We Are Still Here

8th December 2018 - St Helens City Centre, Liverpool, UK

Artist Simon Mckeown led an art project celebrating St Helens as a location for invention and innovation. This energy is still present today, taking form through artistic and cultural experiments, making St Helens a fertile ground for community and collaborative based arts practices. To cement this status Mckeown conceived and the We Are Still Here project with the local community and in particular, disabled artists, to create a series of works which reflected on the 150 years of the town’s history but also explored St Helens and its people as a creative force. Mckeown developed with Heart of Glass and Buzz Hub. a number of events leading up to a mass outdoor video projection. Working throug 2016 and 2017, and culminating in 2018, this bombastic artistic endeavour; including massive video projection, celebrated 150 years of St Helens city temporarily manipulating the townhall while blurring reality and space and presenting new and alternative realities for our consideration.

Research Background:

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 to 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 the global online public art community CODAWORX in 2019. 

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Set up and rehearsal image. St Helens Town Hall, 2018 (c) Simon McKeown 


Live event image. St Helens Town Hall, 8th December 2018 (c) Simon McKeown 


Live Event. St Helens Town Hall, 8th December 2018 (c) Simon McKeown 



Live Event. St Helens Town Hall, 8th December 2018 (c) Simon McKeown 


McKeown with some of the BUZZ HUB participants outside St Helens Town Hall, Summer 2018 (c) Simon McKeown 



Live Event. St Helens Town Hall, 8th December 2018 (c) Simon McKeown 


Still image taken of the commissioners website,  Heart of Glass, following We Are Still Here, 2018 (c) Heart of Glass 


Advertising for We Are Still Here, St Helens Town Hall, 2018 


Advertising for We Are Still Here, St Helens Town Hall, 2018