Unlimited International Case Study 2017: Unfixed
By Sarah Pickthall
Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that aims to embed exceptional work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences, and shift perceptions of disabled people. It is delivered in partnership by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, with funding from Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, British Council and Spirit of 2012.
In 2016 an Arts Council England Ambitions of Excellence award, match funded by the British Council, enabled Unlimited to extend global influence principally through co-commissions with non-UK based disabled artists. These case studies extend the learning from this work.
This case study focuses on Unfixed, a creative research project that explored the intersections of art, disability, and technology, and involved ten disabled artists from the United Kingdom and Australia which built upon previous work undertaken by Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT).
In 2015 Unlimited paired up with ANAT, Access2Arts and Watershed to produce the Unfixed residency and exchange programme for Australian and UK artists building on programmes such as Super Human, Revolution of the Species. Throughout the Unfixed creative investigation, 10 disabled artists from both countries explored the characterisation of bodies and minds as ‘disabled’ and ‘abled’ by looking into compensation, augmentation, and a whole manner of things in between.
The first Unfixed residency took place in Adelaide in November 2015. Here, the artists spent two weeks exploring the notions of the 'fixed' and 'unfixed' body through the lens of art and creative technology. They worked together to dissect the semantics surrounding disability, agree a shared language, negotiate access requirements, and discover the cultural differences across the UK and Australian disability arts sector.
Unfixed 2.0, the second stage of the project, took place in Bristol at Watershed's Pervasive Media Studio in September 2016. The artists were invited back to further explore the applications of creative technology within their diverse range of artistic practices, including filmmaking, writing and virtual reality. Here, the artists spent a week critically engaging and collaborating with one another in small groups to exchange skills, knowledge and ideas. Pervasive Media Studio supplied the technologies that were then used to create prototypes, using initial project ideas the artists developed in relation to the Unfixed theme.
Unfixed 2.0 included a UK tour of public talks produced by Watershed and Unlimited. This opportunity provided the Unfixed artists with a platform to share their work with a wider audience, as well as discuss questions around what being ‘disabled’ has meant to them in a digital context. These talks took place in London (Southbank Centre), Brighton (Brighton Digital Festival), Bristol (Watershed) and Glasgow (Tramway Unlimited Festival). During these talks, the audience was introduced to Unlimited and the Unfixed project by Jo Verrent, Senior Producer, Unlimited. The participating artists presented their work, followed by an audience question and answer session. Audience members included sector professionals interested in use of digital technology, disability arts audiences & sector, local artists, digital technology enthusiasts, and Pervasive Media Studio residents.
What was learnt? What worked well?
What emerged from Unfixed 2.0’s diverse collaborative maker sessions was a comprehensive range of ideas on art, disability and technology including new project ideas and partnerships plus, for example, suggestions for improving lab design and facilitation to make labs more widely accessible. It also became clear from participant feedback that getting practical via prototyping was essential for achieving this.
Whilst conceptual elements are often the driver behind an idea, and the technology is the mechanism or tool, what was soon understood was that if an artist is unaware of the available technology their ideas may be restricted by what they perceive as practicable. As Rachael Burton, the coordinator for Watershed’s creative technology and talent development projects shared: “We were asked to suggest a smörgåsbord of potential technologies we had to hand that could be used for prototyping or provoking ideas. This led to an interesting discussion around what comes first, the idea or the technology? If the feasible technology is laid out early on, it can act as a catalyst to the art, rather than a limitation.”
At the public talk at Southbank Centre in September 2016, participating artist Aidan Moseby described his early work in digital as being like another world opening up but without the language or tools to navigate it. According to him, Unfixed has changed all this, giving him the space to interrogate and the confidence to develop his digital skills to extend his practice.
As a result of the relationships that were developed between Unlimited, the participating artists, partnering venues and festivals, there remains a strong potential for further collaboration moving forward. Many of the artists have already built upon the experience – for example, both Aidan Moesby and Jane Gauntlett have become residents of the Pervasive Media Studio, Watershed and the whole cohort’s progress will be mapped 12 months after the second residency in autumn 2017. Unlimited has become a partner on the Watershed Creative Producers International programme, which will provide fifteen Creative Producers from across the globe with the skills they need to become the city change-makers of the future- putting people and play at the heart of cities across five continents.
These collaborative relationships have been beneficial to everyone involved. The artists have developed new skills, understandings and partnerships. The expertise of Unlimited and the artists’ skills, behaviours and ways of doing things, have taught the associated organisations how to be sustainable in their offer of access and inclusion across their programmes, especially those for disabled artists and audiences. It has taught them how to be more confident when talking about disability and better placed to identify potential barriers to access and inclusion, as well as to take steps to remove them.
What can others learn from this?
When working with disabled artists in a practical and creative environment, it is necessary to strike a balance between structure and flexibility. It became clear from participant feedback that, in a collaborative maker lab environment, it is essential that participants are given plenty of time to settle in, digest, reflect and experiment on their terms.
Cross-cultural exchange can provide excellent opportunities for artist development, as it allows otherwise relatively isolated artists to reflect on how their work relates to others, learn others’ processes and develop relationships as well as ideas. In a blog for Disability Arts Online, Director Trish Wheatley said: “The artists have already found a real value in the time spent debating language, sharing ideas and exploring one another’s artistic processes.”
Access, of course, has to be key. As said by Jo Verrent at Unfixed: In Conversation at Southbank Centre: “Working in those fields, whether it be any area of the cultural industries, any area of technology, any area of augmentation, any area at all - we need to keep pushing for increased access. That is the only way that a wider range of artists and people are going to be able to explore, and that’s the only way that we are going to be able to achieve equality.”
Though inaccessibility and increased expense remain issues in the practice of many technologies, digital is increasingly available, widening access to lived experiences and making the ideas of disabled artists more visible in new ways. Residencies such as Unfixed can ensure disabled artists are leading such developments rather than continually playing catch-up.
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