Disability Arts: An Overview
3 Bilder von Ono Ludwig: v. l. n. r – ASPEKTE KONKRET (Forbidden Red, Vier Wahrheiten, Dichroitisch)
by Dr. des. Kate Brehme
What is “disability arts”? Is it a movement? A community? Or an aesthetic? In any case, it is a contested term. While some believe that disability arts describes only artwork that deals with disability as a theme, others believe it can also be considered as artwork produced by artists with disabilities regardless of whether their disability is thematised. Others go a step further claiming that disability arts can also include artwork created by non-disabled artists, that takes disability as its theme. However given that the disability arts movement grew largely from various disabled peoples’ rights movements, I would question the legitimacy of such claims. In this text I provide an overview of disability arts, one that takes these various facets into account, and describes how I see its past and future potential from my position as a disabled Australian-British curator living in Germany.
A label between self-identification and othering
Disability arts is as much about self-identification and empowerment as it is about othering and exploitation. On one hand, artwork by people with disabilities is all too often hastily categorized by the western art historical canon as “Outsider Art” or “Art Brut”, a term coined by artist Jean Dubuffet when he began in 1945 to collect art created by children, psychiatric patients and others operating outside the official boundaries of culture (M. Schneckenburger, C. Fricke, K. Honnef, ed. Ingo F. Walther, Art of the 20th Century, Volume II, 2005, p.715). While these are legitimate forms of art making whose creators have just as much right to their place within the art sector, the conditions under which they are made, presented and discussed are all too often exploitative of people with disabilities by predominantly non-disabled art historians and curators. For example, in some cases the work of disabled artists is presented without them being given the opportunity to understand fully or to consent to the (sometimes quite stereotypical) ways in which they are presented. In other cases, and despite the often well-meaning efforts of non-disabled arts workers, the lack of accessible working environments or conditions requires the disabled artist to take on additional work to educate their colleagues and find workarounds. On the extreme end of this scale, is what is referred to as tokenism, where the disabled artist is used to bolster the reputation of the non-disabled curator or arts worker who profits from being seen as being “inclusive” at the expense of the disabled artist whose access needs are not actually considered. As a result, many artists with disabilities choose not to engage with or be categorised by the disability arts label, that they feel further segregates or stigmatises them.
On the other hand however, being a part of the disability arts scene or community can enable artists with disabilities to claim their place within the contemporary art sector. UK based cultural producer Jo Verrent said it well: “Aren’t disabled artists just “artists”? Well, yes and no. All artists are artists – and in a perfect world, no one would need to take on a label just to gain funding, find a way in or get taken seriously. But that’s currently not the case and by identifying positively, it could be argued that disabled artists can gain a voice and a platform that can push them further, faster. For some artists, it’s a matter of identity. If their work is informed directly or indirectly by their experiences as a disabled person, then it makes clear sense for them to identity as a disabled artist. Many disabled people see the word disability positively. I do, for one. Being a disabled person is part of the way I see myself in the world – as much a part of me as being a woman or any other label.”
Chronology of Disability Arts in the UK
Such positions are largely the result of the legacy of disability rights movements worldwide that sought to overturn negative associations with the word “disabled” and demanded better access to public services and spaces, including those belonging to the cultural sphere. It also gave disabled artists opportunities to be recognised as cultural professionals. In the UK, this movement began in the 1970s. The term “disability arts” came into use around 1986 when the first forum on disability arts was held. The disability arts movement began to grow year on year and was at its height during the late 1990s, spurred by the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. Important figures who have made tremendous contributions to disability arts in the UK are, to name a few, Tony Heaton and Claire Cunningham. Tony Heaton is a British sculptor, performance artists, consultant and disability rights activist. His performance piece ‘Shaken not Stirred’ consisted of Heaton stacking 1,760 red charity collecting tins into a pyramid and then destroying it by hurling a prosthetic leg into it. Created as part of the ‘Block Telethon’ campaign, it was part of a seminal moment where disabled activists demanded rights, not charity. Claire Cunningham is one of the UK’s most acclaimed and internationally renowned disabled performance artists whose work is often rooted in the study and use/misuse of her crutches, the potential of her own specific physicality and a conscious rejection of traditional dance techniques.
Others, such as Berlin based American writer and poet Kenny Fries remind us that disability is also intersectional. His experience as a gay Jewish man with a disability is explored through his literary work such as "In the Province of the Gods", "Body, Remember: A Memoir", "The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory". By contrast Christine Sun Kim, a Deaf artist and performer creates text drawings, videos and participatory performances to bring sound and spoken language into new forms and often explore the societal ignorance and ableism towards Deaf people. For example, “Off the Charts” is a series of large-format charcoal drawings exploring the navigation of the hearing world as a deaf person. The six artworks depict different mathematical angles and correlative, rage-inducing encounters Sun Kim has had with hearing people - "receiving a Braille menu in a restaurant" or "being offered a wheelchair at an airport" or “curators who consider it fair to share my fee with [sign language] interpreters“.
Disability Arts in the USA and Australia
In the USA, the development of disability arts is also rooted in the disabled peoples’ rights movement occurring around the same time and tied to several non-profit organizations and individuals. For example, the Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development Art Center (formerly registered as National Institute of Art & Disabilities) was established in 1982. Many other organizations with similar visions and mandates can be found across the country such as Axis, an ensemble of disabled and non-disabled performers founded in California in1987, “Breath and Shadow” a quarterly journal of disability culture and literature founded in 2000 and more recently Disability/Arts/NYC (DANT), an arts activist organization for disability arts in New York City. Again, key figures have been central to the development of the USA disability arts scene. For example, Simi Linton, co-initiator of DANT, is an author, filmmaker, and arts consultant. Her writings include “Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity”, “My Body Politic”, and “Cultural Territories of Disability” in “Disability. Dance. Artistry”. Another is Leroy F. Moore Jr., an activist, writer, poet, rapper, feminist, and radio programmer. He is the founder of the Krip-Hop Nation, a movement that addresses ableism and especially Black musicians marginalized because of racism and ableism, and the cofounder of Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance project that centers people of colour, queer, nonbinary and trans people with disabilities in the USA.
In Australia non-profit, government funded organizations such as Arts Access Australia (founded in 1992) with its state branches across the country, were responsible for much of the development of disability arts. Similarly, in Canada, organizations such as the Indefinite Arts Centre, Arts & Disability Network Manitoba, Kickstart Arts and Tangled Gallery, support disability arts throughout the country.
Disability Arts in Germany
Germany has a similar history to the USA, at least in the West, where civil rights activism in the late 1960s, early 1970s and again in the late 1980s spurred on human rights activism for people with disabilities (Carol Poole, “Disability in Twentieth-Century Germany”, 2009 p. 273). Many organizations across the country such as EUCREA, Ramba Zamba and Theater Thikwa were established after 1989 inspired by both the anti-psychiatry movements and demands for better access to arts and culture for disabled people. Since then, Germany, and in particular Berlin, has become home to an array of compelling home-grown artists such as Tamara Rettenmund or Ono Ludwig as well as international artists such as Kenny Fries and Christine Sun Kim, who contribute immensely to raising the current profile of the disability arts scene here. However, compared to its counterparts in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia, the disability arts movement in Germany is severely under-researched and lacks infrastructural and financial support.
Overcoming ableism in the arts
Such support is vital, because, despite an increased awareness for and interest in disability arts worldwide, there is still profound underrepresentation and discrimination of people with disabilities in the arts (otherwise known as “ableism”). In the UK, the percentage of disabled people working in the arts is less than 5%, and that’s not including those who have chosen not to declare themselves. It is similar in other countries. In Australia, “artists with disability are under-represented, earn less than their counterparts without disability, experience unemployment at higher rates, and are more likely to identify a lack of access to funding as a barrier to their professional development. ”Disabled American workers face similar barriers while Canada reports on systemic discrimination in the arts such as, a “lack of specialized or accessible professional training opportunities; Lack of physically accessible performing, exhibiting, editing and practice spaces; Cultural representation of disability is cliché and stigmatized; Lack of alternate format[s] [that] create barriers to participating and engaging in the arts; Discrimination, manipulation, appropriation and exploitation of disabled artists by non-disabled arts professionals.” Unfortunately we can’t compare these facts with the German context because German statistics simply don’t exist. However, I would assume that considering the statistics for overall employment of people with disabilities is far lower than of non-disabled people, the statistics for the arts would be somewhat similar
One way in which such discrimination is overturned, is through the establishment and contribution of disability (and particularly disability-led) arts organisations that foster solidarity between artists and share resources with the wider cultural sector. They are crucial for raising the profile of disabled artists and, because they are equipped to cater for their access needs, do so in an empowering way. They work to increase opportunities and access for people with disability as artists, arts-workers, participants and audiences. For example, organisations such as Unlimited (UK), Disability Arts International (UK), Shape (UK), Arts Access Australia (AUS), Projectability (UK), offer services to their members, such as representation and advocacy, facilitation and development, information and advice, and financial grants. Similarly, disability, access and inclusion themed conferences and symposia in the arts provide much needed platforms to exchange knowledge, best practice and resources at a national and international level. Examples include, Unlimited (UK), Meeting Place (AUS), engage (UK), NO LIMITS (DE), EUCREA (DE), Grenzenlos Kultur Festival (DE), IntergART (EU).
How the mainstream arts sector needs to change
However, more needs to be done, particularly in Germany. While these disability-led and disability arts specific organisations have done much to promote and support the work of artists with disabilities, there is much the so-called “mainstream” arts sector could do to address ableism. Firstly, organisations should commission and present works by artists with disabilities and employ cultural workers with disabilities within, and most importantly, at the top levels of their organisations. Some disability arts specific and mainstream arts organisations in Berlin (NO LIMITS Disability and Performing Arts Festival; and Sophiensaele and Berlinische Galerie respectively) have benefited from recently appointing disabled cultural workers to their staff. Additionally, the Berliner Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa and Landesverband der Museen zu Berlin have set up Working Groups with people with disabilities to examine accessibility in arts and culture and museums respectively. Secondly, in every country there are legal requirements such as employing a minimum number of people with disabilities, providing reasonable adjustment to them and providing physical access for public buildings. Germany is no exception. While other countries such as the UK and Australia see far more stringent policies enforcing these laws, in Germany, the topic of accessibility is at best only addressed in terms of physical access to cultural buildings, or at worst, ignored or misappropriated. Finally, more funding needs to be made available for artists and organisations supporting the work of disabled artists at both federal and state level, including mentoring and professional development programs that offer alternative and more inclusive forms of artistic and cultural education. There have been some positive steps in the right direction. New funding streams such as Durschstarten and IMPACT-Fonds are providing funding for individual artists with disabilities in Berlin.
While we have a long way to go in order to achieve the same levels of support as our international counterparts, the German disability arts sector is a growing, vibrant and exciting place to work right now. I am certain that with the right support, disability arts in Germany will be able to fulfil its future potential as an internationally recognised and integral part of our contemporary cultural landscape.
About Kate Brehme
Kate Brehme is a Berlin-based independent curator and arts educator with a disability. Kate began her curatorial career in 2002 while undertaking a Diploma of Visual Arts and BA in Contemporary Art in Melbourne, Australia. After graduating from her MA in Cultural Heritage Studies in 2008, Kate worked as arts educator at various institutions and organizations such as the National Galleries of Scotland, The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. She recently completed her doctorate at Berlin’s Technical University’s Center for Metropolitan Studies exploring the contemporary art biennale and urban space.
Currently, Brehme divides her time between curating Contemporary Art Exchange projects, lecturing for both the Master Education in Arts programme at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and NODE Center for Curatorial Studies in Berlin and running Berlinklusion, a Network for Accessibility in Arts and Culture co-founded with colleagues in 2017, to make Berlin’s arts and cultural sector more accessible for artists and audiences with disabilities. www.berlinklusion.de