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.
Deaf Interiors – Canada
The theme of Deaf joy flows through the culmination of a three-month digital artist incubator, presenting the multi-disciplinary works of six Deaf Canadian artists in an online exhibition called “Deaf Interiors.”
In response to the world health crisis and to social distancing measures that exacerbate feelings of isolation, artists gathered online with facilitators Peter Owusu-Ansah and Sage Lovell to share stories, generate ideas, and create work that demonstrates the interior world of Deaf culture, activism, and human connection.
“Deaf Interiors” is a digital adaptation of Crip Interiors, a site-specific installation of grid-like arrangement of life-sized artwork containers that individually and collectively highlight the ways that Deaf and disabled artists negotiate accessibility in the cityscape.
Presented by Creative Users Projects, Tangled Art + Disability, Cultural Toronto Hotspot, Bodies in Translation and Canada Council for the Arts Digital Originals.
Creative Users Projects (CUP) is a not-for-profit disability-led arts organization driven and informed by the legacy of Deaf and Disability Arts, a movement that for 50 years has changed the way we think about disability and inclusion. CUP is dedicated to highlighting disability in the arts in generating audiences, cultivating new talent, diversifying Canada’s arts and culture sector and building more accessible arts spaces in Canada. One such program is Accessing the Arts, an online listing of disability and accessible arts events across Canada.
Tangled Art + Disability is a charitable organization actively working towards creating a more inclusive and accessible arts and culture sector. Our mandate is to support Deaf, Mad and disability-identified artists, to cultivate Deaf, Mad and disability arts in Canada, and to enhance access to the arts for artists and audiences of all abilities. In 2016, Tangled launched a permanent gallery space. Tangled Art Gallery is Canada’s first gallery dedicated to Disability arts, presenting year-round programming focusing on accessible curation and a pillar for the development of Disability aesthetics.
Chela de Ferrari – Peru
The collaborative work between the actors and the production team of Hamlet at Teatro La Plaza represented an achievement not only on stage, but above all on a personal level.
Shakespeare’s plays have always interested me. Every time I thought of my next project, the idea of doing a new version of Hamlet came up. However, I always discarded this possibility for the same reason: I could not find the actor for the main protagonist. Until I met Jaime Cruz.
Jaime has worked for more than three years as an usher in La Plaza’s theatre hall, guiding people to their seats and selling programmes. However, his actual dream was to appear on stage as an actor, as he once shared at a staff meeting. Because of his comment, I invited him to have a coffee. His wish was to act on stage, and mine was to do Hamlet. This project, which had remained dormant for several years, was awakened by the new possibilities that an actor like Jaime could bring to the meaning of Hamlet’s words.
A provocation? Undoubtedly. But one that challenged us with the big question, “to be, or not to be”. For people who are disregarded and cannot find a space where they are taken into consideration, what does it mean “to be”? The proposal aimed to question the myths built around Down syndrome and to recontextualise the existential question asked by Hamlet.
Traditionally, the weight of the main character falls on the iconic figure of a “great actor”. This version is composed of eight performers: seven actors with Down syndrome and an actress with an intellectual disability. The message of an individual is here voiced by a group.
During the creation process several questions arose. How do people with cognitive difficulties approach the complexity of Hamlet, his existential questions, and retain his essential aspects? To what extent do the actors in this version have the need to represent themselves through Hamlet? Does this need to be the case for the project to make sense? Can they adapt the work and generate their own narratives through Hamlet? Today, we can answer those questions and say that they have developed their own narrative based on Shakespeare’s text. On the one hand, they take the meaning of the words in the play as a cohesion tool. On the other hand, we have experienced events like the one brought forth by Ximena, one of the actresses. One morning she burst into the middle of an exercise to reveal an existential anxiety: “I no longer know who I am. In the morning I wake up and wonder who I am. Inside, I live two lives. A life that wants to be a neurotypical person and a life that prefers Down syndrome”. Both Ximena and her colleagues have appropriated Hamlet’s words to give them a new meaning.
There are also questions that we leave open. Can our actors, with their own agency, aesthetics and conceptual preferences, co-exist with the theatre management team’s structure? How do we showcase the value of those aesthetics that, according to some mainstream conventions, detract from the performance? I am referring to features such as difficulty in vocalizing, diction problems, pronounced stuttering, tense times, blank moments, and overacting. Can we find other ways of representation?
Theatre rehearsals typically take two to three months. Hamlet took us a whole year of work, because both my processes and those of the actors are slower than others. This was also due to the nature of the project. The play being written as we went along, it was essential for us all to live a time of exploration, research, and collection of materials. The play is a fabric woven with Shakespeare’s text and the actors’ lives. From Hamlet we borrowed the scenes, phrases, monologues and characters that connect with the interests, claims, experiences, realities and reflections of the actors. We use Hamlet. And we do it in total freedom.
A year ago, when we asked the actors “Why do you do theatre?”, their answers puzzled us: “Because I want to be famous”. A couple of days ago we asked them the question again. Their responses were, “To represent people like us” and “To be able to say what I think”.
The life of each member of the production and direction team has been enriched as much, or more, than the actors’. The exchange has confronted us with our own condition and with the question of who we are.
Discreantes – Mexico
An alternative way of assuming precariousness
Several disabled professional artists convened in Mexico City in July 2018 at the invitation of 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos. At this initial meeting we decided to call ourselves “Discreantes,” a collective whose current members include Maricarmen Graue, a blind cellist, Edgar Lacolz, a writer in a wheelchair, and Pedro Miranda, a blind visual artist.
The following year we decided to join forces and pool ideas to develop an ambitious, multidisciplinary project awarded by Programa de Apoyo a la Producción e Investigación en Arte, Medios y Discapacidad (PAPIAM 2019), supported by the British Council Mexico and Centro Nacional de las Artes (CENART). PAPIAM is a grant for projects by disabled or non-disabled artists linking art and multimedia in different creative fields: music, visual arts, literature, cinema, and performance. We set out to bring together our experience in producing socially engaged work as independent and established Mexican artists.
Our project, called Metodología alternativa para asumir la precariedad (A Different Way of Overcoming Precariousness) is a documentary that exposes precarious situations faced by disabled artists on a daily basis. As we raised questions such as “What is at stake for disabled artists working in precarious situations?”, “What tools must disabled artists use, invent or adapt in order to produce art while living in a state of precariousness?”, and “How does this precariousness manifest itself, and how does ‘Discreantes’ deal with it?”, we wanted to highlight individual practices and collective productions.
The idea is to show audiences how – through situations considered to be economically, physically or creatively precarious – it is possible to develop an intellectually stimulating art project, to adapt tools, and to turn things around to create a cultural product. The documentary shows that disability, similarly to precariousness, can spark creativity and cultural initiatives, or lead to new tools that make an impact on the art scene as a whole. Without downplaying the policies that put disabled people into precarious situations, we channel this precariousness into creativity and protest.
Guided by this critical reflection, in 2020, Pedro Miranda, one of the Discreantes members, invited more disabled artists to come together before the pandemic in a collective called No es Igual (It is not the same), clearly expressing the impact of precarity in our lives in a public manifesto. In this solidarity effort, this collective is a support group for its members, from producing podcast interviews to shed light on its artists, to raising funds for specific health and family matters. While the pandemic has presented a variety of difficulties in the lives of disabled artists, it has made clearer the possibility of transforming precariousness into a methodology to create and produce art.
Due to the epidemiological events that are hitting the world and specifically Mexico, artists with diverse disabilities, from various disciplines, based in different parts of the country, have gathered with a single purpose: to express ourselves with regard to the situation faced by our guild.
We have seen with alarm how many of the events scheduled for the coming months, even up to the end of the year, have been called off due to the cancellation of festivals plus cultural and artistic events, not to mention the closure of theatres, museums, and other artistic platforms. We are not emerging artists. We are a group of artists with diverse recognized trajectories in local, national, and international forums.
This has placed us in a situation of greater vulnerability: as persons with disability we are considered as a minority, and being artists – with disabilities – we are yet in another minority. This means that today we face a more severe crisis due to the events known to all owing to COVID-19.
We are at risk since many of us have compromised immune systems, and let us not forget the lack of work during this situation. Likewise, we see with dismay how vital information is denied to us at the moment due to the inaccessibility of the means by which it is transmitted. How can the Deaf listen to news updates? How can the blind see infographics? How are people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities being informed about the pandemic and the measures being taken? What kind of information is being received by people with severe or multiple disabilities?
These reasons are enough to bring us together and make ourselves heard on social networks and other digital and analogue media so that we may receive the support we need to endure this long quarantine, and its aftermath, with dignity.
As we are confronted with this reality, we want to inform you of the risks we are facing in the current lockdown, both as disabled persons and as artists, and we request:
*The necessary support to which we are entitled, so that we can continue living our lives as citizens of this country.
*Measures to allow us to make our way through this situation, both economically and socially.
*That people with disabilities and their families be guaranteed access to information in ways that take into account their different conditions.
*Access to services that allow people with disabilities to receive necessary care as needed.
As active members of this society, we commit ourselves to:
*Collaborating in these moments of crisis through our artistic and cultural work, to the greatest extent possible using available channels.
*Pursuing the production and artistic activities we are dedicated to, to the extent that the contingency allows, and to return with greater energy when the situation stabilizes.
*Contribute to the community on the basis of our knowledge and personal experience.
We, the undersigned artists, are certain that as long as our rights as individuals and artists are guaranteed and that we have the necessary support networks, we can come out of this situation together.
Ekiwah Adler, poet
Cristian Arias, performing artist
Erika Bernal, performing artist
Maricarmen Camarena, musical artist
Luis Castro, performing artist
Edgar (Lacolz) González, writer
Maricarmen Graue, musical artist
Martín Valerio Jácome, musical artist
Pedro Miranda Gijón, visual artist
Jorge Olvera Rodríguez, visual artist
Jesús Rodríguez, performing artist
Sara Villanueva, musical artist
Shino Watabe, visual artist