Being Disability Associate at the Salisbury International Arts Festival has made me think of many things – not least: what exactly is a Disability Associate and what do they do? Language is really important; very often words lose their power and potency because of over-use or by becoming misappropriated. They gain a weight that is not theirs to gain.
Often when I mention disability I see peoples’ eyes glaze over, they drift off until they feel it’s safe or compulsory to return to the conversation, so perhaps it was a bold choice for a festival to decide to do something positive about disability, to put it together with equality and accessibility as a focus on their agenda. Not in a way to secure funding or satisfy criteria that boxes must be ticked, but to have an authentic desire to make and affect positive change. Salisbury Festival was looking to develop and embed a strategy which allowed for greater awareness and engagement with disability and the issues around it.
I don’t think either of us really knew what to expect, however two skills I know I have are ‘getting people on the bus’ and ‘initiating and facilitating conversations’. On my first day I met the team in one of their regular meetings and was introduced. I always find it difficult in new groups and being the outsider – do you ever really get over being the new kid on the first of day of school? I think people thought I had come in as the disability police to check their language and say how bad it was and tell people off of using wrong words and being critical – a critical pejorative model of working. Of course nothing could be further from my approach; I prefer to see myself as someone who may reflect what is happening or question why certain things are done a particular way and then initiate conversations to explore if and how these can be changed.
I met with each member of staff and talked about what they did, the festival as a whole and what they saw my role as – some of this was just about having tea and cake and chat, being human, relating. My initial approach was sending everyone a letter and asking them what came to mind when they thought of disability and when do they think they had experienced barriers or felt excluded. Not surprisingly, the result was a very physical disability bias and people generally feeling excluded when they didn’t understand what was happening or unable to contribute to a shared event or conversation.
I visited the festival 3 times before it opened to gain an overview of how it worked, exploring different areas of activity – what makes up the festival – people, venues, companies, audience. But how do they get there, curated, accommodated, programmed? Being part of pre-production meetings was invaluable. I am organisationally challenged – or I was – and that was a major part of my learning. Helen Keall, the Festival Manager, is an organisational maestro. Also as part of this process I began to think about what work I may make, how I would respond to the festival.
My practice has been changing significantly over the last year since I graduated from doing an MA in Curating. I make less work in the studio, instead choosing a much more ‘live lab’ approach of researching the location and making work in situ – site and location specific – with everything being underpinned by conversational research – real, overheard, visual or virtual. Funding being what it is, I needed to make work which artistic impact but not economic.
I like to make new work wherever I go, although I have certain themes or ideas which I occasionally return to when appropriate. As the local newspaper has a high profile I thought I would return to my fictional newspaper ‘The Daily Compulsion’. For this I make headlines or construct statements and place them on newspaper A-boards as a series of changing headlines. To partner this I devised a changing installation that explored mental health and the metaphors used to describe it – which often result in stigma or negative stereotyping.
The team really made me feel part of what was going on and I felt accepted and valued – I’m sure having a ‘mucking in and getting on with it’ attitude helped. To be serious though, you can tell a lot about an organisation’s intent by how welcoming they are and being invited to daily meetings, being given a t-shirt and staff pass and a key was indicative of the Festival’s approach and intent. Even when things were stretched and the stress was palpable, Toby, the Festival Director, and Helen made sure we still met.
No two days were the same. I had never worked in an office environment, never sent an e-mail to someone I could see over the desk; I knew however that there was only so much I could do. This wasn’t about finishing the job, it was about beginning it, charting the routes to be taken, the locations to be visited at later dates. Having days where I would meet with performers, venues, audiences, see shows, install work, write, research and have lots of conversations all within a context of art and disability was amazing.
I learnt a huge amount and pushed my practice. I had never before done any performative work, interacting with crowds and audience. I devised the Bureau of Audience Discrimination – a gentle and humorous way of showing the everyday experience of those with disabilities encountering seemingly random and contextless barriers and discrimination – for example asking those with sunglasses on to stand in a specific location. People’s reactions varied from not wanting to engage to fully engaging and wanting to know more behind the idea. Surprisingly, slipping into a lab coat and having a clip board made it feel easy to become ‘The Bureau’ – the anxiety slipped away as I got immersed in the role. I definitely want to do more.
I saw a whole lot of work, from dance to theatre, comedy to cabaret and even a bit of classical music in the cathedral. The opening and closing ceremonies were amazing, with the joint voices of Salisbury and New Zealand in a Maori influenced performance. Even within the short amount of time I was at the Festival I know things had already begun to change. Small things around access had been identified and adapted, audience members were getting bespoke adaptations that did not single them out as ‘different’, I even got picked up on my use of some mentalist language. People were coming up to me and having conversations about disability, visible and hidden, and feeling relieved as if there had been permission to talk of such things openly.
The Disability Associate is many things – Artist, Curator, Researcher, Catalyst, Writer, Facilitator, Observer, Reflector, Advocate, Consultant, Critic and Provocateur. In fact, all this and more – and so much more when the ‘association’ is at the centre of what is being done.
I was sad to leave. It has been a pivotal influential experience which will inform my future thinking and influence my practice. I have had a taste of working in a festival environment and it has left me hungry for more.
Aidan Moesby 2016.