I was delighted to be invited to be part of an Autograph panel last night, to talk about neurodiverse art collectives. It was an event organised around the brilliant Sharif Persaud’s exhibition at Autograph called Have You Ever Had.
The following is a transcript of a 5 minute response to two questions posed to the panellists.
These are both really deep and complex questions. I will deal with them in order – though they do overlap a great deal.
I want to talk mainly about the importance of language , so I’d like to provide a link to my 2019 NUNO Project which gives full details about my approach and research findings.
How can collective approaches support the artistic practices of neurodiverse people?
When we work collectively across neurological types we can open up a dialogue and also challenge hidden assumptions. Collaborating allows us to consider what any artist might need to support their practice, and how can we level up when we need something different from the currently assumed norm, because we’re all dependent on support, but this is rarely acknowledged in the arts.
I think we can be effective in understanding what we need and how to support one another across neurologies by focusing on social biases.
It really is worth saying ( as I often do) that there’s no such thing as a neurodiverse individual, while we can be neurodiverse collectively. The term is often misused because we’re all still learning how to talk about neurological difference. However, it’s important to try to use language as clearly as we can, even though it’s in flux and our understanding is changing all the time. It’s important because understanding and owning that we’re neurodiverse collectively helps to de-centre a dominant and extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a cognitively valid, ‘functioning’, and effective human being.
So, neurodiverse means all of us. It refers to the wonderful and possibly infinite variety of neurological profiles among the human population. It’s just that very many people never have to think about what kind of brain functioning they have because society has been organised around their needs. This always feels weird to me because I have to think about it all the time! I’ve found people of the neuro-majority actually appreciate understanding themselves more, and gaining insight into their own cognitive functioning when they work with me.
We also need opportunities to experience and acknowledge that when we work across neurological types (as a neurodiverse collective like Project Art Works, for example) we all win. It is often assumed that all the gains are one way, when we are all enriched, and (in many ways) dependencies can occur across the board. This was one of the the very powerful points of learning on the NUNO Project. Talking about any need arising on a project as access can really open your eyes to how much we all require accommodations to take part in a group endeavour, often at different times and for different reasons.
So I think our focus in working together across neurological types must be on removing barriers regardless of neurotype. I think that is very levelling. Once you adopt this lens you start to gain clarity, I’ve found. My modus operandi on the NUNO project was that wherever there was a barrier – no matter what that barrier might be – for absolutely anyone on the project, it had to be dismantled before we could move forward as a group. It took knowledge, skill, focus and attention, which makes it important to have a diverse pool of talent and experience to draw on. This to me defines a collective, where each member is valued and can participate in ways which are meaningful and enabling, all brought about by a shared sense of purpose.
I want to conclude in responding to this first question by sharing some words from an ND artist, supported by NUNO, about what it meant to them to be fully accommodated. They described the project as both a life raft and a warm hug after years of exclusion and alienation.
How can supporting marginalised artists make a difference to individuals and communities?
Gaining genuinely supportive opportunities can be transformational for us. The multiple barriers we face can’t really be gone into in a forum like this, but it’s worth saying that working holistically with us can make a huge difference. This is because often the barriers can be many-layered and complex. Such work requires bespoke, responsive and relational methods I’ve found, often building trust and establishing preferred communication styles have to come first. Making the work itself can often be an area of greatest strength and a powerful motivation in our lives. Dismantling all the obstacles to making is key.
Many artists will have been denied the opportunity for professional development, despite having a very rich and often well honed practices like Sharif’s. If you don’t have access to higher production values how can you produce ‘quality’ work in conventional terms. How can you scale up works or reach audiences at all, for example, if you have neurologically based challenges in the areas of spatial awareness or communication? It won’t mean you’re not talented, it will just mean you need help with those things to realise your vision. Having an effective network of collaborators who can help identify what you need and organise that help with you can be vital to progression.
However, in my view, it’s not just a case of giving us a leg-up so we can succeed in conventional terms and fit in with a system that is fundamentally ill-fitting and will remain so without change. Think of all the effort involved in trying to swim against the tide, and in supporting us within systems that are stacked against us, because they’re not made for us.
Working across neurologies is an opportunity to learn from each other and find ways to break out of the narrow frameworks that have been created for developing and platforming artistic practice more generally. We can all benefit from trying new ways to think about our work, develop projects, make work, share process and exhibit works. I’m currently experimenting with all of this in my new project called Neurophototherapy. I think we need new templates for what constitutes practice, if we’re going to learn to value and understand works beyond a narrow spectrum of lived experience. I think this will need to involve a greater emphasis on the value of the creative process, and creating opportunities for genuine neurodiverse collaboration in all areas of the Arts. This can only serve to enrich us all.