An insightful piece on disability identity

Shoddy exhibition

figure-process-material-drawingI was asked to write something for a publication accompanying a project called Figure-Process-Material, part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle outreach and engagement programme. This project involved a number of community groups in an  educational programme that also aimed to connect people to local galleries and break down some barriers along the way.

Because I wasn’t involved in the project, I couldn’t respond directly to the project or the work being made. In fact, I almost didn’t write anything. What follows is a response to a conversation I’d had with Paul Digby, the project’s lead artist, and returns to a theme that Shoddy has been circling around, disability art.

Community arts projects which give disabled people the chance to try out new art forms, learn new techniques, and produce work for others to see have a valued role in the arts. The way they address issues of disability, however…

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Elaine Showalter and ‘the feminisation of madness’

As part of researching literary references to lived experience of psychiatric hospital I recently re-read Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. My research is chiefly concerned with looking at the …

Source: Elaine Showalter and ‘the feminisation of madness’

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THE COURAGE TO COME FORWARD – An Interview with Colin Hambrook

Art has a key role to play. For example, having one of the lead roles on Coronation Street played by a young actor with learning difficulties I think that is definitely going to change attitudes, make a lot of people think and those changes are really important.

Source: THE COURAGE TO COME FORWARD – An Interview with Colin Hambrook

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Crippen takes his gloves off for Cameron!

Crippen Cartoons

Disability Deaths Crippen’s Deaths cartoon

OK you bastard, it’s ‘gloves off’ time!

The time has come to take the gloves off with my response to the inhuman treatment of disabled people by David Cameron.

What is it with this man. Has he made some sort of pact with the devil? Has he been offered this meteoric rise to power in exchange for a regular supply of disabled souls? And make no bones about it – disabled people ARE dying out there because of his policies!

Or is he so driven by his loyality to his pay masters that even his own personal experience of losing a disabled child can’t halt his savage attacks upon sick and disabled people?

And what about his cronies. It wasn’t so long ago that they were all attacking Labour for holding an attitude towards disabled people as being ‘scroungers’.

Quentin Davis, Conservative MP and spokesman for…

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Growing up with god

My daughter is fast moving towards that teenage state of being. The world shrinks and expands through different cycles in life. One moment what seemed so vast, suddenly refracts through a different lens by dint of being alive.

I guess it’s the universality of that experience that has kept Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels as popular as it is even now, after nearly 300 years since its publication.

Growing up with god

Recalling your fearlessness
at that age just beyond crawling,
diving down a fifty foot slide
backwards, head first; the buzz
of danger and sheer aliveness.

And now older, revisiting the play park
watching you at home with your world;
and everything looking so much smaller
as if god had shrunk
to the size of an ant;

especially the swinging basket
that once resembled a titan;
the children desperate to get the thing
to roll all the way over its axis,
instilling fear into every parent.

So what is it with the furniture of life?
this patch of grass that was once an acre,
this square mile that held everything,
all expanding and contracting
as if the earth itself had a will of it’s own.

(c) Colin Hambrook

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For the man who buries beds

Here is a poem in draft. I seem to be very preoccupied with death and dying just now… This is a poem for my father who is ageing fast.

Much of this year has been taken up with seeing him through hospital visits… he is a natural eccentric, as I imagine the title might explain.

For the man who buries beds

Strange it is, watching you shrink
like mud man left out to dry
under a hot sun.
Preparing for birth,
at the dawn of your closure.
I wonder who will emerge
when the cracks run deep
and the edifice crumbles.

And if I could water
a life at sunset
prolong its fierce aching
who would it serve?
No, at best I hope
to watch you walk
through that door
with a head held high.

After all, I’ve already watched
you, aged 84, take up a shovel
to cut the rough ground
and make a hole
large enough for a double mattress.
There’s nothing new
to your pragmatism
or your fearlessness.

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Furniture for a room of loss and mourning

I was talking with a friend about the worry over elderly parents and she said “we’ve reached a new phase of our lives”. In older cultures transitionary life stages were marked with ritual and given a sense of meaning and purpose. In our pretend ‘civilised’ culture we plough through with an unmitigated expectation that we’ll bury death and the paths towards death and buy into everything that encourages us to remain silent and treat our lives and those of our loved ones as though they were a contract to be negotiated purely in monetary terms.

I’ve been finding some comfort in Rumi, the 13th century sufi poet. I’d recommend The Guest House with its admonition to treat ‘a crowd of sorrows’ with honour and gratitude.

I keep returning to one poem in particular that reminds me of the stage in life that is passing. I don’t know how I’m going to face the changes we’re going through as a family and hold it all together? I look back at all the mixed feelings I’ve held about my father: how to put those to rest with the dignity and humour that Rumi suggests?

Furniture for a room of loss and mourning

An aura of wood surrounded my father
resolute as the banister we children slid down
to avoid the grief dried out in the knots
and grain of the furniture of our lives.

All the real words sat hiding in a tin bath
at the end of the garden, amongst newts
and tadpoles, searching for relief
until a hot sun evaporated all traces.

The house became full of emotional objects:
a print of Chester clock tower (with real picture clock),
a sewing machine, an asbestos-coated ironing board
(great for scratching), the hope that mum would paint
herself by numbers back into reality.

I made a home beneath the upright piano in the living room
whilst dad tinkled ivory keys on hopeful Sundays,
refusing the religion that grew like fungus
in the damp patch invading the space left by burnt brain cells.

The piano sits there still, playing
an out-of-tune silence, battered, majestic;
a reminder of a love etched like varnished wood grain
into the shadow of all the unsaid things.

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It’s been a while since I updated my blog and as I’ve been fairly busy painting I thought I’d add a photo of this work-in-progress. It’s great to be working on a fairly large scale (4 foot x 4 foot) and am enjoying it greatly. Without planning it I ended up going back to poetry from my first collection 100 Houses as inspiration for this image, which depicts how it feels to have an involuntary out of body experience – something which I was prone to until about ten years ago.

On the Astral

young, I felt the breathe
of a world that lives alongside

felt the crush
like daddy-long-legs,
gasping to fly;

learnt to fight my way back
into the body, lying like a sack
on broken-down beds
of insect dreams,

no daily dose
of belladonna washed down
with a level playing field, could
take away those moments
of terror, wonderful

when the infinite
crawls, a bats hair away
and sometimes, easing
out of the body-grip
and finding my essence able
to fly around the room

out of the window,
across the night sky,
like the time I saw you
old eagle-love; chasing,
possessed and

the drugged-out
demon of you, flying
the ether for longer than your
material body
could furnish.
(c) Colin Hambrook 2013

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Jane and Samantha comment on audio-description

I asked Jane and Samantha from Pesky People to give some honest feedback to the creative audio-descriptions Joseph Young and I created for Knitting Time. I wanted to get a more in-depth response from a VIP perspective. This is how they responded.

We started noting down our thoughts, after discussing each piece. We didn’t want to provide notes on each piece individually, as we’d end up repeating a lot. I’ve used ‘I’ a lot for convenience, but have summarised our thoughts and our discussions.

Galleries often confuse audio guides, and audio description. I think audio guides can often be dull (read your blog). There is usually a risk in trying to interpret works in audio description, as the describer is presuming to speak for the artist, and therefore may be imposing an interpretation that is not what the artist intended. Of course, in this case, you are both the describer and the artist, so this is avoided, and having the two roles together is definitely a real strength.

The pieces are nicely evocative, they’re beautiful, creative, there’s a real sense of place and time, and your description works, from a purely audio description point of view. For the majority, I’m able to build up the image in my mind, which, after all is the point. Some of them, there are details I’d like to know about the piece that aren’t included, for example, Bird Song – I’d have liked to known the scale and medium of the piece. And I love the sound effects, they really add something. As do the cats, who have been summoned to the study by the calls of birds.

Your audio functions as both audio description and audio guide, which is very inclusive, and means it is likely to be of interest to sighted visitors as well as those with impairments, as having biographical details and artist’s intention enriches the work.

The only suggestion (not really a criticism, as it’s probably a stylistic choice), is the ordering. Having biographical/ technical/ artist’s intention information, then the description of the visuals of the work, then more biographical information, as you do in the first track, may discourage some listeners who just want to access the description only. Think of being a sighted person in a gallery, you see the image and form an impression and emotional response to the piece, then you go and read the information. So having information before the description, might affect the response to the piece. But maybe that is intended, in which case, all good. Drowned, which has the description earlier, for me, works better for this reason than some of the other pieces.

It’s certainly far more interesting and engaging than audio guides generally are, and works as a piece of art in itself. You could listen to these as standalone pieces, they could go out on Radio 4 as stories. Where you’d made reference to poems, I’d have really liked to have heard the poems included.

Knitting Wheel works less well, it’s interesting on its own, but doesn’t really work as an audio description of the work, I don’t know the colours, or size, or texture of any of the pieces. They are speaking as though you can see the piece in front of you. But this doesn’t mean it’s without value.

If I was wanting to be excessively picky, and if you wanted to take the accessibility to the next level, I would suggest providing a version with just the voice, with no sound effects, maybe on one ipod, for visitors who are Deaf Blind, and therefore, may find the sound effects difficult. But that is being really, really picky, given the vast majority of galleries and museums provide no audio description at all.

What’s really innovative about what you’ve produced here is that it has so obviously been a key element of the work from inception, rather than an afterthought. It being so integral works really well, and, sadly, makes it a much greater shame that they messed with the descriptions.

It’s brilliant that you’ve provided the audio online so people can download it to their own devices prior to visiting, as this is what I’ve told so many places, it circumvents the need to learn and operate an unfamiliar device, and is always my preference.

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Some further thoughts on audio-description

In trawling the internet it is very hard to find material on the principles of audio-description for the Visual Arts. Audio Description is the detailed narration techniques used to assist blind and partially sighted people, both young and mature, to enjoy art and other visual media.

A lot of audio-description I’ve listened to at various art exhibitions tries hard to be objective and in the process comes across as literal and lacking in engagement. A lot of blind and visually impaired people I’ve talked to over the years have said they often find audio-description to be boring.

The RNIBs Opening Up Creative Culture programme made an attempt to talk about description as a creative process. Spoken word artist Evoke in talking about his passion for audio-description says: “A picture tells a thousand words. I wanted to take those thousand words and create a picture.” [You can hear the ten videos made by Zoe Partington for the programme by clicking on this link.]

I think there is a lack of audio-description within the visual arts that gives the artists’ perspective and thereby truly takes you into the image being described. So often it’s purely about surface rather than the layers of meaning that any image can evoke. Rarely within audio-description do you get any clues as to why the artist has created that particular image.

It is partly because Art School education has long encouraged the idea that visual artworks, should by definition ‘speak for themselves’ – and so any written or spoken text interpreting a painting or a photograph is frowned upon. The usual argument is that interpretation ‘gets in the way’ of the viewer’s imagination.

Personally I think that words, when used creatively, and in an accessible way add layers enhancing the viewer’s experience of the artwork. Rather than being about telling people what to see it’s about adding another way of perceiving the image. Rather than ‘doing all the work’ for the viewer, it’s actually challenging the viewer to think more deeply and creatively about what they are looking at.

And so in my creative audio-descriptions for Knitting Time I’ve attempted to embellish the literal interpretation with stories about the process of making the artwork as well as telling life experiences that put the image into context. Click on this link and have a listen and see what you think?

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