Unlimited at the Southbank Centre was enormous. The programme was 48 pages long. There were over 50 performances of 21 performance works; installations, projections or exhibitions of 14 visual artists or work on film; a series of talks, debates and discussions and practical workshops too including dance, circus, writing and body mapping.
It was virtually impossible to look in any space, at any level within the building and not see disabled people sitting, walking, wheeling, chatting, drinking and simply doing everything that everyone else is doing. No one stared, no one even glanced up any more.
So how did Southbank manage? Meeting access requirements isn’t an exact science. It’s not like you can have a list and tick it all off, knowing that you are covered. Disabled people are as varied as any other humans, and often needs conflict so meeting them all simultaneously is a process of constant flux and flexibility.
The Southbank can be complex – but additional bright yellow signage really helped, and projected programmes for each day stopped you having to dig through your bag all the time to check timings and venues. I love the road signs: ‘Unlimited – Here to help!’ placed at entrance points and staffed with supportive and not intrusive navigators that found out what people wanted before offering the right level of support and guidance.
But access to and around the building is only a fraction of the story. How does this commitment extend to the artwork itself? Both meeting the needs of artists and of the audiences for their work.
Southbank seemed extraordinarily committed – with an evangelical zeal I was told of choice after choice that was made to ensure access came first every time compromises were suggested.
Of course, some access choices were down to individual artists. Whether pieces had British Sign Language Interpretation or captioning, such as that provided by STAGETEXT. Now this is a tricky one. What if an artist chooses not to make their piece accessible? Does the venue have a right to impose? Whose audiences are they? Different artists within the festival made different choices here, and caused much debate. This isn’t limited to Unlimited – in one of the British Council hosted discussion sessions at the festival this very subject was raised by a French delegate commenting on Anish Kappor’s Monumenta commission, Leviathon at the Grand Palais in Paris. (He didn’t want his door compromised, even though wheelchair users and others with low mobility couldn’t use it – in the end the venue did get a second door installed, citing it as legal requirement).
No venue can ever get access 100% right and I know the Southbank are keen to learn from what they have experienced – I think this learning is the real legacy. Lets hope its shared publically, warts and all.
LOCOG set out to welcome people to the world with the London 2012 Festival and to ensure that they created a festival that represented all. Through their Unlimited Commissions they have ensured that this representation will push forwards, challenging and changing for the better the cultural sector from which it developed.
Caroline Bowditch, who created Leaving Limbo Landing for Unlimited, stated that now there was ‘no retreat’ for her as an artist. Having been pushed to this point, her vision of the world just couldn’t shrink back.
This has to be the same for all the artists, but also all the organisations they have come into contact with – funding bodies, promoters, venues, partners. This has to lead to systemic cultural shift to ensure that this level of access and support becomes the norm and not the exception.
Speaking at the closing party for Unlimited, Ruth Mackenzie, director of the Cultural Olympiad, said that Unlimited had been one of the highlights of the London 2012 festival, but that its legacy would be its true success.
Its not just Unlimited, the whole summer of Olympic and Paralympic achievement – in both sport and art – has been transformative. At the closing ceremony, Sebastian Coe stated that ‘we will never think of disability the same way again’ and that the Paralympics had ‘lifted the cloud of limitation’ placed on disabled people. Claire Balding commentating challenged us further: ‘This will only mean something if its changed the way you think as well as the way you feel…’
Yet again, Twenty Twelve have got it right – legacy, sustainability, posterity. It really is all in what happens next.
The signs are starting outside the cultural sector – for example, a tweet went round last night: Victory for disability campaigners as Tfl keep tube wheelchair boarding ramps for “a few months” for review to be carried out.
So can the cultural sector match the country’s expectations? I think they can. They have to. Southbank, London, the cultural sector throughout the country as a whole – there really is no retreat.