A disabled artist-activist has scattered the ground-up remains of 650 clay human figures into the Bristol Channel, in the last stage of a project to demonstrate the real-life impact of austerity.
Liz Crow said this final stage of the We Are Figures project, which coincided with the state opening of parliament, was “a distress call to the global community”.
She had planned to scatter the remains into the Thames beside the Houses of Parliament, but this month’s election results – and the overall Conservative majority – convinced her that the message would not be heard in the UK.
She decided instead to take the figures out into the busy shipping lane of the Bristol Channel in “an appeal to the international community to take heed and signal their solidarity”.
The We Are Figures project aimed to “make visible the human cost of austerity”, and inspire action against cuts to support and services.
All of the 650 figures were hand-sculpted by Crow from river mud, with each one paired with an individual story drawn from research into the impact of austerity, on subjects such as benefits reform, cuts to council spending, homelessness, malnutrition and NHS rationing.
The night before the general election, Crow’s clay figures were raised into a bonfire and, as they were fired, the 650 austerity stories were read aloud over six hours.
Afterwards, every one of the figures was ground up, and this week the remains were scattered into the Bristol Channel (pictured).
Crow told Disability News Service that the project had been a “leap of faith”, and it was impossible to predict what its impact would be.
She said: “No one thing is going to change the political landscape. What I am doing is in collaboration with many, many other things that other people are doing.
“It is another way of communicating with people [about the impact of austerity]. That is one of the ways the project has been very successful, the conversations it has triggered.”
Because of the results of the election, Crow said the end of the project now felt less like “a closing” and “more of a beginning”.
She said: “It would be wonderful to say austerity is over and now we start rebuilding, but effectively it was a mark in the sand saying, ‘this is where we are,’ because it is going to get worse. I cannot see how it cannot.”
Crow said the scattering of the remains of the figures over the side of the boat had been “incredibly moving”.
She said: “I was very conscious all the way through the scattering, but also during the phases leading up to it, that every single one of those figures represented a real person, and I still felt that very strongly as I scattered them yesterday.”
Among the stories marked by her project was that of Liza, who found applying for employment and support allowance to be so “horrendously stressful” that she could not face applying for disability living allowance. Instead, she scavenged for food from supermarket skips.
Another was Stephen, who was assessed for his fitness for work and told by the healthcare professional to see a doctor as soon as possible. Although he was found fit for work, he was diagnosed with heart failure. He won his appeal but was told to attend another assessment, even though he was waiting for a heart operation. He was again assessed as being fit for work, but died 39 days after the assessment.
A third story involved a young man with testicular cancer, who was sanctioned by Jobcentre Plus because he could not attend an appointment. Days later, he was admitted to hospital for intensive chemotherapy, after a scan revealed the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Even though a social worker from a cancer charity rang Jobcentre Plus to explain, they still refused to give him any money.
Crow said she would now take some time to recover from the project, before deciding on her next piece of work.
In the meantime, she will continue to work on a doctorate examining different approaches to activism, including the role of performing and the arts.
And in the autumn, she is due to start on a film-based piece of work using footage shot during the We Are Figures project.
Picture by Matthew Fessey