Liberty’s future unsettled as new venue secures mixed reaction


The immediate future of the capital’s annual disability arts festival appears uncertain, despite an overwhelmingly positive response to the talent on show at this year’s event.

Despite the well-attended performances and enthusiastic audiences, there was a mixed reaction to the festival’s new venue on London’s South Bank.

The previous eight Liberty festivals had been held in Trafalgar Square, but this year it took place around two South Bank venues: the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre.

Theatre Square, outside the National Theatre, hosted a series of dance and circus arts performances, with highlights including a new dance piece by Graeae’s Rhinestone Rollers, and Finding Epiphany, by the disabled circus performers of Cirque Nova.

The other main “hub” of the festival was in the Royal Festival Hall’s Clore Ballroom, further along the South Bank from the National Theatre, where highlights included the showing of Branches of the Same Tree, a short video retrospective of 60 years of disability and deaf arts, by Simon McKeown and Caglar Kimyoncu, and a high-energy performance by rap artist The Lady MJ.

But some disabled people who attended this year’s Liberty – and had attended the festival in Trafalgar Square in previous years – were unhappy with the new venue.

Michelle Daley, a leading disability equality consultant, said the festival seemed “fragmented” because the two main hubs were so far apart, and “moving backwards and forwards” from one to another made it difficult to appreciate the art.

She added: “With it being based at Trafalgar Square, it was about disabled people’s freedom and liberty, that’s the whole point of what this festival is meant to signify. Moving to South Bank, it removes that whole idea.”

Disabled activist Eleanor Lisney said she also felt “totally lost” and “disorientated” on the South Bank, because moving between the two main venues was so awkward and time-consuming.

Lisney and others also criticised the decision to put the information stalls, most of which raised awareness of disability rights and disability arts, inside the Royal Festival Hall, so they were not visible to passing members of the public outside.

But disability rights activist Barbara Lisicki said she had been in favour of moving Liberty to the new venue, as Trafalgar Square was “a difficult space to work in” and the “sound quality was always terrible”.

She said: “I like the South Bank for its vibrancy, there is always a lot going on here. I like the idea of being in the heart of the arts.”

But she said that, although there was “lots of passing trade” on the South Bank, disabled people were “getting lost” because the various parts of the festival were “too far apart”.

The disabled actor and director Garry Robson, artistic director of Fittings Multimedia Arts, said the facilities – such as the backstage areas – were better for the artists, and he welcomed being in the arts heartland of the South Bank.

But he said it had been hard for visitors to “graze” – sample the different artists – and the layout meant visitors failed to “get a sense of the festival as a whole”.

The disabled artist Ju Gosling aka ju90 said there was “better provision for the artists” on the South Bank but there were still “fundamental flaws”, particularly with the distance between the two hubs.

She said: “I would never come here again without a PA because fighting through the crowds is a nightmare.”

She said Trafalgar Square was an “iconic outdoor space” and having Liberty there shows that “your community is being acknowledged”.

She said Liberty in Trafalgar Square had always been much more about London’s mayor “supporting disability rights and disability equality”, rather than being “just another arts festival”.

Brian Oakaby, a senior officer with the mayor’s events team, said this year’s Liberty had been “extraordinary”, while there had been “an amazing response to some amazing work” at one of London’s “premier cultural hubs”, and added: “There has been a real buzz and vibrancy and sense of enjoyment.”

He said: “When you do something that is new and different you never know exactly how it turns out.

“Clearly, today is a great opportunity to experience a festival like this in a new space. Should it come back here? We don’t know. At the moment we have to evaluate the whole thing.”

He said it was not clear yet whether Trafalgar Square would be available in the first week of September in 2012 as it will be used as a “live site” – with a screen showing live television coverage of the games – for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

He warned that the mayor had yet to decide whether Liberty would take place next year, although he may stage a disability arts festival as part of the seven-week outdoor arts festival taking place through next summer as part of the 2012 celebrations.

He said: “We may look to stage something like Liberty as part of that festival. The plans are not yet finalised.”

5 September 2011