I attended the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s (IMMA) summer school 2021, which has just come to an end. This has been an amazing, challenging and enriching experience. It was a real privilege to be amongst the 60 people from round the world who were selected for the programme, which took place online this year.
This is the third iteration of the summer school, which focuses on art and politics. This year’s theme was containment, a topic which will resonate with other disabled people this year and one I thought would be useful to explore in terms of my own work. In my application to IMMA, I wrote about containment of disabled people during the pandemic, and made reference to Possible All Along. But of course, containment as a concept is relevant to disabled people’s lives in many other ways, and it has informed my practice and research. Indeed, disabled artists cannot avoid dealing with containment in some way as part of their work – and life.
A couple of sentences in IMMA’s description of the summer school jumped out at me straight away and people who have been shielding or are vulnerable to the virus will also relate:
Containment can enable us to feel safe but it can also be experienced in terms of confinement and separation.
Strategies of containment also underpin the politics of incarceration and detention, as well as informing recent public health measures in response to the pandemic.
Disabled and chronically ill people have been abandoned. While the public health policy of shielding may have been designed to protect, it has felt like being shut away and forgotten about. Disabled people anticipated that the lifting of Covid restrictions could make this even worse. The government announcement that this will in fact be happening mid July has made disabled people feel even less safe about going out amongst crowds of people, no longer required to socially distance or wear masks.
There is this percentage of the population where nothing has changed and we almost feel abandoned.
For more on disabled people’s fears about restrictions being lifted, see this article in the Metro of 7 July 2021.
Alongside those contained within their own homes, the scandal of deaths in care homes is a stark reminder of how, when separated from society, older and disabled people can easily be forgotten. This is despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock claiming the government had put a ‘protective ring’ around care homes. In fact, deaths in care homes and nursing homes have contributed to disabled people accounting for 6 out of 10 Covid deaths in the UK (Office for National Statistics, Feb 2021).
IMMA’s overview of containment refers to the ‘politics of incarceration and detainment’. The history of disabled people is a history of containment, institutionalisation and segregation. From the workhouse and asylum, to hospitals, special schools, day centres, residential care and so on, segregation continues to this day. And the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is one of the most pernicious methods of containing disabled people and others, through assessment, strict rationing of resources, and surveillance.
Disabling barriers constrain and contain disabled people’s lives, not just in the built environment, but in terms of information, communication, economic barriers, educational, prejudice and damaging stereotypes and so on. If you’re working in the field of art and disability, if you’re a disabled artist, then you’ll very likely be dealing with barriers and issues around access – or lack of it. This underpins the practice of disabled artists and anyone trying to work in an inclusive way, and can be seen as a form of containment.
As part of the group work during the summer school, we were reflecting on the ways in which we contain ourselves and our identity due to the adverse reactions of others, which reflect society’s perceived normative values. And the ways that society contains us and inflicts those norms and values. Containment through fear in turn affects our behaviours as well as our safety and our wellbeing. You can see how our thinking came together in the mind map diagrams above.
We used the concept of the panopticon to frame our thinking. Originally, a panopticon was a building designed so that a guard could keep watch over the prisoners without being seen. The prisoners never knew when they were being observed, so would come to assume they were always being watched. This idea later became a metaphor for surveillance societies and is relevant to data surveillance today.
I began by touching on internalised oppression, summed up in a quote by Micheline Mason:
Internalised oppression is not the cause of our mistreatment, it is the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist. Once oppression has been internalized, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbour inside ourselves the pain and the memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self-images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives.
Reiser, R. and Mason, M. (eds) (1990) Disability Equality in Education, London: ILEA.
But I also wanted to address the issue of surveillance through the example of the DWP. There’s a powerful article on the Recovery in the Bin website: The Invisible Prison – Panopticon Of The DWP, which couldn’t be more relevant. It talks about how all-encompassing and damaging the DWP is in many people’s lives. This in turn affects how lives are lived and how people begin to impose constraints and self-containment that becomes second nature:
It’s absolutely deliberate: the more surveillance, the more the DWP poke their nose and disclosure agreements into every area of our lives, the scarier it is to be out in the world even when we aren’t disabled by society.
I realise now: I’ve become institutionalised. I live inside an invisible cage built by the DWP.
A recent report (February 2021) from Privacy International analysed a lengthy guidance document given to DWP staff. They found that government regularly uses excessive surveillance techniques on benefit claimants, including CCTV, social media, and physical following, as well as demanding information from companies and the NHS.
The DWP isn’t the only arm of government involved in surveillance, of course. Here’s information about how the Home Office keeps track of asylum seekers through the Aspen card, a type of debit card they are required to use: https://
This work was just a tiny part of the summer school which included lectures and workshops from many renowned artists, writers, activists and theorists. I’m always pleased to discover the work of disabled artists, so it was great to hear from Roisin Power Hackett , an artist and curator who has been investigating disability through her own art and by bringing together the work of other disabled artists, for example, in the project A Consideration of All Bodies.
I could also, for example, use more space on Beatriz Colomina’s writing on the politics of the bed. I was reminded of the many disabled artists who don’t just make work from bed, but who make work about their experience of spending much of their lives in bed. For example, Bedding Out (2013) by Liz Crow, If Only Beds Could Fly (2020) by Kristina Veasey, Tink Flaherty’s project Bed Blogger (2021) which features loads of other artists, Dolly Sen’s bonkers (in a good way) project, Bedlamb (2019), and there are plenty more.
Some of these projects show that it’s possible to use humour and lightness to serious topics. For sure, the issue of containment is serious. It has often been harmful, and indeed deadly, for disabled people. As I’ve been thinking about this subject over the summer school, I’m reminded that policies of containment inform the lives of disabled people and I’m thinking about how I reflect this in my work.