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Unlimited – UK

A Transformational Legacy

Looking back at the partnership between Unlimited and the British Council – a joint venture that brought disability arts to a global stage.

Five performers in The Garden. They are all wearing long blue or grey dresses. Three of them are standing on the stage, in front of a fabric green backdrop. The stage includes two large white flowers. Two perfomers are standing on stills, as if they were standing in the tree to the right of the stage.

The Garden, by UK’s Graeae Theatre Company, mixes circus, theatre, live music and has a cast formed by artists with and without disabilities, including Brazilian artists. Photo by Andrea Testoni

Since 2013, Unlimited has awarded more than £4.7 million to over 400 ambitious disabled artists and companies through commissions, awards and support. This work has been seen or engaged with by more than 4 million people globally, making Unlimited the largest supporter of disabled artists worldwide.

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.

Note

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. 

Aerial performer in Graeae’s The Garden in the Olympic Boulevard in Rio de Janeiro. Large white flowers are attached to his helmet. He is wearing a stripped blue outfit. Trees can be seend out of focus in the background.

Aerial performer in Graeae’s The Garden in the Olympic Boulevard in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Andrea Testoni

Unlimited: Arte sem Limites in Brazil

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.

Image from the presentation of creative residency for MayBe - On a stage with a white backdrop, dancer Marc Brew is laying on the ground. His arm is pulled by Giselle Calazans. He is looking at her. His is wearing a pink t-shit and purple pants. She is wearing a white top.

Creative residency between Scottish based dancer and choreographer Marc Brew and Brazilian dancer Giselle Calazans, led by artist and artistic director Natalia Mallo

at MIS (Museum of Image and Sound) in São Paulo. Photo by Marie Hippenmeyer

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British Council – Mexico

Art and disability: an agent of change in Mexico

Our Arts and Disability programme has accompanied the development of a new movement in Mexico.

A man sitting on the floor with arms extended and papers scattered on the floor.

Just a few words, by the UK Theatre Company, StammerMouth, created by Nye Russell-Thompson. Photos by Liliana Velasquez.

The Arts and Disability programme has accompanied the development of the movement and its cultural agents. 

The pandemic arrived into everyone’s home like an uninvited friend. It settled on the couch for months and, as I write this, it’s still around. There has been a pause in several of our programmes, including Arts and Disability, our flagship project that since 2018 has been supporting British and Mexican disabled artist reach new audiences. For the past four years, the programme has witnessed the development of a growing community and movement, which we’ve supported through:

– International showcasing: giving practitioners access to international platforms/audiences, as well as works. In Mexico we launched Trazando Posibilidades, a festival held in 2019 in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. The festival gathered several artists and welcomed delegates from across the Americas, from Argentina, Canada and the UK. In the UK, we continued to work closely with Unlimited, sending delegates from Mexico in 2018 and 2020.

– Capacity building: development of technical skills through a series of workshops.

– Research: developing resources to help the sector improve its accessibility in spaces (through A Puertas Abiertas, a manual on how to create accessible cultural spaces) and through the implementation of Relaxed Performances (Relaxed Performances, an Accessibility Protocol in Spanish).

– New art: providing ongoing support for the co-production of new work in theatre, dance, audio-visual, and new media.

As a result of these collective efforts, the British Council in Mexico has been able, in the past four years, to collaborate with more than 200 artists and 50 organizations and carry out 67 major activities reaching an audience of over 45,000 people.

The arrival of COVID-19 brought limitations to the programme but at the same time allowed us to explore new opportunities. Working with partners, we create a new space for collaboration, creation, and reflection through the Seminar From Inclusion to Interpellation: Scene, Disability and Politics, that explored the need of the arts and culture sectors to work on inclusion in new creative ways, particularly through digital means. Over the course of four months, Cultura UNAM;17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos;Take me somewhere (an advisory committee of artists with disabilities) and the British Council in Mexico brought together institutions from over 12 countries, 50 participants and 18,200 spectators to share our visions for change.

Mariana Gándara, Executive Coordinator of the Ingmar Bergman Extraordinary Chair (cinema and theatre) at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and member of the seminar planning committee, reflects on the experience: “Months ago, at a meeting to plan the seminar, I heard for the first time the use of the term interpellation, as part of the passionate defence of accessibility made by both Benjamin Mayer and Beatriz Miranda from 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos. Both argued against the current institutional opposition to work towards inclusion. Benjamín and Beatriz, curators of the seminar, were emphatic about the political and ethical needs to use interpellation as the axis of their work. The argument was simple, but powerful: inclusion is an invitation to participate in normality; interpellation the possibility of dismantling it.”

“Normality: Who does it belong to?”, asks Gándara when assessing the impact of the seminar on her understanding of accessibility issues in the cultural sector. “What systems of oppression sustain its practices? Although institutions may be well-intentioned, these conversations have instigated a parallel form of learning, clearly showing the gap between diverse communities and the public policies that control our daily lives.” She concludes that “without asking for permission, interpellation has filtered into daily lives. Where subtitles and Mexican sign language did not previously exist, they are now essential. The advisory board, comprising disabled artists, defines and steers the seminar. It feels like a watershed moment.”

The seminar allowed to identify key new voices in the sector. COVID’s arrival has forced us to revisit standard practises, which means there’s a renewed opportunity to support wider systemic change where these diverse voices find a space.

A woman dancing on stage. A blue, patterned light shines on her from the front, casting her shadow against the back wall.
A man signing and talking to a microphone on stage. An image is projected onto him and the back wall, creating dramatic shadows.

Trazando Posibilidades, seminar held in Guadalajara, Mexico, 2019. Photos by Liliana Velasquez.

Lorena Martinez Mier is Arts Project Manager at British Council in Mexico, and leads on our work in arts and disabilities in the Americas.
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Alejandrina D’Elia – Argentina, Chile & Peru

Ecologies of accessibility

Alejandrina D’Elia explores past and present accessibility initiatives by various theatres, projects and cultural centres located in Argentina, Chile, and Peru.  

A still image from Hamlet. Two performers lay tenderly facing each other in the middle of a blue-and-purple lit black stage. They are both wearing white t-shirts and dark pants, with each performer resting one hand intimately on the other’s waist. At the back of the stage is a large screen showing a close up of the performers from above. Their eyes are closed with their noses pressed together and their lips about to touch.

Hamlet, Teatro La Plaza. Courtesy of Teatro La Plaza.

Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) describes the rights of disabled people to participate in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. Signatories such as Argentina, Chile and Peru have assembled government agencies and ministries to protect these rights. However, disabled people continue to face the most discrimination within society, a problem exacerbated when combined with other factors such as gender, race, ethnic background, geographical location and income level. Private-sector and civil-society actors are therefore advocating for disability issues to be placed on the public agenda, and for action to be taken.

The following initiatives in these three South American countries are leading the way both domestically and in the wider region, thanks to the high quality of their productions created with the participation of disabled people, and supported by the British Council as a partner.

 

Chile

 

Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM), located in a historic building in central Santiago, is a cultural centre with 10 rooms for theatre, dance, circus performances, classical and popular music, folk art and conferences. Since 2013, GAM has provided a venue for training courses and participative activities, residencies and the design of accessible content for people with different disabilities. In 2018, the centre began offering “relaxed performances” to give people with cognitive disabilities access to the performing arts through technically and spatially adapted plays. The general public as well as those with physical, learning, communication disabilities, as well as those on the autism spectrum, can participate and take training courses.


Fundación Corpgroup Centro Cultural, situated in central Santiago, is equipped with exhibition spaces, an auditorium, a sculpture garden, and offers a cultural programme (music, theatre, dance, visual arts and film) for adults and children. It hosts local and international events on its premises and around the country. In 2019 it staged a participative production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney: To See and Not See in a multisensory performance accessible for people with visual disabilities. The Compañía de Teatro de Ciegos LUNA [Blind Theatre Company LUNA] trained the cast, gave advice on the staging, produced all of the accessible devices, and in addition to interpreting the voice-overs in the montage. The Orquesta Nacional de Ciegos de Chile [National Orchestra of the Blind of Chile] performed the original score, and an integrated disabled and non-disabled crew worked on various aspects including the play’s production and audio-description design, Braille texts and QR codes. This experience paved the way for other initiatives for groups with different disabilities.

A photo of four dancers seated in a huddle on the floor of a bare studio with a wooden floor. They rest their heads and arms on each other, with eyes closed and bodies entwined. A wheelchair sits empty behind them.

Rehearsal from Mundana, Peru.

Photo by Lucía Alfaro

Peru

 

Teatro La Plaza, located in Lima, was set up in 2003 to stage public performances of challenging plays. In 2019 it produced the first free version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed by a cast with Down Syndrome. Theatre director Chela Ferrari wrote and directed the play as a collaborative process that took several months and helped break down prejudices; this was Ferrari’s first experience of working with disabled people. The project led to explorations of other techniques such as the Rationale Method.

Mundana is a dance company established in 2017 by dancer and acrobat Inés Coronado who, after developing a disability in one of her legs, embarked on an artistic project that questions the limits of the body while aiming to develop an inclusive society.

Kinesfera is a contemporary dance company whose dancers have a physical disability.

Both companies have participated in local and international festivals; they are also activists and form part of the Latin American dance and inclusion network.

Interview with Alejandrina D’Elia on cultural accessibility. This interview was done during the International Festival of Buenos Aires in 2020 which included the participation of British choreographer Claire Cunningham. 

 

Argentina

 

Teatro Nacional Cervantes is attached to Argentina’s Ministry of Culture (Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación), and was inaugurated in Buenos Aires in 1921. It is the first public theatre to offer accessible performances as part of its programme. In 2018, the theatre’s audience development department designed a new programme for disabled people, in conjunction with the accessibility team of the Argentinean government’s Office for Cultural Innovation (Dirección Nacional de Innovación Cultural). The group proposed a physical, sensory and intellectual approach based on three pillars: strategic planning, strengthened technical and human resources, and communication. They designed accessible resources for various groups of disabled people using the social model of disability; specialists from the United Kingdom such as Kirsty Hoyle from Include Arts provided support. In 2018, the play The Extraordinary Life by Argentinean director Mariano Tenconi Blanco, a pilot production, incorporated accessible resources such as audio description, a hearing loop, and sign-language interpretation. Leading civil society organizations working in accessibility helped perform checks every step of the way. In 2019, all of the additional plays included in the programming incorporated accessible performances on a permanent basis. Other additions included theatre programmes using QR codes with and without embossed dots, drinking bowls for guide dogs, tactile visits, pictograms on the webpage, and invitations in Argentinean Sign Language (LSA) with subtitles and audio. The whole process was documented, including interviews with members of the audience exiting the theatre: 61% of those with a hearing disability and 35% of those with a visual impairment answered in the affirmative when asked whether this was the first time they had seen a play at a theatre. These figures still apply in most cultural spaces, laying down a challenge for public policies and cultural promoters when designing cultural projects.

Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA) is a well-established cultural event in the region for both local and international visitors. The event brings together a network of independent and official theatres in the city of Buenos Aires. In the summer of 2020, the programme had four themes: gender and diversity, environment, integration, and technology. It marked the first time that integration and cultural accessibility were a core part of the Festival. The British Council designed the strategy, together with the participation of Scottish dancer and choreographer, Claire Cunningham.

An assessment was made of theatres’ accessibility and a circuit was designed with a selection of venues, including accessible resources such as hearing loops in the theatres, sign language interpretation, tactile visits, and audio description. Communication was a vital aspect of the work on printed and online materials. The festival team from the producers to the director received training in cultural accessibility. The British Council inaugurated a videotheque with interviews, including one with Claire Cunningham, in order to generate reference materials. This was the first time that such a festival catered to disabled audiences, setting a benchmark for future editions of the event, and creating a momentum for future programmes on the independent circuit.

 

Opportunities for Policy Change

 

Some proposals have been implemented and now form an inherent part of the institutions’ programming. Others continue to be one-off initiatives that are important but hard to keep going. It is essential to have accessible resources for productions and to prepare audiences that have been historically excluded from cultural events. Our countries need to address the issues of disability and art in two ways: from the perspective of audiences, offering accessible resources for the disabled to enjoy cultural programmes and from the standpoint of creators, offering training, grants and production subsidies. Public policies must be permanent and sustainable.

This requires:

• Raising awareness about the issue in the public and private sector, and among civil society.

• Reminding those in charge of public policies of their duty to protect disability rights and mobilise resources in order to create accessible cultural content.

• Decentralising activities by promoting knowledge transfer to other theatres/bodies around the country and the region.

• Working with disabled people and with interdisciplinary teams on project design, production and implementation.

• Creating a record of information and best practices; sharing local and regional experiences.

• Identifying and locating disabled artists across the country.

• Promoting and continuing training courses for local and foreign specialists.

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