Video still of a performance with Arts Council England funding forms  2017-2018.

Autistic author and poet, Joanne Limberg, has described this blog post, first published on WordPress, as essential reading. So I’m sharing it here too. In many ways it belongs more properly in this space – though I am more used to sharing autistically at The Other Side

 

I’m autistic. It’s my job to be anxious. Being anxious is one of the things I do best, so I’ve done some good worrying about some of the more recent approaches I’ve experienced from arts organisations who I am not in partnership with.

I’ve started to fear the spectre of tokenism towards neurodivergence in the arts and worry that the direction of Arts Council England’s (ACE) 2020-2030 strategy could even unwittingly fuel such a development. I’m also worried about artists funding in general and for neurodivergent artists in particular, a concern which runs though my piece.

I believe that good practice for working with and supporting neurodivergence in the arts is emergent and there is much to be hopeful about in the coming decade. But I remember reading ACE’s Shaping the next ten years draft strategy document at the consultation stage and wondering what its shifting imperatives might lead to, including the possible contortions on the part of those seeking funding to fit criteria set by ACE. I’ll need to go around the houses to give the context for my specific misgivings regarding neurodivergence, but bear with me and we will get there in the end.

Since completing my own ACE funded pioneer support project for neurodivergent artists earlier this year, I’ve had cause to wonder how the new imperatives might translate at the funding interface for others? What effect might they have on potential applicants? And what of those whose practices and services won’t ever be recognised as “relevant” by ACE but are nonetheless meaningful and valuable?

Cultural historian and commentator on the arts, Robert Hewison, wrote an article A strategy for self-preservation, in Arts Professional, critiquing the Shaping the next ten years strategy thus,

“…it seems Arts Council England (ACE) intends to achieve a transformation from a country where ACE exists to help the arts to one where the arts exist to help the Arts Council.”

I admit that aspects of the document were perplexing to me. Should we now call ourselves creatives rather than artists? By which logic, what of Arts Council England as moniker! Time for some expensive rebranding, perhaps? Must creatives now also primarily seek to become agents of social change to achieve funding? What about the artists whose mission it is simply to make great art – which incidentally the sector/industry relies on?  Can we as artists be expected to do all that is required by ACE without becoming something else in the process? I can speak from experience on the latter.

A paper by Susan Jones, The chance to dream: why fund individual artists? lays out the current disparities in the ACE funding system and the paucity of direct funding to artists, without which (I repeat myself ) the sector would dry up.

“The decline in volume and value of direct funding to artists from ACE is unambiguous. Notably in 2009/10 fewer than 2.5% of artists were directly funded by GftA, but by 2013/14 this reduced to less than 1% with DYCP showing a further decline.”

For those who don’t know, Grants for the Arts (GftA) now replaced by National Lottery Project Grant (NLPG) is a general sector pot. Artists must demonstrate audience engagement figures and provide match funding in order to get NLPGs, as well as making the ‘creative case’ for diversity. In my experience the effect on an arts practice is to develop invaluable project management skills (among the myriad benefits) but to lose out significantly on time to make work. Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) is a ‘no strings’ award designed to address core NLPG barriers for individual artists. However, DYCP is a tiny pot with only a 10% success rate for applicants, I’m told. The subtext in all ACE’s material on DYCP is that it’s almost impossible to gain this type of funding. I worry. What kind of message does this give to artists!

The stipulations within the previous GtfA, and current NLPG, have already shaped applications and had an impact on what’s produced within the arts in recent years.

In future to achieve funding applicants will need to demonstrate “ambition and quality”, “inclusivity and relevance”,  “dynamism and environmental sustainability” – if you can decode what this actually means in practice.  As an artist applicant it can often feel as though you’d better offer to tap dance on the roof too – the list of promises made in an application can be legion. You begin to see my point about contortion, which is an especially serious one if we’re to consider the artist and the sustainability of creative practice.

Is, as Robert Hewison seems to suggest, the tail wagging the dog?

So I’m frankly worried about a possible rash of quick-fix funding bids and tokenism at an arts organisation level too, because I’m not sure all are cut out to be ACE’s agents for socially engaged creativity (however laudable and desirable this would be in practice). Also, because I now provide pockets of sector support in this area I know how intensive and specialised the work of building authentic, robust, and meaningful programmes/services for neurodivergent communities can be. I’m immensely lucky in my partnerships, but am also sometimes approached in a tokenistic manner, which is how I know.

Specifically, in the case of neurodivergence then, I must ask where the knowledge base is for working with us? Further, how can the sector provide services that represent a good investment of public funds without such a resource, which I would add should be self-led. Until that knowledge is acquired and those relationships have been built how can arts organisations do the deep learning that’s needed? Enter Jon Adam’s long and at times painful mission to fund the Flow Observatorium hub in Portsmouth as an example of self-led/user-led organising to fill the gaps in sector knowledge and provision.

Interestingly for us ‘next frontier’ marginals – the neurodivergent – Shaping the next ten years coincides with our gradual seepage into  mainstream conversations about diversity in the arts. Hence the arts are now peppered with references to neurodiversity, which in itself should be a welcome development but with which I sometimes find myself at odds.

My heart sinks knowing that uninformed bids, featuring neurodivergence, are quite possibly sitting in the Grantium portal as I write.  You can understand it. We’re now more visible.  I often see neurodivegence tagged in the growing lists of marginalised identities, which is lovely but at this stage of our evolution into public consciousness is often shorthand, or a friendly nod.

What a well-intentioned temptation it could be to throw in support for neurodivergent artists (for example) to strengthen a bid’s “relevance” without understanding the first thing about the need for tailored programmes/opportunties and relational work. I want to write it large, you can’t just offer the same stuff in the same way – the thinking and design around what we need has to come first and can’t effectively be bolted on afterwards.

I worry too that the imperatives for ACE “relevance” may (albeit unwittingly so) create even more barriers for the neurodivergent applicant. I could write reams about this but don’t have the unpaid time to offer up to such a task.

I’m often approached for support with ACE applications and questions about the DYCP in particular – the ‘no strings’ opportunity to focus on being an artists is probably every artist’s dream. My advice until now has been to opt for NLPG, which has a surprising 42% success rate, I’m told. But I’m beginning to wonder if we should all apply for DYCPs to demonstrate our need, rather than be put off by the mixed messages embedded in this opportunity.

I feel incredibly blessed to have gained both GftA and NLPG in my time – a combination of doggedness and good fortune. I know how vitally important these awards are to an artist’s professional life, and I’m confident in saying ACE have invested well in me. I can now give back 100%+. And now that I’m almost at the end of my piece you’ll see that it’s all connected – artists are our industry including the neurodivergent. We need to fund so many more experiences like mine to build the knowledge bases I’m talking about. We also need to be allowed to remain creative practitioners as well as developing such vital sector support skills.

So in the last round of DYCP I submitted an application too, feeling not a little unlike Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket now that I think of it, but as Susan Jones says we artists need the chance to dream – preferably funded.

On all the above, watch this space!


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Photo credit Joel Chester Fildes

Do you know how to use the terms neurodiverse and neurodivergent? 

What’s in a word? What are four letters between friends, you might well ask.

I myself am no fan of getting hot under the collar about language OR spelling. I’m dyslexic and I loathe being corrected. Way to feel like you’re back in primary school waiting to read to Miss, knowing that you’re destined to fail because your brain (unlike those of your mates) won’t let you.

So I proceed cautiously, but with a passion.

In my heart I know that words matter, though I honestly feel we can go too far. Again, I’ll take care, yet my impulse is to be strident because this is important.

My recent appointment to the A-N Board is an exciting development. An opportunity to help direct the biggest arts organisation for artists in the UK (and possibly even in Europe). I will do so neurodivergently.

I won’t help direct the Board neurodiversely because I am an individual and not a group. We are as a group (species; Homo sapiens) neurodiverse. Ergo, neurodiversity refers to a neuro-ecology. Pretty much think biodiversity, but with brains, and you’re there.

The neurodiversity paradigm is a term coined by Nick Walker, and I would recommend everyone who wants to understand it and the terminology to read his key text Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions. It is short and extremely clear.

Here’s one pithy example:

“Neurodiversity is not a trait that any individual possesses. Diversity is a trait possessed by a group, not an individual. When an individual diverges from the dominant societal standards of “normal” neurocognitive functioning, they don’t “have neurodiversity,” they’re neurodivergent.”

The neurodiversity paradigm is hitting the arts big time. Almost daily I’m astonished to read about opportunities for neurodiverse artists. The other day this was topped by reference to a self-diagnosed neurodiverse artist.

In the first case, technically speaking this reads as an open call like any other. In the second case, it reads like a double negative. Artist discovers they are part of a greater neurological-ecology like the rest of humanity.

I astonish myself by how much these understandable mistakes press my buttons, until I scroll back down the decades of dedicated research (and hard won experience) my current level of knowledge is founded on. This is not like my autistic ‘quirk’ about the status of the Tupperware cupboard (yes, I do have an unusual need for order in this department). It’s because the concepts my community have toiled over and honed for eons are sometimes being chucked about like newly plucked feathers.

I understand. When I was first corrected on this point, by Nick Walker himself, it took time to absorb the difference and get used to using the terms correctly rather than interchangeably, but I have done the work to get there because it matters to the paradigm shift we need to make. As Nick says, this is a social justice issue.

I’ve since developed my own understanding of the importance of working intentionally with neurological-ecology in mind. This I’ve termed ‘group-brain’.

To give an example, for my recent Arts council England funded #NUNOproject I was enabled to lead, and my ‘shortcomings’ were compensated for by the project’s combined neurologies – ‘group brain’. Whenever I needed it, there was a rich pool of talent to draw on, a sea of helping hands, and extraordinary good will to support me in doing my best job. This was possible because we were working openly with an understanding of our neurological profiles across the project, and across neurologies too. No hierarchy, no judgements, and full consideration to optimal working conditions for ALL, regardless of neuro-type.

Unless as Nick Walker puts it, those closer to the “dominant societal standards of “normal” neurocognitive functioning” understand they too form part of our neurodiversity as a species, we neurodivergents will be forever othered and we all miss out.

So I urge you neurodiver-gently to consider the difference. Absorb the language and the process it represents of de-centring neuro-normative brains. I say to you gently, move over, it takes all kinds of brains to make a better world.

In my view, arts organisation need to embrace the depth of learning required to become agents of genuine change. Being smart about language is a good start.


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The painting you see before you is literally buzzing. It’s a good representation of my brain right now.

I painted it with great emotion, inspired by a piece of classic Spanish cinema called The Spirit of the Beehive (1972). Bees swarming. Having a bee in your bonnet. It’s all connected. But what do you do when the bees are inside your brain?

Such is the sensation sometimes with autism (I find). I qualify this because it will feel differently to others. We don’t need a bunch of bee-brain theories (or pea-brain theories, to be honest).

That’s why it’s hard to write about the less comfortable aspects of autism – you don’t want to fuel the ‘bad autism’ beast. See! Naughty autism got you, they might say, but I won’t let them. It’s not the autism that’s naughty. I guess I should blame the sillies who tried to tell me I was slow (for example) when it’s quite obvious I am fast (too fast at times). But I won’t do that either.

Increasingly, I’m inclined to believe that these people and many others just don’t know about brains, probably because they’ve never had to think about them (or their brains in relation to others).

Thinking about our brains (and what’s ‘wrong’ with them) is probably the sole preserve of the ‘misfit’. Majority brains don’t have to bother. In my view this labour is advantageous and our ‘misfit’ brains hold many advantages too.

It helps to identify the volume of traffic caused by the bees (ideas), and they don’t always swarm so. They also connect parts that other brain can’t reach.

What interests me about the mark-making activity documented in the painting above is that it narrates the impulses of my mind via the movement of my arm (and hand). The movement of my whole body indeed (because it was suitably frenetic – you won’t know this but I just typed frantic in error.)

I have therefore (in a way I can relate to) shown you the inside of my mind, without recourse to any words. You will see it. You will see my joy and my rage. You will also see my freedom. You have even seen my autism as it is. Dynamic, rhythmic, capable of control (for I have stayed within the picture frame and given you a harmonious dancing surface to gaze at.)

I want to show you more.


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I made a flying visit to Margate to attend the Turner Prize Preview for A-N on Friday, a not insubstantial journey from Oxford!

Arriving early to preview ‘Quartet’, an exhibition at the Lombard Gallery featuring two A-N artist members (and one outgoing Board member!), I stepped off the train to THAT view. The heavens opened and my pitiful new umbrella (at £4.99) snapped in the first 2 minutes of the attempt to withstand the squally gusts from the Atlantic.

Margate imposes itself immediately. My third visit and I’m still swooning, instantly in love with the seafront and street furniture redolent of my beloved San Sebastian.

I made my way to the Lombard Gallery as in a further 2 minutes the skies had cleared. You don’t need Google maps in Margate. Just head to the Turner Contemporary and then dodge into the gorgeous streets and lanes to your right. The pleasure is in sniffing your way.

Quartet features A-N artist member Dan Thompson’s ‘Your England’, an ACE funded  “year-long journey to find Englishness in unlikely places, writing 100 poems along the way’. A-N artist member Dawn Cole shows a series of prints entitled ‘End of Day’ which document years of printmaking and the ritual of creating prints from her cleaning rags. Paintings by Tracey Thompson and Graham Ward complete the Quartet. It’s a rich offer and I spent at lot of time talking to Dan in particular about his object art practice. A-N has connected us, and now I would like to feature Dan on the Museum for Object Research, which began life on A-N!

Dan also introduced me to some of the local network. I visited the Pie Factory and got a real sense of a thriving and active community of artists in Margate. It is enviable for an Oxford based artist (where we struggle for showing spaces) to see so many local openings to show works, including empty shops. The Turner Prize off-site programme is alive and kicking.

So on to the main event! Dan and I arrived before the hoards but it soon filled up. What I loved was how good the relationship between the Turner Contemporary and the local arts scene felt. Dan introduced me to TC curator Fiona Parry, and we quickly fell into a conversation about accessible seating for the 1 hour and 39 mins long film by Helen Cammock. Having missed this access issue in my recent ACE funded #NUNOproject, I could totally get on board with how vital it is to get these details right.

As the TC entrance space began to swell with bodies and sound we were joined by Dawn Cole, and we hung back by the shop area so that we could still talk above the cacophony of voices echoing around us. At some point I peeled away to see the works! Surely this was what I had come for?

I can’t view when there is a lot of noise, Dawn had said earlier when I asked if she’d like to view it with me. As I made my way through the throngs (sorry, sorry, sorry I intoned) I began to see Dawn’s point. Finally threading my way up the stairs to the galleries I hit the Oscar Murillo installation (or rather it hit me) in somewhat of a daze. A stuffy smell, the sensation of heat, a prickling claustrophobia, the sense of having stumbled on something I don’t understand. I am a child in a stuffy school hall, viewing a strange assembly or congregation. The smell I decide is coming from the figures, I notice the thick impasto painting on the black drapes. The chink of Margate sky Murillo has allowed in this otherwise blocked out (and seriously famous) view. I haven’t had time to do my homework, I don’t know what this work is about and the noise from the crowds (plus Preview music) is unbearable. I decide to move on and return on a quiet day. Murillo deserves more than this.

I think I probably love this work, I love the darkness and the sense of ritual, and the fact that it spooks me! I couldn’t have processed this in the moment. It is only through writing my experience that I can unpick it.

From this moment I am simply feeling my way. The usual signposts of gallery viewing fall away in the noise and the crowds. It’s not possible to view the quieter pieces, the pieces that require a depth of concentration, and there are too many other visitors occupying seats for film works to be accessible. I miss Lawrence Abu Hamdan entirely (I will return) – I just can’t locate the work amidst the hubbub.

I find and appreciate ‘Shouting in Whispers’ a series of hand pulled screen prints by Helen Cammock, I can see that there are rich layers on offer here but I don’t dive in. It is impossible in these circumstances.  So I push on through to Tai Shani’s immersive installation. A gallery attendant hands me a headset, suddenly I am removed from the pain of coping with the auditory onslaught and treated to melodious sounds. The lighting is dim and this soothes me. I begin to notice detail and the brightest of jewels pop out at me. This is an environment I’d like to explore though I’m ambivalent about the pink blancmange elements.  Reluctantly I leave this space after 5 minutes. I need to give it more time (I need to read and understand more what it is about). It has to be more than respite for me to make up my mind.

As I catch the tail end of the speeches and politely push my way back through the throngs I reflect that I don’t yet have a favourite, though Oscar and Helen pull at my heartstrings.

I find myself standing next to Dawn who introduces me to the Director of TC, Victoria Pomery.  What a friendly network this is!

As I head for the station I reflect that of course Previews are never about viewing the art. As an autistic person this never ceases to amaze me, but I’m coming to understand the great importance of chatting to people. I do enjoy it when its accessible – and people being friendly makes all the difference.

This experience has given me some ideas about how to manage very busy Previews from a sensory perspective, and I will write more about this in future posts.

 

 


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Eva Kotátkova’s ‘Machine for Restoring Empathy’ installation.

An autistic delegate’s perspective

What must it be like to trust the universe to keep you upright? What is the cause of neurodivergent anxiety? These seemingly unconnected questions ricochet inside my head as I try to distil the peculiarities of being an autistic delegate for AN at the Istanbul Biennial 2019.

I’ve decided not to be ashamed of almost missing my flight. Not because my reasons are glamorous. They are not. A brain which snatches at an association to remember a gate number, yet switches allusion (and number) at will, is not to be trusted with number, clearly.

What must it be like to live in world where numbers don’t dance about and taunt you with their slippery ways? Sitting at the wrong gate sure that you are at the right gate would not be a thing. But we shall move on. Ever present and counterbalancing anxiety (in actual fact a friend in such contexts) creates a system of checks and balances. The problem actually is if you relax.

Running is a thing. Rennies to counter heartburn are a thing. Combined they ensure my passage to Istanbul. I arrive in one piece, the person who has organised a group taxi for my fellow delegates. I am the consummate organised professional (because I have to be).

Yes, I have decided to lay myself bare.

On the whole this works as a strategy for me. The more I open out about my neurodivergence the more empowered I become. Anxiety powers my professionalism, and of course I am not alone. Not burying myself in shame (the shaming of our perceived ‘weaknesses’ is pernicious and endemic) enables others to be open. This is not just about the ‘autistic spectrum’ – we have to believe in a ‘human spectrum’. In my view anyone worth knowing can engage with this idea.

I’m tempted to say this works in the arts, but I know it doesn’t always. It can be very costly to ‘unmask’ oneself (you can see some of my very recent ACE funded research on just this topic here)

This means something important happened, and my key take out about this awesome AN delegation is not the incredible locations (such as Büyükada Island) or my top artist picks (details below).

What artists like me need to know is that we can trust the welcome in any given opportunity. Is it genuine or token? Will we be enabled or disabled by it?

What I most want to say about my experiences in Istanbul is that AN is an exceptional organisation with regard to access and enablement, in my view. My sincere gratitude to all my fellow delegates for all your support (both witting and unwitting) – you made inclusion possible for me without even knowing it in many cases, just by being awesome.  The best enablement flows from relational acceptance – and in this regard my neurodivergent cup floweth over. Gracias AN, de corazón.

 

Top artist picks: Eva Kotátkova, Simon Fujiwara, Turiya Magadlela, Haegue Yang, Rashid Johnson, & Piotr Uklański.

 


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