting of Disability Arts would be complete without Vici but also Annabel Turpin who has done so much for the sector but who has also supported me so much in recent years. Important to mention is also the impact which Disability Arts Online is having in the region now working with artists to develop practice.
There is still so much left to achieve to become an equal accessible world. It has moved on and changed a lot for the better since the early 2000’s. The conversations are more nuanced, we can talk of Access Riders, Crip Time, Neurodiversity and not just about the physical quick wins of ramps. But still, so far to go. I won’t be going on alone. I walk with those who have helped me here and I will meet more along the way. None of us get by without the help of others, I hope I offer mine where I can. I am grateful to all those who have and continue to give so generously in so many ways to support me in what I do.
More from Aidan here at his websiter: https://aidanmoesby.co.uk
This article is from our Writings page where you can find other writings by disabled artists
Welcome to On Whose Shoulders We Build which is the website for the North East Disability Arts Living Archive. This archive is a tribute to all those who have, and still do, contribute to the rich culture of disability arts in the North East of England. This is stage one of the archive and is largely drawn from the recorded works of Black Robin in consultation with disabled artists from the region. The archive will reflect many of the people, groups and key events both past and present. Disability Arts remains a vibrant arts scene, with individual artists and groups creating amazing change today.
The archive will develop over time and we will continue to add people and events. It’s not fully representative of everything as that information just isn’t held anywhere yet and so this is a beginning. No-one and no group is deliberately left out and you can get in touch if there is anything you would like to suggest is added.
About On Whose Shoulders
There is so much history of disability arts activity in the North East but much of it remains hidden. Black Robin has an extensive collection of filmed and photographed work by disabled artists and didn’t think it should go dusty on the shelf, and wanted to pay tribute to all those who have made a difference to the lives of disabled people through the arts in our region. He has begun to archive it and share an initial narrative of the community’s history, along with key figures from the movement. From a dynamic community of creative people it’s essential that we preserve the heritage and also promote the disabled artists and activists creating amazing change today.
What is Disability Arts?
Disability Art is art in any artform made by disabled people about the experience of disability. The Disability Arts Movement in the UK developed alongside and out of the Disability Rights Movement in the 1970s and 80s. The Movement has changed and evolved over the last five decades, moving from individual artists and small groups to a set of regional disability arts fora and a National Disability Arts Forum, all of whom were independent of each other but forged several alliances, hosting regional and national events, support for disabled artists and campaigning for equality in art and culture, through to a changed world today. The Disability Arts Movement was affected by gradual changes in funding for the regional fora in the 2000s, with only DADA in Liverpool, DASH (Disability Arts Shropshire) and Shape London remaining. The debate around what kind of work comes under the disability arts umbrella has shifted considerably since then. These days there are lots of references to disabled-led art, in which all the lead creatives are disabled people, and where the subject matter is largely about disability as a social phenomenon but not exclusively. Not all art made by disabled people is about disability, but many of the same access barriers are there for all disabled artists. The campaign for equality is still very much needed to create equality of opportunity but also equal and relevant representation of disability identity and culture in the arts.
If you have anything to add to the archive you can contact Black Robin at firstname.lastname@example.org