Liberty disability arts festival: Mixed reaction from artists


newslatestDisabled artists have given a mixed response to this year’s Liberty disability arts festival, which was overshadowed again by National Paralympic Day (NPD).

A low-key line-up on the main stage, combined with continuing huge public interest in Britain’s Paralympians, put Liberty even further into the shadows than it had been last year when it merged with NPD for the first time at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London.

Lengthy queues for autographs from London 2012 stars such as Jonnie Peacock and Stef Reid and this year’s medal-winning Sochi 2014 Paralympic skiers Kelly Gallagher and Jade Etherington contrasted for most of the afternoon with rows of empty seats in front of the main Liberty stage.

On the day, #NPD2014 even trended on Twitter, and there have now been more than 50 million impressions of this hashtag across the UK, while Channel 4 is set to air a highlights programme on the morning of 7 September.

A series of high-class international events across boccia, swimming, wheelchair basketball and goalball took place in two of the London 2012 venues, the Copper Box and the London Aquatics Centre, while visitors to the park could try out disability and inclusive sports such as athletics, wheelchair basketball, cycling, tennis and rowing.

But there were also some bright spots at Liberty.

The vibrant Together! 2012 community arts tent provided a connection with the disability rights origins of the Liberty festival – and a link to the host borough of Newham – with its programme of film and performances, and tributes to Liberty’s late founder, David Morris.

Performances in the tent included a set by Bare Bones, with protest songs including Are You Mad Yet?, targeting the “faker, fraud and scrounger” rhetoric of politicians and the media.

Other Liberty highlights included performances by singer Ren Harvieu, pianist Derek Paravicini, Deaf Men Dancing, a music installation by Jez Colborne in collaboration with Mind the Gap, a series of films curated by the disability-led arts organisation Carousel – which has been running the Oska Bright Film Festival since 2004 – and several “integrated” performances from companies such as Moxie Brawl and Stop Gap, and the aerial duo Paul Evans and disabled aerialist-singer-dancer (and academic) Amelia Cavallo.

Mike Smith, former disability commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and now chief executive of the east London-based disabled people’s organisation Real, said: “It’s great to see diversity in the performing arts and to see many people doing such great creative work, with a mix of disabled and non-disabled people all appreciating it.”

But he added: “Because it’s more spread out, there isn’t the sort of focused intensity [of the previous Liberty venue, Trafalgar Square]but actually there are more things to see.

“I really hope that Liberty survives as a brand and it doesn’t just become National Paralympic Day, because there is much more to disability culture than sport.”

The disabled writer and performer Allan Sutherland said the branding for National Paralympic Day had been “much more in your face” than for Liberty.

He said that Liberty was an “established brand” and “deserves better” than to be “consumed” by the sports side of the event.

He added: “I liked the all-togetherness of Trafalgar Square, its crowded messiness.”

The disabled artist Katherine Araniello, who was a close friend of Morris, said the idea of merging the two festivals was “quite insulting, because disability arts is not sport”.

She said: “I have no interest in kicking a football or playing wheelchair basketball.”

She said Morris “probably would have felt that Liberty had been sabotaged by the Paralympics”, and added: “If I think about it too much, it does really annoy me. What will happen is that people like me will just drift away.”

Araniello said she believed the festival should be held either in Trafalgar Square or around the Southbank Centre, both of which are previous Liberty venues. “I don’t want it here. If the weather was bad we would all get wet.”

Tracey Jannaway, director of Independent Living Alternatives, the company Morris founded, said: “I think he would have been disappointed to see the Liberty festival had been attached to the Paralympic event, although that is not to say he would not have supported the Paralympic event, because he was very much into sport.

“I think he would have been disappointed that Liberty does not appear to have been promoted in the way it used to be.”

Julie Newman, a Together! 2012 director and acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said Morris would have been “bemused” by the merger of Liberty with National Paralympic Day, although he would have approved of the access arrangements and the performers.

She said that east London was quite a difficult trip for many disabled people who would have found it easier to attend Liberty when it was based in Trafalgar Square.

But she said that many regular visitors to the park would benefit from the exposure to arts, sport and disabled people.

Dr Ju Gosling, artistic director of Together! 2012, said the festival was bringing disability politics and disability rights to a new audience, including Paralympians themselves, and pushing the two cultures together.

She said that being in the Olympic park was a “very powerful symbol” to say that London 2012 was supposed to be partly about creating a legacy for disabled people.

She said: “By bringing their brand together with our brand, they have to pick up some of our values.”

So far, the mayor of London has declined to comment on the concerns about Liberty and its future.

4 September 2014