Photo: Ray Jacobs

Writer Poppy Noor visited the second Awkward Bastards symposium in March co-produced by DASH, mac birmingham and the Live Art Development Agency. She reflects on the event, as well as questions of diversity and representation.

When I arrive at the Awkward Bastards second symposium I am not sure what to expect. The event, hosting radical artists across two days promises to be one filled with diversity and difference. But as a non-white woman who spent my teenage years living in homeless hostels, I never know what to expect when people say the word ‘diversity’ anymore. It feels like a word that’s always said to me – normally by someone who is middle-class, white, and probably male. But I don’t feel like a particularly ‘diverse’ person, I just feel that I am normal and I want to be represented.

Lewis Davey, an artist who stands for a 5-minute rant at the end of the day, sums this feeling up perfectly and with brilliant humour. He is talking about an American Footballer, who was criticised in the States for not standing when the National Anthem was played

“It’s just some guy’s favourite song.” He retorts. “Trap Queen by Fetty Wap is my favourite song. Imagine if I asked you to stand every time I played it!”

The line is funny because, for those of you who don’t know, Fetty Wap is an African-American rapper who is blind in one eye, has tattoos on his face, and sings about “getting high with [his] baby, and “getting fly with [his] baby.” Just thinking about all of the people that I so frequently see at galleries, with their knee-length skirts and stiff-upper lips having to stand to that song makes me equal measures giddy and uneasy. But of course, he has a broader point: this is what being forced to try to appreciate art that wasn’t made for you is like.

It’s something that Frances Morris, who refers to the Tate as “warm” and “safe” in her keynote speech could do with remembering. When artist Jamila Johnson-Small calls out these comments in a panel discussion for performing “illusory false empathy, which perpetuates erasure” she reminds me that a lack of diversity is about so much more than just being underrepresented. When I go to the Tate, I don’t just feel underrepresented: I feel as if my culture, and the people I grew up around simply didn’t exist at all. The panel brings to light how discussion around diversity in these spaces is so often more than just complacent – it also sustains the narratives that prevent inclusivity from happening.

Photo: Ray Jacobs

Diverse art means the ability to inform and educate. It draws us away from seeing people, multi-faceted as they are, in the singular boxes which mainly act to undermine those who do not fit into the pre-packaged, heterosexual, able-bodied, white form of ‘normal’ that we are constantly fed. But at Awkward Bastards, I realise how we can all too easily fall into the trap of viewing art through the lenses of familiarity and privilege. When artists take to the stage to lament the lack of disabled artists’ works displayed across the country, I realise how little I have questioned the fact that rarely have I seen such art displayed outside of hospital walls and school hallways. “My art is not therapy” says Sarah Watson, a multi-media artist with a learning disability, “If it was therapy, I’d be paying for it. This is my job.”

Trite arguments about simply choosing “the best” artists are ripped to shreds by panellists on the day. One ranter scorns the official artwork commissioned for the Paralympic Games, a colourful drawing of Big Ben by an able-bodied artist from the States. “What does it even represent?” she asks. What’s most shocking about this is how much good quality art could have been commissioned in its place. When I see Sue Austin’s “Deep Sea Diving” installation about life in a wheelchair, it isn’t magical because she’s in a wheelchair. It’s magical because Austin conjures up emotions, insights and sensations in me that I could have never brought up myself. When she presents on how 3D technology could meaningfully bring art to audiences otherwise unable to access it, it is innovative because she speaks from a place of understanding what it is like to have that access so frequently blocked from your life. It’s not the checkbox of diversity that feels good about the event, it is how diversity is facilitating me to understand and think about things in a way that I hadn’t before. Isn’t that what art is supposed to be about, after all?

At the end of the symposium, I think about how I have felt most validated at times when I have felt reflected in art and broader culture. It feels like being written into a story that you long knew you should have been a part of. But reflecting on the performances which came from experiences most different to mine, I realise that reading someone else’s story can, in the end, be so much more interesting than reading your own.

Poppy Noor is a freelance journalist writing on issues around diversity and inequality. She writes regularly for The Guardian and commissions content for their Housing Network. You can view her Guardian bio here or follow her on Twitter.

Writer Poppy Noor visited the second Awkward Bastards symposium in March co-produced by DASH, mac birmingham and the Live Art Development Agency. She reflects on the event, as well as questions of diversity and representation.

Anna Berndtson, Self Stress Relief (Performance, 2015). Image Hannah Levy.

Disability, diversity and the institutional gatekeepers of the mainstream.

Ahead of next month’s Awkward Bastards II symposium at mac birmingham, New Art West Midlands’ Director Craig Ashley shares his thoughts in praise of awkwardness and on making a creative case for diversity for our region and beyond.

Anna Berndtson, Self Stress Relief (Performance, 2015). Image Hannah Levy.

On Thursday 12 March 2015 the eagerly anticipated Awkward Bastards symposium arrived at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in Birmingham. Commissioned by the Disability Arts organisation DASH to rethink ideas around diversity, the event took place in mac’s main theatre auditorium with accompanying exhibitions and performances happening across the busy public spaces and galleries of the arts centre. With contributions from artists, academics, curators and historians, the programme explored different perspectives on the current state of Disability Arts, and the wider subject of diversity in the mainstream.

In planning the symposium with my co-organiser and collaborator Mike Layward, Director at DASH, we set about foregrounding a conversation about what constitutes the mainstream, and how it is constituted in the realm of the arts and culture. We talked at length about the absence of Disability Arts from the institutionally-shaped canon of artistic movements, and the problems with defining oneself as a disabled artist – the perceived challenges such an association might present, and the possible barriers that may inadvertently be put in place.

At the same time I was developing a retrospective exhibition of the work of the Manchester-based artist Qasim Riza Shaheen, which showed at mac in the autumn of 2014.  The curatorial approach explored ‘awkwardness’ as an alternative critical framework in which to situate a body of work that had been largely classified and typecast as queer.  Awkwardness presented an opportunity to readdress the artist’s work without the baggage of a highly loaded term, and to consider it more in relation to an engagement with the audience – a difficult transaction or encounter within the mainstream, rather than a limited and unchallenging position outside of it.

Awkwardness therefore appealed as an alternative starting point for a symposium tasked with rethinking ideas around diversity.  This shift or transference of focus, from the difference or impairment of the artist to the audience and the passively observed conventions of the mainstream arts experience, was a critical point to locate in the debate.  The social quality of awkwardness seemed to us to be readily aligned with the social model of disability – a recognition that disability is an unhelpful construct of society, rather than an objective diagnosis of psychological, physical or sensory ability relative to the external world in which we live.  Extended to the wider territory of diversity in the arts, and appropriated as a social model for the purpose of this discussion, awkwardness provided the neutral ground upon which to begin a new conversation, one that reflected upon and scrutinised the societally-defined context of the arts environment, alongside the concerns of artists that were centred largely on identity, self-definition and classification.

We felt there was a question around legitimacy that also needed to be framed as part of the conversation, to acknowledge the historical context of exclusion and subsequent civil rights action in Britain during the post-war period.  In his appropriately provocative symposium title, Awkward Bastards, Mike Layward referenced legitimacy, or rather a perception that groups or individuals operating outside of the mainstream were considered in some way illegitimate, or otherwise implicated as bastards by the establishment.

Our public-facing arts organisations and agencies, acting as intermediaries between the artist and the audience, tend also to be the institutional gatekeepers, tastemakers and trendsetters with a significant and collective influence upon the mainstream.  Is it possible, we wondered, to dispel the perceived correlation between legitimacy and the mainstream, or is it necessary to continue to broaden the mainstream to include the last of the outsiders?

For those who had travelled to attend Awkward Bastards from across the UK, as well as the many viewers online who had tuned in to receive the live broadcast, there were perhaps no real surprises amongst the evidence and experiences presented throughout the day.  Speakers echoed time and again the widely-held view that there is still much work to be done in creating equitable opportunities around leadership and access in the arts, as indeed there is across society more generally.

However, despite the familiar and persisting challenges associated with diversity in the cultural industries, the overarching tone of the symposium was a hopeful one.  A shared sense of optimism accompanied the difficult conversations about representation and inclusion, and mainstream arts organisations were positively acknowledged on the whole for continuing their work in beginning to shift the institutional ground in relation to matters of gender, race, class and disability.  Slow though it may be, progress was happening and seen to be happening on a number of fronts.

Referred to frequently on the day was Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, an initiative that speaks about the need for diversity in the mainstream.  The Creative Case, the shortened name by which it has become known, has located diversity as a strategic goal for each of the 684 arts organisations currently in receipt of regular funding – the National Portfolio Organisations and Major Partner Museums.  Between 2015 and 2018 diversity is firmly cited by Arts Council as ‘a key issue in relation to the programming and audiences, leadership and workforce of all our funded organisations.’[1]

In the introduction to her short presentation about her own personal history of diversity in the arts, connected to the Blk Art Group and the Black arts movement in the UK, the artist and curator Marlene Smith declared her belief in revolution and made the following provocation: ‘It is an open secret that our cultural infrastructure was founded upon and still rests on a tower of elitism. In the UK we cling for dear life to the old order, pay lip service to the notion of change and quake in our boots at the thought and consequences of revolution.’[2]

Whether the Creative Case will be effective in helping to bring about a revolution, and demolish the so-called ‘elitist tower’, remains to be seen.  Clearly it will take some time to measure the impact of the current endeavours in affecting change, and navigate the resistance that it will face.  Nevertheless, the determination of Arts Council and others to address diversity at a national and strategic level is surely a good thing.  From the artists and the artworks commissioned, to staff and the contractors employed, there appears now to be a concerted effort to move beyond a superficial addressing of diversity – a move away from the purely project-based model that would often see activity delivered by and for ‘diverse groups’ in isolation, to an earnest dialogue that recognises the value of a wider set of perspectives and cultural experiences as integral and mutually beneficial.

This is perhaps an overly optimistic note on which to end.  Events such as Awkward Bastards all too often conclude in a positive manner with groups of likeminded people agreeing cheerfully that the world is a slightly better place than it was at the beginning of the day.  As a sector and as a society, we do need to be watchful and vigilant, to be certain that progress continues to be made, but also to ensure that the intricacies and complexities of culture – not just its reductive facets and features – are acknowledged, respected and made visible.  The sentiment of the Japanese author and novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki resonates here. In his 1933 essay In Praise of ShadowsI [3], the reader is invited to consider the nuanced qualities between light and darkness, and to appreciate the subtleties within the shade.  While these passive observations allow us to monitor change from a distance, there is a need for activism and intervention too – and here the merits of awkwardness as a catalyst for change should be recognised and applauded. By taking a position of awkwardness, we are empowered to ask difficult questions, to challenge the legitimate ground where it is assumed or outmoded, and to propose alternative territories for the mainstream.

In Praise of Awkwardness is one of 3 essays featured in The Incorrigibles: Perspectives on Disability Visual Arts in the 20th and 21st Centuries, a new publication from DASH available to purchase here. DASH Director Mike Layward has served on the Advisory Group committee for New Art West Midlands since November 2016.

[1] Arts Council England. 2014. Creative Case for Diversity 2015-18. [Online]. [Accessed 2 June 2016]. Available from: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/

[2] Smith, M. 2015. Rethinking Diversity. [Online]. 12 March, mac (Midlands Arts Centre), Birmingham. Awkward Bastards symposium. DASH and mac. [Accessed 2 June 2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F-uw0yJPpc

[3] Tanizaki, J. 1933. In Praise of Shadows. London: Vintage Classics.

Ahead of next month’s Awkward Bastards II symposium at mac birmingham, Craig Ashley shares thoughts in praise of awkwardness and the creative case for diversity for our region and beyond.