Putting Ourselves in the Picture

For the past few years, Fabrica has been working to grow their work with people with complex needs. A valuable partnership with Project Art Works has opened up experimental and exciting disability-led exhibition productions designed to engage participants with a broad range of capacities.

Fabrica is an educational charity and contemporary art gallery in Brighton. Our mission is to present high-quality art to broad audiences, enabling more people to access, enjoy and learn from it. We present large-scale exhibition installations between April-November. Over the winter months, we present short, experimental pieces and artist-led works-in-progress. In June, September and December-March the In Between Gallery provides a platform for photography. Alongside this, we provide an engagement programme offering activities for a wide range of participants, both at the gallery and in community settings. We also provide professional development services to artists in partnership with Outside In, a national charity that provides a platform for artists who face significant barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. Our belief and motivation is that everyone should have the opportunity to experience and engage in high-quality art.

A large room bathed in pink light. A with circle in in the middle of the floor with three tall poles in the centre.
In Colour exhibition 2017. Image: Peter Hudson

We’ve been developing our work with people with complex needs since 2015 when we took up the opportunity for Project Art Works to run creative workshops at Fabrica. In these workshops, we worked with participants with complex needs, their carers and Fabrica’s staff and volunteers. This sparked a commitment between myself and Kate Adams, the Director of Project Art Works, to jointly fundraise for a co-commission and in 2017, thanks to support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Fabrica and Project Art Works presented IN COLOUR at Fabrica in 2017. For the commission, artist Peter Hudson, worked with interactive digital media to create an interactive light installation.

A women in a wheelchair is seated at a table covered in paint, wearing a jumper that is also covered in paint
Participant at a workshop during the In Colour exhibition at Fabrica.
Image courtesy of Fabrica

The ambition for this co-commission was to produce a work that would genuinely embrace a diverse audience, explore the nature of consciousness and perception and the possibilities for communication between neurodiverse and neurotypical communities. Peter Hudson worked with artists with complex needs as part of the research and test phase of his new work.

In Colour functioned as an immersive, site-specific work that invited audiences to interact with it and each other playfully and on their terms. The lighting in the whole space could be changed when participants interacted with one of three triggers (a microphone, a ‘football-sized’ sphere and a hemisphere) via movement or sound. These interactions affected the hue and brightness of the work. Using gesture or sound visitors could also ‘speak’ or shape the colour environment for other visitors.

Outstanding! I really enjoyed the use of interactive objects to contemplate things and communicate. Absolutely loved it.

Gallery Visitor

This exhibition and commissioning process provided a huge learning opportunity for us as an organisation. We invested a great deal into our team of staff and volunteers to develop our awareness, experience, insight and sensibilities to be more attentive, open and responsive to people’s needs.

One of my most memorable moments this year is when we met the artists from Project Art Works, an organisation that promotes the meaningful involvement of people who have cognitive impairments in visual art activity. It was an honour to welcome such creative personalities and we all worked together to create a giant multicoloured wall hanging! I had so much fun during the workshop, I felt proud to be a part of an organisation like Fabrica, that is true to its ethos of inclusivity and accessibility to the arts for all.

Fabrica Volunteer

For us, a commission-based approach to understanding more about people with severe intellectual disabilities as creative participants and visitors was an effective way of engaging the whole of Fabrica’s team, and our regular visitors in issues concerning neurodiversity.

The test and development phase for artist Peter Hudson at Project Art Works was essential to him understanding something of the language of interaction of some people with complex needs. This undoubtedly informed the development of the commission, the nature of its interactivity and accessibility, and the wider engagement programme.

Interviews with Peter Hudson, Liz Whitehead (Director of Fabrica) and Kate Adams (Director of Project Art Works) exploring the themes in his interactive light installation, In Colour, shown at Fabrica July–-August 2017.

This year’s co-commission Putting Ourselves in the Picture builds upon the learning from In Colour, by presenting an exhibition which positions creators with and without complex needs, at its centre.

Throughout July and August 2019 we’re operating an accessible artist studio so that everyone who wants to produce an artwork, can. We’re also creating a small temporary gallery space alongside the studio, for the presentation of some of these works. Essentially the exhibition is offering visitors a continuous art-led participatory workshop.

At the heart of this exhibition are two questions: ‘who gets to create art?’ and ‘whose work is selected and therefore validated for public view?’. Through an experiential approach and a series of discussion events, we’re seeking to understand more about how access to creation spaces might shape the supply of art and artists in our society and demystify the who, how and why of selecting work for public consumption.

We are working with three excellent artists to achieve this: Sara Dare, Annis Joslin and Jo Offer. Each has a distinctly different approach to this commissioning opportunity. All identify creative collaboration as the sole aspect or a significant aspect of their practice. A small number of professional curators have also been invited to select artworks from the work produced at Fabrica. Their choices and the criteria for their selections will be displayed as small exhibitions alongside the studio.

Putting Ourselves in the Picture is part of EXPLORERS, a three-year programme of awareness-raising encounter workshops, happenings, productions, commissions, exhibitions and seminars in collaboration with people who have complex needs and those who support them. Taking place against a backdrop of increased hardship and intolerance toward disabled people, EXPLORERS aims to develop positive relationships between cultural organisations and the social care sector and to reposition people who have complex needs at the forefront of mainstream culture. Instigated and led by Project Art Works and funded by the Arts Council England (Ambition for Excellence), EXPLORERS involves gallery partners across the UK and in Sydney with Autograph ABP, Fabrica, De La Warr Pavilion, MK Gallery, National Institute for Experimental Arts UNSW, Photoworks and Tate Liverpool.

Putting Ourselves in the Picture workshop, run by Jo Offer, 2019. Image by Syl Ojalla.

Beyond this partnership with Project Art Works, the exhibition provides a focus for new collaborations with artists, curators and arts organisations whose working practices are founded upon a human rights-based approach to creative expression and/or a plural rather than a singular view of art and culture. One of these is Outside In, whose director Marc Steene spoke alongside Kate Adams from Project Art Works about working with a rights-based approach, at Rights=Culture, a recent discussion at Fabrica. Project Art Works and Outside In are both based in Sussex yet lead their field nationally and internationally. Our region and its network of contemporary visual arts organisations (CVAN South East) are fortunate to be able to draw so readily on the discourse and expertise that their practice engenders.

Four women seated on a stage while a seated audience looks on
Putting Ourselves in the Picture: In Conversation Artist Talk with Annis Joslin, Sara Dare and Jo Offer, chaired by Fabrica director Liz Whitehead. Image: Cecilia Nhan

Putting Ourselves in the Picture asks questions about the politics of who gets to make art and whose artwork is worthy of public view. It also considers the profile and status of artists such as Dare, Joslin and Offer, who describe their practice as socially engaged. Whilst highly respected as artists, when working as artist-facilitators within arts institutions the work produced is rarely considered as suitable for exhibition as part of the artistic programme. Are we, as arts institutions, stuck in a historic default position about undervaluing the potential of this kind of work to be shown as part of our main programme? Or does participatory practice suffer from the same dilemma as live art in that the presentational infrastructure of theatres and galleries do not serve it well?

With the exhibition still early in its run these questions are only just being aired. We are still a way off from fully understanding what this exhibition will show us as an organisation.

What we do know is that projects like these need proper resourcing. Paying for more artists’ time, and staff time for the co-ordination of group visits, and providing the space and equipment to accommodate those who may need to be lifted, washed or receive other sorts of care, during their visit. All this is part of making a successful project that enables those with complex needs to fully participate. It costs and it’s just the way it is. As arts organisations, we need to accept it as a necessary aspect of what it means to be genuinely inclusive, in the same way, that we accept all the working practices and cost implications of health and safety. Fully understanding this, especially at a time of rapidly reducing public funding is as important as the attitudinal learning and confidence-building we achieved in our first co-commission with Project Art Works in 2017.

Putting Ourselves in the Picture is part of EXPLORERS. Instigated and led by Project Art Works, EXPLORERS involves gallery partners across the UK and in Sydney with Autograph ABP, Fabrica, De La Warr Pavilion, MK Gallery, National Institute for Experimental Arts UNSW, Photoworks and Tate Liverpool.

Liz Whitehead
Director, Fabrica