Preview: DaDaFest

Actor and director Garry Robson tells Lianne Steinberg how DaDaFest continues to challenge negative perceptions of disability

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For more than three decades, DaDaFest, the disability and deaf arts organisation based in Liverpool, has been showcasing and supporting innovative art, comedy, performance and photography. Taking place this summer across various venues, the biennial event has developed a broader outlook in its work over the years as international artists display their take on this year’s themes.

“It was initially about disabled artists showing their work to a primarily disabled audience but
I think since 2008 it has had a broader perspective,” says Garry Robson, co-curator of DaDaFest exhibition Niet Normaal.

“It’s no longer just about deaf and disabled artists but other artists as well, so it’s more about a fusion of ideas.”

First showcased in Amsterdam, Niet Normaal is a groundbreaking arts show featuring a multitude of works that look at the issue of conformism in our society and whether minority groups are being pushed into the margins.

“I saw the exhibition in 2009 and met the curator and it struck me as a really important piece of work because it asks the question: ‘What is normal and who decides?’ It gathers together a group of artists whose work reflects that question and it didn’t make any distinction between a deaf and disabled artist getting involved – it was just whether their work posed questions and raised those issues. So it was against labelling, if you will.”

From sculpture and painting to video and photography, the exhibition challenges the view that we live in a democratic and inclusive society, asking instead whether in fact certain deviations from the norm are universally held to be distasteful. And the pressure to fit a certain aesthetic is not necessarily one felt solely in the disabled community.

“Exactly,” agrees Robson. “Who says you have to be a size six and dress in these clothes and have these gadgets – these are questions that plague everyone. Who is making all these decisions and who is running along with it?”

Robson, himself a disabled actor and director, has had a long involvement with DaDaFest, having previously been the artistic director in 2008 and 2010. The festival’s enduring appeal over the past 11 years is due to its ability to reach out to the community with innovative and provocative arts projects. The fact that there seems to have been progress in attitudes towards disability over that period has certainly helped the festival make its mark.

“I think it’s more common to have deaf and disabled performers on a mainstream stage now and the Paralympics has also brought us into focus a lot more. The Cultural Olympiad that accompanies the event this year has plenty of deaf and disabled performers working on shows that will be going out to mainstream audiences. I wouldn’t say it was perfect and it’s still something of a niche market but the thing about DaDaFest is that the themes really speak to everyone.”

Despite feeling the pinch of the current financial climate, the organisers remain focused on progressing the festival, with plenty of focus on the next generation in Young DaDaFest, aimed at 13-25 year olds.

“We always try and capture the imagination of the young because they’re important members of society. That’s what the deaf and disability arts movement is about – we’re saying we have a unique voice because of our condition but it’s a voice that needs to be heard by everybody in the mainstream.”
As an international festival, it’s also an opportunity to see how progressive the UK is in comparison to its European and American neighbours.

“It’s swings and roundabouts. It’s certainly not uniform,” Robson stresses.
“The favourite term in America is still ‘handicapped’ and we are seen as a quite separate group. So the UK can pat itself on the back because in some ways it’s a fairly progressive country when it comes to deaf and disabled people.”

DaDaFest, until 2 Sept, various venues, Liverpool,

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