One of the many pieces of work I’m engaged in at the moment is a wonderful performance opportunity at University College Cork (UCC) . The invitation came many months ago as I was waiting for a response to my Arts Council England funding application for the Museum for Object Research, a major project which I’m now also in the midst of. Suddenly there’s a month to go and the long slow preparation for this piece needs to come together.
Other community projects and collaborations bubble to the surface and I need to find ways to divvy up my time.
At times this can feel overwhelming. One project spawns another – it’s a nice problem to have, but the need to process aspects of this busy spell means I wake up in the wee hours fretting. This is one of the most difficult challenges my autism presents. Never a good sleeper my nights are prone to getting seriously ropy when there’s a lot going on.
Nothing like the challenge my grandmother faced as an exile in the infamous concentration camps of France in 1939 – 1941, I tell myself sternly as I roll over for the millionth time. A fragment of her oral testimony, passed on by my mother (who also features in this work) is my inspiration and I am anxious to do her memory justice.
Yet there is something extraordinarily satisfying about gathering the strands over time. Elements have emerged and been added to as and when inspiration struck. To work in this way is a luxury you don’t always have in a busy practice, but one of the things I love about being autistic is that my brain positively cascades with ideas – pinning down even a fraction of them over time means you have a rich source from which to draw when a deadline approaches. My suitcase is full, and with my vintage teddy strapped on I will be suitably supported and equally encumbered for what will be a quite extraordinary (not to say eccentric) postmemory act of witness.
I also draw on my recent trip to France and Spain for Radio 4, to make. The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia. Understanding more fully the depth of testimony to be found in domestic ritual came from this journey. I am also indebted to Overtone Productions for their inspiring edit on my programme which has enabled me to experiment with sound in new ways.
This will Be my third trip to UCC. Previous performance work and film screenings at UCC have proved transformative to my practice. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to develop this piece for the forthcoming, All Things Considered…Material Culture and Memory Conference 9-10th Nov.
Okay, so I’m going there. Don’t Look Now, is one of a new cycle of paintings which has been brewing in my studio in the aftermath of my Radio 4 programme, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia.
I’ve been through one of the busiest periods in my creative practice – a gruelling few months completing my a-n Professional Bursary work on a film called, Gift, taking on a new film commission called, Dual Identity, having a solo show at Arts at the Old Fire Station Gallery called, Buenos Días Dictador! with the radio commission coming in on it’s heels.
On my return from Spain, I had to play catch up on my Arts Council application for the Museum for Object Research project.
In the past few weeks I’ve been working on two collaborative projects, one with Richard Hunt of the Shadowlights group and the other with St Luke’s Church community. Opportunities to talk about my work have also arisen.
It’s all part and parcel of a busy creative practice in which studio time can feel seriously compromised. I compensate by keeping creative projects I can add to at home – assemblage pieces which don’t involve painting are ideal. I have a new performance piece in progress which is evolving piecemeal in my living room.
So this new cycle of paintings, begun in a flurry at the end of April, sit in my studio gathering dust. But I make the most of this too in terms of resonance, and I try not to feel too fragmented by all the disparate elements of my creative life.
Slow cooking can be a great thing. Work can be given time to develop and collect associations. This painting has become more meaningful in the current context than it was when I left in the studio a few weeks ago. It’s allusions are obvious and specific to my subject – the Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. Yet today, as I made a small donation to ActBlue to support families separated at the US border, I found a new relevance.
My painting had felt crude and I left feeling it was unresolved. The doll’s leg is deeply significant to me and yet I always feel uncomfortable when I try to use it in my work. Probably this makes it something worth exploring. Today I understood it as a reference to the children caught up in conflict across time and the painting feels finished.
My anxiety about using doll parts is that they are often baby dolls, or at the very least young infants. In my mind the allusion is almost too visceral – dismembered child victims of war are an atrocity we can barely contemplate. Yet this is and always has been a human reality. Humans are capable of maiming and killing their young.
Increasingly, I accept that I have to go there.
The doll, of course, alludes to the child at play. The innocence of childhood and the attachment to an object that can be cuddled and occupy a vital emotional space for nurture and hope.
The US zero tolerance policy now pushes me on. This is now a humanitarian crisis, fascist in origin and ideology.
I feel compelled to work with this leg – as a metaphor it holds the kind of power I need.
All I can do is keep going.
This photograph may be of my first ever installation! I’m forced by an innate honesty to give my older sister collaborative credit. Indeed, seniority probably makes her lead artist – to be fair.
This may seem like a playful beginning to this post – but I am (in some senses) deadly serious. Finding this picture was one of those moments in life where things fall into place. I’m experiencing this kind of eureka effect all over the place lately (the unusual frequency of which doesn’t detract from each new find). I’m processing after my radio programme and the colossus that was the ACE bid writing for the Museum for Object Research part 2.
It’s been hard picking up the threads of my studio practice and I think I must recognise that my practice is evolving in ways which make studio practice less vital to me right now. I’m both in limbo (waiting for the result of my ACE bid) and on a slow build creatively speaking.
Alighting on this photograph allowed some of my recent uncertainty to evaporate. Now I know why I’ve had the ‘through the windows’ music from Play School (playing at the beginning of this YouTube video) as ear worm. I’ve been messing around with plaster of Paris and latex, mould-making and casting.
This is all in the early stages and partly inspired by a series of workshops designed to create a community installation. The influence of the recent Racheal Whiteread exhibition is also very obvious in this work. Perhaps less so is the work of Cy Twombly whose sculptures I encountered for the very first time in Munich several years ago. I hadn’t known about them despite being a devotee of his painting practice. They were a revelation, sparking joy.
I experienced paradoxical emotions – both a deep sense of recognition and surprise. In my excitement I ran around the gallery saying hello to each new friend. As luck would have it a fantastically illustrated book was for sale (and in the sale) for almost nothing and I have kept it in my studio awaiting its moment.
Sometimes I feel I’m not making work when in reality my brain rarely switches off and I have a surfeit of ideas. Channelling and organising them is another matter, and it can be overwhelming and bewildering to manage the sheer volume and tangle of cognitions my autistic brain produces.
This is where the Play School ear worm comes into it’s own and the messing about with materials (especially the new stuff) is so important to me in finding my way.
The importance and value of documentation (thank you dad!) is proven once again – as without this image of my early forays into making through play (circa 1964) I might not have glimpsed where all this tinkering about is leading (to a complex multi form installation I think, which I can just about see the edges of in the corner of my mind’s eye). Trusting process is immensely difficult when you’re at the beginning of something new. It can feel like you’re ‘wasting time’ at this point because explorative work is like that. But it’s absolutely vital.
Untutored explorations can lead to interesting failures! I have a bagful of dusty plastered and latex coated items which are probably unusable.
So I’m also watching a lot of ‘how to’ videos on YouTube – again, I am reminded of how much of my learning was through the telly (as a child) and how well quietly absorbing information through a screen still suits me.
Autistic artists are often autodidacts and YouTube offers a brilliant way of accessing information which can unlock new skills. Once I get my teeth into whatever emerges I will also be thinking about new ways to reach audiences with my work. I’m honestly tired of starting from scratch each time a project closes – new autistic strategies are also forming in my mind.
No wonder it often feels like I’ve got the M1 running through my brain, or that the idea of a kind of Play School at my kitchen table is so very good for my practice right now .
I don’t want to write too many words. I’d like my video to speak for itself. Mainly, I need Arts Council England to know that their bureaucratic processes, in current form, disable significant groups of autistic and neurodivergent artists.
I know autistics who succeed in making applications – I also know many who are unable to contemplate beginning one. The argument often goes that “neurotypical” artists struggle with it too. Albeit true (in the sense that it is a gruelling process of competition for limited resources which also requires ‘insider information’ to succeed) it is also an ableist thing to say because it minimises exactly how uneven the playing ground is for us as a group. Just because some of us push through doesn’t mean it is okay. The bar is high – but the bar is also structurally unfair.
I want also to say that those of us who do take on the beast can be harmed in the process. I think this is disabling.
I think Arts Council should know.
It’s not a programme to do your ironing to, my producer, Anna Scott-Brown, warned me minutes before the transmission of, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia (an Overtone Productions programme for BBC Radio 4), which you can listen to on iPlayer on the link above.
I’d spent the previous three days feeling like I was trapped in an elevator shaft with the lift about to drop on my head from the tension of waiting to hear it!
With such a short run up time I’d thrown myself into the project and relied on hyperfocus to develop the creative concept and refine every detail needed to retrace my father’s exile journey from Spain to England in 1939, making creative responses along the way.
We finished our recording in Spain, and my part was over. Anna and (co-director) Adam Fowler, then toiled at the edit and sound design to craft the woolly mammoth of material we’d created into a 28 minute programme ( we generated so much material in fact that the editing software groaned, registered full, and would take no more!) I just couldn’t imagine how they would do it.
During transmission I was transfixed. I honestly sat staring at the radio with my ears cocked like a spaniel – I really did – as a dazzling geology of sound whizzed about my ears seeming to stop time.
It is the most extraordinary radio programme I have ever heard – due entirely to Overtone Productions artistry. I’m incredibly proud to be part of it. It’s a rich, immersive, sophisticated listen – the imagery piles in from moment 1.
My extended family sat 60 miles away gathered around the radio, listening intently together as families once did. My teenage daughter surprised me by slinking onto the sofa unbidden to hear it.
Messages flooded in. Enhorabuena! The layering is really beautiful! Your voice sounds wonderful….
A poet watched patches of sunlight dance on the wall which she said looked exactly like the sound of my voice as she listened. She sent me a video – it really does.
The following day I heard from friends who’d toiled up the mountain of listening (like the exiles crossing the Pyrenees) to unpick the intricate soundscape. Hearing is not always a given we must remember, and in this case a husband lent his ears to transcribe it from iPlayer for his wife. An act of love and dedication (on so many levels) echoing the love which went into making this programme.
I’m immensely grateful, and somewhat in awe – I feel I’ve reach a summit. This was my dream job – an artist can ask for no more. To open up my soul on Radio 4 has been quite extraordinary – to have shared this journey with Overtone Productions is even more precious.
The genius of their work is that in each listening (and I keep on listening) you hear more layers. It took 5 times for me to catch my own voice lowered and playing under the sound of me digging in the sand – ¡Buenos días, dictator! I intone…the title of my recent exhibition, which is so so resonant in this moment of my ritual.
Having murmured into a recorder almost every day and sent endless files through WeTransfer, I realise that few people will understand my work better than they. They’ve heard me talking down my demons on my walks around Oxford, and know that I have all my best thoughts in the shower. It has been a revelation to record myself – something which I will continue to do as it’s such a useful creative tool. I will miss talking to Anna though – she has been such a wonderfully encouraging and receptive creative companion.
If you haven’t heard the programme yet I urge you to give it a listen. An art piece in itself, its a portrait of creative reliance in the face of inherited trauma. This has so much to say to us in present times.
Visual output from this project can be found on my website