It’s felt like old times. Today I journeyed back to Barcelona in a Bag. I spent a day in my studio sorting my space out, a project I began several months ago but had been unable to follow through. My huge Arts Council England project Neither Use Nor Ornament has been taking all of my time.
Today was different. Today I sought sanctuary from #puppetgate – the on-line controversy surrounding a play called All in a Row, which will open tomorrow night at the Southwark Playhouse. Thankfully I found the peace I needed as I communed with some of the most precious objects in my collection.
All in a Row features a grey skinned puppet as an autistic child called Lawrence, who is the only non-human part in a cast of neurotypical actors playing neurotypical characters.
Yes, I know.
A furore has rightly ensued, and autistics across the globe have been Tweeting outrage and anguish at this frankly ableist trope. Almost two weeks on I’m at breaking point. Those behind the Lawrence debacle appear inured to the emotional toil dehumanising representations take on us, though we’ve tried to tell them. Despite the autistic community’s global furore, or the National Autistic Society declaring that they couldn’t support the use of a puppet to portray an autistic person, or even an article in the mainstream press calling the puppet grotesque, All in a Row author, production company and Southwark Theatre have all stuck to their guns. They know best.
As I pottered in my studio #puppetgate receded. Abuela (my grandmother) came to me as she always does when I need her. As I handled the suitcase from her last journey (to come and live with us in 1975) I connected to the reason I began my creative project in the first place. I’d lost sight of it in the struggle to manage my project. I just haven’t been able to keep up my studio practice, and in the current battle with the All in a Row teams’ mind-bending and unthinking ableism I have been thrown off balance.
I’ve just realised of course that All in a Row also reads as all being in an argument. You can’t make this up.
But what I wanted to write about really is the redeeming nature of a studio practice.
My Tweet (pic) is more eloquent than I can be right now. Exhaustion is setting in. As I worked at tidying my studio, abuela turned her back on the internet and suggested I do the same. I don’t think we should give those people anymore of our attention, she explained quite forthrightly.
I moved the suitcase gently, avoiding lifting it by the handle which is broken. Yes abuela I said. She smiled and patted my head. Make sure you come back tomorrow.
I’m at it again. I’m packing and printing in readiness for my third trip to University College Cork, who’ve been immensely supportive of the performative side of my practice over the past few years.
This time I’m all about ‘undergarments’. What is wrong with saying pants or knickers? I just don’t know – but I can’t.
My subject – culled from a fragment of oral testimony, and a long meditation on the effects of war trauma, separation and exile, across generations – just got seriously grungy. I’m not (yet) prepared to show the ghost ‘undergarment’ which underpins this piece.
The photograph used in my e-flyer is of my mother – further details shall remain unsaid, but my performance outline is attached below it if you’d like an in on the action.
Mainly I’m excited because this work is perhaps my boldest piece to date – I have created a sound piece using my own voice and many of my own recordings.
My piece is a narrative one, but one told in fragments. I want to convey the complexly layered sensory experience of memory, and also the difficulty of fine tuning in the cross generational transmission of memory.
I’ll be back soon to let you know how it goes.
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 .