Festival to contest narrow view of disability

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Burlesque and aerial performer, Katia Schwartz.

A FREE online festival featuring performers and artists with disability is coming up this Saturday, June 27 – and it’s been planned from Canberra.

Curated by performance artist Hanna Cormick and visual artist Daniel Savage, both of whom live with disability, “PLATFORM Live”, is supported by Eastern Riverina Arts, Information on Disability Education and Awareness Services and the National Disability Insurance Agency.

Producer Scott Howie predicts that the event will “entertain, provoke, amuse and astound – and maybe dispel a few misconceptions about the type of work that artists with disability make”.

It will run from 2pm this Saturday and comprises four online sessions – Ideas, Screen, Words and Stage. The festival will be fully supported by audio description, closed captions and Auslan. And will also be available to watch online for two weeks following the festival.

“PLATFORM Live” represents a step forward from an earlier project of the same name, which was to provide an accessible, physical chill-out space for people of all ages and abilities, with soft music, slow-moving lights, interactive tactile objects, weighted blankets and lots of fluffy cushions.

Co-curator Daniel Savage.

I caught up with Savage as he and Cormick were putting the finishing touches to the event.

A graduate of the ANU School of Art and Design, he is a photomedia, photography and video installation practitioner who acquired a spinal injury during his third year at the school, became a wheelchair-user and since made a successful practice out of photographing “the way we perceive the world from a wheelchair”.

“I’ve been looking more and more into disability, and over the two years following my injury I was lucky and got a few opportunities in the mainstream arts world where not a lot of disabled artists are represented,” Savage tells me.

“But the art world is not very accessible for disabled artists, with few opportunities to present and make… You can’t always go on residencies because you may require need-assisted services, many residencies are not accessible.”

Savage became increasingly interested in arts inclusion and started speaking about himself and his work at forums, both general and to do with the arts and disability.

Musos Tralalablip. Photo: K Holmes

“Through my access into this side of work and experience I can demonstrate what people can do,” he says.

As he found an interest in talking about it, he noticed a push from the Australian Council and many major institutions to fund disability arts.

“Hanna and I were presented with an opportunity to be involved in ‘PLATFORM’… originally it was to take place in a physical state, supported by Riverina Arts, but we wanted to make sure that artists with disabilities were actually involved, so we put out a call for participants.”

Cormick and Savage had already worked together in Canberra. Her acquired disability involves complete physical isolation from the day-to-day world, at first putting paid to her well-established performance career.

COVID-19 led to a decision to do the festival virtually. Suddenly, Savage reflects, a lot of issues and problems were eliminated.

Co-curator Hanna Cormick. Photo: Shelly Higgs.

“Previously when we had been planning with Hanna, she was the only one Skyping, it’s more difficult if it’s just one person on Skype or Zoom because you can’t feel equally included.

“But as the COVID-19 crisis progressed, everybody started to feel comfortable with it, a weird benefit… what will happen afterwards, will people still be comfortable or will it be back to the old ways where she is excluded to an extent?”

At all events they approached the NDIA to allow them to reformat the grant to fund an online festival across the visual arts, literature, music and performance and the result is “PLATFORM Live”.

“It’s a great opportunity to pull in artists from all over Australia and in fact all over the world, but this is not about individual artists but about what disability artists can do.”

So, how is the festival broken down?

First up, from 2pm-3pm on Saturday is “Ideas”, in which Cormick leads a panel discussion on online arts in the time of COVID-19, talking to other artists who’ve had previous experience with isolation to expose the question of social isolation as it was prior to COVID-19, how it’s changed and the expectations of people working in extreme isolation.

Then in “Screen” from 3.15pm-4pm, Savage will host a guided tour of selected work by six contemporary disabled artists working with video, beginning with his own early work, “The Fall of Icarus” which deals with the accident causing his disability and plays around with ancient myths.

All the while, he says, there will be two-dimensional visual art in the form of an Instagram exhibition at “PLATFORM Gallery”, celebrating work by disability artists in print, drawing text reflecting that that people will be directed to a social media website.

Appearance activist, Carly Findlay.

“Words” follows from 4.30pm to 5.30pm, a session of live-streamed story and poetry readings by Gayle Kennedy and Andy Jackson and self-described “appearance activist”, Carly Findlay, who lives with ichthyosis, a rare genetic disorder that affects her skin and hair and who writes about the lived experience.

“PLATFORM Live” winds up with a showbiz-style session, “Stage” from 7pm-8.30pm.

Hosted by stand-up comedian Madeleine Stewart, it will feature a line-up of acts by dancers, live music, aerialists and performers like performance poet Alison Paradoxx, musicians Tralala Blip, dancer Jana Castillo, musician Liz Martin and profoundly deaf burlesque and aerial performer, Katia Schwartz, who performs with a sign interpreter to ensure that her beats are on cue.

“We make the point that people have a narrow view of disability, they’ve got a picture of a figure in a wheelchair whereas disability is not always physically visible – we look at the entire spectrum,” Savage says.

“PLATFORM Live”, from 2pm, this Saturday, June 27. Join at platformriverina.com or via Facebook.

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