I’m sat on the train from London Kings Cross to Wakefield Kirkgate, on my way to complete the remainder of our residency which takes place at The Art House. I’d hoped the carriage would be a bit quieter and that I’d see more people wearing masks but I’m in the minority. I know three people who tested positive today, the day when Sajid Javid told us to brace for more infections as the Government steadily dismantle the last remnants of Covid-19 precautions. It’s my first time working away from home for a long time. The feeling of dislocation is real.
As the carriage lurches and bumps from side to side, I reflect on Week 2 of The Quips, which took place for me in London. We had the first of our planned interviews happening in person and online, a really fun experience after many months working mainly as a duo with Gemma, thinking, planning, writing applications and budgets.
I spoke with London-based musician Anusha at the Drake Music offices. She talked about the impact of the pandemic on people whose artistic careers were only just beginning; how it meant fighting for and taking up space in a crowded environment, and vowing to go it alone when requests to set up online gigs were rebuffed by venues. The second interview by Gemma and I was with the poet Karl Knights, which we held over ZOOM. He talked about how he could count the number of poetry and writing organisations championing access in single digits, and how international festivals that became accessible for the first time in lockdown have gone back to either / or models (where some events will be in person, others will be online). It seems the hybridity that is evidently possible is being overlooked or ignored in the rush to return to ‘normal’.
And just what is this new normal? It’s a question that Vici Wreford-Sinnott from Little Cog asked a group of disabled artists in an online ZOOM discussion that I attended towards the end of the week. There will be a full digest of the meeting published in the coming days so I won’t attempt one myself. But a flavour of the conversation was how many of the adjustments necessitated during lockdown such as flexible, remote working and online events streaming were beneficial to disabled artists (unsurprisingly) and some even saw their job opportunities increase. But there were huge amounts of overwhelm, exhaustion and frustration too: that it had taken a pandemic for these changes to happen, that credit wasn’t given to the disabled artists and organisations who had been suggesting and demanding these changes for so long, and that they were receding once again. To put it mildly: the new normal does not feel like a hospitable or supportive place for disabled artists.
Karl mentioned the writer Alice Wong, creator of the Disability Visibility Project, who coined the phrase ‘access is love’. It struck a chord with Gemma and I. What if artists, arts organisations, employers, medical professionals, the general public, the Government itself regarded access as an expression of love and care for disabled, clinically extremely vulnerable and neurodivergent people? Or how about an expression of love for themselves too since, aside from its moral dimensions, access connects us with people, perspectives, skills, talents and stories that are life-enriching?
I sit and look around at the people on the train and wonder what they think about the immunity to Covid-19 that they may or may not hold, and where it comes from. There are a couple of passages that stand out from the writer Eula Biss’ book length essay, On Immunity, which I’ve been reading.
“Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbours.”
“Long before the term immunity was used in the context of disease, it was used in the context of law to describe an exemption from service or duty to the state.”
Our individual health and wellbeing are inextricably linked, like threads in a blanket, woven together. Staying connected means a constant communication and negotiation of behaviours, boundaries and risk, with the possibility of friction, tearing, unravelling. As we enter this post-lockdown phase of the pandemic, I wonder how many of the behaviours we enact and boundaries we erect are automatic or considered. How many of them are taken solely with our own interests or with love for others? I expect we will find out more in the coming weeks with more interviews and a trip to London to attend a Disabled People’s Direct Action Network Reunion Action (there’s a fundraiser here).
Additionally, if you can support this GoFundMe to help disabled people escape the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, please do so here.