In November, I was very fortunate to receive a bursary from the British Council and Unlimited to attend IETM Brussels as part of an initiative to get more artists from d/Deaf, disabled and BAME backgrounds into the room. Taking place just before a new collaboration with sound artist Gemma Nash was due to begin, the bursary felt like a timely opportunity to contextualise the work we want to make around sexuality and disability in an international sphere, and potentially make some contacts that could help us take our work to other countries in the future.
From what the British Council and Unlimited teams had to say, it sounded like that there had been systematic problems with access and diversity at these meetings in the past. These bursaries were one relatively simple way of making it easier to attend. As any independent artist can tell you, money is a huge factor in accessing any opportunity that doesn’t guarantee some pay in return, and attendance at IETM requires a registration fee on top of any travel and accommodation to get you there.
But of course, for those who experience marginalisation on account of (dis)ability, there’s more to support than simply money. Being given cash support to travel to a meeting is all well and good but not if the meeting itself leaves you high and dry when it comes to access support (it’s not so uncommon for me to review UK festival programmes and venue brochures that have low / unclear access provision, which I experience as part of my work as an Arts Council Artistic Quality Assessor). Add to this the potential to feel intimidated and isolated as a solo traveller to an international meeting of this size and it’s no surprise attendance from marginalised communities is lower than average.
To address this, the bursaries had a lot of sensible pastoral support built in. Our British Council contacts planned get-togethers in advance, and gave tips and advice for relevant meetings to attend. We also had an independent contact for negotiating access and any concerns in the form of the very friendly Katie, who put together a WhatsApp Group for us to keep in touch with. We were encouraged to feel part of a group who could socialise, keep each other company and give each other mutual support.
(I didn’t take too many photos while I was there – too busy networking – but I loved this wallpaper).
The framework for support put in place by the British Council and Unlimited was definitely a positive intervention to the IETM experience. The biggest challenge I had was my own health: I arrived in Brussels on a 7:35am Eurostar from St. Pancras International with my fellow artists and friends, Greg, & Anne, as well as a horrid cold / flu, my energy levels at their absolute nadir. I came very close to burnout at the end of last year, a state compounded by my own medication regimen; IETM was when I was at my lowest ebb. Thankfully, the effects of burnout on physical and mental health, and how to prevent them, have been getting greater attention recently with creative producers like Luke Emery dedicating parts of their site to advice on how NOT to run yourself into the ground. I could have done with this advice (and someone to coach me to follow it) about, oh…I don’t know, four years ago but, c’est la vie.
On the plus side, I’d managed to line up an excellent opportunity to speak about mine and Gemma’s collaboration at Newsround, a session of 30 artists giving 3 minute pitches on their work to an audience of international artists, producers and venues on the second day of the meeting. This opportunity was highlighted as a valuable chance to introduce yourself as a newcomer to the wider group in advance by Steven Brett, Programme Manager at British Council. I’d expected a room of maybe 60 or 70 people; what I got was probably 200+ people packed into a sizeable hall at the beautiful La Raffinerie/Charleroi dance building, making me feel very relieved to have taken some time out from the first day’s activities to prepare.
As far as I could tell, the presentation was well received, and I had some very supportive and productive chats afterwards with Christoph Jankowski from Creative Europe, and international artist, Shabnam Shabazi. However, I’ve very little knowledge to what extent work that addresses sexuality and disability is supported in Europe. I’d hoped, perhaps naively, that I might get even more people than that wanting to talk after the session… but then, a lot stigma and misinformation still persists around HIV, the topic I most want to address; on top of that, the UK is leaving the European Union: two pretty clear barriers to getting this kind of work on the road outside of the UK. Knowing exactly who to approach and follow up the presentation with would have been made much easier with some prior research. Tim Wheeler, co-founder of Mind The Gap suggested to the group that going through the delegate list would be a useful way of doing so, followed by working the room to see ‘who knows who’. If I were to go back for a second time, I’d definitely carve out more time for this approach; time that was in very short supply thanks to my scheduling in November.
IETM is a bit of beast. There are 100 different things to do over the course of 4 days, and this particular meeting had close to 800 delegates, nearly a third more than they usually expect. Choosing what to go to and who to speak to is a task in itself. I didn’t always make the right choice: at one point, I found myself at a one hour presentation about how to ‘survive’ your arts career, which was in effect a run-down of the contents page of a publication I could have downloaded in my own good time. In future, I’d probably skip the ‘practical sessions’ offered as part of the programme as most seemed aimed at much bigger scale projects and organisations than I’m working in. Instead, I’d spend more time at those with an artistic bent.
The ‘Talking To Everybody, Everybody’s Talking’ session is the one of these that sticks most in my mind, partly because of the total contrasts within it. Acknowledgement to Country with Amrita Hepi was a sensitive demonstration of Aboriginal traditions for acknowledging the traditional landowners of a meeting place. It was full of warmth, charm and generosity. Carefully facilitated by Amrita, I was guided to a reflective space where I could consider the rural and industrial landscapes of Shropshire I grew up in, the legacy of the Industrial Revolution that happened right on my doorstep, and what I might do about it in future.
By contrast, Seppe Baeyens’ INVITED described itself as creating ‘clear (democratic) forms’ for ‘community building and alternative forms of interaction’ but hadn’t considered what kind of agency the audience could have to participate or refuse for it to be truly democratic. Ostensibly, by playing with distance between audience and performer, the performance would break down barriers to inclusion by making the audience as much a part of the score of movements and gestures as the intergenerational cast. It’s the kind of work that could happen easily in a public square in the middle of a crowd of passers-by.
What this meant was the performers walking up to people on the front row and plucking them out of their seats with an urgency that left little time or room for people to say no easily without feeling disruptive, or at least communicating what kind of access needs they might have, guiding them through the movements and then depositing them somewhere else in the seating arrangement. It felt to me that there was an assumption that everyone would feel comfortable with communicating their desire to (not) participate, and what they would need to do so in a moment of fast-moving performance that appeared to depend on the co-operation of all involved. I was never pulled out of my seat but from what I observed, it felt less like an invitation and more like an imperative. It was all very well intentioned but sadly, overlooked some fairly fundamental considerations around access.
The session sort of encapsulates the messy mix of positives and negatives about the experience. There’s evidence that IETM is trying to be more reflective on how and why it runs, and how it can be more supportive of its delegates. One of the final programmed events was a Feedback Session that invited attendees to share their thoughts of their experience. Plenty of the British Council supported artists attended, and being able to feedback directly to the organisers on our experiences was welcome. But it was undermined somewhat by the segregation of IETM members from IETM guests, reinforcing a sense of being on the fringes. Partly I think this was because IETM wanted to gain some insight on whether we were likely to join as paid members for future sessions, and what would encourage us to do so. But that muddied the water of what the session was really for: for IETM to become a better, more inclusive experience for its delegates, or to become better at recruiting new membership?
An unexpected side-effect of coming to IETM was the extent to which I reconnected with my fellow artists from the UK and abroad. I saw Leo, Ali, Jason, Alison and Luke. I reconnected with Lise and Sally, and Geoffrey from Euclid. Add to this the gang of delegates I attended with, there was a bigger gang of friendly faces than I’d expected. Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, there are still plenty of UK-based artists searching for European forums for their work, and I count myself as one of them.