Ten Years On: Re-presenting VITAL, Problematising Playing Fields

by Juliet Robson

What I deduce from all this is the value of a rich, complex language. Instead of creating dichotomies between good and bad words, we can use accurate, individual descriptors. Instead of taking for granted the meanings assigned by one or another political group, we can struggle with distinguishing our own definitions from theirs. The process is awkward; it slows down talk; it is uncomfortable. It slows down thought and increases complexity.
Barbara Hillyer, Feminism & Disability, 1993

Over a decade ago, in 2000, I was co-curator with Kate Stoddart of VITAL and Vital Signs: a three-month contemporary arts festival and a one-day symposium held in Nottingham. Featuring new commissions by international and national artists, with and without disabilities, and events including film screenings, discussions and workshops, a three-day performance festival, the reading room and illustrated talks, VITAL aimed to tackle complexities of the human condition looking at ideas of beauty and normality, perception, representation and the ways in which we communicate.(1) In this article, I would like to look back on the curatorial challenges we faced in the cultural climate of ten years ago and how they were met.

In the written material generated during the lead up to VITAL, at times it was necessary to identify artists as having a disability or impairment. We generally used the definitions of ‘disabled artist’ or ‘artist with a disability’ rather than other terms in use, specifically ‘Disabled Artist’; therefore ‘disabled artist’ will be the descriptor most commonly used in this text. The term ‘Disabled Artist’, while understood erratically by the general population, was used as an identity to define artists who aligned themselves with the Disability Art Movement, its associated organisations, and political and social agendas. The art itself regularly expressed disabled people’s lived and historical experiences of having an impairment and its audiences were others who shared common ground in those areas, events were frequently organised by groups such as SHAPE, which at the time of VITAL was the most influential arts and disability related organisation in Nottingham. These identifiers continue to be contested within the disabled community: a recent research project completed by Anne Teahan, ‘Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility’, is just one of the latest publicised debates, and reflects the diverse reactions of a selection of British, American and Australian artists to these unstable and problematic labels.(2)

As I hope will become clear, VITAL was not intended as an activist vehicle for the social and/or political agendas of either the Disability Movement or the Disability Arts Movement. The role of VITAL was not to present a collective message, but to support individual voices: in other words, it was not conceived as a Disability Art festival for a disabled audience. Nor, however, was it a denial of the real concerns of disabled artists with regard to representation of their chosen identity by institutions in favour of obtaining membership into the Holy Grail of mainstream art and culture. (‘Mainstream art and culture’ being defined as the established institutional art structures of the dominant culture whose physical, cultural or philosophical positions create barriers to disabled people’s participation in their activities.)

With hindsight, I believe that VITAL had a relation to what Lennard J. Davis calls with regard to any identity group movement ‘the second wave’. The first wave of any identity group movement establishes a common identity and solidarity in order to achieve its political ends (such as basic rights and an end to discrimination, or the creation of a separate culture to the existing one). The second wave begins to question and redefine common and personal identities in more nuanced and complex ways, finding diversity within the manifesto of solidarity.(3)

As curators, Kate and I fully acknowledged the importance of the Disability Arts Movement and its historical and cultural significance. However, we were also aware that there were artists (such as myself) who, at times, questioned the framework of Disability Art festivals and events finding them too restrictive to contain our identities as artists, or the content and concerns within our practices. We felt strongly there was a need for a (predominantly visual) arts festival that addressed the issues faced by those artists who felt compromised by both Disability Arts and by the physical and philosophical barriers to mainstream arts – artists who ‘fell between two stalls’, so to speak, and who were potentially isolated. We recognised a need for a platform on which artists could have as much autonomy as possible to construct their own identities and to represent themselves free from any external pressure to conform prescriptively to either camp. Through VITAL, we hoped that problematising this dichotomy would provide a fertile discourse.

Historically, definitions and meanings of identity shift culturally and socially. They are as subjective and unstable as the numerous aesthetic and genre categorisations that artists find themselves in or define themselves and their work by. Relationships to contexts, agendas, criteria and critical reviews are negotiated; identities are appropriated. It may be that, if VITAL were taking place in 2012, a definition other than ‘disabled artist’ or ‘artists with a disability’ would be used to identify these artists – if it was deemed to be required at all. So, while finding it necessary here to use certain descriptors, I acknowledge the limits of any such label and the ongoing debate surrounding the use of the words ‘disabled’ and disability’. Karl Popper has stated: Definitions are either abbreviations and therefore unnecessary, though perhaps convenient, or they are Aristotelian attempts to “state the essence” of a word and are therefore unconscious conventional dogmas.’(4)

Since it would be impossible to talk here about all the events that made up VITAL, this text will focus on the six new artist commissions – by Jaap De Jonge, Alison Lapper, Tim Register, Bill Shannon, Ann Whitehurst and Aaron Williamson – and the symposium Vital Signs, giving consideration to how we dealt with issues such as commissioning, marketing, publicity and representation of the artists. In the main, I have drawn from archival documentation, including minuted notes from the regular meetings we held with the partner venues and marketing team, draft proposals, briefs, publicity, reviews and evaluation documents, as well as my own recollections.

Kate and I met through the Drawbridge Group, which was employed as a consultancy team by Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Galleries from 1995, when Kate was exhibitions officer there. The Drawbridge Group, of which I was vice chair, was one of the first to contract disabled people to advise museums comprehensively on issues ranging from physical access to staff awareness, training, programming, exhibition content, interpretation, marketing and front of house. The Drawbridge Group was also the lead applicant for the funding for VITAL, while Kate and myself devised and wrote the applications and briefs for the match funders.(5)

Kate’s curatorial concerns and her interests in the representation of artists collided with my own investigations of these issues within my artistic practice and resulted in a proposal for an art festival in 1997. We already knew our objective was not to formulate a dominant ‘disability’ or ‘able-bodied’ cultural and political message, but to attempt to problematise the polarisation of these identities and to place the ‘art’ in the primary position above hegemony. In addition, we aimed as far as possible to create a level playing field for all involved, and to open up spaces within which a discourse could take place around the issues raised. We wanted open questions rather than closed answers. The tagline for the brochure that accompanied the day-long symposium Vital Signs reflects the ethos of the festival:‘A day exploring the power of contradiction at the heart of the VITAL season through film, live presentation, open discussion and intervention. Tracing strategies, engaging work, exploding ideas.’

One question we faced was how to go about sourcing and promoting the disabled artists from whom we wanted to commission new works within an integrated festival, where the focus was not on disability but on the calibre and concept of the art work. At the same time, we were keen to invite speculation and raise awareness of what is possible when contemporary art is inflected on some level by experience of impairment or disabled identity. Additionally, there was the issue of how to allow the audience of disabled and non-disabled visitors to experience and interpret the works with integrity, rather than through the usual arbitrary interpretation material – the common solution being handout sheets describing visual work, separate tactile objects or standardised audio description. We wanted to improve on this practice. Could we do this by asking the artists to make the commissions engage through more than one sense without compromising their own ideas? We were attempting to subvert standard methods of interpretation usually employed to ‘accommodate’ specific visitors to museums and galleries.

It was agreed that the commissions would include artists with and without disabilities, but that the artists without would be those whose work reflected some aspect of the human condition. During the planning stages for VITAL, Andrew Chetty (co-director of the NOW Festival in 2000), questioned the inclusion of non-disabled artists being commissioned to make work that commented on disability issues, believing that this might detract from the emphasis of VITAL being on the art work and not on disability avoiding a label of undue worthiness.(6) The documented reply from Kate and myself, after consultation with members of the Drawbridge Group, was as follows:

VITAL is about communication and the emphasis is on the quality of the work. It is an event that promotes difference and doesn’t shy away from the fact that disability is an issue for everyone whether disabled or not. Whether it touches someone’s life in passing or on a long-term basis, we will all experience the effect of some kind of disability in the broadest sense, as we get older. Having a disability or knowing someone who has a disability adds another dimension to our experience of life and gives an invaluable insight into the human condition. The way in which people’s lives are affected by disability can be indirect and nonetheless powerful. It can be a temporary disability or knowing someone with a disability that can have an impact on our lives. To have able-bodied people making work which comments on disability is to emphasise that this is a universal experience, avoiding a sense of the voyeuristic. As VITAL is a positive role model for young people, disabled or otherwise, it is important that issues of disability are seen in a valid and positive light. Disability is not seen as ‘something that affects other people’, but as part and parcel of being human and participating and interacting with culture and society. If non-disabled artists are making work that makes a valid contribution to the debate, providing their work is strong enough, they will be considered for invitation.(7)

We were not saying that to have a temporary impairment is to know what it is to live with a chronic condition; still, such experiences alert us to the porous boundaries between disability and apparent health. Disability cuts across all races, classes, genders, nationalities and generations. This was one of those curatorial decisions to which there was no absolute right answer, like many of the decisions we made in the lead up to VITAL. Hopefully, we would achieve our goal either way; it was all food for the Vital Signs debate, and I would rather break a few eggs than avoid making the omelette.

How, then, did we find artists to commission, particularly disabled artists who did not necessarily promote or identify themselves as having an impairment or disability? We were looking not only for artists making interesting work of high quality, but also those who were not the usual suspects of the Disability Art scene or the first port of call when certain mainstream venues needed to tick a disability box. We were keen to find artists whose relationship with their art and their disability was problematised, artists who were critically and aesthetically aware.

The process of research was started at least a year before the final selection was made to allow as much time as possible to find exactly the kind of participants we were looking for. Kate and I were excited and confident that there were artists, and also programmers, who felt the same as we did and who could give us some leads. Through a combination of enquiry, research and calls for interest we gathered a list of artists and asked for documentation. It was apparent from the feedback we received that there were significant numbers of artists with disabilities who were frustrated and looking for just the kind of opportunity VITAL aimed to provide. In the spirit of enquiry and open mindedness, partners and representatives from the Drawbridge Group were invited to a viewing of the documentation, at which there was an honest and open discussion of the challenges facing disabled artists who wanted to show their work in mainstream galleries and spaces, as well as those facing mainstream galleries wishing to present work by disabled artists, and how the work should be described and contextualised. From that meeting, a shortlist of artists was drawn up who were invited to put in a proposal for a VITAL commission; from those proposals, the final selection of commissions was made.

What became apparent was that a significant number of the partners had little awareness or understanding of the fact that there were artists with disabilities whose aesthetic practice, critical thinking and execution was compatible with and interesting to their existing programmes, and was as equally commercially viable as that of artists they’d already exhibited. It was commercial not in a paternalistic or charitable sense, nor in a distorted politically correct sense, but in the sense that its innovative form and content could draw viewers and generate complex interpretations and evaluations relevant to their existing audience, as well as attracting new visitors. It was at this point that I felt our partners and contributors becoming genuinely invested in an exciting and committed dialogue regarding the possibilities of VITAL and its legacy.

Partners and venues were matched to the commissioned artists. For example, Angel Row, previously having worked with deaf artist Joseph Grigley, were keen to build on this experience and matched funding to commission a work by Aaron Williamson. Williamson took on board the sensory requirements of the commission, fully integrating them into his piece Sonic Traps: Involuntary Head Sounds (2000), in which he narrated a series of texts onto audio tape that described ‘involuntary head sounds’. These were then ‘translated’ into installed objects and materials in the gallery, as well as into a creative text in book form. During the exhibition, Williamson also presented three performances in which he explored the installation physically. In addition to matching the right artist to the right partner institution, we were keen to offer the artists and venues opportunities to stretch themselves both artistically and curatorially. The Angel Row commission, for instance, was an example of a performance artist creating his first installation piece with intermittent performances, and a gallery working for the first time with performance.

Related to the sensory interpretation of the work, and as part of our aim to provide a level playing field for artists and audiences alike, was the issue of practical access and visitor experience. VITAL had a budget for improvements. We worked closely with venues (some of which had more experience and disabled access than others) providing equality training and tailored support to each venue and their matched artist. For the most part, venues knew what was needed to make their buildings accessible at a basic level but had less concept of what it meant to create a fully accessible event or rounded experience. It is still common to construe the provision of accessibility to an audience or artist as a compromise in terms of the content and quality, in danger of destroying an experience for the majority by catering for the minority. Or, with limited budgets the issue falls off the agenda entirely. Making sure we had budgeted to support venues and artists in enhancing this aspect of installation was integral to VITAL.

The marketing of VITAL incorporated at least three strands, all of which needed tailoring to attract our target audiences. The question was how to balance marketing on a national scale a contemporary art festival that aimed to provide a platform for disabled artists and highlight them as role models for emerging disabled artists, while making sure that the calibre of the work was equally if not more prominently articulated in the limited media space available to us. Our priority was to get as broad an audience as possible. We took an educated gamble that the way to begin this was first to get mainstream visitors through the door. We believed that, once in, they would begin to engage with the art work in a meaningful way. This involved careful consideration of the language of the brief for the marketing teams and the framing of the press releases.

At the time, it was not uncommon for marketing teams to have their own department and criteria for specific genre exhibitions and events – often based on what had been done before – and for the curator to be absent from meetings. We strongly felt it was important to have more than the usual level of communication with the marketing team at the Nottingham Castle Museum, who led on the national publicity for VITAL. And, initially, there was a certain amount of resistance to this change in policy. Historically, marketing anything inflected with disability – even on a minimal level – had been straightforward in that the disability element was the hook designed to attract attention. While other marginal groups had campaigned with some degree of success to change their public image, in the media, disability carried (and continues to carry) a negative social charge still supported by dominant cultural assumptions. It was, to my mind, a lazy approach appealing to the lowest common denominator. After much discussion, we chose not to use the word ‘disability’ in the mainstream publicity of the event but decided instead to focus on ways to promote the calibre of the work being shown and the notion that: ‘Part of the essence of VITAL is the range of sensory experiences. Every art work or event will engage at least two of the human senses.’(8)

We knew we would have some negative feedback – not least from some disabled people who would see it as denying disability rather than being ‘loud and proud’. However, we did not want VITAL to fall into the common trap of contemporary and public art audiences thinking this was nothing to do with them and fail on that count. We took a different approach when marketing to national and local disability publications, where it was made clear that this was an opportunity to see to great art made by professional artists with and without disabilities, all of which was accessible on a number of levels in high-profile, nationally recognised mainstream spaces.

In the individual brochures and programmes for VITAL and Vital Signs, the artists described their work on their terms and represented/identified themselves exactly as they chose. These brochures were distributed through all the partner venues’ mailing lists and publicity programmes, as well as through VITAL’s own national mailing list. In addition, VITAL brochures were available from all the usual festival outlets throughout Nottingham. We wanted all text to be printed in a clear font at 14 point size, avoiding complicated overlapping graphics. It was put to us that this would not be sophisticated enough and would compromise the design. We stayed firm and commissioned a design team who did not feel limited by this brief. The feedback we received from the evaluation report and from many visitors recognised how easy to read and understand our brochure was compared to other contemporary art festival guides that followed the trend for privileging complicated graphics over clear content.

Marketing for the Vital Signs symposium was also an issue for some people within the arts community of Nottingham, who were not convinced by the level of critical and theoretical language in the publicity, never having come across that kind of discourse in relation to contemporary art and disability before – even to the point where some doubted we would find any audience for it, if we pitched it at that level. I did have a few sleepless nights as a result, but it seemed to me that to do anything other than to have a serious critical debate about these issues would have been to dumb down the symposium and to do the contributors and potential attendees a major disservice, as well as to undermine the ethos of VITAL. As one panel member and artist put it: ‘This needs doing and, whatever happens, there will be a record in the future that it was done.’

Vital Signs brought together and aired all the contradictions and controversies of the VITAL season and placed issues of identity and territory at the centre of the debate. One indicator of this was the title itself: Vital Signs. Members of the Drawbridge Group queried our use of the term ‘vital signs’, expressing concern that it was medical terminology and therefore associated with the medical model of disability as opposed to the social model. Would there be the same sensitivity around its use today? At the time, however, this very association, as well as the connection to the signs and symbols of semiotics, were the two key reasons we decided to use Vital Signs as a title: to provoke debate.

In keeping with our belief in broadening and elevating discussions around art and disability, I approached the artist, activist and theorist Doran George to curate Vital Signs. During my early discussions with George, I had found we had common interests in unstable identities and their representations, as well as in contemporary art. One initial conversation we had, which was both relevant and amusing, was on the subject of public toilets and the implications of their designated gendered identities: the essentialist male/female dichotomy of non-disabled toilets and the non-essential and/or androgynous identity of disabled ones. George noted in his introductory address for Vital Signs:

Investments I have made in art and activism have resulted in me navigating the interface between art practice and struggles for social viability. My interest in the VITAL season is the way it treads on fragile territory where frameworks of identity based on culture have exhausted their productive potential but there still remains a desire to reconvene with the history of this culture in mind. If the critical reception of work is dominated by understandings that are familiar, then the work is in danger of being taken for granted. This is a sure step to suffocating any explorative cultural exchange with the work. In putting together Vital Signs, I have been attracted to artists and practices that upset my familiarity relevant to the debates at hand but could not be contained by them. My hope is that there won’t be any common aims nor coherent resolutions but perhaps moments of recognition and glimpses of fertile possibility in the discursive exchange and the exchange that happens in the work.(9)

Vital Signs consisted of four seminars, each panelled by two artists: one of whom George had invited to participate; the other of whom was a VITAL commissioned artist. Each seminar began with – but was not limited by – a locus that linked the artists: Toichi Nakata and Minoru chaired ‘The Pressure of the Image’; Aaron Williamson and Lawrence Harvey led ‘An Exploration of the Enabling, Informing and Prospective Impact of Identity Discourses’; Becky Edmunds and Ann Whitehurst headed up ‘Ideological Residues: Making Work within the Current Structures of Funding, Promotion and Reception: How the Ideologies that Shape the Structures within which Art Work Emerges Might be Productive or Ensnaring’; and, finally, there was an open discussion chaired by George: ‘How Might the Questions and Problems that a Critical Framework Attempts to Address be Best Left – in the Work or its Process?’. (The day also included a screening of Nakata’s 1992 documentary, Minoru & Me; a performance lecture by Harvey entitled ‘Why I Love Monsters’; a live presentation of Future Human by Edmunds; and Invisible Dances, a, live intervention by Bock and Vincenzi. Our hope for non-consensus, lively debate and no-closed conclusions was upheld. Discussions at times became heated, particularly around group and individual identity appropriation or transgression of paradigmatic territories. Tickets for Vital Signs completely sold out – we could have filled a much larger space – and the audience demographic covered theorists, curators, educators, students, policy-makers, professional and emerging artists, and art lovers alike. They came from Disability Art sectors and from mainstream sectors, as well as including those who choose not to be prescriptive in identifying with specific sectors. Conversation continued in the bar late into the evening, many further questions and views were aired for potential later debates, and many new connections were made.

Attendance evaluation commissioned by Nottingham City Council and East Midlands Arts Council bore out the success of Vital Signs, and recorded high audience figures for VITAL. On the whole, visitor feedback was extremely positive. The small number of negative comments were predictably narrow-minded, such as the one from a woman who wrote in response to an image in the galleries of Nottingham Museum of an artist with a disability being handed her baby son while naked: ‘Disgusting. I shouldn’t have to look at this. I wish I’d gone to [nearby stately home] Chatsworth House!’ However, these were balanced by positive comments. In particular, I was struck by one from a participant who spoke of the ‘very real sense of truth and reconciliation’ that came from the process of having their voice heard when attending Vital Signs.

Through VITAL and Vital Signs, seeds were planted as to what was possible within the cultural climate of Nottingham – and beyond. After the festival, I was contacted by both artists and organisations who were keen for there to be annual VITAL event. The legacy was a shift in mindset in the programming and policies of a number of art institutions. There was recognition between mainstream arts and disabled artists of nuanced differences within artists’ identities and the need for open discussion. An interest in a shared terrain prevailed – be that in the constructs of those identities, the paradigms and narratives of art histories, theoretical concerns, or aesthetics and methodologies. Tangible examples of that legacy include the growth and expansion of the interpretative approach to exhibitions at Angel Row, as well as the development of Dance4’s Lines of Enquiry – an exploratory space within the annual NottDance Festival regularly featuring artists with disabilities. The reviews of VITAL and Vital Signs that appeared in both local and national publications, such as The Guardian and Art Monthly, were gratifyingly complex in their reflections. The profiles of the artists involved were raised nationally and led to further opportunities.

A CD-ROM entitled VITAL: Exposing New Views, produced by Intermedia Film & Video (Nottingham) Ltd., documented all the events that took place over the three months, while interviews with the six commissioned artists and extra footage of their work was edited into an eponymous video, produced by myself and director Steven Sheil, which explored creative ways of using interpretive access tools both were widely distributed nationally to organisations and individuals.(11)

So where are we now, ten years on from the conception of VITAL? Working on the event was a fascinating and illuminating process, and I hope and believe that VITAL and Vital Signs contributed to the increased visibility of individual representations and complex nuanced identities. I hope that, at least partly as a consequence of VITAL, there are many more fluid and diverse voices out there now in ‘art land’ – from those who choose labels for themselves to those who choose no label; from artists who make work inflected by their identities as a footnote or as the locus of their practice to those who focus on other interests of equal importance. I would also hope to find the same diversity across the territories that artists inhabit, for the cultural discourse between those in the ‘mainstream’ and those outside it to be problematised, so as to lead to meaningful and productive events. VITAL would be a different animal were we to organise it again today, but the fact that I have been asked to write about it for this journal, a decade after its conception, is testament to its impact. It is also, perhaps, a sign that there are still things to talk about and, more importantly, things to do.

Footnotes
  1. Juliet Robson and Kate Stoddart, VITAL, Tom Partridge Design, 2000
  2. Anne Teahan, ‘Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility’, 27 September 2011, disabilityartsonline.org.uk/discussion
  3. Lennard J. Davis, ‘Constucting Normalcy’, The Disability Studies Reader, Lennard J. Davis (ed.), Routledge, 1997
  4. Karl Popper, ‘The Problem of Demarcation’, Philosophy: Basic Readings,Nigel Warburton (ed.), Routledge, 2005 (2nd Edition)
  5. The partners and match funders for VITAL were: Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Galleries, Angel Row Art Gallery, Broadway Media Centre, Now Festival, Nottingham Playhouse, Dance4 and Future Factories’ Forward Thinking Programme at Nottingham Trent University.
  6. Minutes from VITAL Partner Meeting, June, 1999
  7. Ibid.
  8. Juliet Robson and Kate Stoddart, VITAL, Tom Partridge Design, 2000
  9. Doran George, Vital Signs, Thom Patrick Design, 2000
  10. Juliet Robson, ‘How Does the Artist’s Physicality Impact on Her/His Creative Intent, and within Contemporary Visual Arts Practices that Respond to Physical and Cultural Environments?’ PhD research, Dartington College of Arts, 2009
  11. Both the video and the CD-ROM can be accessed through the Live Art Development Agency’s archive: www.thisisliveart.co.uk

Links to websites of individuals and organisations related to this article:

www.aaronwilliamson.org
www.jaapdejonge.nl
www.whatiswhat.com
www.alisonlapper.com
www.whitehurst.info
www.Chrisbramble.co.uk
www.kingsgateworkshops.org.uk
www.artadmin.co.uk
www.thisisliveartart.co.uk
www.selforganisingmen.com