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Disabled artists show The Way Ahead with evocative road signs

Artist Caroline Cardus collaborated with disability groups in Barnsley to create art installation at the Barnsley Civic.

The Way Ahead

Three signs from The Way Ahead exhibitions

Caroline Cardus

As part of the national Here & Now celebration of culture within communities, the Barnsley Civic is exhibiting new work from artist Caroline Cardus in collaboration with local disabled people from projects My Barnsley Too, Wednesday’s Voice and Artwork South Yorkshire.

The Way Ahead turns disabled people’s access requests into road signs, subverting the familiar and communicating the barriers many face when trying to participate in the world. Running until 7th August, the exhibition makes a serious point in a humorous way.

Disabled artist Caroline Cardus explains, “The idea of using road signs is that it's a system of information which is easily categorised: information signs and direction signs and warning signs and danger signs. So for different instructions, or different things that people say, they fit them into that category and it just reinforces the message”.

Learning curves steep

Learning Curves May Be Steep, 'The Barnsley 15’, 2020

Caroline Cardus

Because of lockdown, Cardus was unable to travel to Barnsley to work with the artists from the three disability groups. Instead, she created a zine.

“It was a big poster, an A2 size poster. On one side, it is a poster that explains all about The Way Ahead, so they could read it in their own time and understand what had gone before. And then on the other side of the poster - which folds down into an A4 booklet - were different blank signs for people to draw in.”

This is not the first time that Cardus has worked with the road sign idea. The original Way Ahead installation took place in 2004 as part of a community arts project. She created the signs with the help of workshops with disability groups and got a graphic designer to turn them into polished signs to be exhibited. For the 2021 version in Barnsley, she used lockdown to teach herself the graphic design skills she needed to do that part of the work herself.

“So there is a 2004 edition and now there's 2021 edition, and there's going to be 15 new signs for Barnsley.”

Trip City Roundabout

Trip City Roundabout, from The Way Ahead 2004

Caroline Cardus

The lasting appeal of the project reflects its significance and the appeal of conveying complex messages about accessibility and acceptance in a very easy-to-understand way. We are all familiar with road signs and can interpret the meaning from a simple illustration and a few select words.

Cardus is clear that the signs were not to be about a disabled person’s personal experience of their impairment in medical terms. Instead, they were focused on how a disabled person interacts with the world and the social, physical and attitudinal barriers they face.

Chrissy was one of the disabled artists who filled in the blank road signs on the zine to collaborate on the exhibition. She explains, “The signs are useful so that they make people aware that certain people may have learning difficulties, and disabilities. These people deserve respect and recognition, and they have the same possible opportunities as everyone else. Also, there are like powerful messages in the signs that are important for people to hear.”

She is excited to be taking part: “I feel very proud to be part of it. It's a great opportunity for other people to see my work and to be seen as a professional artist.

“Art is a good way for disabled people to express themselves and to keep busy. And everyone deserves the opportunity to create art, especially those who need extra support in life.”

One of the designs Cardus created is inspired by the situation in Manchester where Jeremy Deller’s memorial to the Peterloo Massacre was designed, approved and built while totally inaccessible to people who can’t climb stairs.

“It's a lovely design”, Cardus says. “But there have been disability rights campaigners in Manchester who've been campaigning to get it modified because it's a series of circles on top of each other like lots of little cakes, and it's meant to give people a platform to free speech.

“It's one of those times in life where you realise how often disabled people are forgotten. Because unfortunately, in that instance, a memorial to free speech excluded anybody who couldn't walk up the stairs, and that's the irony and that is so strong.”

Wheelchair users shouldn't be left out

Wheelchair users Shouldn’t Be Left Out, 'The Barnsley 15', 2020

Caroline Cardus

Fired up by the controversy, the sign in question is a reference to that, where the people who do not have a mobility impairment are standing on top of it and there's a wheelchair user at the bottom.

The artist believes that The Way Ahead is part of a “rich history” of art intersecting with activism.

“It's a snapshot that maybe in 100 years, people won't feel the need to make signs about disability rights, or the lack of. But at the moment, they do. In the original exhibition I made a sign, which says ‘Man on the moon: 1969. Full access to public transport: 2020.’”

Given that, in 2021, public transport is still not fully accessible, “that was optimistic, it turns out”.

Don't touch my chair

Don’t Touch my Chair, from The Way Ahead 2004

Caroline Cardus

Cardus hopes to travel north to see the installation and meet the artists she collaborated with.

“I really hope that in the summer I can come up to Barnsley and meet the people whose ideas have prompted the signed designs because it feels really strange, after looking at the original exhibition and remembering the face and the story of every single person that made those signs… I look at the Barnsley 15 and I haven't met the people who had the ideas. I hope we all meet in the summer.”

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