Category Archives: Arts

This Saturday, I’m going to be a ‘book’ and I can’t wait!

The Human Library is a project, now a global movement, that seeks to challenge stereotypes and encourage dialogue. The idea is simple; a ‘reader’ can go into the Human Library, browse a catalogue and borrow a ‘book’, the twist is that the ‘book’ is a living, breathing individual with a story to tell.

All the ‘books’ are volunteers, drawn from as wide a background as possible, reflecting various cultural, religious and ethnic identities as well as differing viewpoints, in short, people who can be misrepresented and misunderstood.

I think it’s a brilliant idea; a safe environment in which people can ask their books things they may have wanted to know but never had the opportunity. What could be a safer and more calming environment than a library? The metaphor is extended as far as it will go, and I love it, from the rules for the ‘reader’: “the book has the right to be returned in the same condition in which it was lent” to creating a ‘catalogue reference’.

The project was created for the Roskilde Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000 by a group called Stop the Violence, and seeing its success and realising its potential, they set about promoting it around the world. Skip forward thirteen years and the Human Library has been put on in over 30 countries; the list is truly dizzying.

And on 16th and 17th November, the Human Library is coming to Bristol! It’s being run by Wunderbar, it’ll be held at the Parlour Showrooms opposite College Green, and yours truly is going to be a ‘book’! I got lucky; a BSL interpreter friend let me know about the project and offered to interpret should I be chosen. I applied, explaining that as a deaf person (with a punk hairdo, no less) I often felt that there are a lot of misperceptions and a lot of barriers for deaf people out there that hearing people are just not aware of. I wanted to bring it out into the open, try and raise awareness in my own way. It must have been a good enough pitch as I got in!

The preparation workshop was an eye-opener, I suspect as much for them as it was for me. I loved the enthusiasm, the organisers created a very easy-going atmosphere, and it’s possibly the widest variety of people I’ve ever shared a room with. This Human Library should be good, and I’m not just saying that!

That friend came good and so Kyra Pollitt will be my interpreter for my ‘book in translation’, a phrase she came up with and I’ve shamelessly borrowed, as you’ll see in my catalogue reference. It feels good to be part of a global project to challenge prejudices and it’s great to be flying the flag for the deaf community!

However, remember when I said it may have been an eye-opener for them as much as it was for me? It seems that the organisers fell into the trap that many have fallen into before; simply not considering what they would do if a deaf person came to the project. Another example of deafness as the ‘invisible disability’… To give them credit, once the oversight was realised, the organisers were more than happy to do all they could to fix it, and I think this is something they’ll take forward into any future Human Libraries – making sure that deaf people, so often an excluded minority – are catered for. For the time being, they’ve done something creative with their funds and are prepared to negotiate for a couple of hours of general terping for the event.

So I’m putting a shout out – if there are any terps out there who have an hour or two free this weekend who’d like to be part of this project, please contact Ilana at Wunderbar at ilana@wunderbar.org.uk. Please. Pretty please. If it helps, think of it as a birthday present to me! (Genuinely, it was my birthday yesterday.) Please, please, please.

Ahem. At time of writing, there’s no access for my fellow deaf human to take part in a project I’m involved in and yes I do find it a little incongruous, I think it’s the first time it’s happened. However, as I’ve said, the organisers are learning fast and I think they’ll be taking this forward into future events; certainly I want to go to any future Human Libraries as a ‘reader’. It’s such a cool project and deserves wider recognition!

In the meantime, if you’re up for an interesting conversation that will almost certainly challenge one of your worldviews, rock on down to the Parlour Showrooms this weekend!

In a way, I’d like to think I’ve already fulfilled my purpose as a ‘book’ in that by my presence I’ve spread a little awareness and made people think, and the Human Library has gained a new dimension. If I can do that this weekend, just make people aware and make them think about deaf people and our place in society, I’ll consider this entire project worthwhile.

For the curious, here’s my catalogue reference:

Title: I’m not deaf, just ignoring you… oh wait, I am deaf.

Date and place of publication: 1983, Surrey

Dedications: Kyra Pollitt, the translator for this ‘book in translation’

Synopsis: People often think I’m ignoring them, but I feel I am the one who is ignored. There are an estimated 9 million (one in seven) hard of hearing or deaf people in the UK, yet access and awareness are a constant uphill battle, for even the simplest things. I’m a poet, writer, traveller, performer; I just want the same freedom as hearing people to enjoy and live my life, however random it may be.

Notes: This is a 3D book in translation, featuring British Sign Language. Please do not be alarmed if it makes sudden movements.

Please handle the book binding carefully: it features a textured blue mohican.

There it is, wonder how many ‘readers’ I can tempt? 🙂

Wunderbar’s creative director Ilana Mitchell kindly agreed to answer a few questions, to give an extra insight into the project and the motivations behind it.

How did you / Wunderbar get involved in the Human Library?

I saw a Human Library in Canada when I was visiting in 2010, and was really inspired by the project. At that event I met a “Book” who was Québécois who had taught himself about 10 languages and worked as a translator during many wars and conflicts.

When I came home I researched the project and found out more about how it started, and its aims to create a space for challenging stereotypes, a space for asking difficult questions. This and its playfulness all fitted really well with Wunderbar’s aims.

What elements attracted you to the project most?

I love how simple the concept is and at the same time its pretty powerful. Every time we’ve done it the workshops have been very inspiring. The Books all get to make friends and support each other – somehow the safety in the space to be open about yourself and whatever stereotype you might fit with allows for some great camaraderie. And I think it boosts the confidence of the Books both to be part of the project and beyond.

The other bit I like is the catalogue and the readers’ reviews – you’ll get to see these on Saturday. Each time a Book is read is a personal experience, shared between Book and Reader. Through the writing in the catalogues and the reviews these get shared more widely, and they are so often really warm and friendly, it’s like the conversations continue on paper.

Am I the first deaf person to be involved in the Human Library in the UK and has my involvement changed how Wunderbar will approach future installations of the Human Library?

I don’t know in the UK, but first for us. Though in our last festival in 2011 we did a very challenging project which attempted to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We learnt a lot about how hard it is to be truly accessible. I had lots of assumptions I had never considered as such – like English being a second language to people for whom BSL is a first, or how strong regional dialects are.

Sadly, the artist we worked with on the UDHR project died earlier this year, though not before the UN accepted and now host on their website an official BSL translation. I’m really keen to build on both that project and now since meeting with you, working out how best to go forward to make all our projects as accessible as possible.

I’m looking forward to having further conversations with you, and hopefully others. I’d like to think that in coming from both the deaf and the hearing side we can make good arguments for how to best work together to bridge the gaps, that we can help each other understand the difficulties and challenges we face and come up with some positive suggestions which we can share more widely.

I mentioned the challenge of funding when we met – this is a dull subject but one it’s important to tackle. Human Library is full of volunteer books, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have costs. As very enthusiastic arts practitioners, we’ll always squeeze far more out of a budget than is actually really practically covered in costs. It’s both admirable and naive: that make do / make happen attitude is in many ways a privilege of those who can function most “normally” in society. To make access equitable needs money not to be an object – which is easier said than done.

I very much hope you agree and are up for this quest! I think that’s important for all our projects, not just Human Library, and everyone else’s too!

Big thanks to Ilana for her insightful and great answers – I didn’t realise Wunderbar had been involved in the translation of Universal Declaration of Human Rights into BSL, fabulous stuff! Brilliant to be involved with them and definitely will be keeping in touch – that’s a quest well worth going on!

Now… who’s coming to the Human Library? Spread the word! 🙂

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Signing Hands Across The Water!

Later this month, I’ll have the privilege of joining three other BSL poets – Richard Carter, Paul Scott and John Wilson – in flying over to Philadelphia, to take part in Signing Hands Across the Water, an international sign language poetry festival. We’ll be joined by three American Sign Language poets, the double act of Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words Project and Debbie Rennie, and from March 16th – 18th we’re going to be putting on an amazing festival!

For the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Metaphor in Creative Sign Language project, brainchild of none other than Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence, and Dr Michiko Kaneko (who organised the first BSL poetry event in Bristol, the BSL Haiku Festival way back in 2006) ably aided and abetted by researcher Dr Donna West. As part of this project I’ve taken part in research and performed at Bristol Sign Poetry Festivals at Bristol Deaf Centre. Thanks to this opportunity, I’ve had the chance to develop my skills and confidence in creating Sign Language poetry and am really honoured to be part of Hands Across the Water – and I hope that this festival will encourage and inspire others!

Dr Sutton-Spence is currently Cornell Visiting Professor (Professor! I must remember to bow when I see her :)) at Swarthmore College, and the festival is being organised as part of her work there. She shoots, she scores! Of course, there are lots of other people involved in organising this incredible event and I’d just like to take this moment to thank them all – thank you!

Naturally, I’m nervous, this festival has been a comfortably long way off for ages, then all of a sudden… all of a sudden it’s March. It’s March! When did that happen? Two weeks from now I’m going to be on stage at an international Sign Language Poetry festival! Quick, someone pass me a paper bag… *breathes*

There’ll be workshops, public conversations and a big evening performance by all the featured poets. It’s shaping up to be an amazing celebration of Sign Language poetry, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a while, and I really hope that this is part of a resurgence of interest and development of this beautiful art-form!

Plus, look at this cool banner! Martin Haswell is a genius. How can a festival with a banner that cool not be amazing?

Come on down!

I’m feeling so inspired, I’ve come up with a poem in honour of the event;

Professor Rachel Sutton-Spence,
A researcher most rare,
Sign language poetry champion
And linguist extraordinaire

Swarthmore College, Philadelphia
Seven poets will gather there
For workshops and performances
Beautiful poetry they will share

Signing Hands Across the Water
For all who want to see
What are you all waiting for?
Everything is free

Just register your interest
Come along, pull up a chair
And watch Sign Language Poetry
Flying through the air!

Whether or not this is an example of the quality of poetry – English or Signed – that people can expect from me at the festival: no comment. 🙂

I just really, really like theatre…

Well that’s it – I’m officially a bit mad. Why else would I bounce across to Cardiff in the morning for a university seminar, then across to London to watch stabbings, mental breakdowns, a brilliantly twisted future and a visual story I could have watched all night?

At least it was an interesting day. I got up at just before 7 and got to bed around 1, having caught the late train back to Bristol. Sometimes that’s just the way it works out, when you have rehearsals on the Friday and Saturday, (more about that in a future post!) ruling out Thurs night as well, leaving Weds and a bonkers travel schedule. Why? All for the love of theatre. This is how much I love theatre. Specifically, this is how much I love theatre that I can access.

Deafinitely Theatre’s 4Play is a showcase of four short plays written by Deafinitely Creative competition finalists. I was lucky enough to be one of the featured writers last year, and I wanted to come and see what they’re up to now.

I wasn’t disappointed. The first two plays were quite dark, the first, A Sweet Slice of Life written by Steven Collins I found a bit hard to follow I admit, but it makes more sense now I’ve read Charlie Swinbourne’s review at Disability Arts Online. That’s not to say it wasn’t powerful and bloody surreal; and if I know Steven’s work, then his objective has probably been achieved.

Confusions of a Shadow Boxer by Matthew Gurney had an amazing twist that I didn’t see coming, and gave food for thought. The next two plays were much lighter, and being a sci-fi nut, I really enjoyed Lianne Herbert’s TwentyFortySeven, which turned the future on its head with a deaf-led government. Some moments were hilarious, with just enough dark undertone to keep it real. The last play, Absence in Time by Vitalis Katakinas was completely visual, with no BSL or speech, but still perfectly clear – and funny. Judging by some of the laughter, the audience were wetting themselves. Job done.

Congrats to all the writers, actors and directors on a great show, thanks for making my train tickets worthwhile! Was good to see some of the people around as well, even if I was babbling nonsense as I dashed out of the door to get back to Paddington.

4Play is on at RADA Studios until Saturday 25th February. It’s important to know this was formerly The Drill Hall, that way you won’t follow the directions on the bloody ticket and end up going round to the Malet St entrance of RADA and being directed to a theatre you know the location of by heart. Annoying. My feet were not impressed. Be told.

Today has been spent mostly sleeping or napping. Tomorrow I’ll be going to Cardiff for rehearsals for – ah, no. I think I’ll wait and see what’s going on first (I’m still not sure yet, these are the first rehearsals) and update on Sunday or Monday. Mind you I’ve built it up a little now, can only hope people won’t be disappointed when I reveal that…

Telling Our Stories

Tomorrow, I’m due to perform my BSL poetry at Bristol’s M Shed as part of Resistance: Telling Our Stories, an event that has been organised as a (slightly belated) nod to Disability History Month, with the backdrop of Resistance: Which Way The Future?, a media installation directed by Liz Crow of Roaring Girl Productions which is on at the M shed from 5th January to 5th February 2012. More info can be found here:
http://www.journomania.net/culture/38-art-and-culture/517-disability-arts-at-bristols-m-shed-for-uk-disability-history-month-.html
http://www.roaring-girl.com/productions/resistance-on-tour/

I was looking forward to this anyway, but with the twitterstorm that blew up over the #spartacusreport (which I gleefully added my little raindrops to) last monday, the triple defeat of the government in the House of Lords over the Welfare Reform Bill, which Lord Fraud, excuse me, Freud, then attempted to roll back as soon as the Labour peers had left* and the governments’ response which basically seemed to be that they were going to keep pressing ahead with the WRB, despite all protests, it seems to me that the themes of Resistance are just as relevant as ever.

*Mason Dixon gives a colourful and Hollywood-worthy version of events: http://masondixonautistic.blogspot.com/2012/01/us-and-them.html

Resistance looks at the Nazi eugenics program, Aktion T4, during which hundreds of thousands of disabled people… well, disappeared. They just went away in grey vans and didn’t come back. And apparently, not very many people questioned it at the time. It probably didn’t help that Nazi Germany was trying pull itself out of a recession, and the propagandists had done their best to tell everyone how much these ‘useless eaters’ were costing the state, via posters like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EnthanasiePropaganda.jpg
The translation is: “60,000RM. This is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime.”

When some Minister or newspaper bangs on about benefit scroungers / how much the welfare state is costing / benefit fraud, while the coalition sits idly by while the HMRC aids and abets what have to be crimes against the treasury, I think of that poster.

And it’s working. Disability hate crime on the up, people living in terror of Work Capability Assessments, people with mental health issues having to be talked down by kind voices after receiving a particularly nasty letter from the DWP. Well fucking done.

A little fact-checking.
1) DWP own figures put fraud at less than 0.5%.
2) Of the “5.2 billion lost to error and fraud”, only 1.2 billion of that was fraud.
3) The coalition has said they want to cut payment of DLA by 20%.
4) They also say they want to ‘protect the most vulnerable’.
5) Unclaimed benefit in 08/09 was 17.7billion (12.7billion means tested, 5 billion tax credits).

Compare and contrast 3) and 4) with 1), 2) and 5). Conclusion: there are far less benefit scroungers out there than the coalition would have you believe. Am I wrong? Feel free to google it and check. In fact, I want you to google it and check. Challenge me. Challenge the coalition. Just please don’t ignore the Welfare Reform Bill.

And if, after reading the Spartacus Report, you think we should all take a deep breath and be allowed to look at the WRB proposals properly, go over to ‘Pat’s Petition’ and sign the petition to stop and review the cuts to benefits and services.

Spartacus Report/ Responsible Reform:
https://skydrive.live.com/view.aspx/Responsible%20Reform%20for%20screen%20readers.doc?cid=cba86408918caa9e
Pat’s Petition:
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

For my part, I hope lots of people will come and check out the Telling Our Stories event, there’s lots of happy stuff as well as serious stuff, and it promises to be at the very least an interesting day out! Plus, there’s my poetry 🙂 For those who can’t make it, the media installation will be on until 5th February.

Which Way The Future?, indeed.

Carny Ville!

Carny Ville is a whacked-out, Victorian-themed, 18+ rated extravaganza held over a weekend at the The Island, a former cop shop in Bristol with a beautiful courtyard and surrounding buildings. Hosted by the Invisible Circus and Artspace Lifespace, it’s a brilliant way to spend a night, with amazing performances, mad ‘stalls’ (such as the Pawnbrokers, prop. C. U. Cummings), ‘ladies of the night’ that barrack the crowd from above the stalls at street level, Victorian lamps that spew flame, street performers that mingle with the crowd and stay completely in character even as they’re being ‘arrested’ by the bobbies with flashing helmets, the swing band decked out in pink, the traditional circus acts held in the Carny Grand, it was all a great atmosphere and brilliant fun.

The idea of this blog however, is to to give my ‘deaf perspective’ on the world, and from this perspective, Carny Ville was fantastic. Example; on entering the venue we were given fake money – “five nicker: no gods we trust” – and a clue card, in my case “ask the pawnbrokers about the old times at the Carny Grand”. So I eventually made my way over to that stall, where they were in the middle of a staged confrontation with one of the fake bobbies and waited patiently until they’d finished, signing away with my friend. Bobby left, my turn, I waved hello and showed them the clue card. They’d clearly picked up on all the signals that I and my friend were deaf and proceeded to wave their hands about, pretending to carouse wildly, pretending to get in a fight and hit each other with things, basically doing a very good, very funny mime act of a wild night out, victorian style. Suitably amused and impressed, I moved on, when I was accosted by one of the street performers. Tried to wave him away, but he wasn’t put off and opened his coat to reveal watches and plastic jewellery and mimed offering me these riches. We mimed our way through a transaction and I came away with a plastic ring that he’d placed on my hand himself.

We got accosted by yet another street performer who began by trying to shout at us over the crowd noise. We indicated we were deaf, and far from putting them off, they began to sign at us! Basic level signing, sure, but good enough to tell us there was a knees up at the barn dance and invite us to join them later. It didn’t seem to matter who accosted us or who we interacted with – Carny Ville depends a lot on crowd participation and interaction with most of the acts – once whoever it was realised we were deaf, they immediately adapted, miming or pointing or gesturing to get their act across.

I loved Carny Ville for that.

That and the incredible finale in the courtyard which had fireworks, plumes of flame, two abseiling dancers that twirled around each other and occasionally danced in tandem, a wire act, a dozen fire twirlers dotted around the buildings’ balconies and stonking music.

Carny Ville finishes in Bristol this weekend, then it’s going on tour. I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a great night out – hearing or deaf!

Rock on Carny Ville!