We Are Still Here: St Helens 150th Year Anniversary

Research output: Non-textual formExhibition


McKeown’s We Are Still Here project researched the rarely investigated intersection of public art, disability and civic identity. It examined how already limited opportunities in the UK relating to cultural engagement for People with Learning Disabilities (PWLD), is reduced still further in geographic areas suffering economic decline (Hall, 2005; DWP, 2013; Heslop and Emerson, 2017). It sought to unlock ableist conventions regarding access to and participation in public art projects and to provide innovative, technological and collaborative approaches to working with PWLD on major public art spectacles. McKeown’s research output was delivered at St Helens, Liverpool and composed of: a live large-scale outdoor projection-mapped event (with accompanying street performers); a commissioned composition by the Deaf composer Ailís Ní Ríain; artworks by PWLD, and a portrait-based photography exhibition at St Helens Town Hall. 

This inclusive action-research project, set within an ‘exclusive’ technological and civic mainstream space (Hall, 2005), rendered problematic low-value definitions of art practice for PWLD, using the criticality of relational and dialogical art practice (Bourriaud, 2002; Bishop, 2012; Kester, 2014) to reframe collaborative practice (Wodisky, 2015). 

Embedded within St Helens, the project engaged 30 direct participants; 15 learning disabled adults and personal assistants, trainers, educators, Heart of Glass (HOG) staff, members of St Helens Council and other organisations. It was testimony to how PWLD can contribute to both their own cultural engagement and to placemaking activities, that We Are Still Here became the culminating project of the St Helens 150th anniversary celebrations. St Helens' main stage became occupied by an agenda of 'difference' (Delin, 2004). Addressing event status, civic involvement and agency, McKeown successfully enabled systemically un-listened communities to reimagine themselves and become active cultural producers. This draws on McKeown’s use of autoethnography, as a disabled artist who has contributed to the field of digital technology since the 1980s. We Are Still Here built upon knowledge of the marginalisation of PWLD (Wolfensberger, 2000), and on McKeown’s own prior research in Cork Ignite and its collaborative engagement (Broderick, 2016), to further invert normative representation of PWLD within an ableist civic public art setting (McMahon et al., 2019). 

We Are Still Here, was an act of collective defiance that saw audible, inclusive work by PWLD writ large in public. It delivered a major outdoor public installation that transformed cultural commissioning by building a collective (BUZZ Hub, HOG, DaDafest, St Helens Council, Liverpool City Regions) that addressed social inclusion and the agenda of normalcy (Davis, 1995). We are Still Here was selected as one of the top 100 projects in the world by global online public art community CODAWORX in 2019. 
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


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