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.
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.
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.
Kate Fox and Rhiannon Lloyd-Williams at the Autism Arts Festival 2019.
‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll.
AUTISM ARTS FESTIVAL 2019 – A REVIEW
The time has come to talk of the magnificent autistic-led Autism Arts Festival (AAF) 2019, organised by Shaun May and hosted at the University of Kent (26-28 March).
Except, to paraphrase part of my own contribution to the Festival (a sound piece featuring a play within a play for the WEBs exhibition),
Finally my moment to speak has come… but now that you’re all listening I’m a little tongue tied!
What can you say about a cultural moment – understanding the significance of which is of the moment, and also of the people (by which I mean the attendees and participants who are autistic).
How to convey the magnitude of this seismic event without resorting to a mere list – which won’t cut it – or by means of comparison to other moments and experiences which I can’t speak to with any hope of accuracy?
My difficulty echoes autistic communication challenges across whole lifetimes, and of the ‘double empathy problem’ between autistics and non-autistics – individually and in groups (by which I mean communities). I’m realising anew (I also found this during my ACE research for the Museum of Object Research project in 2017), that, although we obviously do use a common language across neuro-types, we simply don’t refer to the same lived experience with our shared language. Too often nuance is lost and the the risk of miscommunication is constant. This matters also because language is used to ‘other’ and dismiss our lived experience. Our lingua franca serves to trick us into thinking we are communicating about the same things when we’re really not – it’s the vehicle of our cross-neurological double empathy problem.
How language and people can do this is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s worth pointing out that language is a double edged sword for us in many senses. The nuance of autistic lived experience is both made invisible (the countless attempts to minimise our challenges as common ground – the endless, yeah I do/have that too), and yet it is also used to expose and denigrate us as being ‘other’ (outside the ‘norm’). We are both ostracised – held at at ceremonial distance – and our needs devalued or ignored in the mainstream. I therefore hesitate in my trust in language to convey what the AFF signified to me, and how I do feel it marks a moment on the cultural landscape, which should have Arts Council England (the funders) and other major arts organisations paying sharp attention.
The easiest shortcut I can find to describe the importance of Shaun May’s project in producing AFF, is to say that for this participant my two days AFF was what I imagine life in the ‘mainstream’ to be for neurotypicals.
Yes, we were the mainstream (to borrow an ugly phrase), due to sheer number of autistic bodies present, not to mention the predominant (not say exclusively) autistic cultural offer. Autism was made visible not only by our presence on campus (and we are a divergent divergence whatever that means but I don’t mean we ‘looked autistic’ fgs ) but also by the tangible signposting of, and accommodations for, the sensory world at every turn. The sensory battleground for the out-and-about autistic was mediated at every turn (again) by Shaun and his team – including a natty welcome pack with communication stickers, earplugs and local taxi information. We followed a blue line back and forth to and from the various buildings on campus where a multiplicity of events were taking place, often simultaneously.
Dizzying it was, in all respects, but this was all to the good. After processing a sense of overwhelm and my inability to access the sheer number of events (of course I couldn’t, you never can) – I ended up feeling that as in any festival, unlike Pokemon, you don’t have to catch ’em all!
Being extraordinarily generous in creating platforms for so many artists and speakers, and in not patronising attendees with a festival lite, Shaun created a very full offer with the scaffolding in place to access the bits one chose. I’m unable to decode almost any menu so I did find the Festival schedule bewildering, but the scaffolding was in place to allow things to happen and unfold by chance (often my default) just by being there and being included by the sheer thought given to the welcome.
I rely on people, and there were many on hand. This was a supremely well staffed event, with helpful and informed front of house people ready to assist at all times. Emerging disorientated and with a thumping headache from one event (two days into the festival I was getting quite overloaded) I thought I’d lost my favourite hat which is generally welded to my head until Spring but had come lose (losing things was a bit of theme and I had also just almost lost my phone). Things were unraveling.
A front of house person scooped me up, soothed me, and helped me find my hat by the magic of calmness and kindness. Yes, kindness was the order of the day, and importantly I wasn’t made to feel foolish. AFF festival goers overwhelm had been factored in – my temporary distress was anticipated and I knew I was not alone as from the corner of my eye I witnessed others ‘bunking out’ of events when needed with reassuring regularity. Indeed doors clattered with frequency as Festival goers took care of their sensory needs – alleluia, a thousand trapped and claustrophobic schooldays countered!
An unending delight was the way in which my online life became manifest as I walked the blue line and pit-stopped (endlessly it seemed) on the elegant checked sofa in Cafe Nero. Twitter friends and acquaintances appeared at my side with a frequency I could not have ever imagined possible. I suddenly twigged that this might be the equivalent to ‘ordinary life’ for many neurotypicals. We did socialising of the most natural and pleasing variety. I loved that at one point so many of us had gathered at the sofa that one of us declared, ah the gang’s all here! A phrase one would not expect to hear uttered by an autistic person.
I repeated (as though in a dream), to whoever would listen, that the AAF was like all the school and university days I’d never had. This must be what it’s like to be neurotypical. This was how it was supposed to be!
For me it was the women I met (some already known to me and some new) who made this conference for me – so you could say that it was the extracurricular moments which stood out, which says absolutely nothing negative about the ‘curriculum’ by the way – it is just that the experience of being a majority and finding myself so connected and reflected was quite mind-blowing. It was also these women’s events which spoke to me deeply and have stayed with me, unsurprising when you consider the main autism focused cultural offer by the so-called mainstream is the male/savant/geek stereotype. Not that I want to risk falling into the trap of gender binaries – just to relay where I found myself reflected and how starved of this necessity I’ve been.
There was also something quite meta at play, I now realise. In the delightful yet serious game of self-identification with the group, there also exists the teasing possibility of intuiting what autistic culture/s might be collectively speaking. Not wishing to be divisive, or pin down a beautiful butterfly, it matters greatly to know this and to be able to articulate it. Yet it is a very tricky area precisely because of the double empathy problem. Shaun’s work on the AAF will aid this area of study and looks set to continue this vital contribution with further festivals.
Festival highlights for me were catching a superb reading from Jae Scott’s short play Vinnie, Kate Fox’s magisterial stand-up set, and Rhiannon’Lloyd-Willaims hour long poetry reading which included a passage from her play The Duck (swoon). I adored meeting Laura James and hearing her in conversation with the inimitable Katherine May. Despite leaving the Festival on a cloud I wanted more.
It was an enormous pleasure to see the WEBworks group show – of which I was part – beautifully installed in Gallery Studio 3. Full credit to Susan Kruse for her sensory design of the space, huge thanks to curator Eleen Deprez and congratulations to all the artists! You’re all incredible.
It was lovely to spend downtime with Jon Adams and hear him talk about his practice as part of our professional development workshop for visual arts. I was very sorry to miss Jon’s Cat Researchers presentation but I have enjoyed the Tweets immensely.
I can’t end my post without reference to Joanne Limburg who arrived bearing gifts. I’m now proud owner of The Autistic Alice! Once or twice we commented that we were Through the Looking Glass, or in Wonderland, and Joanne inspired me to begin my post with Lewis Carroll.
There are so many other names I could mention who made my festival for me – basically everyone I spoke to and spent time with.
I want to end where I began, with Lewis Carroll. I feel a huge thank you is owed to Shaun May – I don’t know how you did it. Due to your incredible vision, for three days pigs really did have wings!
Journalist Christy Romer has written an article for Arts Professional entitled, Arts Council England urged to replace Grantium.
Romer states, “Arts Council England (ACE) has admitted that it’s “intuitive” funding portal Grantium, intended to “bring [ACE] into the 21st Century”, is seen within the sector as a failure.”
This admission follows a public consultation into ACE’s forthcoming 10-year strategy.
For those of us – including those with hidden disabilities – who have battled quite vociferously with Grantium over the years it’s a case of, no shit Sherlock!
I have no compunction in saying that it is a truly dreadful, ableist, contraption, which could have been purpose built to frustrate and tangle the mind. Access help is available – but this has always been an add-on accommodation which many have not known about, and which in any case is not suitable for all.
I won’t go into the details of the newly published ACE report here, but rather I will focus on Grantium and the application system from a personal perspective.
When I myself answered the consultation document it was with dismay at yet another online form which didn’t fit, and which seemed instead to cover many irrelevancies to my professional life as an artist and latterly as an arts organiser.
The language ACE uses is rightly criticised – it is often jargonistic and hard to read or make sense of. It also speaks to artist applicants and arts organisations as though they were one and the same thing. This is a major issue, as it places individual artists under great and indue pressure at the point of both application for and delivery of an ACE funded project.
I feel that the possible attempt to ameliorate this through the creative practitioner funding stream is compromised by the relative smallness of this particular pot.
In addition I have long wanted a conversation about the more deeply rooted inaccessibility of the funding model for many individual artists that goes beyond any physical portal (dreadful or otherwise). Grantium in a sense is the symptom rather than the malady. I feel there’s something deeper and more grave at the heart of ACE’s diversity ‘conundrum’.
I often think of the current criteria for funding applications as a series of demonstrable promises which must be made to weight the application in your favour. The need to impress, to be seen to cover all the necessary bases and more, is a worry at best, and disabling at worst, where disability/divergence are concerned. In which case, one of the present choices at hand is to offer up the ‘divergent self’ as the project. But this in itself (while being a successful and robust strategy when offered knowingly), is not entirely equitable. Indeed, you must still make your application promises, and articulate them in the requisite jargon.
Loathe Grantium as I do, despite my learning to use it and to succeed in applications, I am almost more disquieted by the latest ACE pronouncement on ‘relevance’ as a driver for funding, as reported by Romer.
In some ways protected groups like my own (autistics) have been and will continue to be at the forefront of funding opportunities (mainly as subjects or recipients) – we are socially relevant as a group. We’re just so beautifully and unequivocally ‘divergent’! But how well our needs will be matched through these means is an ongoing question. Whether we will are even more likely to be opportunistically ‘targeted’, and/or our divergence harvested by others is an open question.
What concerns me and what I encounter in my working life, are the needs of neurodivergent creatives who are disadvantaged by a heavily coded system, where demonstrating outcomes which are value driven apply equally to organisations and individuals. This is not consonant with meaningfully supporting artists, especially those with ‘protected characteristics’.
Paradoxically, artists like me are ‘relevant’ by our very nature, but demonstrating the relevance of our projects may be beyond our ken because it will be further encoded by a neurotypically-led bureaucracy.