Lauren Saunders, who you may remember from this year’s Tate Exchange programme and the Emergence Pilot Project, has launched a new experiment, an ‘antidote’ to the isolation disabled artists have felt this year. Here, she brings us up to speed and lays out the ways you can get involved.

Postbooks’ is an experiment into creative participation during a pandemic. The basic concept is to utilise the postal system to develop participant-led visual conversations through the medium of sketchbooks and zines. Postbooks is a slow-art project which is free to participate in and specifically for self-identified disabled artists in the region where I live: Hull and East Riding. The only motive is to connect people creatively during a time of compounded isolation.

Under the Social Model of Disability, a person isn’t ‘disabled’ because of their impairment, health condition, or the ways in which they may differ from what is commonly considered the medical ‘norm.’ Rather, a person is dis-abled by physical and attitudinal barriers in society, such as prejudice, lack of access adjustments, and systemic exclusion. Anyone who self-identifies as disabled under the Social Model of Disability and lives in the East Yorkshire region (postcodes HU, DN14, DN15, DN18, DN19, YO4, YO15, YO16, YO25, YO41, YO42, YO43, and YO8 is invited to participate in Postbooks. You don’t need medical diagnoses or proof of your disability. If you aren’t familiar with the Social Model and want to learn more, watch this video from Shape Arts.

Artists may be amateurs or professionals, living at home or in supported accommodation, care homes, prisons, or hospitals, and individuals may also identify with any ethnic background, any gender, be LGBTQA+, of any faith, any political ideology, be seeking asylum and be of any age. They may also choose to collaboratively work with their families, personal assistants, or alone. I’m excited to see the conversations that intersectionality brings amongst the six or seven Postbooks that will be in circulation! 

You can sign up via a Google form and in audio, video, telephone, or written format. Eventually, you will be sent a Postbook (participants can choose which size and format they feel most comfortable using).

What inspired Postbooks?

Obviously, COVID-19. All of a sudden, usual methods of interaction and participation were stripped, and some things moved online whilst everything else was cancelled. This online shift has been brilliant in terms of access, yet the internet often lacks the ‘thing-ness’ that many artists gravitate toward and still excludes those with limited online literacy. I had been thinking a lot about this, especially as the Shape Arts Emergence Event at Tate Exchange had been postponed and I was fretting about the participatory work I had showing at Humber Street Gallery (which, by the way, is on display until December 13th!).

At the same time, UNION offered an opportunity to experiment with participation. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be offered a place on an incredible year-long Heads Together Programme, UNION: The Northern School for Creativity and Activism. Even though the programme officially ended in January 2020, we’re still a tight network and were zooming regularly through lockdown.

The facilitators of Heads Together sought some funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to offer us opportunities to freely explore how meaningful participation could take place when we can’t actually see each other or get close. 

Using the Royal Mail as a tool was inspired by the limitations of the time we live in; the only apparent safe way to share resources is through the post. Plus, everyone was already ordering stuff online so it felt like it would be a readily accepted method of participation.

And…I was livid! At government inadequacies and callousness. I was a total ball of rage and anxiety, but this gave meaning to Postbooks.

Lockdown and distancing since March have been awful for most people but have – at times – compounded and magnified the isolation already felt within the disabled community. We know that disabled people are more likely to shield, making it a greater challenge to meaningfully connect with others or to receive vital medical or pastoral attention.

In addition, we know that disabled people have had medication rationed, been denied medical treatment, and been made to feel expendable. Postbooks is not only a way to reduce professional and creative isolation but is also an attempt to antidotally make space for those who have been made to feel like they didn’t matter on account of an impairment. 

I hope that – at least for the few minutes that an artist works in a Postbook – they feel less alone and experience a sense of connection to others in a similar situation. The wonderful cathartic process of making is an end in itself, as is being part of something bigger. The conversations that flourish between the pages are a happy side effect and I’m hoping we can create a network of disabled artists in my region, too.

Logo. Text reads The Critical Fish. The word Fish is larger than the rest of the words, which appear to be emerging out of Fish in bubbles.I’ve launched this project through The Critical Fish, an inclusive, research-led visual artists journal, of which I am co-Editor. The Critical Fish is rooted in the written word, but from day one, we’ve been interested in how to include people who may not be comfortable with reading and writing in the discourse around arts and how to innovatively capture non-traditional research by encouraging these conversations about art through participation.