Do you remember a book that came out in 2000 called The Tipping Point?
For Simon McKeown, that point may have come on Friday 3rd December 2010, internationally known as Day of Persons with Disabilities. On that day, 17 countries, including England and Scotland, screened Mckeown’s Motion Disabled to raise awareness about disability rights and McKeown himself was named DaDaFest Artist of the Year 2010.
The global screenings were co-ordinated through both VSA, The International Organization on Arts and Disability based in Washington DC and DaDafest and included the lead screening in Liverpool’s historic dock area and showings in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Albany (Australia), Kolkata (India), Prishtina (Kosovo), Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Louga (Senegal), Mexico City (Mexico), Riga (Latvia), Los Angeles and at the UN headquarters in New York (USA).
Jo Verrent interviewed Simon back in 2009, after Jo had produced the projection of Motion Disabled in Leeds, as part of Light Night. This article picks up where that interview left off – and pushes Simon to describe what it feels like to have reached this tipping point…
Firstly Simon, congratulations on the DaDafest award - how does it feel to have your work recognised in this way?
It was a complete surprise. I’d been working so hard, getting everything ready and teaching at the same time, and then arriving at DaDaFest for the weekend, I was a bit jet lagged! Shocked! It’s a huge honour to be recognised by my peers in this way.
What about showing your work in 17 countries on one day? How does it feel to be the new ‘poster boy’ for disability arts across the world?!
I love the idea that the work has been showcased across the world and is part of supporting and pushing Disability Art as a valid and mature art form into the mainstream. It was a huge effort involving so many people at VSA, DaDa in Liverpool, Teesside University, The Wellcome Trust and many other organisations and loads of individuals who formed the team, without whom it wouldn’t have happened.,! As for poster boy – haha that will make many people smile!
You received the award on the same day as Motion Disabled was so widely shown – talk me through the day – how did you feel? What kind of things went through your head? What was it like the next morning?
I was in shock to be honest. There was as you’d expect a great deal of ‘production’ stress leading up to the showing of the work. We were dealing with different languages, formats, durations, statements etc and supplying the material very quickly. Add in the worst winter for at least 45 years, which impacted on generators in Moscow, closed buildings where I was working, made driving a nightmare, firstly it was a great pleasure to have made it to the finish line in one piece – but then I was really stunned and taken by surprise by the award, amazed! It means a great deal to me. The next morning was great, relaxed and some really nice messages from lots of people. The award is also really a great thank you to the whole production team and all supporters and promoters of the project over the last 2 years since its inception.
There are many hints and tips out there on the web on how to become a success. Here are five of those out there that I think particularly apply to Simon…
I see in your work your passion for difference and a real desire to get people to celebrate that difference with you. You’ve spoken when we talked before about your family and where this rock solid belief comes from. I wonder how you deal with those who do not share this passion…
Simply I think people who don’t share my views and passion are missing out - big style. For many people nowadays there can be a perceived lack of opportunity in meeting and perhaps working with people with disabilities. I just ask people to be open, and try to steer to a path to true inclusion, chaos and fun, my definition of the social model of disability!
I don’t get the sense that you have a game plan – a fixed idea of what might come next. It seems that you retain the ability to be incredibly responsive, yet you also seem to maintain a high quality threshold…
You’re right, I have no fixed idea or game plan, mad as that may seems. I want to create great art work and to play with people’s perceptions of difference. I hope that I am and will continue to be successful. My work ultimately is a culmination of 20+ years in the professional world - I started work for one of the first digital companies in the UK back in 1987. Computer Games and TV production, where I was a senior art lead, is often undertaken in a quick, fast, mad and a highly professional environment and I am using that experience, and combining it with my Fine Art background as well.
Whenever your name comes up, people always say what a nice bloke you are – and how you not only develop working relationships with people, but also proper relationships – going down the pub, cycling…
That’s very cool, many thanks for the comments. Essentially work is hard, making ‘stuff’ is hard. Computers are especially stressful for many people. It spoils it for me when I work with people and the relationship doesn’t develop. I love working with people who become good friends, and some of my best friends comes from this.
You must have knock backs – work that doesn’t pan out, ideas that don’t get the funds you would like? How do you deal with disappointment?..,
To some extent, life is about knock backs and that’s what makes us appreciate the opposite scenario. I’ve had somewhere between 70 and 100 broken bones, and that forces on you a necessary patience and you have to develop methods of dealing with the breaks and functioning in given situations as a result. Self reliance then is very important as is taking risks, including financial risks, to make things happen. I also never assume anything, so when something works out – that’s a joy!
Most of us have an inner voice telling us we can’t do things, we are not good enough or that we aren’t yet ready. Do you ever have any self doubt? If so, how do you quosh it?
Lots of doubt about lots of things, but not huge amounts about most of the work I do, because fundamentally I’m doing it for me and the wider community I associate myself with. I’m passionate about it. I fully understand though that what I do might not work out, might not be any good or might not be appreciated. I want everything I do to be spot on, but am relaxed if it’s a complete mess! I will try again, and that’s the beauty of art.
There was another one in the top ten: Design your life around your priorities. I didn’t choose that initially as you mentioned before that balancing your workload was hard – finding the right balance between your own creative work and your work for the university. You are currently cutting down the University work for a time. What prompted that and how easy was it to do?
I have cut down my workload... It wasn’t easy to do and I might have to go back fulltime in the future, cash and University dependent next year. It was a conscious decision, based on my health and wellbeing though – which was the major factor. The decision was very practical; it was more scary not to do something. Teesside University is a great place to work and with their help I am now balancing things a bit better and I hope that means things will work out better in the long run as well. I hope I can continue to create innovative exciting projects and the extra time space will let me do that.
So Simon, to finish off, we want to find out more about what you have been up to and your future plans - can you summarise them for us?
DaDaFest International 2010 this year has been absolutely brilliant. I was commissioned to create two new pieces of work.. The festival director, Garry Robson, asked me to work with the internationally acclaimed performer Claire Cunningham. The first work was extension to Motion Disabled – and Claire was motion captured extensively undertaking her normal day to day movements. This was then projected onto the Ventilation Shaft on the Mersey Tunnel as well as in Glasgow and the USA – 17 countries in all – on December 3rd. www.motiondisabled.com has/will have more pictures of the event world wide soon.
Additionally I came up with a new work, based on my junior school experience of dancing with a girl called Claire. I wanted to look at relationships and disability and put something on the BBC screens, that was bright and colourful and cheeky. Claire Cunningham plays the part of a disabled young woman in the animation who can accept or reject a red rose. Please see www.allforclaire.com for a teaser trailer and more detail. So working with Claire and DaDaFest was a great experience.
Just before these projects I completed a short film, entitled ‘The Beaten’. This is a 8 minute film which specifically tackles issues of care, abuse and assisted suicide. It’s a tough film, starring the wonderful actress and comedian Liz Carr who is ‘in care’ and how she deals with this forms the focus of the film. The film looks at the exploitation and degradation that continues to affect disabled people worldwide – it’s entirely fictional though! Please see www.thebeatenfilm.com.
I really enjoyed this project, which was supported by the Magic Hour scheme. It was very hard to make and super stressful, but it reunited me in production terms with Dr Paul Darke, who worked for me as Producer on Motion Disabled, and who also went on to be the producer on The Beaten. Paul also premiered the work as part of the 1st National Disability Film Festival which was a huge undertaking.
All in all it’s been busy year and I’d like to thank all the people I’ve worked with over that period!