Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and about your history as an artist?
I always had words. Writing is the one thing I’ve always had, the one thing I’ve always done. Narrative, story, that’s how we make sense of the world.
I think we’re all born with a voice. The battle is getting your voice back and trying to find ways of using it. It can be about anything. Just have a say. It can be a t-shirt, a postcard, a text, a joke, a laugh, liquid chalk marker on glass, a luggage tag. Whoever you are, you might have the littlest amount of resource – littlest in terms of time, pain energy, you’ve got no equipment, you’ve got nothing but stuff you find around you – there are things that you can do. If you hold a placard that says, ‘Smash Trump’, that’s prose. If you hold the one that says, ‘Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again’, that’s poetry.
One of the most creative things I’ve done was working with young people, just before lockdown, who have nothing. If you give kids drama skills then they learn power and status and to go into those spaces and be themselves, hold that space.
In your video, you talk about your friend Marty. She sounds like an incredible woman. Could you tell us more about her?
Sometimes you meet people who really, really think and listen and they have something extra. Marty was just one of those people. She’d had a big life and a wide life. She had helped bring the Samaritans phone line to the North East, for example. She did incredible things. She never worked very much. I think she worked as a secretary for about three years, so in terms of paying in, paid work, tax, she didn’t. She just did the most amazing, incredible things. But we can’t cost the money, the value, the economics. I just loved her. She said I’m an honorary Geordie, unofficially adopting me.
What do you think of the way that disabled people have been treated during this crisis?
The thing is, the language matters. If we are ‘disabled’, we have a legal category, it carries a certain legal weight. The Equality Act (2010) means that we can’t be discriminated against. As soon as COVID hits, one of the things that happens is that you’re either in ‘the herd’ (which is an interesting way to think about your population) or the expendables. I’m one of the expendables and I don’t want to put you on the spot, but–
Oh, I’m definitely expendable!
Unfortunately right now there isn’t a third option. The word ‘disabled’ has been erased.
And ‘vulnerable’ people aren’t protected under the Equality Act.
Yes, that’s exactly it! You change the word, you change the language, then we lose our legal right to Boris’ oxygen. It is now his oxygen, and he might share it with the herd, but we’re not allowed it. If that word goes then what are our legal rights?
They’ve said it’s got to be paid for. Has it? The whole point of the government is that it does have magic money. It’s got magic money forests, orchards, mangroves! It’s got as much as it wants, that’s the whole point. We’re not ‘all in it together’. Does it have to be the poorest people pay again? Could you make the rich people pay?
My assumption is that they are looking at Austerity 2.0, far nastier.
[The Conservatives] have a vast majority in parliament, and that review of the Coronavirus Bill (2020), when that comes up at the end of the year, it might be, ‘Sorry, but we’re not back to normal’. Then psychiatrists can continue to section you, just one of them, and all the other things, and now there is no ‘disability’. You have to accept you’re ‘vulnerable’, and you need to take responsibility. Stay indoors, stay away, have no social contact, no hug.
If you are disabled – sorry vulnerable – sorry expendable, then you are supposed to be alone, self-isolated, and the government system and the supermarket system actually didn’t work, did it? So we stay at home, and we go further downhill, and we’re even more isolated.
People need to understand the history of the institutionalisation of disabled people. Are you worried this is a new way of locking us up indefinitely?
Yeah. It’s a very efficient way. Marty was in Poole sanitorium, one of the old TB sanitoriums.
Was she there voluntarily?
No. And she almost died in there many times. It was approximately 6 years. She was under lockdown in the 1940s!
Those old-fashioned institutions, they are inefficient. You have to pay warders – I mean jailors – I mean staff! Those people. And now… enjoy the safety of your own home! It’s an efficient, modern 21st century imprisonment.
Could you tell us a bit more about your decision to use Norse mythology to explore the regrowth of society after a catastrophe?
I’ve known the Norse myths forever. At what was a time of climate change, pre-modern times, people clinging to life, and the sea is coming to get them. So how do you explain that? Ragnarok isn’t the end of the world, it’s the world tree. Here is a tree, and all life is contained in the tree – birds and human, squirrels and demons, everything. And a wise person, someone like Marty, comes along and says, ‘Okay, the great and the good, the Earl Greys, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, time to die. Let’s hide, let’s hunker down, let’s shelter, and then let’s regreen the world. Let’s do it differently.’ And it works for me.
You’re considering a better world, a utopia, but for so many people, that is a world in which disabled people wouldn’t exist. Are you inviting us to consider that an ideal world would still be a place where disabled people could thrive?
Let’s just dream. Why don’t we celebrate Marty? Or all the people in your life, who may have been amazing, but no one knows about them. Why do we erase that? Why can’t we think about better futures? But also dream? Like, really huge dreams, not ‘Oh, yes maybe a few more people could have PIP [‘Personal Independence Payment’, a benefit that is supposed to cover the extra costs of the care or mobility needs of disabled people], and they don’t ask that one question’.
The current system doesn’t work.
Let’s change the narrative. Let’s have plural narratives. Let’s talk in different ways. Just talking to disabled people, asking ‘What can you do? What would you like to? What are you interested in?’ Let’s look at how we house everyone and feed people and support them and nurture your talent. You can do something really amazing, and that person can, and Marty’s contribution is valued.
That to me is a utopia. It’s a work in progress. There will be some bastards there, and unfortunately there will be one or two traumas a year. We can’t solve it all. but it could be a hell of a lot better. Utopia is let’s have it better, different, wider. Let’s share more. It’s doable. Some of it, at least, is doable right now.
Things are uncertain right now, but what’s hopefully next for you as an artist?
There’s my show Provoked to Madness by the Brutality of Wealth, which is about re-writing the future. It’s about a homeless hostel ‘support worker’ saying, ‘What do you need books for? You’re homeless’. We build a wee house out of estate agent plastic, we light it up with a book. It shows the importance of books, stories and narratives and remembering. I have an austerity crutch, I have a bucket for kicking, I have coals. At the end, the crutch flowers, the house is built and turned into a home with lights and books. It was due to tour this Autumn, and somehow it will still happen.
I would love to go into a space and build a living library in there, having places where people could lie down, and ‘shirk’ and ‘slack’ away. But not, ‘Ah, because in your case you have chronic fatigue and need to lie down’, or ‘You’re homeless, you’re allowed to lie down’. I just want to encourage people to just lie down or be relaxed. You could add a book to it. A book could be a recipe, or a zine, or a joke or a postcard. If it’s a recipe you might want to add the ingredients, and someone else could take away the ingredients. You’re hungry? Here you go! Have your book and eat it!
Loads of stuff! Give us space, or give us time, or give us people to do it with.
Interview by Leonora Gunn