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Simon in Korea smiling outside the gallery in Korea which is showing his exhibition

Simon McKeown

Simon McKeown’s website describes him as an established artist with a radical interest in re-presenting disability to people in new and innovative ways. After studying Fine Art he was one of the earliest people to move into the digital world in the UK: starting work in London in 1987. As well as following his own Fine Art practice, Simon is also currently a Reader in Animation and Post Production at Teesside University, Middlesbrough, UK.

Simon is the creator of Motion Disabled - a digital exploration of the normal everyday movements of people who are physically different, using motion capture and 3D animation. This exhibition has really caught people’s attention. It was glowingly reviewed by Ken Russell in the Times in January 2009, exhibited in Korea as part of the World Disabled Peoples’ Culture and Art Festival, and projected 100 feet high onto the side of a building in Leeds for Light Night, Leeds, in October 2009.

I wanted to meet up with Simon and find out more about why he works in the way he does and how he sees himself as a ‘leader’ or perhaps a pioneer. I took him down the pub for a chat.

Early experiences

Simon has often commented that disability is ‘normal’ for him, having grown up in a family surrounded by disability: Brittle Bones runs in the family, (Osteogenis Imperfecta – OI) his grandfather used a wheelchair and his mother has OI like Simon himself. His father sustained injuries in an industrial accident and he had two uncles with wooden legs. His mother taught in a special school and as a young teenager Simon was actively involved in supporting other disabled people as part of a disabled children’s group with weekday sessions and in the summer holidays:

It was excellent for the disabled kids, because quite often when they came in they were sedated, but the organisers involved in running things didn’t like the levels of medication, so reduced them; it basically got less sedated which let peoples characters develop… There was no real stigma attached to this voluntary work ,we just thought it was normal and went on great holidays with friends who happened to be disabled.

The lack of stigma within his family around disability wasn’t echoed in the world around him. Simon tells great stories of the discrimination and distaste shown by others: at school and outside school, by both children and adults, for having so many injuries due to OI, his mother and a group of disabled children being ejected from MacDonald’s and, my favourite, when out with a large group of disabled people at a beauty spot, taking the most disabled child in the group and putting them in the middle of a crowded area so that the crowds would, possibly, disperse, depending of course on their prejudices, leaving their group with the prime spot.

Simon and Frank Letch - Frank is in a motion capture suit

Injuries

Injuries were a principal feature of Simon’s childhood and perhaps are a contributing factor to his ability to undertake detailed, labourious, time intensive elements within his work where others would lose attention, interest and focus. In the pub, Simon mapped out a tiny area of our table, and described playing with talcum powder, creating little ramps and gullies for tiny toy trucks to trundle down, when stuck in a hospital bed, aged 5.

Quite often, my life used to be the size of this table. I’d be in hospital or at home and I’d be in plaster, so there were real limits to what I could do. I spent a long time entertaining myself because I didn’t have the ability to do something more interesting.

I asked him why, having experienced fractures and resulting isolation as a child due to injury, he now delights so profoundly in physical exertion – running, cycling and so on – even though these are the very things that led to injury? Simon credits this to his mother. Having had OI herself, his mother was determined not to repeat her own experiences of being wrapped in cotton wool. As a result, Simon was always left to do whatever he wanted, and his own disability was never a barrier, with the exception of skateboarding!:

I would try and do everything that everyone else did, and as a consequence I would often get injured. I have had between 60 and 80 breaks - I am not quite sure how many exactly, that’s working on the idea of 3 a year, some pretty big, some small and niggling.

Simon at work on his computer (wearing a padded jacket). The photo is in black and white.

In the mainstream

This led to a contradiction – despite being surrounded by disability, Simon never gained a strong sense of himself as a disabled person when young. He contrasts this to the experience of Dr Paul Darke, the renowned disability activist and writer, and initial producer of Motion Disabled who went to a ‘special school’ Simon appears almost envious of the experience, the closeness and camaraderie that can emerge from being ‘with others like you’. Simon says: Paul and I, we have this debate about school, and in many ways I wish that I had gone to one like his.

Simon may be one of the current leading lights of the disability arts movement, but he is also involved in mainstream work – be that teaching at the university or animating digital bats to appear on Coronation Street (seriously)! He was very impressed that I had seen them in action on Corrie).

a photograph of the box of Driver 3 for playstation

Switching the focus

In his early working life, Simon never made a feature of his impairments (he is hearing impaired as well as having OI). I suppose some of that was because I grew up believing I was ‘normal’, and because if you grow up putting up with injuries and being bullied all the time you get used to it and then accept it later on. I think class comes into it too. As a disabled working class kid you just think you have to put up with stuff.

So at what point did that change? What made Simon decide to switch his personal artistic focus to disability?

My main interest had always been fine art, and to an extent commercial work is a distraction from that. I reached a point where I needed to think about who and what I was and what I wanted from life. It slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t ‘normal’ and that my life had been quite different as a result. I needed to acknowledge and recognise and develop from that position. Additionally my grandad had died at a pretty early age and that made me look at what I really wanted to achieve in my life.

So, from that point onwards, Simon began to apply for commissions and funding to develop and deliver his own artistic work. For him, this is his way of leading, of influencing, of making a difference: I think you need to show stuff, not just talk about it. I am very happy if a disabled artist wants to create work that’s not about disability. They are earning a living and that’s a great achievement. But I also think if you do create work about who you are, who you really are, I think that it will make you happier in the long run. That’s my experience. But it has to be engaging. If you just lecture people they will turn off. I think I have a moral point of view to put over and I want to reach people. All my experience in the commercial sector gives me a solid perspective on ‘what people want’ and what perhaps they would they pay for. I have adapted my work to fit that, and to stretch that. I ask myself: will it give them a headache? Will it make them think? I make deliberate changes to reach an audience – with Motion Disabled it is deliberately softer than it could be. I have made angry work in the past and it's like scratching an itch, good for me in the short term, a release, but if no one sees it in the long term, what’s the point?”

Motion Disabled projected onto a building in the Leeds skyline

Chameleon

Simon describes himself as having chameleon attitudes – the ability to change and adapt to situations, think out of the box, and flex to achieve his aims. It’s a great leadership quality to have, providing its underpinned by a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. You have to be adaptable to work in TV and Computer Games as they are hard industries. To get over injuries, recover and be relaxed too are complex aims, and working in the art world is complex.

I asked Simon what influence he wanted Motion Disabled to have? The answer is deceptively simple – to change people’s perceptions about disability. I want to question our view of normality. If just one person realises that it's ok to have a disabled child, a child with short arms and legs, for example, as a result of having seen the work, then it will have worked.

I say it's ‘deceptively simple’ The piece really needs to be hitting a mainstream audience and some of its viewings have been at disability specific events or themed festivals. It has been hitting the mainstream as well. It was launched at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and has had subsequent showings at Leicester LCB Depot, Stockton Riverside Festival, Preston PR1 Gallery, the hugely successful Light Night, Leeds, and an up and coming show at Bonington Gallery, Nottingham. Additionally the Wellcome Trust have invested further funds in Motion Disabled to help create a high quality information pack. This pack is aimed at generating more mainstream interest in the exhibition, with results expected in 2010. Lastly Simon says that it’s also a record, a 3D record for the future, with all that entails.

Simon at work on his computer

Making a difference

Simon is also working on a companion piece to Motion Disabled called, provisionally, ‘Faces’ sponsored by ACE, due to be completed by the end of 2011. This will be slightly harder in attitude, and still involve Simon’s trademark graphics and animation, but will focus on the faces of those with facial impairments and include their stories and experiences within the artwork. Although the piece will be highly technical, Simon wants it to have an emotional impact, wanting to make people both laugh and cry.

I wanted to know how else, apart from through his artwork, Simon was aiming to influence others. For example, he has become a trustee of the Brittle Bones Society and I asked him why. I thought what was the point in having all this experience and not telling people? … I want to make the world different, so yeah, I try in different ways to do that. I went to the society's conference recently, and met a young guy who was studying animation. I was sitting with him for an hour and telling him about what I had done and I could see, I hope, that it was really inspiring him.. I suppose basically it comes down to making a mark. My art teacher once gave me a great piece of advice when I was about 17: do something interesting before you die. I’m just trying to live up to that!

If you want to check out Simon’s work, and see if it changes your perspective, you can find Motion Disabled online at www.motiondisabled.com . Tour details are listed.

(Interview by Jo Verrent, November 2009)

More information on Simon can be found on his own site

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