Jess Thom aka Touretteshero: why disability arts festivals like Liberty are so important
Ahead of the premiere at Liberty Festival of Touretteshero’s Journey to a Better World, Jess Thom shares her personal experience with past iterations of the festival and highlights the importance of having spaces that centre disabled people. Journey to a Better World is an installation and play space that invites audiences to imagine a better future and highlights the leadership potential of disabled people.
I first came across Liberty Festival back when it was in Trafalgar Square, and it was transformative for me. It’s where I first encountered disability arts and where I first felt able to participate equally in comedy and live performance spaces. It was seeing disabled artists such as Matt Fraser and Liz Carr creating funny, challenging, engaging work that made me feel that this was a possibility for me. Liberty is absolutely crucial to me personally, so I’m delighted to be bringing the UK premiere of Journey to a Better World to the Liberty Festival in Croydon, particularly as we were due to participate last year in Lewisham but had to pull out due to covid-based access issues.
The additional barriers that clinically extremely vulnerable people now face is one of the reasons why I think it is so important that Liberty travels around the London boroughs. People are not necessarily so confident about going into the centre of London, so locating Liberty in the different boroughs is a powerful way to ensure that everyone has access to disability culture.
The piece we’re presenting is called Journey to a Better World. It’s an installation and play space. The Starship Biscuit is an accessible spaceship where we invite audiences to connect, play, explore and help imagine what a better future might be like. Each day we hand over to a different disabled artist to be Captain of the Hour. One of the concepts behind Journey to a Better World is that in the pandemic disabled people could offer leadership. We have shared knowledge about navigating uncertainty that should be utilised more widely – and this underlines one of the reasons why it is so important to have festivals like Liberty highlighting disability arts.
It’s also really important that we continue to have spaces that centre disabled people and disability arts and bring different generations of people together to share knowledge, community and creativity.
As a clinically extremely vulnerable artist, there have been points over the past few years when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to continue as an artist, where I have felt left behind by the sector. Festivals like Liberty are really important for solidarity – it’s been harder because of the challenges facing us individually and collectively. So holding onto those possibilities for community and joy feel really significant. At the same time Liberty is a beacon of hope and call to action to other festivals and arts organisations. Disabled artists are still out there creating incredible work and they should be being getting programmed and commissioned.
More generally there is a perception that working with disabled people is a challenge. We need to understand that there are many additional barriers for disabled people and make access provisions that address them. Disabling barriers are rubbish, but the art, activism and thinking that comes from them is rich, nuanced, powerful and has a lot to tell us about the world.
My hope for this Liberty Festival is that new generations of disabled artists have a chance to connect with disability culture. We need organisations with power and resources to understand their role in this moment and invest in future generations of disabled-led art.
The exclusion of disabled people is presented as being natural and inevitable, it’s not. We all have a role to play in ensuring that disabled people can participate equally. When resources are under pressure as they are now, we have to be very thoughtful so that everyone gets the opportunity to take up space and think about the change they want to make. Art can help start conversations that might not otherwise happen. I’m looking forward to lots of those conversations at Liberty Festival in Croydon.