Bedding In: An interview with Liz Crow

In response to the coalition's benefits overhaul, Liz Crow is Bedding In.

Bedding In, the latest performance by artist-activist Liz Crow, has been created in response to the coalition’s attack on disability benefits. Over three days, Crow, who has a disabilty herself, will perform her “bed-life”: “I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening. I am also ill and spend much of life in bed,” says Crow. “The private self is neither beautiful nor grown up, it does not win friends or accolades, and I conceal it carefully.”

For forty minutes each day, viewers will be invited to approach the bed and engage Crow in “Bedside Conversations”, discussing the piece and its context. Here, Crow talks about disability hate crime, the role of art in social issues and the Paralympics' media coverage.

You ascribe a 50 per cent rise in disability hate crime to a propagandist campaign. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Over the past couple of years, and especially in the run up to the Paralympics, I’ve watched an extraordinarily divisive reporting of the benefits reforms in the press, particularly in the tabloids, across the political spectrum. They portray disabled people as inventing or exaggerating impairment, being too lazy to work and living lives of luxury at the taxpayer’s expense. They tell a story of disabled people as fraudsters and scroungers, in complete contradiction of the DWP’s own recorded fraud rate of 0.3 per cent. Alongside this press reporting, the reporting to police of disability hate crime has risen exponentially. Talking to other disabled people I know, many of us find we have become hyper-vigilant when out in public, and vast numbers have experienced disability-targeted aggression or worse. There’s been a rise in reported disability hate crime of 50 per cent and research from Glasgow Media Centre has at least partially attributed that to the fraudster/scrounger rhetoric. It’s a dangerous reporting in a time of austerity that encourages the general population erroneously to place blame on disabled people for the country’s financial woes.

What role can art play in politics and social issues?

Art can give glimpses into other people’s lives and broaden our view of the world. It can ask questions and present viewpoints not seen elsewhere. Artists are good at communicating, at raising difficult questions, and at exploring creative alternatives. Playful or provocative, it can make us see and think differently, make an emotional connection to audiences and go on working long after the piece is officially over. It can act as a provocation to spark a deeper debate about particular issues. We can only make change for the things we know about; for me, the most exciting art brings to light lives on the margins and invites the onlooker to become a part of creating change. In showing art in a range of settings, from galleries to schools, festivals to community settings, we can reach audiences who wouldn’t usually touch art, and audiences who wouldn’t usually touch politics, and take both by surprise.

Do you think participatory art such as Bedding In is a particularly effective means of engaging the public in social issues?

One of the things that Bedding In can do, which I haven’t much seen elsewhere is that it can portray the human story set within its broader social context. So the work is not just about me; I am symbolising the thousands of people who live a bed-life, but, particularly through the Bedside Conversations, I am able to enter into a dialogue with the public in a way that allows them to ask questions, relate it to their own lives and take it out beyond the gallery space. I could write about my bed-life, but there is something about playing it out in a public space that goes deeper to the heart of what that life means against the current backdrop of benefits reform. It is an opportunity to raise more challenging questions and to set the bed-life overtly within the present difficult political climate.

What do you hope would be the outcome of your performance?

I want to make a hidden group of thousands visible, but also to demonstrate that what others see as contradiction, as fraud, is simply the complexity of real life. For those of us with complicated, fluctuating and invisible impairments, the new benefits system has proved to be incapable of supporting us appropriately. The assessment process fails to measure these kinds of impairments and so we fall through the gaps. In doing so, we become even more invisible. My hope is that Bedding In will join a much larger conversation of disabled people, supporters, the Sparticus campaign, DPAC, Black Triangle, UK Uncut and others; that by using a wide range of approaches we can be much more effective in reaching many more people. My hope is that these voices combined will inform the public enough that their outrage will force a change in benefits reform towards a system that is more humane.

What do you make of the coverage of this year's Paralympics and its portrayal of those with disabilities?

The Paralympics was a strange, wild collision course for me, where the extremes of benefits and Paralympics reporting hit just as I make my way to my own benefits tribunal. It was exhilarating to see disabled athletes so completely and naturally at home in their bodies, and I think it shifted many people’s ideas of what disabled people can be, yet the experience was also bittersweet. Just as the athletes will struggle, away from the Olympic stadium, to live up to that ‘superhuman’ ideal, in the context of benefits reforms, the idea that “with determination” any disabled person (or non-disabled person!) could be superhuman has repercussions that are deadly serious. At the root of this is that we are measuring two very different groups of disabled people; the benefits classification system is based on a mechanical view of impairment that fits most athletes but which excludes those of us with chronic and fluctuating conditions, even though we are the most likely to be out of regular employment and in need of ESA.

What do you have planned next?

I’ll be taking another version of Bedding In to Salisbury in April (just as the replacement of DLA with PIP hits), this time occupying my bed round the clock for three days and broadcast on webcam.

Bedding In takes place at the Ipswich Art School Gallery as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance until 3 November.

Liz Crow in Bedding In.
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times