Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Ju Gosling: Together! 2020 Disability History Month Festival

By | Published on Friday 6 November 2020

When the latest lockdown was announced, many plans for cultural events had to be shelved, of course. Fortunately, the Together! 2020 Disability History Month Festival was this year planned as an entirely online series of events, so none of it has to be cancelled, which is great news.

The festival hosts a diverse programme that includes drama, poetry, live art, music, puppetry, storytelling and film.

To find out more about its history, development and what’s happening this year, I spoke to Artistic Director Dr Ju Gosling.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the history of the festival? How long has it existed, and how has it evolved over the years?
JG: The Together! Festival began as a one-off event to bring together local residents to celebrate the Paralympics in the main host borough of Newham back in 2012, showcasing Disabled artists and led by volunteers from the UK Disabled People’s Council. Part of the programme was then moved to Disability History Month, which runs from mid-November, after the original venue went into liquidation during the Olympics.

The popularity of both events was such that, in March 2013, UKDPC supported locally based Disabled artists to set up a Community Interest Company to take the festival forward. Since then, Together! 2012 CIC has continued to run an annual summer programme and winter festival led by Disabled artists, together with a year-round outreach programme providing free creative workshops to Disabled people.

CM: This year it has gone entirely digital, presumably in response to COVID – which is handy, given we have now been plunged into lockdown again. Has it made it harder to organise? What are the challenges of organising such an event during a pandemic..?
JG: Our February risk assessment showed that the festival could only be assured of going ahead if it went online, so we have been able to plan accordingly. In April we maximised the budget that we could spend on artists and opened up the commissioning process, to create immediate work opportunities for freelances and independent companies, and that has been very interesting.

Although we were fortunate to become an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation in their last funding round, which means we have year-round funding, we still have the smallest budget of any comparable organisation. So not having to fund hotels and subsistence has made it possible to widen the opportunities for artists geographically, while removing some of the administration too.

However, we are still having to make it up as we go, with risk assessments, tech rehearsals etc, although looking at the process for the physical venue and working out the virtual equivalent has been helpful. We intend to share our learning at the end by updating our Metrics For Equality, Access And Inclusion, which are being used widely in the arts now.

CM: How will audiences access the festival?
JG: We have two options which we hope will maximise accessibility. The first is simply to watch on YouTube, and the stream will also be embedded in the festival website.

The second is to book tickets via Eventbrite to join the Zoom audience, who will be able to send in live chat questions etc and enjoy a more intense experience – hopefully not because of Zoom problems, but because they will be entering a virtual space facilitated by a real person ‘opening the door’ and can then interact with the artists via the Q&As.

We are using the Zoom webinar system, which means that audience members will automatically have their cameras and microphones turned off.

CM: Does the festival address any particular themes? How is it programmed? Who takes part?
JG: We don’t usually have a theme, but this year it’s Making History for reasons which will be obvious. The successful commissions include artists from a wide range of impairment, age and cultural groups and cover a wide range of artforms. All of them engage directly with the audience in some way, either via an interactive event or by providing resources to interact with at home, and that was essential for a genuine festival experience.

The festival is programmed so that events take place at 7.00pm on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for adults and at 3.00pm on Saturday afternoons for family activities, with the recordings available the next day and remaining online. Most events are an hour long, to avoid screen fatigue, though some are longer. We also have our annual Together! Disability Film Festival from 3-6 Dec, with more intensive programming, but again with live elements limited to one hour.

CM: Is there anything you are especially looking forward to?
JG: All of it! Although the Film Festival is a favourite, it will be very strange not to be sitting behind a cinema screen with my dog for three days, playing videos and providing live audio-description on demand, and meeting filmmakers in person. One night we even had to go back for the dog, who was still asleep by the screen.

CM: Lots of companies and festivals have been forced online in 2020, but I think some really good and clever stuff has been created as a result. Do you think there’s a place for digitally delivered culture to continue, even once we can go back to live performance?
JG: Yes definitely. Of course it was coming anyway, with so many young artists using TikTok as well as older platforms like YouTube.

Though, of course, there is simply no substitute for actors coming together in the same space. Our associate drama company Act Up! Newham have created content for our live stream every week on Zoom, but when you see clips of them on stage, you realise the limitations. Unsurprisingly, the two plays that we are screening on World AIDS Day, 1 Dec, are theatre-based recordings of shows that would otherwise have toured this autumn.

But for so many people like me, for whom physical access is problematic, 2020 has meant we have had much more cultural access than previously, and we need to hang on to that and ensure there are also more opportunities to create and showcase work online.

Blended audiences offer an obvious way forward for live theatre, which would massively expand cultural access for Disabled and older people, carers and people in rural areas.

I would like to see a system brought in ASAP where theatres have fixed cameras and an interface where audiences can choose for themselves which view to pick and can move between them at will.

Then sell the seats you’ve had to remove for social distancing purposes at half the price for twice as many. So many people can’t ever access live shows for reasons of geography, health and other commitments.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you now? How did your career in the arts begin? Are you doing the sort of job you always wanted to do?
JG: I first read English Studies and Film Studies at UEA, graduating in 1983 in an era of mass unemployment. I would have liked to go to art school instead of university, but had no money to fund the necessary foundation year first.

Instead, after graduating I founded a community zine and later set up a GLC-funded community newspaper in 1984, and then continued to freelance in media and PR jobs associated with health, housing and social affairs while I studied for two post-graduate degrees in Cultural Studies and Communication and Image Studies. I moved into television in the late 1980s as a documentary researcher, but that came to an abrupt end when an undiagnosed genetic condition meant I experienced a spinal fracture.

It was only when I completed my third degree, in 1997, that the work I had created for and during it was perceived as being art, and it took me another couple of years to see myself as an artist rather than as a writer, photographer and filmmaker.

I was the first PhD student in the UK to present my thesis as a website, combining still and moving images and with multiple reading paths, and exploring storytelling and the form of the book. I was fortunate to study at Kent, which housed one of only two ‘hypermedia’ research centres in the UK, and I immediately recognised a way of combining my writing, photography, filmmaking and editing skills without heavy physical work being involved.

I began producing and directing other people’s work when the shortage of Disabled producers became apparent. Really it was the end of an unsuccessful journey which started by trying to find someone to produce my own work, and became much more important when the Paralympics came along and Disabled artists were reduced to playing a tiny role.

Yes, I think I would have been very happy with my working life now when I was a teenager – although it would have been nice if the arts offered the income and career security they do in so many other countries, where as a result their cultural industries are not facing anything like the decimation from lockdowns that our own is.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JG: In my own practice I make visual art for public spaces, so by 2022 I’d love to be outside again making physical work. Before that, there are a lot of projects, including books and films, that have been waiting for a long time for me to make in my home studio, and I hope at least to start one of them!

I’ve been very fortunate to have art world recognition which many artists have never enjoyed in their own lifetimes, and I’ve always created digital versions to widen access which are now archived, so I simply hope to carry on, which of course no one can guarantee at present.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after the festival?
JG: A rest! We always close for an annual break for three weeks over the winter holidays. And then in addition to continuing with our Join In From Home programme, which includes a livestream three times a week which I produce and anchor, we will be moving forward with plans for our own building, The David Morris Cultural Centre.

Newham has just one theatre left, Stratford East, after the mayor closed Stratford Circus for repurposing as a youth centre, and no art gallery, museum or arts centre. This explains why residents have the lowest level of cultural engagement in the UK, which was a major driver for founding Together! 2012 CIC.

We’ve had to move out of our current base because it was shared with a nursery, so even if it’s a temporary home, I will be hunting for space for when we can deliver physically again – though I am anticipating that this will be 2022, apart from a summer outdoor arts programme.

The Together! 2020 Disability History Month Festival takes place online from 11 Nov – 10 Dec. See this page here for more info about all the events, and to book yourself in to bookable events.

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