Raw, intimate work by disabled artists takes centre stage in London

Disabled artists are staging pioneering work that is honest, provocative, innovative and resourceful. Clare Wiley reports on a festival that’s bringing audiences powerful voices from a different perspective

I recently visited a housing estate in Manchester, and somewhat hesitantly entered a dark room no bigger than a cupboard, in an apartment on the fourth floor. A shadowy figure sitting opposite me signalled, with the aid of a torch, that I should put on the headphones connected to a device on the desk between us.

A prerecorded monologue relayed the story of a woman’s childhood, while in the room the woman’s torchlight illuminated old family pictures and keepsakes on the desk. The unsettling yet captivating experience concluded with the voiceover inviting me to look directly into the eyes of the woman sitting across from me. It was an uncomfortable experience, at first I looked away, but eventually met her gaze for several minutes.

This was Jo Bannon’s work Exposure, aimed at exploring and sharing the artist’s experience with albinism, a medical condition that affects her eye pigmentation and sight. The one-to-one encounter was intimate, brutally honest and forced me to confront my own relationship with sight and perception.

Exposure will receive its London premiere next month at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited festival, a celebration of new work by deaf and disabled artists. And it’s not the only work on the line-up that’s bold and confronting.

Wendy Hoose by Birds of Paradise and Random Accomplice will be staged at Unlimited 2014 © Eamonn McGoldrick 1
Wendy Hoose by Birds of Paradise and Random Accomplice will be staged at Unlimited 2014 © Eamonn McGoldrick

‘One of the things I think marks these works by this group of artists we’re presenting is their disarming honesty and the direct nature in which their work speaks to people,’ says Wendy Martin, the centre’s head of performance and dance, and the programmer behind Unlimited. ‘They’re often dealing with things that the average person doesn’t deal with in their everyday lives. Unlimited presents an amazing opportunity for us to engage with artists who are fearless in the way they want to talk about who they are and what their lives are.’

One of the performances on the 2014 line-up is Intimacy, by Michelle Ryan and theatremakers Torque Show. ‘Michelle was one of Australia’s leading contemporary dancers, touring the world with Meryl Tankard’s company for 10 years when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis,’ says Martin. ‘After that her dancing career came to a halt, and she had to reinvent herself in relation to the arts. This piece she’s created explores her relationship with herself and the way others perceive her. It’s very raw and honest material.’

Michelle Ryan Intimacy © Fiona Cullen
Michelle Ryan’s Intimacy © Fiona Cullen

Unlimited was born out of the London Cultural Olympiad in 2012 when Arts Council England invited Southbank Centre to present a festival of work during the Paralympics. It was a success, reaching an estimated 18,000 people in two weeks. ACE, together with Creative Scotland and Spirit of 2012 Trust, decided to continue its funding commitment and support a biennial festival. Unlimited acts as a funder as well as a festival; nine of the pieces on the 2014 programme are original commissions.

What’s remarkable about much of the work on the Unlimited programme is how performers have used their disabilities to create innovations that are both practical and brilliantly creative.

One such performance is live artist Katherine Araniello’s The Dinner Party, ingeniously reworked for the festival. ‘Katherine uses a wheelchair, she’s not in a position to travel much,’ explains Martin. ‘Working with us, she’s been developing ways that she can make her piece tour, without physically having to go with it. For The Dinner Party Revisited, Katherine is on stage at Southbank Centre, hosting a dinner party. There are six guests who appear on different screens – all played by Katherine. While that’s happening in the centre’s Purcell Room, it’s going to be relayed live to Toynbee Studios in East London and also broadcast live online.’

Unlimited 2014 Katherine Araniello The Dinner Party photo Katherine Araniello 1
The Dinner Party © Katherine Araniello

‘The Unlimited commission has allowed Katherine to find innovative ways to make the work tourable,’ adds Martin. ‘So if for example there’s a presenter from Brazil who experiences Katherine’s work at the festival next month and really loves it, they would be able to set it up so she could perform live in London and it would simultaneously be broadcast to a venue in Brazil where the audience there could interact with her.’

Similarly, Unlimited has facilitated the progression of Owen Lowery’s work. A former UK judo champion, Lowery was injured in an accident and is now tetraplegic. He wrote his first book of poetry, Otherwise Unchanged, exploring his experiences in hospital after the accident. The Unlimited commission enabled Owen to work with Liverpool literature group Mercy, collaborating with musicians to set his poetry to music and create a spoken word performance out of his text.

‘There’s so much that these artists are exploring that we need to hear,’ says Martin. ‘The perspective of the world they bring us is such a valuable one for us to understand. Hopefully Unlimited and the work people see will play an important role in art and social change. These artists are really at the forefront of that.’

Indeed, there was a very positive response to Unlimited’s inaugural event in 2012, with most of the events selling out. A chief priority for festival organisers is to ensure that every performance and event is accessible to audiences with disabilities.

Dancer Ian Johnston will perform at Unlimited 2014 © Niall Walker
Dancer Ian Johnston will perform at Unlimited 2014 © Niall Walker

‘One of the revelations for me came during a performance in 2012 by Ramesh Meyyappan, who is a deaf physical theatre performer,’ says Martin. ‘It was a beautiful show, and at the end the applause was so soft. I looked around at the audience and realised the reason was because the deaf community has a way of acknowledging their appreciation of performance by putting their hands up in the air and shaking them. It’s that beautiful kind of silent appreciation. It said to me that there were so many people in the audience who were either deaf themselves or knew very well the particular methods of communicating if you are deaf. To provide work that’s created by artists with certain disabilities that speaks to people who share that disability is really very exciting.’

Among the audience at this year’s festival will be a delegation of around 100 presenters from around the world, on the lookout for new talent to stage at home. ‘For the 2012 event there were quite a number of international collaborations, particularly with Brazil, South Africa and Australia, which are now touring to those countries,’ says Martin. ‘There’s also a great interest in the Middle East in disabled work. The UK, without question, is leading the world in this work. I think the artists are also leading the way in terms of the politics of disability.’