> > > > Achievement: Simon McKeown and Ruth Gould in conversation
Simon McKeown at DADA Fest

Simon McKeown and Ruth Gould

A conversation on achievement between Ruth Gould, CEO of Dadafest in Liverpool, and artist Simon McKeown.

RUTH GOULD: If I can just explain how we're working together. I’m part of DaDa – Disability and Deaf Arts – in Liverpool and we run DadaFest - a disability and Deaf arts festival that takes place in Liverpool. It’s been around since 1984. Just to give you an idea of how its grown - in 2001, 3500 people came to our activities which just took over 3 weeks. Last year, in 2010, we had over 65,000 come to our activities and we won a Merseyside tourism award for ‘Best Small Event’.

We're up in the north-west and making quite an impact. We found out about Simon a few years ago, and last year he featured an awful lot in DadaFest. So today our focus is really on Simon, but I want to give you the context of how I how know him and why we are both up here today. Simon - introduce yourself?

SIMON MCKEOWN: My background is in the fine arts, but I have worked extensively in computer games, and in really complicated post-production in television. I have managed to work professionally for a long period in those fields before going back to fine arts.

a collection of painting brushes


RUTH GOULD: Our focus today is on achievement. I really want to go a bit deeper with Simon, find out about even earlier than Sync. I want to start by asking him what it was that made him have the ambition to do what he does?

Why did you decide to become an artist?

SIMON MCKEOWN: I started to focus on art originally because I was in hospital for up to 3 months at a time. Art is a very practical thing to do when you can't walk or move. When you are stuck in a space, with only a table in front of you for 3 months, or a month or 5 weeks or whatever, you kind of have to focus on the minuscule. Drawing is as good as anything to do basically. When I was young there wasn't a Playstation or anything like that to fill the time.

RUTH GOULD: Was there a person, a motivator that got you thinking of going down that road?

SIMON MCKEOWN: My art teacher in the 6th form. He told me that I had some good ideas but that I was lazy.

RUTH GOULD: Your teachers encouraged you to go into Higher Education to follow art as a career?

SIMON MCKEOWN: Yes, when you’re injured a lot you often do badly at school. I did absolutely terribly at school - I was never there. I would be off for 3 or 4 months at a time so missed loads. It was also a rubbish school as well, so it was pointless being there but it was the 6th form art teacher who was the first person really to try say you should go to university, and study fine art, which I'd never even thought of doing before.

a painting of paul darke by tanya raabe

Journey round to Disability Arts

RUTH GOULD: You have had quite a successful career after art school as a commercial artist, so you have come into disability arts from a different route. A lot of disabled people find we can't get into the arts because of the barriers we experience, but you were quite successful. So what was it that made you move into this [disability specific] arena, and begin to work more on your own art projects?

SIMON MCKEOWN: When you are a commercial artist you get quite bored with all the projects you do. They might be good projects, but ultimately its somebody else's art. When you are working as a team of a hundred people, even if you are in charge of that team, it's still a huge team effort. For example, I don't like driving but I have worked on big driving computer games. I got bored basically, but also at the back of it I knew I was ultimately a fine artist. My training was in fine art, and I always maintained my own practice in a little way during that period. I just thought I should get on and do something bigger. It was meeting people along the way that made that happen.

RUTH GOULD: So you didn't do it in isolation?


RUTH GOULD: Do you want to name any of the key people?

SIMON MCKEOWN: One of the first thing I did 10 years ago was an animation for West Midlands Disability Arts Forum. One person that was very important to me in connection with that was Paul Darke, and he pushed me to do some interesting work. I did that and then didn't do anything else within a disability context for another 8 years.

RUTH GOULD: Why was that gap there?

SIMON MCKEOWN: I just didn't have the confidence. Although I was working with Paul, I was working very much in isolation within a disability context. So I did it, but then didn't have the structure behind me to keep me going. I think that is what is different now.

simon's work projected in Leeds


RUTH GOULD: You have got a structure behind you now. Is that very much a Sync structure?

SIMON MCKEOWN: Yes, it’s a Sync structure. It was hugely important in making the 3rd December 2010 event come to life [Simon’s exhibition ‘Motion Disabled’ was shown in 17 countries simultaneously on that day}. That started off with a piece of art that I thought would be in a gallery once. But lots of people have picked up the work and supported it, been interested in it, which has been an absolute joy, and I think that's where the whole Sync thing comes into play – confidence and contacts.

RUTH GOULD: Can I ask you what do you feel has been your greatest achievement to date?

SIMON MCKEOWN: Certainly the biggest project I have done, was that one – ‘Motion Disabled’. There’s a big team of people involved in it. The work I do, it’s quite complicated, technically complicated. All the people involved in producing the work and all of the promoters of it have been fantastic, it’s been a joy.

RUTH GOULD: I must add at this point that Simon did win the DaDa Artist of the Year Award last year, too – real recognition. If you look back on your development, what do you wish you had known then that you know now?

SIMON MCKEOWN: I don't worry about what I do. I think if you do a good job of it, that’s as much as you can do. When you are injured a lot of the time you have got to be totally practical about your place and what you do. If you get frustrated about that, you go mad very quickly. So I try not to worry about it, I deliberately think ‘if I am doing a good job of what I am doing, something interesting will happen’, and that's probably about as deep as I get with it. Yes, I want to work on a large scale, I have a big vision. This probably comes from having done ‘big work’ commercially. I see absolutely no reason why that can't translate into what I do as an artist. It just makes common sense to me. Because I have got that experience, why not?

a question mark and its shadow

Questions from the floor...


JO VERRENT: What impact do you want your work to have on people?

SIMON MCKEOWN: I'm old enough to remember going to football matches when people, shouted racist comments. It was pretty horrible. In the last 20 years we had a cultural change where that's no longer acceptable; black football players play at all levels. We have seen a cultural transformation through art and politics. It's not brilliant still, but it was a tremendously racist society in the 70s and I do think things have changed for the better. I would like to see that transformation continue in the next 20 years and to cover the way disability is seen. I think the representation of the acceptance of disability in a clever and interesting way is the thing I'm most interested in.

FROM THE FLOOR: What new work did you make last year for DADA Fest?

SIMON MCKEOWN:: There was several pieces. There was a love story, an animated love story, called 'All for Clare', that starred Clare Cunningham. I motion captured Clare who tortured a suitor who wanted to give her a rose - that was a lovely 8 minute animation. I also made another variation on 'Motion Disabled', which was projected outside on the Mersey tunnel on a huge scale and shown in the gallery as well, again featuring Clare Cunningham, and it was shown internationally in 17 countries on the same day as well

RUTH GOULD: History was made on that day, it was on International Disabled People's Day. It started in Perth, and ran through right to Mexico City, and a few American cities too, all on that one day. It was just amazing how that stretched right across the globe. The animation ‘All for Clare’ was made for the BBC Big Screens. The BBC reckon 2.9m people a day see those projections. We have had that animation screened for four months across the UK, not just in Liverpool, so it gets really strong messages out there in a big way. It was very, very successful; the BBC love it and want to talk to us about doing more.

To find out more about Simon McKeown...


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