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.
Soon I will be asking the artists on the Arts Council England (ACE) funded Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) project, how was it for you?
I have to do this as part of my evaluation process, but I’m also genuinely curious. This has been a unique project in which I have explored what it means to lead autistically (in my case).
I won’t have got things ‘right’ in all cases, but we made it to the finishing post of our exhibition opening in quite some style. I’m anxious to hear if and how my leadership has made a difference to the artist’s experiences of participation – and if this has further impacted their lives.
What I can tell you is what this project has done for me, by investing in my participation as a ‘player’ at a more senior level in my profession. In doing so I make the case for more of this for more of us. Autistic arts professionals are currently lacking such opportunity for progression – not only as artists but also as artist organisers. This needs to change.
It’s really very simple. In enabling me – through funding – to lead a significant project like NUNO, ACE have helped me to shift from a state of aversion to one of enthusiasm. Autistic aversion (in my case), I see now, was clearly fostered by a lifetime of exclusion. Not understanding neurotypical social code is perhaps where an autistic person begins in life, due to fundamental perceptual differences. What is less understood perhaps is the continued impact of this as a mechanism of our exclusion across a lifetime. Or indeed, what might happen in terms of ‘social appetite’ if the dynamic of exclusion were somehow ameliorated by genuine inclusion at any given point in time. It’s all so obvious once you’ve lived through it, but how many of us get this chance?
I feel we should be more aware that for some autistics social exclusion and a resulting aversion is a dynamic predicated on social bias, which once in play generates a serious barrier to our ability to decode social situations over a lifetime. Through such a dynamic myriad points of learning are lost, by which I mean two-way learning.
So what impact on the possibility of ‘social learning’ across neurologies can genuine inclusion make? I pose the question thinking that I know the answer. I think the impact can be highly significant because of the quality of my own experience in my shift from aversion to enthusiasm. Suddenly, elements of shared social spaces stack up. I am exposed to learning and foster learning in others. This is a two-way conversation.
I’m careful to mention the other side of the neurological coin in terms of learning (so-called neurotypicality). I’ve found that leading as an autistic person enables learning to flow in all directions. Neurotypical learning around me is probably the bit I can’t see, but which I reckon has made a whole heap of difference to how I am received and therefore to how I feel. I know that I am lucky in this regard – it can go so badly wrong when people can’t listen well. I’ve built up to this moment and have chosen my shared social spaces very carefully.
Being a ‘player’ has been vital to this process in which I now find myself wanting to engage with people and places in new and unexpected ways. I still crave a duvet day when life gets too busy, and I don’t love crowded events or small talk. I haven’t stopped being autistic – that not a thing, and I wouldn’t want it to be. What I’m talking about is appetite. The vital waters of my professional life no longer feel cold and uninviting. What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.
Social anxiety and social sensitivity are often seen as negatives, but what if they have fostered a deep sense of responsibility and generated a high level of care for the people on my project? I myself know that they most definitely have. What also, if by some mechanism unknown to me – other than sharing my neurological status and leading autistically – I have been treated more carefully in return? I feel this must be true.
What if seizing the opportunity to lead autistically and to design my project as accessibly as possible has led to something really fundamental? I look forward to gathering more evidence for this exciting notion in the weeks to come.
Currently, we lack models for what is needed to challenge the stranglehold neurotypicality has had on our culture. The dynamic it creates for autistic people is, in my view, toxic. So I very much hope that in time NUNO may provide one such needed template for others to riff with.
I’m very interested in inclusion. This is probably because I’ve experienced exclusion. I know what’s like to find yourself behind a glass wall looking in.
As an unidentified learning disabled child, I failed the 11+ and watched my sibling sail through the gates of a prestigious independent school. My parents were a teacher (at the same independent school) and an academic at the local university, I felt foolish and left out when each morning they journeyed together in the family car, while I took a long bus ride alone to a pretty rough comprehensive school which has since been razed. It taught me a great deal.
I know what it is to try and to ‘fail’ early in life. Bewildered by an exam I couldn’t decode, I couldn’t know at this time that the system was failing me. I look back now and see the system as failing many. Don’t get me started on education cuts and the news that some schools now have to close on Friday afternoons.
I remember smelling privilege at the independent school’s gates on the odd occasion I found myself there. I looked on and saw confidence and opportunity oozing from the very fabric of the building. I understood that I was an outsider, but could not have articulated it. The world inside this place simply felt intimidating and unreachable. A closed door.
Did I want to be part of this world? I really don’t remember, but I know I felt lesser. I didn’t discover the joys of study until I was 16, but then with my geek fully on I began to motor my way to university. It wasn’t plain sailing. I struggled greatly with my learning and will never forget the powerful knock back from a tutor in my second year at uni, who told me my work lacked the polish of my privately educated contemporaries (of which there were many studying history of art at this time!) Yes, this was 1982 and this conversation really did happen.
Red rag to a bull, I summoned my geek and got a first class degree.
I haven’t yet touched on how undiagnosed autism has impacted on my trajectory, nor the importance of a diagnosis in overcoming barriers. But I’ve written about this extensively on The Other Side.
My story is just one – of exclusion, and of pushing through. Each of the neurodivergent artists on my Arts Council Funded project, Neither Use Nor Ornament, (NUNO) will have their own story. On NUNO we are working to address the impacts of exclusion over a lifetime. It is very deep work indeed, which has required great thought and adaptations along the way.
Working responsively means that NUNO has had to change shape in the making. A fact of which I’m incredibly proud. I’ve observed that the neurotypical template for freelance project work seems to be that we must adapt ourselves to a pre-designed project. In this model the ‘project’s needs’ are paramount. NUNO turns this on its head. Artists needs are my first consideration and if I haven’t got that right I must adapt the project.
This process has taken place throughout and as we get closer to delivering our project I’m looking forward to the richness of the evaluation process.
I’m not blowing my own trumpet. Daily I give thanks to Arts Council England for backing the project so that I could work with 13 incredible artists across neurotypes. It is extraordinarily hard work to project manage, I often have to work against myself as so many tasks fall to me which require heavy duty admin, and that’s just not my forte. Next time can I have a PA please!
But we can’t wait to show you our work – it’s such a rich offer due to the wonderful NUNO artists whose object-based practices we are lucky enough to showcase. Bring it on!
Register FREE for our spring event at our Eventbrite page or just turn up! We’d love to see you.
Press release is on our website https://www.museumforobjectresearch.com/press/
The title for this blog post is a quote which comes from an article published by Shape Arts called How to Get an Exhibition. It’s an article “adapted to suit disabled artists and sit alongside Shape’s own resources…”
I’ll quote a fuller excerpt,
“The art world is Social and I’m capitalising that because frankly you’re not getting anywhere making art in isolation. No-one is going to come knocking if no-one knows who you are. You have got to introduce yourself (and that won’t be welcome if you’re not a decent person), which brings me to…”
This is prefaced with advice about working cooperatively. Don’t be adversarial or a ‘user’, my term. It’s a wholesome tip, what can be so wrong? Well, consider the socially disabled. Yes – we do exist – though clearly we’re invisible to even wonderful disability arts organisations which are much beloved, like Shape.
So saddened and frustrated am I to see such output from a disability arts organisation that I’m moved to blog about it.
Autistic artists are unlikely to be ‘users’ or even adversarial – though our social behaviour might make us seem so because we are so easily misread. We are more likely to be trampled on by others using our ideas and making capital out of our social vulnerabilities than vice-versa.
The art world is Social – with a capital S – is a statement which tells you everything you need to know about about an environment which is excluding, at times toxic and frankly (to borrow the author’s tone) disabling for autistic artists.
There will of course be autistic artists out there making their work in isolation – that’s the point! It’s not necessarily a choice for us – though it is complicated.
It may be that some of us are without a network because this is what happens when you have a social disability. Another factor is that ‘isolation’ can be enabling on a creative level. Some of us don’t find collaborative working accessible and need ‘isolation’ of a certain kind to make our work. This can be usefully reframed as solitude – though our need for it can be unusual and profound.
It’s inappropriate to advise against isolation to a group who can’t help it – for whom it can be both a feature of creative life and/or a consequence of their disablement.
And not even the no-one will come knocking is the worst of this grisley finger wagging advice. Yes, we know. We’ve known this forever, thank you!
You have got to introduce yourself – gets right to the nub of things though. I’ve heard this before somewhere. The ‘get stuck in’ school of advice, which is about as useful as a kick in the teeth for those who live with levels of social anxiety often associated with social disability.
However, the worst is reserved for last.
I suspect there will be something truly sinister, about the quote marks around ‘decent person’ and the admonition about a lack of welcome, for the autistic reader. You have to unpack what this means and the assumptions buried within such a statement. ‘Decent person’ is here (I assume) someone who can perform neurological typicality (for want of a better phrase). A person who can show collaborative spirit and can demonstrate they are a team player. It means someone who can pass a neurotypical popularity test, which is essentially what most networking is about.
What if neurological challenge means you can’t remember names or faces, and can’t keep up with the alphas of this Social world. What if you can’t process interactions in the moment. The alphas shuffle according to criteria those with social disabilities often can’t fathom because they are whimsical and illogical, based on something we can’t see or touch. It is also the case that we often see too much. Where’s the advice about social ‘lying’?
Some of us can’t prove we’re ‘decent’ because the Social world disables us. So although it wasn’t intended that way, this is ableist and a worrying sign that autistic artists are still not visible in disability arts.
I have been approached on Twitter by White Pube with a demand to edit my post – due to misrepresentation – because they say I have misread the article. The politics of asking me to edit myself aside, the concept of ‘misreading’ is highly problematic when it comes to autistic perspectives. Layers of social bias can be missed by non-autistics as I feel is the case here. In this respect my article is fair and true to my experience. The advice given is out of reach to autistics, notwithstanding it’s usefulness as an exposé of an elitist system.
I’m delighted by the welcome to critical comment from Shape Arts, and include a disclaimer which can be found at the bottom of their article, below.
I am available for comment and advice to Shape Arts on how to improve the presentation of this article for autistic people.
“We recognise and appreciate that many artists we support face barriers to communication and networking, whether in person or online, and welcome suggestions from people with lived experience of these barriers towards the creation of resources which address such issues. We are interested in exploring ways in which networking events can be made more welcoming and inclusive, and also the strategies artists use to connect with and influence others, whether or not they use traditional networking techniques or pathways.
To get in touch, please contact us via [email protected] or call us on 0207 424 7330. We also run accessible artist development events where people can meet with us and others in an art context.
If for whatever reason going to physical events isn’t always an option for you, we also run a Facebook group for disabled people who work in contemporary art (as artists, curators, programmers, teachers, media and beyond), based in any country, which is aimed at facilitating discussion, support, sharing and networking – you can find it here.”