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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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