Go Gaga for DaDa This Year
Culture and creativity have no prejudice. In fact, marginalised groups often create the most astounding and thought-provoking art and disabled artists are no exception.
Every two years, Liverpool’s DaDaFest International challenges ideals and celebrates disability culture. The festival also happens to entertain thousands of people, expand horizons and make you look at life a little differently. It’s also cemented Liverpool’s reputation as a world leader in disability arts, leaving many other big global cities trailing behind.
“People have started to appreciate that disabled people can do exceptional things…”
This year we’re doing DaDaFest and we caught up with their artistic director Ruth Gould, to find out why she feels this year’s event is an art festival for all (and the perfect antidote to President Elect, Donald Trump…)
So Ruth, the programme this year looks amazing. How would you describe DaDaFest 2016?
“It’s a combined arts festival where anything can happen, music, dance, comedy, theatre, visual arts and performance. It takes place across Liverpool, in nearly all the cities major arts venues and it’s relevant to disabled and non-disabled people alike.
“Our upfront mission is to really put the lives and experience of disability front and centre. Disability is something that affects everybody, not just disabled people. I always say you’re either disabled, or you’re not disabled yet and we often don’t think about that, we don’t think about how our bodies change as we get older. So we all need an opinion and awareness of disability issues. Society is very good at making us feel like a burden if we’re disabled people and DaDaFest works to challenge that”.
It’s clearly an issue of grave importance, but DaDaFest isn’t really like that. It’s thought provoking but not necessarily heavy.
“That’s right, people come with a bit of hesitancy, because they’re not sure what they’re going to get. Some of the old, militant work in the past makes people think that they’re going to be shouted at or made to feel bad, but when they come and see an exhibition or performance, they realise how much humour and truth there is in our work. The arts, for me, should always be about challenge and change and moving the parameters. Art’s job is to help people grow through greater understanding”.
DaDaFest is biennial now. How has that changed things for you?
“It’s given us the ability and time to create a stronger more international programme. We can pre-book the best venues and schedule in the most talented artists and it gives us more time to concentrate on Young DaDaFest, which still takes place every year, giving young disabled artists a more regular opportunity to shine”.
I always love coming to this office. What’s it like to work for DaDaFest?
“Fantastic. It’s the best job in the world. It combines all my passions. Liverpool, the arts and changing minds and attitudes around disability. As a disabled person myself, it is really hard to explain to people how life changes for disabled people. From being written off at school, to not being able to get jobs. What I love about working for DaDaFest is that it doesn’t just entertain it changes lives.
Have perceptions of disability arts changed over the past decade?
“In the early stages, the arts were used as political tools to highlight inequalities, but now we’re getting more opportunities to go be on the big stages and in the best art spaces, so now we can really focus on the art. The issues are not as ‘in your face’ anymore.
“A lot of people don’t realise this, but Liverpool has played a pivotal role in changing perceptions of disability, particularly in cultural venues. When we first put on the festival in 2001, National Museums Liverpool hadn’t used British sign language or audio description or really understood about to reaching disabled audiences. But now they’re absolutely streets ahead. If you go to their exhibitions they’re signed, there’s captions, audio description, staff are trained in equality, their whole focus has shifted.
“Liverpool has played a pivotal role in changing perceptions of disability…”
“There’s also been a huge shift change, through legislation, disabled people now believe that it’s their right to have the same access as other people and people have started to appreciate that disabled people can do exceptional things.
“The Paralympics really changed people’s thinking around disabled people’s achievement. I do have problems about some of the ways that’s put across. My friend, Liz Carr, who’s in the festival, coined the phrase para-porn. Because there’s a kind of voyeurism aspect to the coverage.
“Even now, when people talk about the Paralympics people still focus on a person’s impairment, or when they lost their limb, instead of focussing on the person. They’re athletes, let’s talk about them as athletes”.
What are the common misconceptions about disability?
“It’s a tough one. We say we’re disabled by society, not by our impairments. The language around disability is very clumsy, so the way we’d describe things is not necessarily the same as the government line. Our impairments are part of who we are and most of us can never change that.
“People think we have to be overcomers, super-achieving, like the Paralympians, to prove ourselves. But there is the another extreme, where disabled people are seen as abusing the welfare system and disability rights are blatantly disregarded. Disability hate crime has seen a huge increase over the last few years, because people think we can all do the same as Paralympians, but obviously, they’re athletes, they’re trained.
“The effect of this is dangerous, as it makes disabled people feel that if they can’t overcome their ‘disability’, they’re a failure. But for some disabled people just to get out of bed in the morning is a tremendous effort”.
“Add to that the fact that we have a real divisive situation going on in the world at the moment, especially this morning, with the announcement of President Trump. It seems anything can happen in society today; we’re seeing such extreme views gaining ground”.
“People don’t realise how prevalent disabled people are. I often say that we’re the second largest minority group, after men! The last census showed that, in Merseyside, 33 per cent of people are disclosed as disabled or living with long-term medical conditions.
“I’m really shocked about Trump. I’m sorry but he’s disablist…”
It’s interesting that you mention Trump. He’s recently caused controversy by imitating a disabled man and has a number of policies, which could be described as separatist.
“I’m really shocked about Trump. I’m sorry but he’s disablist. I mean to openly mock a disabled reporter who was simply asking questions. Why would people think that was acceptable? I am really worried, because, here in the UK we’ve had quite significant support for disabled people, although funding has been cut back and back over the last few years.
“Sadly, America has not really had that for disabled people and many cannot even get health insurance. Obamacare has opened up insurance for many disabled people and I’m worried that that’s all going to be taken away.
“Trump doesn’t seem to understand basic politics and what needs to be done to have a healthy society. He just seems to incite hate and division. Particularly with his attitude towards disabled people, so it’s quite scary”.
On a much lighter note, this year’s programme looks amazing. How do you continue to push boundaries?
“You have to think ‘global’ and you have to surprise people. We have a really big scoop this year, a world exclusive with a 24-hour durational performance piece called ‘The Viewing’ at the Bluecoat, that will be broadcast all over the world at midnight. It’s about something that is relevant to all people – death. Specifically, what happens to our bodies when we die. I think the show will have profound repercussions”.
Sounds intriguing, tell me more.
“It’s bringing together Sheree Rose, a well know dominatrix who was married for a long time to an artist called Bob Flannigan, who had a medical condition that meant he wasn’t going to live a long life and his condition meant he was in a lot of pain. Together, they experimented with the pain you inflict, as opposed to the pain you have to live with.
“There’s a lot of video and photography work that Bob completed internationally and is has been on show in the Tate. His work really pushed boundaries. He died in 1996, but he developed a set of trilogies with Sheree, which they were never able to complete because of his early death. But she has since been working with a British artist called Martin O’Brien, who has the same impairment as her late husband. Sheree and Martin have fulfilled what Bob was looking to achieve and it’s definitely work that will capture people’s curiosity and imagination.
“DaDaFest isn’t afraid of looking death squarely in the face. We’re even opening with ‘Assisted Suicide – The Musical’. We’ve lost a lot of artists over the last few years. But we mustn’t be afraid of what our bodies do when we die. Even though it feels very heavy, it can also be life affirming”.
What else can people expect this year?
“We’ve created a very exciting travelling piece called ‘Balancing Act’ by a Liverpool based artist called Faith Bebbington. Faith’s medical condition makes her fall, so she’s created this piece about balance and bodies, with these amazing sculptures, all in various positions of falling over, creating a very different perspective on how you see the work. But I’ll be interested to see how people engage with something like that, because it’s going to be in unexpected places, like John Lewis. Art somewhere like can have more impact and gets people thinking. I’m just worried that they are such beautiful sculptures in John Lewis that people will be wanting to buy them straight away!
There are some interesting parallels examined in this year’s programme.
“That’s right, we’re examining fat activism and what life is like when you’re not a perfect size and we’re also aligning fat issues with issues of disability, for the first time. They’ve always been kept apart, but there are many crossover issues. It’s incredible how many minority groups have been ostracised and forced into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture and we’re trying to alleviate that. That’s why we keep saying disability is a human issue.
“The exhibition ‘Itchy and Prickly Painful’ by Tabitha Moses is a really interesting DaDaFest exhibition. It’s another durational piece in the Tate and Tabitha will be creating a tapestry out of her own skin. She has a skin disease, which flakes her skin, so she’s capturing, creating art and people can watch her. It will also be filmed, up close, so people can see the detail of it through a TV monitor.
“It’s an incredibly rich and fascinating programme. But I also love the fact that we’ve got a lot of entertainment in the form of comedy, like ‘Disability for Dunces’ by Lost Voice Guy, he does his whole piece through his i-pad, as he has no vocals, and it’s the most incredibly funny show.
“We’ve also got comedian Lawrence Clarke who debuted at our first festival. He set himself a massive challenge this year, but he’s risen to it admirably and achieved great things. He’s put himself in a very vulnerable position throughout the show, talking about his own views and what it means to be independent. He’s just hilarious, as usual.
“And we’ve also got the wild extravaganza ‘Burlesque from Biscuitland’ hosted by Jess Thom at The Invisible Wind Factory. Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of flesh on show, so that’s strictly for over 18s”.
Comedy has always been a consistent theme of DaDaFest.
“It’s really at the heart of the festival, we need to laugh. I think there’s too much pain that a lot of us have to go through. But the real tragedy for me, being a disabled person, is not our impairments, but how society starts to treat you, and puts you in a place of ‘other’ and questions everything they see as ‘wrong’ with you. We need a platform to explain that, to release it and laugh about it and just affirm who we are.
“Humour is often the cleverest thing of all. It breaks through people’s reserves and allows them to connect emotionally with the issues in a different way to other emotions. The best work is the work that makes you laugh one minute, cry the next.
“We don’t want people to go away feeling down, none of our shows do that. People are surprised that disabled people can be so funny and so good humoured. Instead, people are motivated by how many disabled people really live each day. And it’s never laughing at, it’s laughing with. Life and our journey through it is a really strange one, but you have to have a laugh”.
“Liverpudlians have this great ability to get away with being risqué…”
What does Liverpool bring to the festival?
“Liverpudlians have this great ability to get away with being risqué and say it as it is, but also the inquisitive nature, of just being honest and not being scared to ask about something they don’t understand.
“We’re not afraid of hitting the nail right on the head here. We don’t like to shirk around the problems and be too polite. And artists just love it here, because they know they’re going to get a level of engagement with the audience that they don’t really get anywhere else. I don’t think DaDaFest would actually be as big a success in any other UK city, because of our quirky nature.
How does Liverpool compare globally, in terms of disability arts?
“We’re world leaders. That surprises people and it even took me a while to realise it. I’ve been so busy delivering the festival, that the first festival I could get to outside the UK was in Chicago in 2013 and it was a real eye-opener.
“What we have here in Liverpool simply isn’t in place in most other cities in the world. In Chicago the art wasn’t in genuine art spaces. Exhibitors were forced into accessible spaces, but they were day care centres, or community centres and it made me realise how incredible we are in Liverpool, because all the arts venues here just get what we do and want to be part of DaDaFest”.
Have the arts venues involvement in DaDaFest changed their outlook on disability issues?
“DaDaFest opens up all kinds of discussions around access and positioning of art and presenting it in accessible ways. It really does change people’s thinking and we’ve seen new progressive strategies come off the back of hosting DaDaFest events.
“For example, this year, for the first time, The Royal Court have decided to be part of DaDaFest. Their production of ‘Scouse of the Rising Sun’ is using British Sign Language Interpretation in the show. There will also be an audio described show, they’ve never done that before. This collaboration has led to us helping them with their application for funding to improve their physical access backstage. So you can see, with just that single example the way our festival can really change things.
How does DaDaFest attract a wider audience?
“It used to be mainly by talking to the media and getting our messages out there. Today we are also using our social media and digital networks as much as possible too. For us, it’s about giving people information in a variety of different ways.
“But the big thing we’re doing for the first time this year is live streaming events. This is in in response to people who tell us that they would live to come to our event, but have difficulty leaving the house. Technology is helping us to reach a wider, sometimes forgotten audience.
“I’m really excited this morning, because I’ve just been accepted as a Huffington Post guest blogger, so I’m going to be writing blogs throughout the festival, which will really help get our programme out there internationally”.
What had been your greatest achievement?
“It’s got to be setting up DaDaFest. When I look back, people thought we were stupid. We had very big aims and people didn’t get it at first. Back then the Disability Discrimination Act was not actually being enforced in any way. But Liverpool embraced the festival from day one. During our first festival, we had 59 activities in ten days and it just showed that we were on to something.
“But then the next five years were a really hard slog. People outside of the city tried to stab us in the back, saying things like ‘you’re ghettoising disabled people’ and ‘art events are for everyone’ but of course we don’t just have disabled people at our events. It’s always been mixed and that’s the beauty of DaDaFest. We’re all about sharing the cultural nuances of living as disabled people and how that shapes thinking.
“I’m also very proud that DaDaFest has helped to establish a lot of artists. People like Liz Carr debuted through during our 2001 festival and her career has just gone from strength to strength. And what’s really fantastic is that Liz has inspired other people, like Jess Thom, and really become a role model for other artists. Disabled people see disabled artists achieving and it spurs them on. It’s a really critical part of our work.”
“In 2014 we generated £3.8m for the local economy…”
You won ‘Best Small Tourism Event’ in 2005 at the Liverpool Tourism Awards. How did that change things?
“That really made people sit up and take notice, we witnessed a real multiplier effect. In our first year, an independent report showed that we generated three-quarters of a million into the local economy and we’ve seen that figure rise consistently, with each festival.
“In 2014 we generated £3.8m. So we’re actually contributing to Liverpool’s resurgence and regeneration. We’re bringing people to the city that might not actually come here if it wasn’t for DaDaFest. People don’t see disability as something that can be a powerhouse for change, they see it as ‘we need to help the poor afflicted people’. Awards and money help to change that perception. The fact that we’re, what I call a disability control-led organisation gives us a real edge as well. Our board is 80 per cent disabled so we truly represent the sector.”
What is your main ambition for DaDaFest?
“One of the things I really want the festival to become is more aligned with a global movement of disability arts. I’d like to engage more with other countries. I’ve been to three African countries and seen, first-hand, how disabled people are right at the bottom of their social structures. We need to support one another and build a community where we can reach across those sorts of divides.
“This year, for the second time we’re hosting an international congress as part of DaDaFest. I’ve called it ‘All the world is a stage – unless you can’t get on it’. There’s going to be a presentation, from people like Heidi Thomas, who writes ‘Call The Midwife’. She was born in Liverpool and she has a really good understanding of disability issues. What we love about Heidi’s work is that she writes fully drawn characters that happen to be disabled and insists that they use disabled actors to play those roles. She’s a complete breath of fresh air, in this whole sector, which often puts disabled people down as artists.
“An Irish art festival isn’t just for Irish people in the same way that DaDaFest isn’t just for disabled people…”
“I also want DaDaFest to become endorsed by the UN, because they have a disability rights charter. I want to create a truly global conference on disability issues as part of the festival in 2018 or 2020, using BT Convention Centre, with key people from all over the world. And I’m not just talking about disability arts people. I’m talking about people from Hollywood, people from the international museum and visual arts organisations. We need to think big and talk to the people who can bring real change.
“Disability needs to be embedded in work and not set up as something separate. I think that’s what some people don’t quite get about DaDaFeat. An Irish art festival isn’t just for Irish people in the same way that DaDaFest isn’t just for disabled people. It’s not separate, it’s more inclusive.
“You can’t disregard disability anymore, but you can open yourself up to a new way of thinking, from people with perhaps a different take on the world that your own. When people take the plunge and come to a show or exhibition they leave a little more connected to the world, a little more compassionate and with a greater understanding of issues that will one day affect us all and that’s really what the world needs right now.”
Do DaDaFest this year and drop all your preconceptions.