Unlimited Festival 2014
Artist: Sue Austin, Photo: Norman Lomax, © wearefreewheeling.org.uk 

What should disability arts look like in 2020?: an Aussie’s snapshot of the Unlimited Symposium 

By Morwenna Collett

This was the big question that the first ever Unlimited Symposium, a disabled-led, two day discussion event held at the Unicorn Theatre in London, aimed to answer. Put simply, the purpose of the event was to ‘‘find solutions to the barriers that disabled people face daily as they work or aspire to work in the arts” -Jo Verrent, Senior Producer, Unlimited. 

About Unlimited

The Unlimited Commissions Programme, and associated festival have both been running since the lead up to the London Paralympic Games in 2012. Having been supported over the years by Arts Council England, Arts Council Wales, Creative Scotland, Arts Council Northern Ireland, Spirit of 2012 and other funders, this was the first year a symposium element has been added to the programme. 

Aimed at both a national and international audience across the cultural sector, the Symposium sold out well in advance and was also live streamed, to provide access to as many people as possible. Through significant support from the British Council, 120 international delegates from 40 different countries attended the Symposium. British Council Director Neil Webb said that the British Council Partnership with Unlimited “places UK artists and cultural leaders firmly at the centre of an international disability art movement which is a catalyst for social change.”

The British Council Australia office supported a number of Australian delegates to attend, including Philip Channels, Liz Martin, Riana Head-Toussant, Heidi Everett and Kath Duncan, with various other Australians participating in the event as well (Anna Hay, Morwenna Collett, Lyndel Caffrey and Sarah Houbolt). 

This was the largest ever disabled-led discussion event held in the UK,  and was curated through a democratic, audience driven process, where topics were suggested and then voted upon online. 

The four chosen topics were:

  • Art – how can disabled artists change the ‘mainstream’ arts sector? 
  • Equality – Disability, intersectional identities and the arts
  • Attitude – Why is it taking so long? Can we speed up change? Will we ever get there? 
  • Future – Does new technology enable or create more barriers? 

A half-day was dedicated to unpacking each of the topics, with an independent Chair and an eclectic mix of speakers. The disabled-led discussion meant that 76% of speakers were disabled and hailed from all corners of the globe, including England, Wales and Scotland, plus Finland, South Africa, Taiwan, Australia, Brazil, Austria, US and Palestine.

The Unlimited Symposium

The event was designed to change the way people do things, and we were encouraged not to sit back and listen but to take action. 

Structurally, each topic began with broad panel discussion, before the audience split into smaller discussion groups to add their own insights, views and questions into these areas. There was a relaxed viewing area, artist interventions, games, and graphic documentation of every topic area. The event catered to a wide range of access needs, published an access statement and was very open to what did and didn’t work. 

While it’s impossible to pick a favourite session, the ‘equality’ topic resonated strongly with me, because of the conversations we are beginning to have and need to continue to have around intersectionality back home in Australia. 

Chair Sonia Dyer pointed out that the term intersectionality as increasingly being used as a way of describing the convergence of various systems of structural oppression people who are marginalised within society experience.

Speakers included Dr Marlene Le Roux (CEO of Artscape Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa), Tarik Elmoutawahil (co-leader of Marlborough Theatre, Brighton), Sandi Yi (international producer placement, Unlimited), and Michael Turinsky (an Austrian choreographer, dancer and theoretician). 

The concept of intersectionality has roots in black, queer and feminist culture. Audre Lorde stated that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” Power and privilege were discussed in this forum, and we were challenged to consider what role areas such as race and class play in the disability arts movement. 

I particularly enjoyed hearing from Tarik Elmoutawahil, a queer, Moroccan Dutchman who is also disabled. He talked about being a whole, authentic person (“who I am when I’m completely myself”) and asked us “what would it look like if we centred otherness?” His work at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton has focused on intersectional programming, and has led to the establishment of an ongoing event called Brownton Abbey, an Afro-futurist performance party, celebrating intersectional identities which recently received an Unlimited commission. 

In Tarik’s breakout group, we discussed the need to find your community/your tribe, how rare it is to be an intersectional leader, tokenism, the importance of taking up space and talking about who you are and the valuable life experience that comes from being part of one or more minority groups. 

Unlimited Festival

The Symposium was held directly prior to the fourth biennial Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre, which showcased extraordinary international work by disabled artists, for which the many Symposium delegates stayed on in London to be a part of. Featuring nearly 30 events spanning across theatre, dance, live art, music, visual arts, film, children’s work and workshops, the festival had something for everyone - and not everything was going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s ok. 

The Festival opening and closing nights featured work by Australian disabled artists – The Nature of Why by the British Paraorchestra, choreographed by Caroline Bowditch (coming to the Perth Festival in 2019  and supported by the British Council – go see it!) and On One Condition, a solo dance work performed by Dan Daw, which highlighted the high quality of the work of originating from Australia on an international stage. 

The next Unlimited festival will be held in 2020. I believe it’s the top place to see a wide and varied mix of the best international arts and disability work, and I encourage Australian artists, arts workers, programmers to attend and make our Aussie delegation ever bigger next time around. It’s a brilliant place to meet people from all around the world, learn from each other, and most importantly, see some of the best art on the planet. See you there!

About Morwenna Collett

Morwenna is currently the Director Major Performing Arts Projects at the Australia Council for the Arts. She's been a champion of arts and disability practice for many years and has held previous roles such CEO at Accessible Arts, the peak body for arts and disability across NSW. She's a member of the access and disability committees for the City of Sydney, Sydney Festival and Australian Chamber Orchestra, and also works as a lecturer, consultant and trainer. She was recently awarded a 2018 Churchill fellowship, and will be travelling to the USA and UK in 2019 to research inclusive music programs, festivals and venues which actively engage people with disability.