I’m an interdisciplinary autistic artist and arts organiser. I mainly work with individuals and organisations to further the participation of two marginalised groups of artists; the neurodivergent and learning disabled.

I don’t like the term ‘mainstream arts’.


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I was extremely happy to be invited to write a featured article review for Project Art Works, Illuminating the Wilderness film, by Kate Adams in late 2020.

It’s also been encouraging to have my previous a-n blog post responding to Adrian Searle’s Guardian Newspaper review of the film, featured as a Good Read by Arts Professional.

I feel that our sector should take note of this moment, and reflect more widely on the continuing inequitable divide between the self-styled ‘mainstream arts and ghettoised disability arts.

The Following text is taken from the Project Art Works website and includes my review:

Following the Film London, Jarman Award 2020 announcement of the joint win, there have been diverse responses and reviews of the shortlisted films.

An article in The Guardian by Adrian Searle has instigated much debate due to the context of the word ‘problematic’ used to describe elements of Illuminating The Wilderness.

Please find the article here.

Artist and writer Sonia Boué responded in a personal capacity to this review here. and has since reviewed Illuminating The Wilderness in an intimate account of her experience of watching the film.

Illuminating the Wilderness is about everything while appearing to be about nothing much, if you choose not to enter into its world. It’s about noticing people who notice things. It’s about paying attention.

In essence this is a journey narrative. Our story arc comprises bold adventure and safe return. Unconventional as it may appear, it is also a film about a family; a realisation which comes to me in the segments documenting the return from the wilderness to the glow of a wood burning stove.

We are in Scotland. It rains. My eyes drown in gloriously muted colours. Yes, it is raining. We’re watching rain with the volume up. We hear the rain in the way it sounds in your head as it drops on your hood or umbrella. This is immersion. When it rains, I am inside it, and the rain is inside me. This is a sensorially lived experience translated for those who wish to listen.

The film opens with the voice of Sharif; we’re at base camp, so to speak. The camera is both by turns steady and unsteady, focused and a bit blurry. It takes me some time to understand the mechanics of this visual bilingualism. I notice a young woman carrying her smartphone with a boom mic attached. Ah, so her footage is spliced into this film, and we’re treated to her exact world view. Conversation between neuro-types forms the subtext to this journey narrative, delivered though the meta language of the camera lens. We view through multiple perspectives, switching between them in a subtle game of call and response.

Yes, we are bridging worlds here, almost in real time. This work takes space to enact and time to perceive, because it’s patient, loving and deep. We are viewing people moving together, holding hands and letting go. So much watching, so much listening and responding. What I love are the spaces in-between, which echo the vastness of the Scottish landscape. This is respectful togetherness. People observe distance and hunch-up as intuition suggests.

How rare it is to see people with complex needs just being. Humming is natural, and nothing is dressed-up; this isn’t ‘special needs’ for consumption. There’s no attempt to exoticise or glamorise our being. The camera captures ordinary moments valuing autistic language and expression on our terms.

It suddenly strikes me that this film feels like home to me because this is where I began. There’s a circularity in writing this piece for Project Art Works, which underlines its immense importance as an artwork. As a young art therapist, I was employed in a residential setting for adults with complex needs; not knowing that I was myself autistic until very many years later. Since then, I’ve come to recognise aspects of myself in those with more complex needs than my own, but as a younger person I had no way of understanding why I was so drawn to this world. Years of my life have been wasted and lost.

It’s an obvious but overlooked point that if we are absent from the ‘mainstream’ discourse and our worlds aren’t represented, we can’t learn about ourselves or connect and organise around our needs as a community.

Illuminating the Wilderness matters so much precisely because in the window it offers melodic “happy humming” is set against the sound of a flowing river, and If you’re paying attention, you’ll learn that we can be intimate if you take us for who we are. So much of exclusion is a failure to understand the innate beauty of our lives and the sheer joyfulness of our flapping. For this you need to spend time with us, as this film does.

I began by thinking there wouldn’t be a narrative structure to this film because its’ so faithful to a preference for being in the moment. I would have approved such a choice, and yet I revelled in the motif of return. This is a brave and beautiful film, avoiding cloying or sentimental tropes through its complete sincerity. I absolutely believe it was a rightful choice for the Jarman 2020 selection.”

Sonia Boué. Artist & Writer. 2020.


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(Photo download from Project Art Works site)

So Adrian Searle has written a review in the Guardian newspaper about the Jarman award 2020.

Yesterday I made the mistake of logging onto Twitter on my lunch break, to find that Adrian – a writer I have admired – finds the Project Art Works film documentary Illuminating the Wilderness problematic.

For those who don’t know, Project Art Works is a visual art organisation based in Hastings working with people with complex needs. In the spirit of the Turner Prize, this year the Jarman award has been shared. It’s a milestone in propelling autistic people’s lived experience into ‘mainstream’ success with Project Art Works beautiful film.

Adrian is not aware that he might be the problem?

I find ‘mainstream’ a problematic topsy-turvy notion at the best of times, one which causes me to air blow, rock, and chatter indecipherably. The very things Adrian seems to dislike – though his exact meaning is ambiguous.

As an autistic person and a professional artist, the way this review has been written offends me. It feel it should offend us all, and that as a sector we need a good long Paddington stare if this is the kind of art journalism we’re happy to accept.

Searle’s response to Project Art Work’s film seems to be to scratch his head and spit out, category error! He seems to think we need no further explanation.

It’s hard to explain how this kind of thing can torpedo your day. This is our lived experience you’re talking about, Adrian. Please be more careful.

In such moments I become aware that I live in a carefully constructed bubble for self-protection. I work only with people I trust. I forget bigotry or hurtful carelessness lies in wait – if I wonder too far from home – like the wolf in Red Riding Hood’s forest.

I was eventually cheered by autistic responses that art critics like this are dinosaurs and can eat their beards! We can dismiss this type of talk as nonsense of course, but we mustn’t let it pass without serious comment, and we must call it what it seems – ableism.

For me it’s a privilege to view Illuminating the Wilderness even though I’ve only seen the trailer so far. Artists with complex needs generously share their lived experience with the camera. This film speaks to me in my language. This is my sensory world. For me, Illuminating the Wilderness is a rare and beautiful thing, and I feel sorry for those who can’t see it. Our immersive connection to the sensory world can feel vast and expansive – it is beyond words. This is supremely exciting to us, and joyfully fulfilling. It’s why we don’t need to people so much – we have this!

Okay, the viewer who doesn’t get this can feel mystified or be bored, and this is fine. What Searle does is to list a series of autistic behaviours and seem to say that they are all problematic for him?

At best, it is poorly written and not thought through. At worst, it’s hateful.

He leaves us hanging as to his meaning ( though I think we can guess) which is a slap in the face to the air-blowers, rockers and indecipherable chatterers of the world.

It’s a particularly cruel example of a phenomenon I want to talk more about in our sector. Namely, the seeming inability of neurotypical culture to understand autistic culture on its own terms, and an unwillingness to enter our spaces or view us as equals.

It comes across as thinly veiled contempt. I do hope I’m wrong.

 


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(Danny Smith in Flashback)

The Shadowlight Artists are a collective of seven artists with learning disabilities, formed in 2009. They are supported, managed, and produced by Film Oxford.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on Shadowlight projects since 2015, and have collaborated with Richard Hunt on three successive Arts Council England funded exhibitions; Creative Bridges, Rising, and LUMINOUS.

Richard Hunt’s Creative Bridges painting Totem Pole, 2016, won the 2017 Shape Open.

The Shadowlight’s work on LUMINOUS reveals what an extraordinary collective they have become over time, weathering the lockdown to produce some of their finest work yet despite hugely challenging circumstances.

It has been my utter privilege to edit footage taken before the lockdown for Richard’s project film, which you can see on the YouTube link below. Please also find details of all the ways in which you can check out this wonderful work online now, and in the galleries in December.

Available Now – LUMINOUS Virtual Gallery on the Shadowlight Artists website – you can explore this 3D virtual space to navigate a larger body of new work and 7 new films from the Shadowlight Artists.

Available Now – LUMINOUS interactive 3D walk-throughs of Modern Art Oxford and Arts at the Old Fire Station available on their websites. You can explore both galleries as they look in the real world to see the installed artworks. Additional content and the new films can also be viewed.

Available Now – The seven new Shadowlight Artists LUMINOUS films on the Shadowlight Artists YouTube channel where you can also view previous work from the last 10 years.

December 2020 – The two galleries expect to open when “lockdown2” is scheduled to end at the beginning of December (subject to government changes) . We will let you know exact gallery visiting dates nearer the time. Also check the galleries websites very early December –  Modern Art Oxford and Arts at the Old Fire Station.

Support the Shadowlight Artists – We are continuing our crowd funding appeal to raise funds for the group for the current exhibition and to support them into next year. No donation too small.


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