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Bedding Out: When Taking to Your Bed Is Both Activism and Art

25/04/2013 17:43 BST | Updated 25/06/2013 10:12 BST
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When is taking to your bed both a political act and an artwork? Forget Lennon, at the moment the focus is all on Liz Crow's bed.

You might not know Liz Crow's name but you might remember one of her previous works, sitting in her wheelchair wearing a Nazi uniform on top of the fourth plinth in Trafalger Square as part of Antony Gormley's One and Other installation. She used the opportunity to link to her own work, Resistance, an award-winning video installation about the Aktion-T4 programme, which led to the targeted killing of 200,000 disabled people in Nazi Germany.

Liz is a disability artist and activist, known for big, bold statements and with a big, bold personality to match. That's why Bedding Out, a piece in which Liz inhabits her bed in gallery spaces for 48 hours at a stretch, is so powerful.

In Bedding Out we don't see big, bold Liz, we see instead the secret side that Liz has hidden for years. For being 'big bold Liz' takes its toll, and periods of bed rest are required to recuperate and recharge.

"I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening. I am also ill and spend much of life in bed. The private self is neither beautiful nor grownup, it does not win friends or accolades, and I conceal it carefully." (Liz Crow)

Why now? Why is Liz suddenly exposing the private self she has hidden with such care?

I don't know if you've noticed, but disabled people in the UK are currently under attack. It's predicted that Britain's 3.6 million people claiming disability benefits will be £9 billion worse off from 2010 to the end of this Parliament, with an estimated 500,000 disabled people expected to lose out when Disability Living Allowance becomes Personal Independence Payment this month. Assessments to see who is and isn't entitled to benefits payments aren't just stringent, they have been labeled callous, unfair and even inhumane. And inaccurate. In Wales, over half those now assessed as fit to work appealed and over 40% won.

Liz herself was assessed and placed in the work-related activity group, for those thought able to move towards paid work. It was a decision she vehemently disagreed with, and one that she took to tribunal. She won, but it was a hollow victory, as the stress and physical effort of preparing her case made her more ill, but it sowed the seeds for Bedding Out.

Liz works when she can, and rests when she needs to, as her impairments are complex and complicated. It means she runs the risk of being labeled "shirker", "scrounger" and "faker" by the tabloids as her life isn't simple - in public she may appear fine, in private she recovers. It's a life lived in balance, and through Bedding Out, one that has be able to cast a light on others who live a 'bed life'.

Through her physical installation, livestream broadcasts and active twitter feed, Liz called out for others to declare their experiences too. Photos, stories, even videos followed sharing the most private and intimate part of people's lives in order to illustrate the reality of living with some impairments. They are moving, humbling and also empowering, showing a life and spirit that simply will not be crushed however bad the cuts become.

So the politics are clear, it's about welfare reform, yet to simply see it as that would be to underestimate the power of the art.

Bedding Out is clever. It's an artwork that subverts at a very personal level; personal to each and every individual.

As you look at Liz you can't help but relate her actions to your own. When do you push past what you should do - and what's the impact on your body and mind? What are your public and private faces? When do you choose to show yourself at your most vulnerable, and to whom?

It makes you recognize yourself within Liz's actions. It makes it personal, bringing you right into a political frame. You understand the different ways you might feel on various days - your changes in personal energy and effectiveness. You watch Liz rest and can extend this easily into a scaling up of your own needs.

Immediately the concept of 'fraud' starts to slip away to be replaced with 'human'.

The cuts are hideous. There have been protests and petitions and a growing argument within the disability movement about the nature of activism. For me, Bedding Out also asks is getting angry and shouting the only way to affect change?

Too often disability issues, in fact all equalities issues, are boiled down to being about 'us' and 'them', rather than about you and me. An anger-based response can serve to solidify these opinions rather than to change them.

Bedding Out gets beyond the shouting, and takes you to a quieter place. It doesn't make you angry, at least not first. It makes you understand. And that's the power of both activism and art.