To honour the sporting event, disabled artists from around the world are kicking off their own celebration of achievement in Unlimited, a new festival at the Southbank Centre, that’s set to challenge expectations and prejudices as much as its track and field cousins.

“With the Paralympics in London, Locog and Arts Council England wanted to provide an opportunity for deaf and disabled artists to achieve their personal best,” Unlimited’s head of programming Wendy Martin says.

“So they invited artists to submit ideas and to dream the biggest dreams for the art projects they wanted to make.

“As part of the Cultural Olympiad, they commissioned 29 new works with a budget of £4.5m.”

A celebration of disability, arts and culture, Unlimited provides a platform for disabled artists from around the world, and it challenges people’s attitudes through work that “opens doors, changes minds and inspires new collaborations”.

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Worldwide programmers have been invited by the Arts Council to ensure the work has international life past its London one.

Different disabilities across many art disciplines are represented – deaf, visually impaired, physically disabled
– as are the non-disabled, contributing works covering dance, theatre, music and art. “We had a commitment to present the work of as many artists as possible in a programme that has a broad appeal,” Martin explains.

One of the shows she added to Unlimited’s initial commission is Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful, a musical drama that’s toured the UK driven by the greatest hits of the late outspoken disability campaigner Ian Dury and his band Ian Dury And The Blockheads.

Pushing beyond that which has been achieved before has been a key festival component, as illustrated by Sue Austin’s Creating The Spectacle, an underwater wheelchair performance, and Claire Cunningham’s 12.

Solo performer Cunningham, choreographed, with the support of disability dance company Candoco, a group theatrical performance that plays with ideas of what supports us in life, often with surreal humour.

“It is a huge leap to go from being a solo performer to choreographing for 12 dancers,” Martin says. “But the project she has created is just phenomenal.”

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Challenging people’s expectations of what disabled art can, and should, be is the cornerstone of much of the work – and Kate O’Reilly’s In Water I Am Weightless is an especially ambitious project.

Examining human difference, it’s performed by a cast of deaf and disabled artists but draws on the lives and experiences of disabled people across the UK, with O’Reilly projecting their words across the stage throughout the performance.

Incorporating people’s experiences was not unique to this project, though.

“A lot of the performances have embedded this idea of disability into their performances,” Martin says.

“O’Reilly’s projections are not just add-ons but they have been seriously considered as part of the show and that has been central to a lot of the work – the artists have thought about making accessibility an aesthetic consideration.”

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Another project which tackles head-on people’s expectations is Mat Fraser’s burlesque show. “There’s a strong burlesque movement within disability arts, in which Mat is a key figure,” Martin explains.

“We invited him to put together a performance that he called Crip Tease. By taking ownership of language that’s been employed in a particular way in the past, using it by choice, it says ‘this is my show’.”

Physical disabilities aren’t the festival’s sole focus, though, one of the most interesting projects being The Dean Rodney
Singers, an interactive multimedia project that’s the brainchild of autistic Londoner Dean Rodney.

A passionate artist and rapper, Rodney, 22, envisaged a world-spanning band of 72 members, disabled and abled alike, and set about bringing this vision to life with the support of music theatre group Heart N Soul.

He travelled the world, meeting prospective collaborators and working on music and videos, the iPad and a cornucopia of apps acting as the creative tool to bring the disparate elements – traditional Chinese music, tribal Brazilian beats, Kraftwerk-esque electro-tunes – together.

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Presented through seven fantasy dimensions that help illustrate Rodney’s vision of the world, DRS personifies Unlimited’s scope, ambition and power to challenge.

A wholly immersive experience, for those creating it and experiencing it on the South Bank, it breaks down barriers and notions of ‘difference’.

“Disabled people have been fighting for their rights for a long time,” Martin says. “They were seen as a problem for society, the ‘medical’ model of disability, but now the model is very much a social one, that involves all of us.”

While attitudes have moved on from this misguided ‘medical’ model, there’s work still to be done to counter the ignorance about disability.

Unlimited’s breadth of talent on show will open eyes, and is a welcome step forwards. It’s our responsibility to become part of this journey, too.

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Celebrating Spare Parts: Aussie Artist’s Exhibition

Unlimited is not the only show in town to be celebrating disabled art. Australian Priscilla Sutton has brought her prosthetics exhibition Spare Parts to London to coincide with the Paralympics, too.

Debuting in 2010 in Brisbane, the show calls on artists across the world to use their prosthetic limbs as the canvas for their works of art.

The pieces range from sculptures by Dorset-based artist Charlie Tuesday Gates, including a Dali-esque piece envisaging a below-the-knee prosthetic as the base for an erupting head, all influenced by the childhood subconscious, to Australian Erica Gray, a mainstay of the 2010 exhibition, who has designed a new art work for this 2012 collection.

Sutton has been an amputee since 2006, when she decided on surgery to remove a bone condition.

Spare Parts aims to celebrate prosthetics, but also to kick start a conversation about what can be achieved with them.

Unlimited at Southbank Centre.
Aug 30-Sept 9. Times/ prices vary
SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo

Photos: Alison Baskerville; Racel cherry; Martine Cotton