Design Week: How would you sum up the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) for those not in the know?
David Hevey: It’s a heritage story showing how a group of disabled people and their allies broke down social barriers and changed laws in the 1990s. NDACA charts the work of the Disability Arts Movement that was a really organised and effective arts protest movement that started back in the 1970s and led to the passing of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, among other things. Part of its power was how this fighting culture inspired an incredible body of work – and we’ve recorded this cultural footprint.
The unofficial slogan of the movement was “Piss on Pity” and it fought against social perceptions of disabled people being po-faced. It played around with difference using wit and comedy and when we were pushing to get funding for the archive, one of the sponsors – the charity Shape Arts – came on board precisely because the movement had that funky vibe. It’s living proof that great art and design comes from the margins.
DW: What are the NDACA’s aims?
DH: To increase awareness of the amazing body of work the movement inspired and the mass cultural contribution disabled artists of all kind have made to Britain. We want to continue to improve social inclusion and recognition for disabled creatives and any others that are considered “outsiders”. I’m proud that the archive provides a window into all cultures – and the need to renew things.
DW: When did you first become aware of the Disability Arts Movement?
DH: The movement was trying to alter charity representations of disabled people during the 1980s and my realisation that things might be changing actually came at the same time as I was active in it. I did very large-scale poster campaigns for the BBC and ITV trying to tackle these negative social perceptions of disability and went on to make the documentary series Disabled Century for the BBC, which ended up getting five million viewers when it aired. Importantly, there was an audience for both the movement and what it inspired, looking at disabled people being proactive and taking charge of their own destiny – despite the barriers they face. The movement encapsulated the “outsider” culture.
DW: Why was it so effective as a protest movement?
DH: The Disabled Arts Movement had three central things that drove its success: the philosophy that people wanted to be seen differently, the political desire for a civil rights bill and an economic need to change things. People involved felt they had nothing left to lose.
We didn’t know the “correct way” to approach things so we pushed for action and cultural change by incorporating wit and charm into the campaign – reflected by things such as the “Piss on Pity” slogan t-shirts that were designed and used in the 1992 Block Telethon Protest outside ITV studios, which campaigned against the portrayal of disabled people in a 24-hour fundraiser on ITV.
DW: What would you say is the design style of the archive?
DH: I think all good design has to be clean, bold and new and that idea definitely impacts on pieces included in the archive. The Disability Arts Movement wanted to inspire and reflect change and in some ways the process of building NDACA has felt something like a brand design campaign. The impact of pieces like the “Piss on Pity” t-shirts is very immediate and provoked debate about the slogan itself. People engaged with it.
DW: What pieces included in the archive stand out to you from a design perspective?
DH: There’s many that do but one that immediately springs to mind is Going Out by Steve Cribb. It’s an early digital artwork created on a very early Apple Mac computer around 1991. It’s interesting because it’s counter-intuitive in terms of social perceptions – people perhaps assume that disabled people might be behind the times but in actual fact, in my experience, they were early adopters of technology. Disabled artists have certainly led the way when it comes to being playful with technology.
Tony Heaton creates pieces that are very inspiring in terms of design. One of his most famous pieces is Great Britain from a Wheelchair, which he built out of actual NHS wheelchairs, and that still resonates with audiences now because of the current climate of NHS funding cuts. His work is a brilliant mix of humour and high quality.
Another piece is the ghetto poster for the 1990s Edinburgh Fringe Festival Disabled Cabaret. People like Barbara Lisicki, who was the first female disabled stand-up comedian in the UK and co-founded the touring Tragic but Brave show, inspired this movement and it was transformative for many people. My own life changed when I realised people could be empowered by laughing about their situation.
DW: What about any of your own pieces?
DH: People have spoken about my portrait of the disabled artist Adam Reynolds from a design perspective. It was intended to be a parody on the “pity position” disabled people had to endure. We played with the “victim” position and it unsettled people. I always say I’m not a social worker with a camera but an artist, and the design aesthetic behind that piece came about through conversations with Adam.
DW: How represented do you think disabled artists are in the creative industries today?
DH: The figure is still terribly low – the Arts Council put the figure at 4% in its Making a Shift report, conducted this year. Disabled artists of all kinds are still terribly under-represented in both society and the arts but the creative industries need to open up and be more inclusive. The archive reflects the artistic excellence of both disabled creatives and the Disability Arts Movement. Hopefully it can help empower more disabled action.
DW: How far do we still have to go?
DH: I think an age where outsiders, including the disabled community, have found their voice has come again in the face of huge funding cuts, hardships and figures like Trump. We need to increase transparency in society about how people are viewed and we need to pressure companies to open up employment opportunities but hopefully the archive will help to change the conversation.
DW: What can be done to increase representation?
DH: My view is that disabled people and others who face barriers need to be in all levels of discussions – from students to creative leaders. The central questions should be around “How do we remove barriers to creative growth and excellence that includes all?” We should also encourage prizes, competitions and crowd-sourcing projects around design opportunities that seek to remove barriers.
The NDACA is a £1 million project that includes the digital archive, and the new physical space set to open in Buckinghamshire New University in 2019. It has been delivered by charity Shape Arts, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For more information on the NDACA, head to www.the-ndaca.org.