Unlimited – UK
Looking back at the partnership between Unlimited and the British Council – a joint venture that brought disability arts to a global stage.
At the heart of the British Council’s work in disability arts is our partnership with Unlimited. Beginning in 2008 in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games and Cultural Olympiad’s, we made a commitment as partners to do for disabled artists what the Paralympics has done for disabled athletes.
The partnership between Unlimited and the British Council emerged within the context of a long history of arts-led activism in the United Kingdom (UK). The Disability Arts Movement in the late 1970s brought together disability activists, artists and creatives of all kinds who campaigned for the civil rights of disabled people and fought against their marginalisation in the arts and culture. The influence of this movement led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK in 1995, which banned discrimination of disabled people in connection with employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services. It was replaced in 2010 with the Equality Act.
The inspiration provided by these artists manifests itself in the opportunities afforded to disability artists in the UK today. Unlimited’s contribution to the Paralympics’ Cultural Olympiad resulted in 29 new commissions by disabled artists from across the UK and five international collaborations with artists from Brazil, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, and South Africa.
Delivered by disability-led Shape Arts and arts-production hub Artsadmin, Unlimited has subsequently developed into the world’s largest commissioning programme for disability arts and remains a major partner for our work.
Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited and member of the defining Disability Arts Movement, reflected on Unlimited and its impact on disability arts:
“All sounds great, doesn’t it? And in the most part it is. However, what’s important is to look at why initiatives such as Unlimited exist, not just what they do.”
Unlimited exists because disabled artists experience multiple and systemic barriers to developing arts skills, gaining funding, negotiating the arts sector, and platforming their work. This is not due to a lack of talent, vision, skill or resilience. This is due to entrenched ableism within the cultural sector – and all sectors of society. It’s due to historic systems excluding rather than reimagining. Access and inclusion are not seen as a priority despite the fact that disabled people make up 15% – 25% of our global population, according to some definitions of disability. Together we aim to change perceptions of disabled people both in the UK and internationally with ground-breaking and high-quality art. Indeed, “Unlimited funds exceptional work.” It supports disability arts and enables it “to cut through the barriers – to become ‘must see’ rather than ‘should see’ and therefore change the perception of disabled artists from one of pity or discomfort to a more rounded one – we are just part of humanity. People often assume there is one type of disabled artist producing one type of work, but artists are artists, and the variety is infinite – of both artform and approach.”
Many of Unlimited commissions have gone on to tour internationally with the British Council’s support, bringing boundary-defying work to new contexts, challenging audiences world-wide, and raising the profile of disabled artists. Cultural leaders across the globe are inspired by Unlimited as a funding model that has the capacity to lead social impact.
Verrent reflects on the reach of their collaborations: “Unlimited [projects] and artists have worked [across] the Americas frequently such as [with] VIVA Carnival developed with Brazil,, Touretteshero, which toured through the USA and Canada, Raquel Meseaguer adapting work with Mexico, and Richard Butchins showing work in Argentina .”
There are many facets to our partnership. British Council Arts specialists sit on Unlimited’s commissioning panels. We provide training and advice for disabled artists regarding international work. We support a placement programme for disabled arts professionals from outside the UK to gain valuable experience working with Unlimited’s team at Shape Arts and Artsadmin. To date we have had placements from Australia, Cambodia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Uganda. In 2016, with Arts Council England Ambition for Excellence funding, we launched a second round of Unlimited International commissions, resulting in collaborations with Brazil, Palestine, Japan, Singapore, and India.
Over the last 10 years we have established an international biennial showcase, the Unlimited Festival, delivered by Southbank Centre, which reflects the growing international demand for the UK’s disability arts. At the first Unlimited Festival in 2012, we hosted 50 international delegates. By 2018, the number of international delegates had grown to 120 from 40 countries. We introduce the delegates to UK disability arts by hosting presentations and talks, networking events and providing opportunities to attend performances by leading UK artists.
Working closely with Unlimited and Unlimited commissioned artists, our disability arts programme spans 46 countries and includes tours and exhibitions, disability conferences, and symposia, disability awareness and access training, skills development for disabled artists and practitioners and consultancy to cultural organisations and governments. We have also developed tools that can be used by anyone such as our short, animated video that explains the social model of disability, and our Disability Arts International website promoting increased access to the arts for disabled artists and audiences around the globe. In 2021, we provided micro-awards to artists to collaborate remotely. A few examples of these collaborations from the Americas include Hannah Aria (England: South East) and Estela Lapponi (Brazil); Gina Biggs/SheWolf (Wales), Javier Hernando Peralta Gonzalez (Colombia), and Anthar Kharana (Colombia); Poet Ekiwah Adler-Belendez (Mexico) and multimedia artist Juan delGado (England: London) and Chris Tally Evans (Wales) to work with Fernanda Amaral (Brazil).
Our partnership places UK disabled artists and cultural leaders firmly at the centre of an international disability arts movement which is a catalyst for social change. The Unlimited/British Council partnership leaves a legacy that is far-reaching and transformational. From the establishment of the first integrated theatre and dance companies in Bangladesh and Armenia respectively, to the first Minister for Disability in Korea, the work we initiate and support has a profound impact in arts and culture. In the Americas, this legacy is taking shape in ways that amplify the work done by arts and activist groups in the cultural sector. Our programmes create spaces for cultural exchange and raising awareness, like with Cripping the Arts in Toronto (2016, 2019), Trazando Possibilidades in Guadalajara (2019) and the inclusive programme for the FIBA in Buenos Aires (2020); It supports and showcases UK and local talents, like the collaboration between Natalia Mallo and Marc Brew in Brazil, and influences and builds capacity for accessibility and inclusion through the Relaxed Performance project in Canada. All these initiatives, realized on the ground with key partners, further create an enabling environment for arts and culture for all.
Elements of this text are from an article by curator and writer Linda Rocco, originally published on the Unlimited website and as part of her associate role with Unlimited and The Art House. She interviews Tony Heaton OBE, David Hevey and Jo Verrent, members of the Disability Arts Movement, for their thoughts on the legacy of disabled people’s art and activism in the UK.
Following the first round of Unlimited during the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad, the British Council team in Brazil developed Unlimited: Arte sem Limites together with 8 UK and 20 Brazilian cultural organisations. This programme was part of Transform, a programme that aimed to connect British and Brazilian cultural organisations and artists around programmes that focused on social change.
Unlimited in Brazil was an extensive programme that aimed to increase access to culture and encourage artists with disabilities to produce work. It was a unique umbrella programme focused on disability arts with a special focus on showcasing high-quality work produced by disabled artists. The programme had four major strands of work, from access auditing and policymaking, capacity-building and training for showcasing to collaborations and co-productions. A total of 16 projects took place between 2012-2016 in Brazil and in the UK.
In its final year, Unlimited held its biggest projects and events culminating with activities within the Paralympic celebrations Rio 2016.
Amongst others, Natalia Mallo, producer and artist, was supported to develop MayBe, a dance piece co-created by the Brazilian artist Gisele Calazans and the Scottish artist Marc Brew, which subsequently toured both in Brazil and the UK. Graeae Theatre presented The Garden – a large-scale open-air performance, as part of the British Council’s Cultural Olympiad programme during the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This was the largest project ever produced as part of Unlimited in Brazil and it was a recreation of the original piece, with Brazilian artists in the cast. Finally, in partnership with Biblioteca Parque, Rio 2016 and Rio’s Secretary of Culture, the Fórum Unlimited de acessibilidade na cultura was a 3-day forum on accessibility where Shape Arts delivered a training course for 20 people who cascaded their learnings in their institutions and networks.
With activities happening in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife, Edinburgh and London, Unlimited: Arte sem Limites engaged with more than 500 d/Deaf and disabled artists and allies, and a total of 89,000 audience attended Unlimited events across the four years of the programme. In the Americas region, this programme has led the way in developing a model of cultural relations focused on disability and based on nurtured international exchanges and collaborations.
Eliza Chandler & Elwood Jimmy – Canada
A push for a different relationship with time.
In December 2020, Elwood Jimmy and Eliza Chandler discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their experience of arts and culture.
Eliza Chandler: I wonder if you could reflect on the dynamics we negotiate as Indigenous and disabled people working in the art world, and how it relates to this contemporary moment of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased public awareness of state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous, Black, and racialized people.
Elwood Jimmy: I think modernity interrupts our responsibility and our obligations to one another. I think about this a lot in relation to my own practice: how do we find ways to be different, to move differently, and to relate to one another differently, especially to bodies that have been historically marginalized and experienced the burden of colonial violence? This burden became crystal clear within the pandemic, with Black Lives Matter, and also within disability activism. Even thinking about what was happening here very locally in the province of Ontario. For example, the income disparity between people who were losing their jobs and getting the CERB [Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit] payments of $2,000 versus people on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program] who receive a monthly living stipend of much less than that. And people still just take it as a given that some bodies are more valuable than others. One of the key tenets of modernity is separability. In these conditions, how do we interact?
I ask this question in my practice everyday. There’s always this misalignment between Indigenous and colonial sensibilities, and in order for us to move towards some sort of alignment where different sensibilities can respectfully coexist, I think about our own individual pursuits and desires that make us complicit within this work of moving differently, moving together, and moving collectively and horizontally. What are the blockages? What are the barriers that are causing us to be constantly misaligned?
In many conversations, no matter what community, I always hear an emphasis on “movement”, but the movement is always about progress and moving forward. I think about these kinds of historical violence against bodies within the Indigenous community or disability community, and we haven’t really sat with that. We haven’t been able to actually look at the historical violence and historical harms that have been done to particular communities, including Black communities. We always want to gloss over or brush those aside so that we can move forward, but I think we need to actually develop stamina and the muscles to actually sit with this violence. I think sometimes people don’t think ‘sitting with’ is as powerful or as evident as moving forward. But I think ‘sitting with’ is actually, in these times, the more powerful, more generative, and more compassionate move rather than constantly trying to move forward.
Eliza Chandler: Speaking from my perspective, I absolutely agree. I think many disabled people have experienced the pandemic differently than most. Many of us – when we are able to – shelter in place, fearful of how ICU-genics might play out if we contract the virus and end up in an overloaded hospital for treatment. At the same time, we have witnessed crip perspectives seep into broader social consciousness as the impact of austerity measures on care homes’ abilities to care are exposed, working from home becomes not only possible but lauded for its efficiency, and artists broadcast performances live from their bedrooms. And, as you say, we can no longer deny that late capitalism requires many of us to suffer so that some of us can thrive. As capitalism crumbles while socialism once again tries to save the day – all the while trying to beat off capitalism’s phoenix rising – many are resisting a desire for the ‘return to normalcy’. In these ‘early days’, on July 4th, essayist and former poet laureate for the City of Toronto Dionne Brand wrote an editorial to the Toronto Star, in which she questions these desires, asking us if homelessness, gender-based violence, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous state violence (2020, July 4) are the normal to which we desire to return.
One of the things I have been struck by throughout the pandemic is, as my friend Loree Erickon has pointed out, the need for interdependency on a massive collective scale. Interdependent relations of care change the power dynamic embedded in traditional care relations by recognizing that care can be and often is reciprocal. We are all being asked to engage in interdependent relations of care: I have to wear a mask to protect you and you have to wear one to protect me. Strangers engage in dances on the street so they can pass each other from a safe distance. We ask taxi drivers about their families and our personal support workers ask us about ours. We are caring for each other as though our lives depend on it, which they do!
EJ: I use the word ‘sensibility’ a lot in the work that I do as a curator, a programmer and an artist. There are layers of knowing and layers of being, but I would frame that as a sensibility – like an Indigenous sensibility or non-Indigenous sensibility within a Canadian context. How do those two different sensibilities encounter one another in real world situations? In a workplace, in the contemporary art world that both you and I are part of, or in various artistic and educational and even political organizations that we’re all engaged with.
The word ‘acces(sen)sibility’ came from my involvement and my own lived experience of working within access, disability arts and disability justice, contemporary art, and Indigenous art, and these many layers that are embodied within my body and my own practice, my own life ways, my own ways of navigating the world. I think this word gestures to something larger than us all, related to accountability. Many layers of accountability, not just to each other, but then also to the nonhuman and the beyond human, and the unknown. The world that we live in is very structured and contained, and within this human-constructed framework that we’re all kind of conditioned to live in, some benefit more than others. It doesn’t work for all of us in different, very disparate and marginalized communities. I am thinking about the language of ‘acces(sen)sibility’ and ways of knowing and of being that can move and shift, allowing different bodies to live nourishing, meaningful, and non-marginalized lives.
EC: My understanding of the term ‘acces(sen)sibility’ is that it’s asking us to think about access relationally rather than, as you say, as a tick box, as something we should be congratulated for. And one of those relationalities is between knowing and being. The way the term ‘acces(sen)sibility’ refracts a particular way of being is a different orientation for so many of us. And I think if we are to obligate ourselves to this interdependent way of enacting accessibility as a relation, part of that is to really think about the relations between what we say and what we do. That’s what I’ve learned so clearly. It’s not just about doing access, it’s about thinking and making sure that, as much as we can, the way we think about access and the commitments that it holds us to are translated into the practice of access.
I’m interested in your notion of ‘unrestricted autonomy’. It’s difficult to be unrestrictedly autonomous during a pandemic, although capitalism does persist. I do wonder about how much of a break in culture this pandemic has affected.
EJ: Yeah, it’s hard to say. Being an Indigenous person here in Canada, you see these waves of energy to embody care and to sit with complex and historically violent relationships. I find the broader community will often relapse back into these kinds of harmful habits and ways of being after whatever it was that allured them to wanting to, say, be a part of a reconciliation process. The pandemic interrupted our own global – when I say ‘our own’ you say ‘everybody’ – unrestricted autonomy. It will be interesting to see how the world unfolds over the next year or two to see if there is a more embodied demonstration of care, and if that’s sustainable. Time will tell.
The disability justice community has been advocating for many years and many decades for shifting and changing definitions of work and production value. And then, all of a sudden, it’s been implemented because of the pandemic. Not as individual bodies, but as a collective body – a kind of a collective metabolism, so to speak. Are we able to sustain this shift? The pandemic kind of twisted our arm and maybe pushed us to be different. These are muscles and capacities that modernity has exiled for decades and centuries. Do we have the stamina to keep those muscles moving?
I think within both Indigenous and disability communities, there has been a push for a different relationship to time and temporality. I feel I could say with some confidence within both of our communities, time has been weaponized and instrumentalized against us in terms of the pacing, of how we move, and how we work within communities.
Eliza Chandler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University where she teaches and researches in the areas of disability arts, critical access studies, social movements. She leads a research program focused on disability arts and crip cultural practices. Chandler is also a practicing curator.
Elwood Jimmy is originally from Thunderchild First Nation, a Nehiyaw community in the midwestern region of what is now called Canada. His favourite time invested is as a novice gardener and aquarist. He has worked in the arts in various capacities in Canada and abroad for over two decades.
Amanda Cachia – USA
In this excerpt, Amanda Cachia argues for curatorial practices that embody a “creative access” framework which centers considerations of access in the art-object, the exhibit, and the artist-curator relationship as a site of meaning-making and aesthetic possibility.
“Creative access” builds on the generally understood meaning of “access,” which is the ability to approach and use something. According to Elizabeth Elicessor, “access” typically encompasses qualities of ease such as “user-friendliness of a system, or financial affordability.” In a critical curatorial practice where curators are understood to provide “access” to an audience in terms of an exhibition’s content through objects, ideas and text, adding the word “creative” to curatorial “access” has a political agenda. The idea of “creative access” is manifold: on the one hand, the goal of “creative access” is to advance a more complex curatorial model for contemporary art exhibitions that can be made accessible to an array of complex embodiments. For example, American Sign Language, captioning, and written and audio translations of sound and image are embedded into the material, structural, and conceptual aspects of an exhibition. On the other hand, “creative access” also means an active curatorial engagement with artists who use “access” as a conceptual framework in their practice. A curator’s notion of access and an artists’ interpretation of access are conflated and juxtaposed in an exhibition, providing a dynamic dialogic exchange between the physical and the conceptual, or the praxis and the theory.
My stake in the work of “creative access” is from the perspective of a curator who identifies as physically disabled and who has been deploying “creative access” in all my exhibitions since 2011. Not only has my curatorial work engaged in “creative access,” but my exhibitions have also engaged in social justice themes focused on disability and the disabled body. I have curated these exhibitions with the ambition of transforming reductive associations of the disabled body at large, in tandem with introducing audiences to Tobin Siebers’ idea of “disability aesthetics,” by illustrating his concepts through the art objects on display and providing alternative definitions of aesthetics. My projects have also explored activist positions within specific disabled community groups, including people with dwarfism, people who are deaf and/or hearing impaired, and people who are blind and/or visually impaired. My commitment to these themes called for an equal but also robust commitment to “access” given that projects focused on disability must surely consider the audience member who identifies as disabled. Therefore, I found myself not only paying attention to the artist and their work as part of conventional curatorial labor, but I also had to focus new energy into considering “access” in creative and conceptual ways that could be enlivened both practically and conceptually.
“Creative access” is an important tool to deploy within a critical dis/ability curatorial practice because it elevates and complicates our rudimentary, although no less important, understanding of “access” in the museum. This is because “creative access” embodies both conceptual and physical possibilities where the very idea of “access” can be discovered in an artists’ work fruitfully curated into exhibitions, and incorporated into projects under the leadership and imagination of the curator. “Creative access” then calls for curators to weave into their practice a new aspect that demands a consideration of a greater diversity of bodies. This diversity of bodies is represented both in the complex embodiment of and consequently the objects created by artists with whom they work, and the audiences that visit the museum and consume artists’ and curators’ ideas. What I am suggesting is that “creative access” perhaps offers a more compelling intellectual engagement with typical notions of access. Through regular and consistent deployment, the curator, artist, and audience member will enhance their knowledge of standard conventions such as captioning, whilst also enjoying how artists engage with such conventions creatively. Perhaps this will motivate curators to take on the work of access in more meaningful, concentrated ways. This is not to water down the significance of providing conventional physical access or the professionals who execute such work, such as captionists and sign language interpreters. Rather, “creative access” can be both practical and creative at once.
“Access” is not as one-dimensional as people might think because it can incorporate other sensorial experiences into the work that include tactile elements, sound, captions, audio description, and more. In the execution of this work, I have found artists to be both responsive and receptive to my ideas as much as I have been inspired by theirs. Therefore, the spirit of “creative access” suggests that a fluid process takes place between curator and artist(s) so that each party reaches consensus on what “creative access” should mean in a particular time and place for a particular exhibition and audience. In part, this also means that “creative access” advocates for a politics within the ordinary curator-artist dialogical exchange, where each party might consider it a necessity to discuss how “creative access” will be seen, felt, and heard for the benefit of a complex embodied audience.
Each instance in this essay where “creative access” has been deployed has also attempted to indicate how the artist/curator exchange, on its critical import, has evolved. In other words, “creative access” is not monolithic nor uniform. Much like the general definition of access itself, “creative access” is always going to be variable and dependent on a number of conditions. If the artist and curator are prepared to engage imaginatively with the work of “creative access,” then conditions of narrow standardization will not only eventually be disrupted as they transform curatorial practice and the museum and gallery experience for the visitor, but vital new approaches to art-making and thinking will thrive.
Sections of this chapter were originally published in “The Politics of Creative Access: Dis/ability in Curatorial Practice” in the “Cripping the Arts” Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies (2018). The author thanks CJDS editor Jay Dolmage and Special Issue editor Eliza Chandler for kindly permitting this reproduction.
Cachia, Amanda. “‘Disabling’ the Museum: Curator as Infrastructural Activist,” Journal of Visual Art Practice, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2013.
Cachia, Amanda. “Cripping Cyberspace: A Contemporary Virtual Art Exhibition”, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 2013 http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/issue/view/7/showToc, accessed November 11, 2016.
Candlin, Fiona. Art, Museums, and Touch. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2010.
de Groot, Raphaëlle. Interview with Amanda Cachia, February 16, 2015.
Ellcessor, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation. New York and London: New York University Press, 2016.
Linzer, Danielle and Cindy Vanden Bosch. “Building Knowledge Networks to Increase
Accessibility in Cultural Institutions.” Project Access, Art Beyond Sight, 2013. New York: Art Beyond Sight.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
Amanda Cachia is an independent curator and critic from Sydney, Australia. She received her PhD in Art History, Theory & Criticism from the University of California San Diego in 2017. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art; curatorial studies and activism; exhibition design and access; decolonizing the museum; and the politics of embodied disability language in visual culture.
Cachia currently teaches art history, visual culture, and curatorial studies at Otis College of Art and Design, California Institute of the Arts, California State University Long Beach, and California State University San Marcos. She serves as caa.reviews Field Editor for West Coast Exhibitions (2020-2023).
Centre Gabriela Mistral – Chile
As one of the largest cultural centres in Chile, GAM is influencing public policy by making artistic initiatives its vehicle.
Located in Santiago, Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) opened in 2010 as a cultural centre with numerous spaces for theatre, dance, circus performances, classical and popular music, crafts, and visual arts quickly establishing itself as one of Chile’s major arts venues.
Due to its importance on the cultural landscape of the capital, GAM has always led in terms of accessibility and inclusive programming. In 2013, it began organising a variety of training courses and seminars for artists and cultural agents to develop new ways of working with a broader spectrum of creators and audiences in mind. One of those initiatives, the Incluye Seminar, is an annual week-long programme of workshops, masterclasses, relaxed performances, films, and lectures on inclusive arts.
The Incluye Seminar began as a response to making the cultural centre more inclusive to audiences that were visiting the space, but had a limited interaction with it due to a disability. It began by creating guided tours of the space for blind and visually-impaired visitors, led by blind and vision-impaired guides, called HAPTO.
GAM Executive Director Felipe Mella underlines the importance of this initiative, “With Incluye, we seek to contribute towards inclusion of all people with disabilities and highlight artistic initiatives that serve as vehicles for social transformation.”
Thanks to a long- standing collaboration with the British Council, Pamela López, Head of Programming and Audiences at GAM, took part in various editions of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Made in Scotland Programme and Unlimited Festival where she saw inclusive arts at its best.
In 2018 she brought UK actor and comedian Jess Thom to Chile as part of Incluye’s programme. Her book, “Welcome to Biscuit Land,” her play “Backstage in Biscuit Land,” and her documentary “Me, My Mouth and I” explore her lived experience with Tourette Syndrome. By including all of this work in Incluye’s programme, López emphasizes that “it was a rare opportunity to see inclusive arts as a whole.”
GAM’s commitment to inclusive arts has had many highpoints over the years. The documentary “Lección de música” (The Music Lesson) shared the story of a young autistic woman who learned to conduct a music ensemble using sign language. After the film premiered at GAM, there was a live concert by the ensemble and its conductor. The play “Punto ciego” (Blind Spot) about a witch hunt in the island of Chiloe (south of Chile) in the 1880s, pioneered audio description throughout the performance without using earphones, and the HAPTO project has blind guides lead groups of blindfolded visitors through the permanent collection of the cultural centre, providing a different experience of the heritage art pieces in the collection and of the building itself.
In 2018, GAM introduced relaxed performances to its yearly programme base. By adapting artistic work to better suit the needs of adults and children with learning difficulties, autism, or sensory communication disorders GAM created a more friendly environment at the theatre for these patrons.
López stipulates that these programmes do not yet reflect the full breadth of commitment GAM has for inclusive arts. “Our vision is still 180 degrees in scope. For it to be 360 degrees, we need to make every production and commission in an accessible format. We must incorporate artists with disabilities in every single process, aspect and phase, and generate radical actions to influence public policy in this area.”