The Student
Review
Not Going Back to Normal: A Disabled Artists’ Manifesto by Collective
by Sofia Cotrona, 14/10/20

‘Not Going Back to Normal’ is a collective art manifesto for and by disabled artists, curated by Sasha Saben Callaghan and Harry Josephine Giles. The project sparked from a commission funded by Creative Scotland and a consortium of arts and cultural organisations which asked the curators to create art about the exclusion of disabled artists from the Scottish artistic panorama. As the pandemic sharpened the problems and the possibilities for disabled artists, the two curators called for an artistic revolution handing the question of a radically accessible art world to Scottish disabled artists. They asked artists that identify as disabled to re-imagine a cultural landscape where their experience and their needs were centred rather than marginalized, calling out the institutional ableism in the Scottish arts and in wider society. Through an open call, a manifesto of demands was compiled with an array of disabled artists’ experiences, requests and imaginative responses (submissions included paintings, poems, essays, journal pages, videos, collage and more). The commissioned works that compose the manifesto can be seen in the online gallery that launched on Thursday, and in the future, they will be printed and circulated to galleries, funders and government cultural bodies.

To understand better the aims and the process of creation of the project, I interviewed the co-curator Harry Josephine Giles. They are a Scottish writer and performer with a MA in Theatre Directing and a PhD in Creative Writing. They explained to me that the project follows the social model of disability. This exposes how it is a discriminatory society that disables people by setting an ableist standard of ‘normality’ that creates systemic exclusion. As ‘normality’ in the pre-pandemic era either erased or tokenized disabled artistic presence in the art culture; ‘Not Going Back to Normal’ demands an art revolution to redefine a new reality. In the face of the current historical moment the project encouraged artists to be as bold as possible in their demand as the pandemic has proven that what disabled artists were always told was impossible is actually possible. For example, all of a sudden, access measures (such as remote working, unconditional income support, online events as standard) long demanded by disabled artistic communities were implemented, as cultural institutions had to re-structure. Harry Josephine highlighted how the pandemic was also a moment of great learning about experiences of isolation and vulnerability, but it is important that the desire of stability and normality are not pursued at the expense of the improved measures of accessibility.

When Harry Josephine imagines a Scottish artistic panorama centred on disabled artistic experience, they see a system which centres marginality. They believe that this model is based on the democratisation of art funding to give resources to anyone who wants to make art, to support directly as many people as possible rather than few big art institutions. The collective manifesto aimed to gather similarly radical views and the four major demands can be read in the curators preview on the website. For Harry Josephine the collaborative process of creation with Sasha Saben Callaghan was fundamental in keeping the project radical and pushing the conversation further, making the manifesto blunter and angrier every step of the way. Through this provocative and radical project Harry Josephine primarily hopes to speak to other disabled artists setting an example of the incredible potential of a disabled artistic community whose members join forces. Subverting the stereotypical narrative of disabled people as vulnerable, ‘Not Going Back to Normal’ showcases the artistic talents, expertise, resilience and ‘radical joy’ of Scottish disabled artists. The 49 artworks, visible on the online gallery, speak about such joy and strength but also about the rage and disillusionment of many disabled artists. While celebrating the artists’ differences and diversity, their works underscore the rooted inequality of society reflected in the art world. Overall, this project is a call for action and radical change that promises to become a landmark for contemporary art activism. Through the open call, their launching event and the website itself, the project set a model for inclusive practices for future discourses about accessibilities in the arts. With the ability to leave you raging, moved, called out and empowered all at once, ‘Not Going Back to Normal’ checks all the qualities of a must-see artistic project.

Image: Courtesy of Harry Josephine Giles, Collective Gallery.


[1]  Arika, Artlink, CCA, Collective, DCA, Glasgow School of Art Exhibitions, Project Ability and the Scottish Sculpture Workshop.