It’s important at times to get a little slap in the face...

| by Eleanor Turney

Claire Cunningham reflects on the quandary of being in the Showcase, the importance of controversial and confrontational work and the difficulty of gauging attitudes to disability rights in other countries.


It’s always a huge pleasure to be part of the Edinburgh Showcase, to look at the other artists who have been selected and to see the calibre of their work. It can feel like a bit of a catch 22, though – I’m delighted that there’s all this other amazing work that’s part of the Showcase, but heartbroken because I will likely miss it all because I’ll be performing too! It’s a strange quandary to be in.

 I’m delighted that there’s all this other amazing work that’s part of the Showcase, but heartbroken because I will likely miss it all because I’ll be performing too!

Having said that, the whole experience is exciting – Edinburgh is always a buzz, and affirming too; it’s nice to know that there is such faith in your work. It’s great to know that the British Council have an interest in the work and feel that it represents something that they want to put out into the world.

I’m excited by the diversity of work that’s been selected, too: it’s not all “safe” work; the choices are very mixed. This is work that’s being pushed out across the world, and it’s not about putting out stereotyped ideas of Britain. There’s some more controversial and confrontational work that gets put out, dealing with important issues. It’s really good for the British Council not to just go for safe pieces.

Edinburgh is a place where you can voice a diversity of opinions, expressed through art. There’s a mixture of backgrounds, and plenty of work really trying to question people’s rights in all sorts of ways. We, very fortunately, live in a country where people have rights of expression, so the opportunity to push that out is a privilege that we recognise. Touring internationally is a really vital thing. It’s important at times to get a little slap in the face, to realise how privileged we are.

It can be difficult to understand the context you’re going into. I’m often working in contexts that consider disability and disability arts, and disability rights are at different stages in different places. It can be difficult to entirely understand a) what the situation is and b) how you can engage with it, coming from a society that’s relatively far along in its disability rights. It’s important to try and engage with and understand what’s going on, and as an artist to respect what’s going on in that country at that time, and I say this because I know from experience I have not always gauged it correctly.  I think we have to be careful not to seem like we are flaunting our privilege, because disability arts has been relatively well supported in the UK in recent years, but we need to be trying to show work that is primarily good and interesting art, and then also what is possible-for example with regard to disability – in a way that is helpful and empowering to the local community.

There’s always an element of role models, which is part of why disabled arts has developed in the UK – there’s a need to support people to become role models. That in turn supports the art to reach a certain quality, to help people to meet gatekeepers and to confront issues about quality. We have to overcome the low expectations of disabled artists and the assumptions of low quality, which have historically been a problem for disability arts. My role can be to show some of that, to show politicians and programmers that even if they don’t like the piece aesthetically they can’t debate the quality – it gets past that conversation and shows disabled individuals that there is that possibility, to start banging on the door of institutions. We can have a brokering role when we visit other countries with places or people that might be denying access.

It’s about trying to understand what our role can be beyond just showing the work.

Different countries are in different parts of the cycle: if there are grassroots organisations already that are not being paid attention to, then there’s an obligation to engage with those organisations, not just to drop in and do a show. It’s about trying to understand what our role can be beyond just showing the work. I don’t mean, or want, to try to be something that I’m not, I want to always ensure that I am there purely as an artist and to ensure that role is valued, but I’m becoming more aware of the need to push the relationships we have when we travel beyond simply the performing spaces.


 

Claire Cunningham's show Give Me A Reason To Live will be playing at Dance Base from 7- 29 August and is part of the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase.

Words by Eleanor Turney

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