Disabled artists have described how they have used creativity to resist the violence of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and to remember its victims.
The online Creative Resistance to Welfare State Violence event this week was part of Healing Justice Ldn’s Deaths by Welfare project, which investigates links between the social security system and the deaths of claimants.
Deaths by Welfare has been working with four artists who have been responding to its timeline, which was published in draft form earlier this year* and brings together more than 30 years of evidence that links DWP’s systemic failings with the deaths of countless disabled claimants of benefits.
Two of the artists – disabled artist and human rights campaigner Zita Holbourne, co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts; and London-based artist-researcher nnull – took part in Tuesday evening’s event.
Their work will be included in next autumn’s month-long Rehearsing Freedoms festival – organised by Healing Justice Ldn and Kin Structures – which will include a Deaths by Welfare exhibition and public programme of events.
Holbourne has created a series of art works for Deaths by Welfare, several of which include the names of disabled people who have died due to DWP actions and are mentioned in the timeline (pictured).
She said: “I thought it was important to honour their memories because we know that when we look at the mainstream media and government, they often ‘other’ people, they often label and demonise people and don’t respect and honour their memories as individuals, as human beings who had lives and who had loved ones.
“One of the things I wanted to do was honour their memories by saying their names.”
She said it had been “quite emotional” to be involved in a project that “centred around people losing their life because of an unjust system and a draconian government and discriminatory policies.
“I can relate to the history of individuals impacted as somebody who is disabled myself, but I can also relate to it as a black woman who has had to live with discrimination all through my life.”
nnull is a transgender migrant and much of his work is autobiographical, and he responded to the Deaths by Welfare project by creating audio pieces that examine documents held by the National Archives on so-called “no recourse to public funds”, a condition imposed on many people who cannot access benefits due to their immigration status.
He was subjected to these restrictions himself and part of his work examined his own position and rights, looking at three documents from the archives from three different time periods.
He said he had become an artist as a way of coping with the “rage” he felt at the way he was being treated by the immigration system, while also researching immigration law to advocate for himself.
He said: “Being in that position of being enraged and having to find some way to express it, and also by expressing it, I feel I am trying to help the situation, so someone doesn’t experience the same thing I experienced again and again and again.
“I just wanted to express that and that’s how I became an artist, which was through the rage.”
Disabled artist-activists Dolly Sen and Vince Laws also took part in the event and discussed how their work has challenged DWP’s violence.
Sen, who discussed her Broken Hearts for the DWP art action, said: “At the moment we are in a really horrible space – hopefully this event will show that there is pain in this space but also there is opportunity for love, for protest and for regaining some power.
“There are many ways to resist. Creativity is just one of them.”
She said later: “Hopefully we have shown that there are possibilities to stand up and to connect and to collaborate and try to make change in small ways and big ways, even if it’s just being kinder to yourself.
“You don’t have to be on a picket line or in a protest. Staying alive… the bastards don’t want you to stay alive.
“Staying alive is the most beautiful thing you can do.”
Laws talked about his DWP Deaths Make Me Sick death shrouds, which are currently on display as part of the Manchester People’s History Museum’s Nothing About Us Without Us exhibition until next October, and his experimental participatory performance A Very Queer Nazi Faust, which also highlighted DWP-related issues.
He said: “On my bad days… I feel like just surviving is really pissing off the people in charge.
“They don’t want you to, so just carry on surviving and do what you’ve got to do.”
He described how DWP looked at his website and saw his CV and “decided on the balance of probability I couldn’t have done all the things on my CV without doing more hours than I was allowed on my permitted work and therefore stopped my benefits without informing me and as somebody who deals with depression and anxiety that kind of threw me over the edge a little bit.
“So now I don’t have a website because if I don’t have a website, they can’t check up on me.
“It feels like an extra disablement in the way that I can’t have a website for the fear of doing my work and letting people know.”
Dr China Mills, leader of the Deaths by Welfare project at Healing Justice Ldn, said: “Creativity has been so key to exposing and resisting the violence of the welfare state, as a political strategy to show the scale of harm, to hold the government to account, and to name and remember those who have died.
“We talk about welfare state violence because the welfare system has been brutal for a long time, long before what is often known as welfare reform, and because talking about welfare state violence allows us to see this violence as connected to other forms of state violence, in immigration, healthcare, in so-called social care, education, etc.”
*DNS editor John Pring is co-creator of the timeline
Picture: Part of one of Zita Holbourne’s Deaths by Welfare pieces
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