Mainstream and marginal: have we progressed in the last decade plus? By Charlotte Waelde

In 2003 Paul Anthony Darke penned a highly informative chapter [1] about Disability Arts in which he explained the philosophy behind the movement. As elucidated by Darke, ‘Disability Art used art to identify and reveal how ‘cultural forms and practices do not simply reflect an already given social work but, rather, play a constitutive role in the construction of that world’’ . Throughout the chapter Darke argues that Disability Arts has been both mainstreamed and marginalised. It has been mainstreamed through the assimilation of Disability Art into the establishment by way of, for example, traditional training programmes (in which Disability Arts does not feature); and it has been marginalised such that the majority of Disability Artists ‘wander from one small commission to another, filling the void with equal opportunities training or audience development initiatives…’.

While the dancers and choreographers who we have worked with during the currency of our project don’t necessarily identify with the philosophy underpinning Disability Arts, one of the key messages that has emerged from our symposia in 2013 and 2014, is that there is frustration within the community that questions around exclusion, otherness, difference, invisibility, and disability aesthetics are repeatedly asked (and have been for the past decade) without significant movement. There is a sense now, however, that the community is at a ‘tipping point’, a point at which these questions can be put in the past and the dance can move into a new phase; validated and embraced within the cultural ecosystem on an equal footing with other dances and dancers. However there is also a sense that it has been at this tipping point for years. There is, in other words, both a sense of anticipation, that it is possible to move forwards, but also a sense of frustration, that the means for actually doing so remain elusive.

One of our current plans to take the work that we have been doing forwards has been to develop ideas for the filming of a documentary that we hope will respond to this frustration. It is our contention that the absence of disabled dance from our memory institutions is a contributory factor to the repetitive nature of the discourse: there is a need constantly to revisit these same issues precisely because there is no memory of them. The focus of the documentary will be on our dance partners’ at work: in the studio, in rehearsal and making work together, resulting in an art-documentary rather than a public information film. The intention is to raise awareness of how disabled dancers and choreographers need to think about organising their working day dealing with every day matters such as getting to work, navigating through the rehearsal space, and negotiating with facilitators such as sign language specialists (all of which have been raised by our project participants as issues). Woven into this story will be interviews that will articulate the policy frameworks applicable to, and the practical conditions within, our memory institutions that support a work becoming part of our ‘formal’ cultural heritage. Our aim is then to show this film at two venues; one in Scotland and one in England and have an associated round-table high level policy-maker discussion event to debate the policy issues that have been raised in our project.

Let me, at this point, take the reader back to Darke’s chapter. One of the points that Darke makes about both mainstreaming and marginalisation is as follows: ‘As a result of existing art hierarchies, Disability Art events, exhibitions and performances are invariably marginalised as art per se or held purely as education-based events’. When we asked a Scottish mainstream venue if they would be interested in hosting our event the response was: (a) perhaps you should think of a dance studio (thus inevitably keeping the audience limited to those who are (already) interested in dance); or (b) if that did not work, re-approach the venue but do so through their person responsible for education.

Darke’s chapter was written in 2003; we are now in 2015. It is thus for significantly more than a decade that the same barriers have been erected against the penetration of dance made by our colleagues within the ‘arts establishment’. It is particularly saddening that this has arisen in Scotland. Our dance collaborators have almost without exception said how welcoming Scotland is to artists with disabilities, to the extent that they consider themselves not as ‘disabled dance artists’ but as dance artists. Further, it is notable that one of the people who has so far agreed in principle to participate in the round-table debate is Janet Archer, CEO of Creative Scotland.

[1] ‘Now I Know Why Disability Art is Drowning in the River Lethe (with thanks to Pierre Bourdieu)’ in Disability, Culture and Identity Sheila Riddell & Nick Watson Pearson eds. 2003.
citing Bowler A ‘Methodological dilemmas in the sociology of art’ in Crane, D (ed) The Sociology of Culture, Blackwell, Oxford 1994.

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