The Duck, a production by Autact Theatre Company, is a remarkable play, and, going to see it at the Stroud Theatre Festival last week, felt like a significant cultural moment.
Playwright, Rhiannon Lloyd-Williams is a late diagnosed autistic woman, and she forms part of what has been termed the ‘lost generation’ – I count myself among their number. Our diagnosis’ have been delayed into adulthood through cultural ignorance about autism as anything other than a series of stereotypes which exclude us. I won’t list them here, but suffice to say that males, savants, and geeks have dominated the cultural landscape (through no fault of their own, I might add).
Before continuing I want to state that this review is not the place to detail issues of gender identity within our community (which have also fallen under the radar). This play is not about women, it’s about one woman.
The play opens at the moment of recognition. I’m a duck! The duck in question is a metaphor for autism, and for 50 spellbinding minutes the audience is immersed in the thought processes of an autistic mind. For some of us (autistics) this is familiar territory and we can insert our own detail and nuance into the narrative. For non-autistic audiences this is instructive, in the best sense of the word. The play is not didactic, and the learning arrives through the offer of empathy – Lloyd-William’s brilliance is that she enables the non-autistic person to inhabit her mind, to loan it (if you will) for a brief yet vivid moment.
This is a one woman play, and actress, Lucy Theobald, gives a quite extraordinary performance. Coached by Lloyd-Williams herself, there is a sense in which she acts as her avatar. Theobald is her physical stand-in, complete with ‘stims’ (the gestures we often rely on to regulate emotion and sensation), but also allows the playwright the necessary distance to write from the gut. There are no punches held here.
As the diagnosis unfurls we are treated to the rawness of a lifetime of alienation which is unknown in origin. The torture of autism as a condition not yet revealed is really in the not knowing, which provides a vacuum for self-blame to be sealed in as tightly as superglue. My own experience is that unlocking this knowledge is redemptive. It was never autism that troubled me. I now understand that my difference is simply another way of being human. Not all autistics will share my sentiments but we can unite on the core message of this play.
I sat and squirmed as the labels which had been conferred on our heroine in the place of ‘duckness’ were rolled out in a devastating sequence. My own label was ‘naughty’. My poor parents were not to blame. They weren’t to know why I ‘disobeyed’ them royally – and did the opposite of everything they asked me to – and to their great credit they still found a way to love me. Such labelling and misunderstanding of our behaviours can be immensely damaging and even threaten our emotional survival. Our heroine makes a passionate plea to peel back the labels in order to understand and accept us.
My favourite passages of this one act play are when Lucy Theobald revs up the theatrical encounter, breaking the forth wall. Autistics are supposed to struggle with communication – and so we do at times, especially when asked to do so in conventional manner. Lloyd Williams breaks this assumption with the sheer articulacy of her writing, Jo Loyn’s direction of Theobald to engage us with eye contact and pointing underlines the point; and so the table-turning begins! Audience members are questioned (rhetorically), and drawn in to the heart of the action. We’re both inside her head and onlookers – I honestly don’t know how the author did this.
In many ways this is a confrontational work, but the beauty of the writing is that the voice is gentle and the audience is held. I like to be in two places at once. I’m prone to wriggling in my chair and casting my eyes about the room. I am also fond of observing faces and was treated to a section of the front row, which curved around almost facing me (albeit from some small but helpful distance, as I sat at the very end of the middle row by the door). I saw three things; wonder, care, and compassion. I might have glimpsed discomfort (but it was fleeting and productive, I felt).
What you want in a production like this is to feel safe while being challenged, and it’s a fine balance to achieve; so it’s all the more impressive to find it so deftly handled in a debut play from an emerging writer.
What I saw on those faces, now embossed in my minds eye, were the flashes and flickers of shifting emotions as Theobald dealt out the play’s denouement. A twist autistics will be familiar with (but no less thrilled by) and which will leave unsuspecting non-autistics gasping. No spoilers from me.
I am reminded of my own debut speech as an ‘out’ autistic person in which I declared myself a person in translation. My audience feedback was that I had changed perception – that they would never think in quite the same way again.
This is what I think the incredibly talented Rhi Lloyd Williams has achieved with The Duck – a paradigm shift. As a blogger on autism (at Autism and Expectations) she is immensely popular and widely read on a global scale because she has a rare capacity to straddle neurologies with writing that is also beautiful. She is also a poet and a performer.
As an autistic person who (disclaimer) is also a friend, my one wish for the play (in the moment) was for the author to act the part. I quickly saw why for many practical reasons this wouldn’t work. The remove, in working with an actress rather than making this a performative piece for the author, reveals itself as the production’s strength. Theobald’s embodiment of Lloyd William’s words is an extended act of empathy, as I suggest at the top of this piece. She leads the audience in a parallel act.
This is not the usual autism shtick so many autistic people have come to dread, which only serves to feed unhelpful stereotypes. We’re tired of Rainman and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. This is something wholly new. An authentic voice has emerged, and it’s my fervent wish that The Duck can be seen and heard in many venues across the land.
The Arts Council England funded Museum for Object Research and WEBworks collaborative project, NUNO (Neither Use Nor Ornament), is also proud to count Rhiannon Lloyd Williams among our WEBworks creatives as Poet in Residence for the project.
At the Museum for Object Research we love to support related work and events. This fascinating exhibition opens 10th September in Sheffield at the Chapel Walk Gallery! It includes contributions by two of our MfOR project artists Dave Edwards and Sonia Boué – indeed creator and curator of the exhibition is Dave Edwards himself.
We’ll keep you updated as more information about this exciting show comes in.
The Museum for Object Research & WEBworks will be presenting a new project in the spring of 2019 entitled, Neither Use Nor Ornament, in collaboration with the OVADA Gallery in Oxford.
Neither Use Nor Ornament comprises 14 artists working across neurological boundaries
Think you know about objects? Think you understand people? Think you know about Art?
Join us for a series of creative provocations including:
Neither Use Nor Ornament is the outcome of artist Sonia Boué’s Arts Council England funded research on how to be an autistic project lead and bring two distinct professional networks together; one network predates her autism diagnosis and the other was formed in response to her findings.
The result is an inclusive collaboration at the heart of which will be an exhibition focusing on the use of objects in 8 creative practices.
6 autistic creatives will present a supporting programme of events to run concurrently.
Neither Use Nor Ornament as a term of disparagement will be subverted.
This project is Arts Council England funded and seeks to redress an imbalance of perception and assumptions about autistic people. Here you will encounter autistics as creative instigators, organisers, and equals among our non-autistic peers on the project.
We are open for business again! Arts Council England have awarded The Museum for Object Research funding for an ambitious project bringing together findings from our R&D (research & development) phase!!
This means that our Artists will exhibit their work in realtime at the OVADA gallery space in March – April 2019. We will finally bring our blog to life!
At the beginning of R&D this outcome was our main focus. My research into working as an autistic professional was to facilitate leading on this outcome.
But if the initial version of our project design was a charm bracelet, the model we set out with at the start of R&D was a weighty chain, bulging with sharp edged bling, doomed to snag the very fabric of our plans. The charms looked good but were heavy with disabling ‘neurotypical’ expectations and we had to start from scratch on our project design. The learning curve on creating an autistically sound project was hard won but so worth it.
What developed (quite unexpectedly) was a project within a project. Through the autistic professional development side of my work I discovered a great need for support and opportunity within my community. WEBworks – was formed.
WEBworks redresses the balance of the project. Alongside the Museum exhibition we will now run a programme of events showcasing our autistic WEBworks artists/ creative partners. Information about WEBworks creatives’ projects will be added to this site ASAP – so do watch this space.
In effect, we will bring together two networks and level the playing field.
This project will also turn the seams inside out on my practice as I bring it all together in collaboration with artists and arts professionals across neurotypes. It’s a huge honour to receive public funding for this work and I intend to live up to it.
It’s also a challenge – but there is no doubt that each artist will produce a compelling work of beauty and excellence (this is why we have our funding!) My job is to make our offer to audiences gel. I want to enrich the cultural landscape artistically and challenge perception at the same time. No biggie!
Lucky for me I have a brilliant crew and an Arts Council approved ship. From bling to vessel we’ve come a long way – I’d love it if you could join us on this journey. So please do subscribe to our blog and follow our progress. We will blog and upload new content as we go along, and we’ll make our final works accessible on this website too (if you can’t join us in ‘realtime’).
So it’s a massive thank you, Arts Council England, for supporting and approving this project and a special thanks to @an_blogs for originally hosting The Museum for Object Research blog and being such a brilliant inclusive platform for artists!
Network ableism is an under explored topic. Sonia Boué has written a new blog post about autistic artists and the problems of networking in neurotypical systems. Encountering ableism in the Arts Council funding system she seeks to uncover serious inequities in the application process. First published on The Other Side.
My name is Sonia Boué and I’m an autistic artist. I’ve had a lot of luck in my career lately – which has largely come about using my own autistic methods and working with two truly wonderful mentors. On the face of it I look pretty networked in, but most of my opportunities have come from sharing my work and ideas online. At the end of each project I have to start from scratch, and I have no idea how to ‘use my contacts’ or network neurotypically. The sheer scale of the social labour involved in networking neurotypically is beyond me. This is why I have created a new kind of network called WEBworks, which is autistic in conception and in all it’s various manifestations. It’s for autistic artists and has a focus on professional development and creating access to opportunity. It’s a small pilot project – manageable and yet ambitious. It’s about empowering us all to become more visible and gain parity in the arts.
People are probably attracted to my work because of the intense autistic focus I am able to give to it – my attention is directed at what I do and not who I know.
So it’s been a jolt, and a hugely painful experience to be told by someone from Arts Council England at a recent conference (in a room full of professionals) to just “get networked in.”
Invisible disability is a box you can tick on a funding form to indicate who might benefit from your project, but it remains invisible in terms of just who might be present in a room full of professional people all grappling with the diminishing funding pot in the arts.
Autistic people are invisible as players. We’re so invisible that I’ve unearthed a major inequity in the funding requirements for those like me who aspire to be players. You see, I need big funding for my project, which includes support for WEBworks. Under present funding rules I need to prove why I can’t compete on a level playing field to match fund my project – and make the case that disabled people should not have to match fund their own access needs (and in my case that of my autistic colleagues). Perhaps no-one has thought of this, because no-one like me has ever applied to be a player?
I made a largely sound based video about this funding anomaly if you’d like to know more.
When I found myself quite by accident at an ACE funding surgery in my local area and brought up the possible problems with match funding for disabled people in general – I was told this would have to be proved. If you just have a foot missing we wouldn’t be convinced.
I let this ableist comment go at the time, but made a mental note – this person needs training – and I (and all my autistic colleagues) hold much of the the missing knowledge.
A missing foot (if you will call it thus) could imply almost any level of impact in a person’s life (invisible disability such as PTSD, chronic pain, fatigue…we just don’t know and shouldn’t assume) which could affect their ability to raise the signifiant sums of match funding required if they are also not networked in. We’re not talking peanuts, we’re talking resource rich networks from whom signifiant favours can be drawn into a project – for which you have to be resource rich yourself to earn them (in ways I, and those like me just can’t be).
I shouldn’t really be blogging. I have my Arts Council application to finish, but this is way too important not to bring to light.
You see something profoundly (if unwittingly) ableist just happened to me, so aspects of Arts Council England’s disabling funding system have literally fallen into place.
I tried to speak about access in the system at a recent arts conference where Arts Council representatives were present.
For context, I rarely go to arts conferences because I find them inaccessible and they often don’t tend to speak to my experience. I don’t generally go about with a large ‘A’ stuck to my forehead, or a, hey, I’m autistic! t-shirt on either. In fairness not many people knew my status (though I did make a point of telling everyone I spoke to). If I go again – as I now feel I must – I will break all my own sartorial rules and wear the t-shirt (with flashing lights if needs be).
But when I raised what I consider to be a very real problem of access I have myself encountered and blogged about on the a-n blog site, I was just not taken seriously by the Arts Council representative. In the time it’s taken me to cut and past this link I’ve received a comment from another artist. I know I was speaking for many.
“Yes, yes, YES! Keep going! I didn’t know there were diversity officers. Thank you for writing about this.”
Yet when I did speak up I was assured that everyone could have access to this particular service – just like that!
One person who heads a National Portfolio Organisation agreed. We have a regular meeting where you can talk to an Arts Council relationship manager (people who hold key information and can help with an application process) – as though I should perhaps have known about it.
Like the Alf Prøysen character in the illustration above, I immediately shrank to the size of a pepperpot! But something made me go on (I’m autistically stubborn and all about justice).
But you have to be networked in to have this access, I pointed out, without stopping to reflect that this might seem rude. I was contradicting someone who had (oh to hell with it) contradicted me. As I look back on it now – they were essentially making my point for me.
Well, get networked in! the Arts Council rep replied, as though this were the easiest (and most equitable) thing in the world. That appeared to be the end of my ‘non-point’. I was to join the NPO groups’ monthly meetings, job done.
I felt the room close in on me. I had both humiliated myself and been silenced.
In the break that followed, there was no processing time. One kind person offered to send details of the NPO group meetings, and another told me they too had struggled to get access to a relationship manager.
Then darkness – a film presentation to end the day. An unexpected event. Tears rolled suddenly down my face. Have you noticed how obvious tear wiping can be – so much rustling and grabbing for tissues, and elbows wiggling as you surreptitiously dab at your eyes. I let them roll.
But why tears? People had been nice to me, and the moment had passed.
I cried because the film was just so beautiful. Broken lives were being made whole again through the arts. I cried because I had been disabled by taking a risk and speaking out. The profound silencing of autistic people is historic and deeply painful within each one of us.
I want to talk to all the regional directors of Arts Council England. I want to talk to thedirector. I would like to tell them about our struggle, and the bias of their systems.
I want them to know how art redeems every aspect of my life and keep me connected. That I and others like me have so much to give – that we can be players if the playing field is levelled. What’s more we bring authenticity to the table. Truth is that Arts Council need us as much as we need it.
I’m not networked in, I will probably never be so in a recognisably neurotypical way. I rely on people to ‘get’ me and meet me half way. What interests me is how to make the system open and fair.
I want people at the very top of the organisation I apply to funding for to know how hard it was for me to stay in the room at this conference. How hard I have to work to be present, and what it took for me to raise my voice. So here goes.
One of the presentations just goes on and on. Everyone in the room is loving it I think, but the stage lighting sends an never-ending series of blows across my retina. I’m sitting too close to the stage. And the voices won’t stop. So many voices.
I’m caught by surprise. This shouldn’t happen now – the conference is in its opening stages and I have all day to manage. I struggle to find a strategy or any kind of relief. I begin to wriggle in my chair conscious that I mustn’t do this too much or someone will notice. Surely it will stop soon I think, so I try to hang on. But no, it just carries on and on.
I dig into my bag for the the soft tangle brush I sometimes use to rub across my palms to regulate the build-up tension, but by now I’m honestly near screaming point – the option of screaming occurs to me but I fully understand this would break an unbreakable rule. I realise after the event that the voices were too loud – the mics were set at the wrong level for someone with my sensory issues sitting so close to the front of this theatre space – I receive information from the sound system which others can filter out. I’m desperate but rooted to my chair. The brush is as effective as a wet sponge. I dig it into my palms but it may as well be in my bag for all the good it does me. The voices just won’t stop – I close my eyes but not for long. Drawing attention to myself is the last thing I want to do. As the presentation draws to close I suddenly remember to pinch my skin under my sleeve and I step out of the storm.
The lighting shifts again and we’re brought back into a room I can regulate myself in more easily. I can appear ‘normal’. There is no visible sign of my distress or the energy it took for me to survive this level of unexpected sensory onslaught. I’ll know in future to sit at the back with easy access to an exit.
I want everyone at Arts Council England to know that telling anyone who begins a conversation by saying that they have struggled with access (in any context and for any reason) to get networked in, is simply not equitable. And I’m sorry, but for invisible disability it’s like telling a wheelchair user to grow a leg.
If you listen bottom up to authentic voices you’ll also discover why not everyone can just speak to a relationship manager.
It’s time for social currency (and who’s got it) to rise up the Arts Council diversity agenda.
An Arts Council award can be a profoundly life changing event in the professional life of an artist. This is what I want for all the artists who are involved in WEBworks.
In fact, I might just attach this blog post to my application. Why not – it sums up the need for my project perfectly.
Commissioned to make a short film response to MfOR, Naomi Morris has chosen to focus on the practice of project lead Sonia Boué. A lyrical and sensitive reading of her mentor’s practice Naomi shares her own insight into what it means to work with objects as language.
Naomi’s film will be used in a forthcoming series of workshops with the community of St Luke’s Church in Oxford, to illustrates object work in artistic practice. St Lukes is located in an area of social deprivation and Naomi’s work will help enable members of the community to engage with object work themselves, as assemblage and through the medium of film.
This film will also be shown at a “WEBs” programme screening at FILMOxford in 2019
Professional development and funding bid success as an autistic artist is a long road.
I’m back at the coalface of the Grantium portal, but this time I’m making a higher level funding bid for a complex socially engaged project very close to my heart.
Once more I feel I’m facing Everest. The step up feels immense as I gradually absorb the additional requirements and scrutiny that a higher level bid demands. Yet if I don’t go there how do I continue to develop as an artist and project lead?
But in going there I am uncovering (all over again) exactly how biased against autistic artists this application process is.
I learned (with inordinate difficulty) to write a £15,000 and under bid. I blogged and made a video documenting my process. I understand – this is public money – that it’s not easy. I understand that in asking for more public funds it will be harder.
I just want to say how very much more difficult it is when you have a hidden disability like autism because many micro tasks are involved each one representing a barrier (I’m not kidding). Our challenge with executive function can be great – it can also oscillate, meaning there will be times when we can manage more or less. One thing is certain, as tasks accumulate we become overloaded and overwhelmed. Recovery from overwhelm takes time and of course the tasks involved don’t go away. We are inordinately slowed down and may lose the will to go on.
I felt that yesterday. But I know I won’t give up because my practice is driven by an inner compulsion – I won’t be beaten but my efforts are extra (not ordinary) and this should be recognised. It all takes it’s toll – including falling over and getting a black eye.
Yesterday, in supporting another autistic artist I happened on a brilliant talk by a relationship manager about funding bids. A serendipitous but random event, which made me aware for the first time of the mysterious ways of this vital support for artists. I’ve spoken to a relationship manager on the phone (so helpful to my first bid), but I have never met one before – they’ve seemed progressively more elusive and shadowy figures (the cuts!) who were once available but are now not so much. Some NT artists/ arts professionals I know talk about them as friends and contacts but this has always seemed foreign to me as so many (seemingly random) examples of social relatedness in the workplace do. The social labour involved in such relatedness is often beyond me. These are the hidden codes.
And this is the point – as an autistic person I can’t relate to shadowy figures, to people obscured in far flung regional offices, who may well be part time and/or work in multiple locations. People whom, from Oxford say, you may need to get to Brighton to see, or catch them on the phone on a Tuesday, or pre-arrange a Skype call with.
I get vertigo just thinking about it. The organisation and planning involved in accessing such a ‘moving target’ represent a barrier. Arts Council England, you are giving me more micro tasks.
At the meeting I see before me a dynamic young woman and I understand for the first time that there are people out there who can help me, really help me. People who I can talk to about my project, really talk to. I ask for the diversity officer’s name. It’s thrown to me quickly mid talk and I write it down but of course, this was not the moment for contact details.
Arts Council used to list them on the website I’m told? But now they don’t because…the reason given was impossible to process and is obscure to me.
So now you have to ring up or write to get contact details. I sigh. I sigh one huge and heavy sigh. I feel a potential ramp falling away.
Arts Council England – you have a beautiful shiny section on your website about the creative case for diversity. I’ve seen your lovely video featuring wonderfully diverse voices. It makes me glad, but I am so very frustrated.
You do not list your relationship managers (with at the very least email contact details) up front on your website.
In failing to do so you give autistic and neurodivergent artists like me more challenge – you obscure for us a vital source of help. We may not be able to access the brilliant helpline you provide, we might just not be able to write that email asking for contact details – so much to say here about why not but I don’t have the time. I sat before the relationship officer, in this room of arts professionals thinking I want to train you. I want to be commissioned to write a report. This is only one tiny aspect of what’s wrong with the application process as it stands. SO much is taken for granted and works against us.
The main point here is essentially, and it is essential, that we may not pick up how important it is to access relationship managers, we may simply not clock them as a vital part of successful application processes because we can’t SEE them. For many of us seeing is vital to knowing.
Something so simple and so vital to many ND artists could be changed with a tweak.
I find it so very neurotypical to have a showcase list of relationship managers on the website with nice pictures and a paragraph or two about working for ACE. It’s quite lovely but the list is incomplete and there are no contact details.
You’re almost there Arts Council England – I urge you to go for it and give ND artists another route in to making contact with the people who – not only can they make a difference to your application – but with whom you can have an ongoing relationship (yes – radical news for some of us) about your professional development.
Alleluia – I finally got it. My next step is to track down the diversity officer I so want to talk to about all of this and so much more.
I grew up loving words and their meanings. From a very early age they gave me the means to quantify and describe an often puzzling world that spun around me. Sometimes this was in an unchosen silence, unable to share when I couldn’t cope with the outside world, an internal pleasure just for myself. Being synaesthetic I often found these descriptors were pale shadows of reality or just didn’t exist so I invented my own and appropriated others. Also a child I was continually asking questions about the meanings of things and secretly building this fragmentary detail into my own bigger picture, a ‘world’ taxonomy that would come in very useful later in life. To me as a child, language meant life.
I’m not saying it was all plain sailing as my ability with language and word lead to issues at school. Whilst I could answer questions quite eloquently when able, my written work was poor and I often often opted for words I could simply spell rather than those I really needed. I was often called stupid or I would hear the word ‘lazy’ used. (actually I’m just dyslexic and autistic and it was never picked up.) I sought solace in nature and especially geology, becoming a palaeontologist – stones don’t lie or let you down.
One day aged 11, my teacher tore up one of my pictures up in front of the class because I spelt my name wrong. What cut me even more than the loss of a single image was the fact that he said ‘I would never amount to anything’. That day my dignity and dream of becoming an artist died. I learnt that these precious things called words could hurt and that ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never harm you’ was a complete lie.
It also caused trouble in the playground because as a teacher had humiliated me ‘with words’ it had seemed to give permission to my fellow peers to do the same and some did with glee. What I really hated though was that I felt misrepresented, that they hadn’t given me a chance to prove myself or my ‘inner me’ that I soon learnt to keep hidden. I knew I was different and so did they. Oh and by the way I don’t have a normal person inside me longing to escape my inner me is 101% autistic.
Language can be either heaven or hell, and for people who don’t seem to fit a society or are different, it may become a clear and present danger. If something is said again and again and again even though it’s untrue or a stereotype or a misrepresentation it soon may become an ‘apparent truth’. Words can be used as seeds to engender hope within a single person or as a seed of desecration, repression and othering in preparation for the loss of generation. History has shown us where relatively simple words of hate can lead. One powerful group in a society deeming ‘others not human’ and ‘useless’ thru the media or policy. We should remember this every January on Holocaust Memorial Day for example.
Mostly I don’t really have an issue with the word autism but I do have a problem with the way it’s often used. Until we change the traditionally used wording towards autistic people to the preferred language used by autistic people, the stigma and othering I feel will not stop. I don’t ‘live with autism’ for a start, I actually live with my wife and two cats. I didn’t ‘acquire autism’, it’s not a handbag or a pair of shoes. I don’t ‘suffer from autism’, I just have to suffer the attitudes of people who seek to misrepresent me or plainly don’t understand the harm they cause us. I do however live with and suffer from PTSD caused by poor attitudes towards me as an autistic person.
It’s very easy to seem comic, flippant and literal about these things but language engenders attitudes and attitudes engender the way you accept or reject people. I’m not a person ‘with autism’ I’m an autistic person. It’s not separate from me because that suggests that I can lose it, cure it or rid myself of it. What’s worse is it implies that others can do this to me. language Imposed on any other minority would be seen as unacceptable so why does it seem such a ‘free for all, towards autistic people?
I personally feel that that the language used towards us should be driven by autistic people, ‘our language our narrative’. I also feel you can tell the attitude of an organisational or individual towards autistic people by the language they seem to use. If an autism organisation doesn’t listen to the voice of autistic people and carries on using language that we may find offensive that simply says ‘we don’t care about your opinion’. Do we need organisations ostensibly for autistic people who don’t care about our opinion?
I also really dislike the way some come back at autistic people who choose to use identity first language with a ‘cancer’ argument. I won’t say much here other than it’s not acceptable and is I feel disrespectful to all concerned. We are talking two completely separate things here. The analogy is incoherent and again shows a lack of understanding on behalf of the people who use it.
I feel there is also a lot of misunderstanding around the use of the term neurodiversity and it seems to be becoming a bit of a buzzword without people really understanding it’s taxonomy. Neurodiversity encompasses all of us like biodiversity does the life around us on this planet.
A single animal cannot be described as being biodiverse, a cat cannot be everything at once but it is part of biodiversity. likewise a single person cannot be neurodiverse as they can’t be both neurotypical and neurodivergent at the same time. However a group of people can be neurodiverse just as a specific population of flaura and fauna can be biodiverse.
People often ask me what’s the biggest change we can make towards autism acceptance or understanding and I say it is modifying the language that people use towards us. And after that they need to except that they don’t understand what goes on in ‘our heads’ and listen to what we need not what they project on us, double empathy. Both these go hand in hand. If an organisation refuses to listen to autistic people and won’t change their language or perceived attitude then they’re not an ally, in fact they’re part of the problem. Conversation between all sides is so important as we won’t obtain autistic ‘emancipation’ without all agreeing but that needs a common language.
I don’t need modifying to be a part of our society rather than apart from society. I just need accepting the way I am, something that seems incredibly hard for some people to get their head around. Society should be made ‘fit for us’ not for us to have to ‘fit in’ with society’s wishes or traditional stereotypes and misinterpretations. Society really should except and embrace difference, along with the self-descriptive language chosen by any minority’s concerned.
Yes we are all different, an incredibly positive and enriching thing and for me confirms the fact we are all just simply human.
I open the jiffy bag. Sellotaped inside clear cellophane, a man stares out in the manner of Lord Kitchener, demanding allegiance . Distinctive and dashing, with a high collar, his assured masculine confidence exudes Victorian ascendency. He represents a deliberate nod to a bygone age of the ‘gentleman’. Somehow he just about gets away with the moustache. It’s way before the Village People undermined that particular visual iconography.
Now I do remember this little package so I’m not imagining – but in today’s world everything about it seems from another time; a time even before my own boyhood. A monotone lithographic portrait set into a two colour print of turquoise and dingy royal blue . It feels a decade earlier; early fifties. I’m led to believe that this pack actually does come from the fifties, but still, I remember the design well into the sixties for sure. Perhaps they just never got round to changing the artwork; I guess brand identity evolved more slowly in those days. Maybe my dad had acquired old stock, who knows. Whatever the reason, this is the pack I recall from my childhood. The pack I first saw in our bathroom cabinet. The cabinet where adult things were stored.
I have hunted down this distant treasure on ebay in order to confront my crime. The crime of a child is typically transparent. There was no cunning in my actions, although later there was calculated deceit in my choice of where to conceal the stash. Mine was indeed more a compunction than a crime and is, to this day, without obvious motive. The victim was my father, though I’m not sure he was ever aware of my transgression. He is now in his nineties and, writing this, I am wondering if I will spill the beans. But I’m not convinced of his capacity to do much with the confession. It would probably seem like an inane act to him. Would he smile wryly or think… hmm that just about sums up my unfathomable son.
The blades seem not quite as perfect today as they did then. Smaller now I’m an adult; really quite small. The miniature Victorian gentleman’s stare is knowingly aloof, but not forgiving. He dares me to open the packet again – which of course I must.
‘Time to confess’, says the small voice. ‘J’acuse, monsieur j’accuse!’ Suddenly I feel Gillette Man is French.
The bathroom cabinet was a lock-up of secrets; a place where pristine, clinical things were kept. None more so than the multipacks of Blue Gillette Blades. I don’t recall the exact moment I decided to steal the first box, but I do quite clearly remember how it felt to open the packet and reveal the treasure inside. It was something to do with the waxy paper and the precision. These were objects that had no purpose in my world; no practical gain was to be had in taking them. It was the thrill of the new. The rush that comes with transgression. I was coveting a wafer of sharp silver in its delicious double wrap packaging. Mesmerised by the theatrical reveal.
Once laid bare, there isn’t much you can do with a razor blade if you want to maintain its perfection. Make a single cut and it’s virginity is lost. So I always packed them back up with care. Exquisite gifts from the mirrored cabinet. Folding the paper wings into their embrace of steel and sliding each blade back into the box.
Now I had moved beyond coveting, they were potential evidence. Evidence of my crime; smeared with my DNA. Even though I knew nothing of DNA at the time, my instincts were good. Like stolen goods they were hot. Very cool, but too hot to have around. Too incriminating. Yet I didn’t want to give them back.
Their eventual hiding place was arrived at via a process of elimination. My bedroom was small in those days with just enough room for a single bed and a pull down cabinet where I attempted my homework. Mother did the general housework and would be sure to find any secret spot, as nothing was deemed private at that young age. Obviously I couldn’t use my parent’s room so that only left the slightly larger one my older sister occupied in our three bedroom semi. If I was to use this as my treasure island I had to find a place neither of them would look.
They may have had an early version of carpet grippers in those days, but I recall ours being held by crudely fashioned flat headed tacks that kept the carpet in place. These were easily lifted, so I decided upon the classic hiding spot. Not exactly under the floorboards but under the carpet at least. Lift an edge, slide the blades in, and push the tack back into place with a furtive thumb.
Time passed. On finding after a while that there was no comment, no ramifications, no thunderous accusation, the mind of this criminal longed for further excitement. Was repeating the act merely satisfying the same craving, or had I a longing to be found out? I can’t answer that but, regardless, my plundering of the bathroom cabinet became ever more frequent and greedy. How many blades did father think he was using? Surely he would notice at some point? If he did he never said and thankfully he never grew a beard. He must have continued to buy blades. I fed my habit and added to the hoard. It was like money in the bank.
At some point I must have grown tired of this. Perhaps the carpet began to undulate with the accumulation of blades I hid under it. No doubt I became interested in other things. As an adult I occasionally have pondered this odd behaviour. Admittedly it was only a petty crime, but I do wonder what Freud might have had to say about it. I also wonder what the new owners of my parent’s house thought when they lifted that old carpet years later.
As an adult I have, on occasion, looked for some reverberations in my later life that might provide a motive. The best I can come up with relates to computer graphics.
In the mid eighties I was a demonstrator for a video based computer graphics system, presenting to industry professionals at media shows and the like. The world was by and large unfamiliar with such technology. Almost without exception, the audience would be wowed by the ‘instant colour graduation’ routine.
‘So I click here’ (clicks on colour palette.. let’s say deep blue)
‘then I click here’ (white perhaps)
‘and then click here’ (oh I don’t know – something similar to the first colour)… and hey presto; a perfect, shimmering tonal graduation instantly appeared on screen. The kind that used to take ages to achieve using an emulsion, film based process (typically employed for graphic overlays of captions and other such tele related stuff).
That little trick now seems profoundly trite and uninteresting; anyone can do it in photoshop with just a quick tutorial, but in those days it was amazing. It amazed me too. I felt like an explorer who had journeyed to distant lands and brought back something exotic and forbidden to bamboozle and astound his tribe. In the trade show context, I was a medicine man rocking up with my mysterious Pandora’s box of dodgy elixirs.
The look of computer graphics attracted me in the early days for precisely this reason. It was new, it was shiny and could achieve the immaculate in a way which denied any trace of the human hand. It was alchemic. And there, I feel, is the parallel. I was fundamentally drawn to the razor blades and their perfect packaging in the same way as I was drawn to this smooth computer generated graduation.
In the quest to make things look ‘realistic’ computers are now ever more required to produce images which appear distressed and imprecise, some might say subtler, but in the early days of CGI that effortless perfection represented the shock of the new. The birth of a flawless way of making things.
If you have grown up with computer technology you might not understand this epiphany, but if you are a tad older, and interested in the appearance of things, you will recall a world where such perfection was hard won. The razor blades to me as a boy were that perfection made real; to all intents and purposes an actual trove of treasure, beyond function; beauty for its own sake.
In retrospect, I see that the blades represent the achievement of an old way of manufacturing. Those processes associated with factories and smoke, ‘heavy industry’ and the skill of the hand. The astounding new technology of all things computer generated has assumed this mantle and headed off apace, but what hasn’t evolved so rapidly is ‘us’ and our emotional being.
Here in the present, although the humble razor blade might seem mundane to some, to me it remains as magical as ever it was because of the associations I bestow it from my past. I’m thinking that the on-screen colour graduation, though less tangible and admittedly now bland at first glance, might, in time, prove to be similarly profound. Something to meditate on – quite literally perhaps.
Listening to the radio this morning I heard a phrase ‘from hands to head to heart’. It was being used to describe societal evolution. First we made things with our hands and then we refined them via our intellect. That’s the ‘head’ bit. It is generally accepted that in the future machines will perform ever more of our manual and repetitive tasks for us. Though robots may indeed take over our practical functions, we hold as unique our sense of what it is to be human; to care; to genuinely empathise. Our ‘heart’, so the theory goes, is the bit that can’t be replicated or replaced by androids.
Holding on to our uniqueness may be a deceit, but for now I’m going with that as an idea. Let the razor blades stay in their box and let me imagine them. In that way they transcend their intended function and become the hero’s of my personal narrative.
Photograph of an informal performance at Modern Art Oxford’s gallery spaces in response to the Hannah Ryggen exhibition Woven Histories, by WEBworks artist Naomi Morris. Session facilitated by MAO Galley Manager, Kay Sentence. Continue reading →
My Autistic Professional Template also formed the basis for Sonia Boué’s, Out of the Ashes talk for Oxford University TORCH.
I am a professional autistic artist and creative project lead. I form part of what has been termed the “lost generation” – diagnosed late in life due to recent advances in knowledge about autism. In my work as a freelance professional I need accommodations to access the same level of opportunity as that of my peers.
The following is the result of a six month research and development project, funded by Arts Council England. The aim of this research has been to create enabling conditions for my project work, and in particular in my role as lead artist, because there are no blueprints currently in existence for this kind of work.
My thoughts during this period have often been guided by Brent White, Director and researcher on autistic leadership, at the ACAT: Ala Costa Adult Transition Program, on the Ed Robert Campus at Berkeley.
Professional mentoring has been provided by Miranda Millward, and creative mentoring by Sarah Mossop.
Freelance arts project work is often by nature informal, characterised by highly individual working practices, and mainly without clear structures. Autistic artists need Arts Council funding to create self-led projects from which we can build sustainable artistic practices in line with our peers. Yet without adjustments for the challenges involved we can quickly become disabled in the freelance melee. Navigating this world requires a well constructed set of practical measures.
There is a great variety in how we present. I therefore make no general claims for my template – it is by nature ‘me’ shaped – but I anticipate that my experiences will resonate greatly with many autistic freelance creatives and help inform the arts organisations who hold our employment and opportunity in their power. Our ideas are often powerful and original – funding us can be hugely beneficial and reap rich cultural rewards, but the barriers to our inclusion can be overwhelming.
I have made it through this funding barrier, and yet the early to mid term circumstances of my project proved disabling. Access was also impeded by factors beyond my control which were unrelated to my autism, and the emerging model for my work includes experienced and trusted neurotypical mentors to identify and troubleshoot the elements of my projects that autistic navigation systems can’t reach.
My project clearly signals the need for rights based approaches rather than relying on informal knowledge and conversation to gain access when working in close collaboration across neurological type and attempting to lead a team in a freelance context.
Autism as culture
Autism is both a neurological and cultural difference, and the disablement of autistic people at work is an ongoing civil rights issue leading to inequality and an increased risk of mental health problems. We are a small minority with a unique social difference. We live within a dominant culture, which runs almost exclusively on social aptitude of one kind. This culture is pervasive and disabling to us in ways not easily recognised or understood by the majority.
But those who work with us don’t necessarily have to understand us on an individual basis. They don’t need to ‘get’ autism in its entirety – this is a big ask for our colleagues. Indeed the demand to share personal information about ourselves to gain access is an issue in
In an ideal world our needs should be accepted without question and active measures taken but in reality they are mired in social complexities. Ours is a pioneering generation tasked with beating a path for ourselves and future cohorts of autistic professionals.
These are rights based issues, which we are currently forced to navigate via the very social codes which disable us.
Deconstructing the power imbalance
“I should not be subjected to this stress on my own project.”2
Aspects of my experience stand as a cautionary tale. The earliest iteration of my project began to flounder on the question of inclusion despite this being it’s primary goal.
The bare bones of my situation were that I had agreed to work collaboratively on the understanding that the project would be shaped around my needs but this proved impossible in practice. I had lent a creative idea and my ‘neurodivergence’ was the rationale for funding but nonetheless my needs were submerged. This rendered the original project proposal unworkable.
As an autistic person I must adapt myself constantly to engage with the ‘neurotypical’ world. In research terms my question became – what happens when I stop this process of constant adaption and ask for the accommodations I need to work accessibly so that I am not disabled in this situation?
In practice this did not work out – quite the contrary – and my energies continued to be painfully directed toward my own adaptation.
In general terms we need a wider understanding that effective inclusion is a two way street of adaptation. Accommodating autistics requires the will to focus adequately and make significant and responsive behavioural changes towards us. The level of adaptation this implies will depend on how close the working relationship needs to be and the kind of access required. While we may seem to speak the same language our innate human difference as autistics can be greatly misconstrued, and our value as the very people who can generate ideas and employment can become easily obscured in practice. This can be because our difference is not convenient to others.
There exists a certain ‘tone deafness’ to the nuance of our autistic being, which has been dubbed the double empathy bind (Damian Milton)3.
Project leadership and design
“None of this is not stressful for me.”
To lead and take responsibility for funded projects I need to work in ways which minimise anxiety because it can become disabling. High standards of professional practice can be extremely helpful in this respect.
But my project had placed too much reliance on one key point of access, and I was responsible for outcomes without being able to move the necessary cogs directly in an ambitious and complex piece of work.
I invested a disproportionate amount time in unpicking differences in collaborative working styles and finding ways to communicate my needs. But the continuous struggle to negotiate working terms and chase schedules was negative and eroding. My project appeared to be built on quicksand.
I attempted to modify the project design and consulted my mentors, but in access terms, my ramp was broken and I was disabled on my own project.This experience has enabled me to identify my need for more direct access routes and a hands on approach.
My highly logical thinking style, my ability to see priorities clearly and my intuitive grasp of sequence and method are also key factors in considering accessible project design. Not being able to work towards outcomes logically and intuitively at my own pace stalls my brain.
Identifying that I am a global and immersive thinker means I can now design my projects around my strengths. Holding their shape in mind as I work on each part enables me to drive priorities and achieve the exacting standards I require.
Any project in which I play a lead role will need to accommodate this profile and be shaped around my needs. In order to remain functional as a project lead I need my collaborators to work around me – and not vice versa.
This was the key to my disablement during the early to mid term of the project.
In addition there was a significant neurological imbalance on the project as I was a lone visible autistic. When my project hit serious access difficulties I realised that I needed to recruit my own ND/autistic team to create a more level playing field.
“Its not that I don’t want to be friendly, its just that I get exhausted.”
Prevailing social norms and expectations come at no additional cost to the wellbeing of the general population. But when we adapt ourselves and ‘mask’ autism to gain entry into the workplace we do so at great cost to ourselves.
In the informal freelance arts sector I have found that there can be a high reliance on ‘neurotypical’ friendship codes and relationships. This can block access on many levels for autistics who can’t mask, and be ultimately disabling for those who can. Our inclusion can depend on pleasing others which can be difficult (if not impossible) to sustain and can be classed as social or emotional labour. Autistic access needs can be socially misunderstood due to the emotional needs of others.
But it is beyond stressful to decipher and manage certain types of emotional demand embedded in social codes at work. When this became overwhelming for me I found that establishing rules for contact helped manage this and keep me organised. I was able to filter interactions by limiting contact time and channelling communications to one email address.
These are effective strategies to carry forward into future project work.
As a more general point, when considering social risks in addition to potential ‘social overload’, for autistic artists there may be a particular difficulty in gauging digital vs realtime contacts (where it is easier for potential co-workers to misrepresent themselves). This is pertinent as we can tend to rely on digital online networking. Properly testing relationships is a further barrier for us to overcome.
Autistic flow vs timetabling and task based work
“I feel cut up in pieces and dismissed.”
I now understand why all my primary school workbooks are empty and peppered with phrases like – good start Sonia, but where’s the rest of your work!
I experience autistic flow as a very specific state achieved by working with rather than against my natural thinking styles. This flow is continuous, often prolonged, and can involve a related state of hyper-focus. The degree of focus which can be achieved is (I believe) atypical.
A potential problem with this in working across neurologies is that there can be an unequal focus of attention on a shared piece of work. Unless sufficient catch up time is earmarked, I’ve found it can be hard for colleagues to keep up with the fruits of flow. I would not in future embark on a significant piece of close work where this focus is not well matched or without a suitable catch up system securely in place.
Flow is what allows me to develop my thinking on a topic or a series of related concepts, it is efficient and necessary for me to stay organised and productive.
During my research I found the demand for me to accommodate working practices which relied on timetabling work (to someone else’s schedule and priorities), and task based approaches (to work through and share core project developments) stalled communication. It also undermined my ability to think and I begin to lose functional capacity.
This learning allows me to factor flow into future project designs.
Mental Health and training.
“I’m at screaming point.”
I soon felt like a canary in a cage. I thought often about how miners used to carry these birds with them into mine shafts and tunnels to detect poisonous gases. If the canary keeled over they knew to get out.
When conditions become disabling we can easily become pathologised. My anxiety became acute. I considered seeking mental health advice when what I needed was to take a break from collaborative work and redesign my project along autistically accessible lines.
My project began with good intentions but relied on an informal knowledge of autism, and in addition had encountered an unexpected and decisive roadblock which was not autism related.
In future I would build externally sourced autistic-led training into project designs for close colleagues. This would both help support my access needs and take some of the pressure off personal explanations. The risk of colleagues misunderstanding autism can be great and can come at a very high personal cost.
I would build mentorship in at the planning stages of any future collaborative work.
Self translation, masking and trauma.
“Every communication is an act of translation.”
Being autistic in a ‘neurotypical’ world demands profound acts of self translation which, although mainly conditioned, are carried out with apprehension and painstaking care. We must often mask or otherwise camouflage our autistic selves to gain social acceptance and access to work. But this is exhausting and destructive in the long term.
It is genuinely hard for colleagues to understand this because autism can present invisibly. During the writing of my Arts Council bid it had been necessary to build up and prioritise my autistic template against a tendency for it to become submerged. With hindsight I can see that these were the origins of what would become a constant struggle.
It was deeply distressing to me to find myself invisible at key moments on the very project which was intended to support my needs. I turned to the poetic form. Publishing on my blog has been a constructive means to articulate my struggle and regain a sense of balance. This has been a highly successful strategy providing an effective means to communicate about autism to a wider audience.
But the circumstances of my project had become traumatic and aversive to me.
Autistic artists as a group have been earmarked as a funding priority by bodies like the Arts Council for good reason. I found that our struggle can be made clearer if we talk purely in terms of access and equivalences with other examples of disablement. The will or ability to adapt to our needs however lies in the hands of our colleagues and is not often in our power to influence via social means of negotiation. This is the nature of our vulnerability as freelancers.
“I feel the need to languish in autistic spaces.”
Taking time away from problematic areas of the project was greatly beneficial to my thinking as I needed to arrive at autistic solutions. My mentors helped me asses the difficulties encountered and encouraged new areas of development on the project.
Mentoring also provided me with the vital ‘neurotypical’ perspective with which to decode the situation before me, enabling me to process and navigate my way through it. I was thus more able to gauge which elements of my challenge might fall within the range of problems of translation across neurologies, and those which were other.
Blogging brought in autistic contacts and I began a networking initiative for autistic artists called WEBworks, which aims to offer support with professional development. This is an important outcome from my template work.
My project was originally designed to lead to future large scale and ambitious outcomes in prominent venues. But such spaces can be wholly inaccessible to autistics. Like Don Quijote tilting at windmills, I had been persuaded (by various forces) to lead the way to doors which were closed to me.
I took the reigns of my project and began the job of reshaping it along accessible lines. The result of all the hours spent analysing my project was a solid paper trail from which I have been able to retrace my steps and find my way again.
“I feel like saying sorry my autism is inconvenient, but that would be ridiculous.”
It is easy to talk inclusion but harder to act inclusively. With autism we face multiple challenges in demonstrating and articulating our needs as both cultural and biological in origin and expression.
Our needs may be considered hurtful, ‘antisocial’, and can be easily misconstrued and dismissed by the majority culture. Rights based approaches, education and training are (in my view) likely to be more constructive pathways to more successful inclusion than explanatory routes which can be derailed by the double empathy bind.
I have found that it is extremely inadvisable to rely on an informal understanding of autism and inclusion rights in a serious professional context where access is at stake. Reliance on informal arrangements can leave us vulnerable to disablement and mental health risk.
As I tipped the balance of my project towards accessibility I began to understand that truly effective access design may be almost indiscernible. The smartest design will be the kind that fits so well as to be virtually invisible. Designing projects around our unique neurological profiles would take us closer to this ideal of best fit accessibility.
To arrive at such best fit solutions the space to think and plan autistically is needed.
Elaborating access around more dominant or typical goals and assumptions risks ill-fitting and potentially counterproductive project designs. It also runs counter to the very identity politics which many late diagnosed autistics seek to embrace. We don’t wish to be enabled to be more ‘neurotypical’, a point which has particular resonance in creative practices.
My research suggests that issues of identity, accommodations, and project design are likely to be closely aligned – and that what we need as a group are most probably holistic designs for holistic thinkers. This understanding and related insights will be carried forward into my future projects and form the foundations of my mentoring and supportive network development with the WEBworks group.
I can now share my research and attempt to inform a much wider conversation about neurodiversity in the arts in the freelance sector.
2. Quotations under section headings are from my field notes.
3 On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ Damian E.M. Milton, Pages 883-887 | Received 08 Jun 2012, Accepted 13 Jun 2012, Published online: 16 Aug 2012, Download citation http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008
‘FlOb Holotype – The first piece of writing expressing the ideas of Flow Observatorium calling for change in the arts landscape – October 2015′ written by Jon Adams
I was born with a pencil in my hand, or at least that’s how it seemed, but recently I have been usurped by my wife who has joined the growing ranks of the ‘pencil colourists’. To watch her using & choosing the right pencil or pen, always in the ‘correct colour’, matched to the ‘correct white space’ is a delight and has been quite revealing. I’m not jealous other than of her burgeoning collection of colours, not in the slightest, because we both ‘make’ for diametrically different reasons. She chooses to colour as a form of self-guided therapy and as her creativity flows, her pain goes. It’s like watching someone lift a heavy overcoat from her shoulders, released on a summers day, as her brain is distracted, switching to a more calming & effective analgesic. She is living proof, along with many others, that ‘making’ is physically and mentally good for you, sometimes seen as inferior to some nobler calling. No, as the nominated artist in the house it’s not about fame or fortune or even making me ‘feel better’, it’s about simply an unswerving ‘compulsion’ to create.
As a young child, intently curious but solitary, without recall to the reference library of experience I’ve now built up, my saving graces were few; those pencils, Lego, stones or maps, plus the wonder of laying in the garden watching the stars move. I’ve always known I was different, from my earliest memories, alongside the bump on my thumb or faint indented marks on an eternally ink stained finger. I realised I needed a form of base line translation to accompany my perception as the world around me seemed too fast or too slow, with always that unchanging few degrees of untouchable 1% difference. Instead at school I soon learnt to be wary of people, they seem to be my ‘kryptonite’ and like the ‘love of making’ that has never changed.
Aged 6 I announced I was going to be an artist in response to one of those typically childhood ‘adult’ questionings; ‘what are you going to do if you grow up’. For me this wasn’t my (as yet undiagnosed) autistic logic talking but a more holistic, enveloping feeling that there was no other choice worth considering. Being an undiscovered dyslexic meant as soon as the 3Rs were involved I revealed an exploitable weakness to balance any ability I may have genetically acquired. I did have my pencils; they made me popular, drawing cartoons but paradoxically I always found difficulty with the ‘draw what you like’ scenarios. I found school very difficult after a certain point was reached; in the era of shifting educational dinosaurs there was no mention of any support for my daily observed ‘staidness’. Then in the final primary year, the headmaster chose my picture to go up on the hall wall. For me that was the long desired dream of acceptance, negating any differences I may accidentally show. Now I value that difference, but at 10 I desperately wanted to fit in. It was not to be, that precious picture was torn into pieces, dropped into the waste basket in parallel with “You can’t even spell your name you’ll never be anything”. I learnt to
keep quiet, filling the pockets of my proffered overcoat with gifted stones as evidences to weigh my future down. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and that library of experience I’ve collected, I know why I then became an ‘outsider’.
An accumulated history of its making, albeit hidden
Leaving school I never even entertained entering an art college to train as the artist I said I would be, or engage with other like-minded people other than occasionally through music. I knew I wasn’t stupid, opposite to what I was frequently told, but it was often this disconnection that reinforced earlier issues. My other lover was geology, accepting oneness with the unseen landscape – so that’s what I studied. I seemed unnaturally good with visualising or touching time, arranging layers of stratigraphy, ordering and systemising. On leaving after a brief dalliance with ideas of a PhD, disregarding accidentally what others seemed to see in me, I soon found myself that solitary ‘artist’s niche’ in geological illustration. This soon widened into science, archaeology or historical book illustration. Seemingly made for the role with an obsessive attention to detail or repetition plus an honesty for each subject – if it wasn’t meant to be there it wasn’t included. All the clues were there, set in stone, undecoded, waiting for a possible later revelation that I was Aspergers and neurodivergent.
Always finding illustration unsatisfactory, I started wondering why. For me it was in the detail, how the page was laid out, the faint draft pencil lines, inking in or at a push the final colouring that brought joy, but to everyone else this was unimportant or ignored. For them a final finished polished image without the bonus of a told journeyed story was king. Even though my name was there I often felt anonymous, for me it was all about the work as representation, an accumulated history of its making albeit hidden, constantly rerun in my mind.
Normal is just a setting on our dishwasher
Things changed inevitably, which as an aspie [Aspergers] is difficult, and it struck with becoming temporarily unemployed. It’s not that I wasn’t successful in what I was doing, quite the reverse as I had just been offered a contract with my own book. I had developed unconscious coping strategies for my dyslexia which involved not relying on letters but personal visits to discuss the design and images needed. This was to make sure I understood what they wanted from me so I wouldn’t slip up embarrassingly. It was all part of my ‘camouflage’ at the time and
unbeknownst to me vital for my autism. Although I chose this path I did find people hard to get to know and I wasn’t very good at self-promoting other than letting the images speak for themselves, so when I found a company who were happy with what I did I stuck with them. The flaw was not predicting the company would split into two and the staff I evolved the ‘different way of working’ with went one way and my book contract went the other. I couldn’t cope with building up relationships again due to my low self-confidence so I not so much gave up but stalled. It was one of those serendipitous moments which seemed bad at the time but was really just sending me on the better path.
There had been times in my life where I’ve almost realised that I see or experience the world very very differently, but I mistakenly assumed that other people ‘saw’ in the same way too. When I was 15 I went to see Tangerine Dream and could run my fingers through the moving intertwined sequences but tended to keep such intimate secrets silent. Then becoming unemployed, I happened to mention to someone that when I read it looks like the words were being viewed underwater as in a rockpool; they almost immediately told me this was not normal. Now I realise that ‘normal’ is just a setting on our dishwasher, but then it did make me feel outside, deficient or faulty, different to what people expected I should be. Neurodominance is a social construct of the many not us few.
‘Solutions at a moment’s notice’
I was summarily sent for a dyslexia test. However the prospect was quite disturbing, I was sure that after the five or six hours it would take I would just be declared ‘terminally stupid’. This was not to be and when I was called back in she spent an hour explaining what the geological looking graph with its many mountainous peaks and troughs meant. It did confirm I was not good at spelling and writing, I knew that but I was good at drawing, finding patterns and verbal comprehension. I guess that came from always being able to talk my way out of a situation which I had to do on so many occasions at school, showing an alternate creativity, finding ‘solutions at a moment’s notice’ in countering the abuse I often received. But I did love words, words tasted right in the right order, they would seem to physically ‘slot together’ and letters tasted or rather seemed to have personality.
On being told I was thoroughly dyslexic, my first response was to rebel against everything I’ve been told previously, that I couldn’t write, was to write poetry. I had tried to draw, express myself on paper but it seems so one-dimensional whereas words had life. Although I did win some international poetry competitions which
boosted my confidence I was very reclusive and became very solitary and separate from people. It was hard to come to terms with being dyslexic, not the stigma, far from it; I had researched why some people call it a gift; I was mainly dealing with the aftermath of realising it wasn’t my fault. I was proud of being dyslexic it enabled me in alternate ways such as the 3D drawing and cutaways I had been making for 20 years.
It wasn’t until London 2012 was announced that I made the decision to break free, ironically not knowing I would find myself in a couple years working on Olympic inspired arts projects. At the time I was reclusive, unemployed, living on a council estate but I knew inside I had something to offer and to prove to myself. I don’t know if it was the tone of the announcement, but something ‘captured’ me and I thought “well if that’s coming why don’t I do something?”
Spurred on I applied for an AA2A residency, grants and competitions, soon finding myself working as Artist in Residence for a train company mapping people’s journeys. Also, preparing for a solo show at Pallant House displaying a geological interpretation of my life story. Eventually both these projects were ‘seen’ and evolved into a new commission to document creatively London 2012 events and projects in the South East in geological metaphor. This played right into my strength as autistic as the final outcome was a geological map compiled from ‘field notes’ taken over 3 years obsessively recording each day’s journey.
Also there were ‘open weekends’, opportunities for artists to make celebratory work, placed in the public realm inviting people to join in. My ‘Dysarticulate’ project was one, encouraging people to make flags out of redundant book pages plus kebab sticks. An open invitation to plant them in open local spaces, draw them, dance with them, becoming the ‘lead artist for the day’.
I guess working within the Olympics gave me much needed confidence and was where I first realised my autistic traits of ‘connecting’ and ‘collecting’ could be a positive advantage as an artist. Yet somehow I didn’t fit the mainstream without support or encouragement, and I didn’t necessarily fit in with the disability arts world either. I inhabited my own no man’s land which enabled me to choose one or other side if and when I wanted to as if the distinctions didn’t exist. For me, even at this early stage, I knew it was about the work plus the story, not about what other people perceived may or may not be wrong with me. I didn’t want people to judge me or my poetry as “he’s dyslexic and trying his best”. I would often keep it hidden within, letting the work standalone; if they liked it they liked it and if they didn’t they didn’t, each was a validity.
My new freedom of expression led me eventually to be officially diagnosed as Aspergers in 2013 when I worked with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen in
Cambridge, and then Sir Peter Brook within the research for the play The Valley of Astonishment. Previous to this I’d been indoctrinated into feeling the way I ‘thought differently’ was wrong, faulty or divisive, never divergent, but these people recognised an inherent expression within the work I made and encouraged me.
I guess I’m more relieved with my earlier diagnosis of dyslexia because most of my life I had sat under the impression that I couldn’t read and write; the Aspergers diagnosis was a ‘completion of my complexity’ and a statement for support. It’s not necessarily the categorisation that’s overtly harmful but the attitudes and assumptions that go alongside it. It’s not the autism or dyslexia that are the problem but attitudes to the difficulties they may bring fitting in with society’s demands.
Strictly speaking ‘neurodiversity’ should embrace all human variations that have the potential to enrich society as ‘biodiversity’ does our planet. We need people who think radically differently or perceive the world in a totally different way but often difference can be scary. Neurodiversity is about a human variation rather than the medical pathology of say, Autism, Aspergers or dyslexia. We are ‘wired’ differently, some would say distinctly and its this value we can bring with our own lived culture, custom and creativity. Rather than continuing to be ‘a shoe horned fit’ it could be argued we need our distinctiveness recognised in the arts just as other diverse groups have been, we should indeed call for neurodivergent organisations led by neurodivergent people.
This is why positive awareness of any neurodivergence, support and adjustments are so important, but often to gain support you need proof and that proof is ‘labelling’. It’s almost the next step beyond the social model of disability and until we get society supportive or not to associate connotations of negativity, we will still need the duality of ‘not being labelled and being labelled’
Personally I’ve never really believed my dyslexia or Aspergers ‘disable me’,
socially , but it’s mainly people with their rules, attitudes, misunderstandings or advantage taking that do so, leaving a legacy of frustration which often reinforces depression or worse, which I do ‘suffer’ with. I don’t need to state I’m dyslexic or autistic, it should be about the work. I’m an artist, I’m not an autistic artist because that implies that I am doing it ‘despite being autistic’. I know that I am different to other people with autism in that I am happy to talk about the way my autism works with me, but doing this, wearing the mask of ‘perceived normality’, takes up most of my energy. In essence, to be in public and perceived as ‘fitting in’ I have to pretend
to obey an imposition which wouldn’t be that hard to change. This effort is often a double-edged sword, I’ve often had it said “but you’re so clever what do you need support for?” It’s how you put your vulnerability in front of others that counts. It shouldn’t be left to a series of accidents or a chaotic pattern of events that enable neurodivergent people to show or have the opportunity to make work, nor segregation into ‘special’ ring fenced events; we need an intelligent debate with action for nurtured understanding environments to give our best. But then isn’t that true for everyone?
I am also a synaesthete; I can touch time and music and personify number, and this also informs my working practice. I was once asked what it’s like to be synaesthetic. I stood for a minute before I answered “well what’s it like not to be synaesthetic?” I have no experience of not being synaesthetic so wouldn’t really know how to describe what I perceive as my lived experience in someone else’s terms.
For example, I demonstrated this once in Tate Modern having the rare chance to play in the Turbine Hall. Every time I’ve been into that cathedral like space I ‘hear’ seagulls as if I’m ‘by the sea’ where to me the high cliff is ‘my cathedral’ and the seagulls being the sung litany. What I wanted to do was replicate that in the simplest of forms so other people could experience it as an aural interpretation. I already had recordings of seagulls which were slightly edited and played through a small amplifier representative of the size of a seagull. It would not have honest played through big speakers as it had to sound like it belonged. I represented a beach tide strand line with yellow tape, playing the sound on the hour between 11 and 3. People looked, listened and sat as if on ‘their beach’ as the sound echoed it also filled the space. To me it was very strange to hear this outside of my head but it also made complete sense.
Neurodiversity not Neuroadversity
My autism not only informs my working practice, but the way I engage with life every day, and I embrace it as a hidden ability, not a disability. I make work because I’m an artist and I am compelled to ‘make’. I can’t say if the compulsion is an aspie thing, I’m often told by fellow neurodivergent artists that it’s not about the fame and fortune, but about that deep compulsion to make. I don’t make work to fit in with other people’s contexts, my library of experience is contained within the work itself
Neurodiversity in here
Unfortunately I’m often still expected to demonstrate my ‘neurodivergent talents’ but leave the autism at the threshold so they don’t have to make accommodation, as if they’re two separate entities or I can choose to ‘be’ either when I wish. One problem is people don’t ask us what we need either they look towards experts or make assumptions – assumptions don’t make safe spaces, safe spaces are attitudes that start in the mind, because people can make or break us; there is no space in between. We are experts in ‘us’ and we’re all different – one formula won’t work it has to be individualised. Neurodivergent people need to take the lead. The case is creative plain and simple, if you want to experience ‘performance’ that is different you need to commission makers who ‘think differently’ and look towards an ‘undiscovered country’, but then you will also need to think differently about how you interact with them.
Jon Adams, Research fellow and artist has established in collaboration with The New Theatre Royal Portsmouth and Threshold Studios, ‘Flow Observatorium’ to curate, campaign for ND acceptance and create safe space for neurodivergent practitioners and makers in the arts
Appendix one Formulaic diversity
Diversity should be people centric not a formula applied generic……No matter what new option you start with unless we change the ‘formula’ we use we’re always going to get to the same answer eventually – you can show this with a simple mathematical game – take a number – if it’s even halve it, if it’s odd multiply by 3 and add 1 (3n+1) and no matter what number or diversity ‘option’ you start with as you work through applying this formula you will always end with the same repeating sequence – tortuously in some cases even though we invest a large amount of time getting there.
People mistakenly see switching the number option as the agent of change and not the formula. For realistic meaningful change to happen there has to be total change, in this case at the start of the equation with the formula, the mindset we apply.
To achieve change using the formula you just cut out the ‘division’ – better still don’t apply a formula at all…………….
Number option being the ‘diversity’ or route options ideas etc The formula being ‘but’ or ‘the way we always do it’
Directly in front of me, pinned to the wall in my office, is a postcard of a crowd of football fans making their way to the 1999 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Manchester United. It is an image I look at almost every day.
The photograph was taken by Stuart Roy Clark who specialises in photographing football fans and stadiums. To my way of thinking, this image is a rather candid and engaging one. Taken from above, the image features two Manchester United fans – a father carrying his son on his shoulders – surrounded by a large crowd of Newcastle United fans. Given the rivalry and ‘tribal’ animosity frequently associated with football fans, mainly in the mainstream media, the relaxed behaviour of the fans and total absence of any sense of threat or malevolence is notable, but perhaps not entirely surprising to those of us who attend football matches on a regular basis. What is also notable about the photograph – so much so indeed that it is almost unnoticeable – is the number of fans wearing replica football shirts. While some fans can be seen wearing casual clothing, and one or two are evidently wearing suits, the majority are wearing replica versions of the shirts worn by players of the team they support. A closer look also reveals that most, but by no means all, are wearing that season’s shirt.
Allegiance and attachment
Though familiar and highly visible, the football shirt is no ordinary object. It is an object of iconic significance. The shirt is the most recognisable symbol not only of a player’s identity but also of a team and a football clubs identity; so much so that many of the most common club nicknames are derived from the clubs shirt colour or its associations; the Blues (Birmingham City) the Clarets (Burnley) the Hornets (Watford), the Magpies (Newcastle United), the Reds (Liverpool), the Tigers (Hull City), etc. In addition to defining a football club’s visual identity the replica football shirt has become an item of ‘cross-generational leisurewear’ (Stride et al, 2014) and the primary means many fans have of expressing and communicating their allegiance and attachment to a particular club or team; and through this their locality or nationality.
In this context, the term ‘attachment’ refers to the emotional bond, the enduring psychological connectedness established between human beings, individually and collectively. Attachment theory was first developed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) (Bowlby, 1971) and the American born developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) (Holmes, 1993). The central tenet of attachment theory is that the emotional bonds formed with our primary caregivers during infancy shape the way we relate to others throughout later life (Ainsworth et al, 1979). It is through these bonds of attachment that we acquire a sense of self and of belonging. If these bonds are significantly damaged or absent a person may experience a range of mental health problems in childhood or later in adulthood; including separation anxiety and a pervasive sense of insecurity (Holmes, 2001).
Feelings may run high when our attachments and allegiances are challenged or threatened. A recent example of this being the current controversy in Spain surrounding the kit to be worn by the national team in next year’s World Cup. Coming as it does at a time of heightened political divisions in Spain the new kit has apparently proved extremely divisive among the nation’s fans. Nuanced though it is, the controversy appears to stem from the addition of blue – seen by many as purple – to red and yellow colours traditionally used in the design of the Spanish national team kit. According to the BBC website,
Critics say the colours of the shirt appear similar to the flag of Spain’s Second Republic, rather than the current Spanish national flag. The Second Republic started in 1931 when the King was overthrown and lasted just until 1939.
Ironically, the shirt was designed to recreate the classic jersey worn by the Spanish team at the 1994 World Cup held in the USA and both the Spanish football federation and the manufacturer Adidas deny the kit has political connotations.
Get your kit on…
For much of footballs history, developments in the fabrication and design of player’s kit – shirts, shorts, socks, and boots – have been driven by the requirements of the game for enhanced performance and by developments in manufacturing technology. In the UK, where the game first developed, football has traditionally been a game played in winter. Consequently the clothing or kit worn by players – stout, studded boots, woollen shirts, etc. – served not only to help identify players from their opponents but as protection from the elements. In warmer climates – in South America or Mediterranean countries, for example – player kit tended to be lighter in weight and tighter in fit.
As the game became less physical and more athletic over time, traditional, natural materials such as cotton and wool have been replaced by lighter, ‘engineered’ synthetic materials often with baffling scientific sounding names designed to reduce sweating and friction and increase freedom of movement. A notable relatively early example of such a development in my lifetime was the kit worn by the England football team during the 1970 World Cup finals held in Mexico. To combat the heat and humidity of a Mexico summer the England team wore a kit made from Aertex, a lightweight cellular material designed for hot climates.
For boys of my age owning your own football kit marked something of a rite of passage. No longer compelled to wear the ill-fitting sportswear allocated by school I could wear what I wanted, or more accurately what my family were willing and able to buy. Not that there was a great deal of choice back in the early 1960s. Shirts and shorts came in primary colours, usually with white collars and cuffs; socks similarly. Lacking club crests and numbers the shirts available bore little resemblance to those worn by the players seen in newspapers, magazine and, increasingly, on television. Although football boots had long been commodified, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that replica kits, marketed as sportswear to children, became widely available. One consequence of the increasing commercialisation of professional football has been the ruthless commercial exploitation of the desire to identify with clubs and teams, especially successful ones such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Wearing the shirt may bring with it a sense of belonging but it comes at a price. Clubs not only change the design of their first team shirt on an annual basis, they do so for second (away) and third strip too. For the loyal football fan buying and wearing the shirt can be an expensive undertaking. At the time of writing, a Newcastle United Home Shirt for the 2017-2018 is retailing on the club website for £54.99. This price includes a £10 discount on the manufacturer’s retail price. Personalising a shirt through the addition of a name – one’s own or that of a favourite player – comes at an additional cost.
Wearing the shirt
In his book The Language of Things Deyan Sudjic, the current Director of the Design Museum in London, writes,
Objects are the way in which we measure out the passing of our lives. They are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not. Sometimes it is jewellery that takes on this role, at other times it is the furniture that we use in our homes, or the personal possessions that we carry with us, or the clothes that we wear (Sudjic, 2009: 21).
This was never truer than with the replica shirts bought and worn by football fans such as myself. Not only do they help define us through making our sporting affiliations so public, but they mark the passing of time as clearly as the rings in the trunk of a tree. The logos we display also turn us into walking advertisements for global sporting and other brands. The current Newcastle United shirt sponsorship deal with the Chinese gambling company Fun88 is the biggest in club’s history. While being extremely lucrative, shirt sponsorship is relatively new given the long history of the game. Prior to 1979 advertising on shirts was banned by the FA.
My own Newcastle United club shirt is many seasons old now and doesn’t have my name or the name of a favourite player on the back. At a guess, I would estimate I bought my shirt in 2007 or 2008, the year before the bank Northern Rock – the club sponsors at the time – were taken into public ownership and before Puma became the official supplier and licensee of replica merchandise for manufacturer in 2010. That I haven’t replaced my club shirt for almost a decade now over the illustrates my ambivalence concerning the commercialisation of the game (no matter how loyal a fan I might be I really couldn’t bring myself to wear a shirt with the Wonga logo emblazoned so prominently on the front) and about the role played by the clubs current owner – Mike Ashley – in relation to this.
Investment, Identification and identity
For a number of years now there has been much talk in the media, especially in the North East, concerning the way Mike Ashley does business and runs Newcastle United. Despite, or possibly as a consequence of being a highly successful businessman (he owns, amongst other businesses, Sports Direct) Ashley is frequently portrayed – mostly by angry fans, it must be said – as miserly, incompetent, secretive, malevolent and ruthless. This may or may not be true. What is beyond dispute is that Mike Ashley is intensely disliked on Tyneside, mainly for selling popular players and failing to invest in strengthening the first team. Since taking ownership of the club, Newcastle United has been relegated from the Premier League on two occasions; most recently at the end of the 2015-16 season.
At the heart of this antipathy is the entirely different nature of the investment Ashley and the fans have in Newcastle United. Irrespective of the fact he may be seen sporting a black and white shirt, tie or scarf, Mike Ashley’s investment in the club is primarily financial. Ashley appears to view the club as providing a global platform from which to promote his retail business Sports Direct. Although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, the financial investment has certainly been substantial.
For most fans the investment made in Newcastle United is emotional rather than financial, although no one should underestimate the cost of being a committed supporter of any football team, let alone Newcastle United. In addition to the not insubstantial cost of actually watching the team play at home or away, live or on television (match tickets, travel, food, TV subscriptions, etc.), there are team shirts and other symbols of affiliation and loyalty (merchandise such as bedspreads, mouse mats, key rings, etc.) to be bought.
It is the depth and intensity of this emotional investment – the emotional bond (attachment) – that so many fans and followers of the game – myself included – feel is so ruthlessly exploited. Those who profit from the game, – most obviously club owners and multi-national corporations – want our money, our participation and (brand) loyalty, yet are willing to reschedule games, seemingly on a whim or sell crowd favourite players even if this weakens the team. This feels like contempt and may in fact be such. If the fans continue to turn up in significantly large numbers week after week with little prospect of witnessing success why should the likes of Mike Ashley care? So long as the money continues to roll in why should it matter what I or other fans feel? No wonder then that a recent national fans’ survey revealed that two-thirds of fans believe the clubs they support do not care about them. More fool us!
Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M, Waters, E. & Wall, S. (1979) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, New Jersey, USA
Bowlby, J. (1971) Attachment and Loss Volume 1: Attachment, Penguin Books: London:
Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base, Brunner –Routledge: Hove
Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby & Attachment Theory, Brunner –Routledge: Hove
Stride, C., Williams, J., Moor, D. & Catley, N. (2014). From Sportswear to Leisurewear: The Evolution of English Football League Shirt Design in the Replica Kit Era. Sport in History. 35(1): 156-194
Sudjic, D. (2009) The Language of Things, Penguin Books: London
DE: Wednesday, 15 November 2017 (2100 words)
A lifelong Newcastle United supporter, Dave Edwards is an HCPC registered Art Therapist and a UKCP registered Psychodynamic Psychotherapist who has been practicing for over thirty years.
He also has a Sheffield based private practice mainly offering individual clinical supervision to qualified art therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors.
The second edition of Dave’s book – Art Therapy – was published by Sage in 2014.
Out of the Ashes – notes from the frontline of creative practice on the boundaries of visibility. #autism
My talk for:
Untold Tales of Neurodivergence and Mental Health in Oxford, a panel hosted by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and Pitt Rivers Museum. Pod cast also available.
My talk today is about navigating the rapids of freelance work as an autistic creative and the challenges of working collaboratively across neurologies. My recent research has been a personal journey but has included a consultative partnership in the US and many conversations with autistic professionals across the globe.
I have come to know of so many talented hidden voices, and, while my talk is about a singular process, so much of what I have to say has a wider application.
My contribution to the theme of ‘Hidden Beneath the Surface’ is a tale of struggle in which becoming visible is an ongoing process and at times a question mark. What I offer are some preliminary thoughts culled from a much longer draft report for Arts Council England.
I am an autistic artist and creative project lead. I stand before you as a person in translation.
I form part of what has been termed the “lost generation” of individuals who are diagnosed late in life due to recent advances in knowledge about autism. In my work as a freelance professional, I need accommodations to access the same level of opportunity as that of my peers.
I am now coming to the close of a unique piece of work, a personal case study in the field of freelance project work funded by the Arts Council. The aim of this research is to design an enabling toolkit for my work as an autistic project lead, which I will also use to enable and mentor other neurodivergent artists.
The key to understanding this piece of work is that I have had to build my tool kit from scratch as my project has unfolded. This is the first time I have worked visibly as an autistic person and attempted to advocate for my needs in the workplace.
Freelance project work in the arts is often informal, characterised by highly individual working practices, and without clear structures. We need funding to create self-led projects from which to build sustainable artistic practices in line with our peers. Yet, without adjustments for the challenges involved, we can quickly become disabled in the freelance melee.
Our ideas are often powerful and original – funding us can be hugely beneficial and reap rich cultural rewards – but the barriers to our inclusion can be overwhelming. I have made it through the funding barriers, and yet my project proved disabling and needed major adjustments.
Autism as culture
Autism is both a neurological and cultural difference. We are a small minority with a unique social difference. We live in societies which expect and demand from us a social orientation and aptitudes which are quite other. This is pervasive and disabling in ways not easily recognised or understood by the majority.
But those who work with us don’t need to ‘get’ autism in its entirety – this is a big ask for our colleagues. Indeed, the demand to share personal information about ourselves to gain access is an issue in itself (Mia Mingus). In an ideal world, our needs should be accepted without question and active measures taken, but in reality, they are mired in social complexities, and we are currently forced to navigate access via the very social codes which can disable us.
Deconstructing the power imbalance
Aspects of my experience stand as a cautionary tale. The earliest iteration of my project floundered on the question of inclusion despite this being its primary goal.
The bare bones of my situation were that I had agreed to work collaboratively to shape a project around my needs. I had lent my creative idea, and my neurodivergence was the rationale for funding; but still my needs became submerged. So how did this happen?
Well, I think we need a wider understanding that effective inclusion is a two way street of adaptation, and that accommodating autistics requires the will to focus adequately and make significant and responsive behavioural changes towards us – especially in close collaborations across neuro-types.
And, while we may seem to speak the same language, our innate human difference as autistics can be greatly misconstrued, and our value as the very people who can generate ideas and employment can become easily obscured in practice.
There exists a certain ‘tone deafness’ to the nuance of our autistic being, which has been dubbed the ‘double empathy bind’ (Damian Milton).
Neurotypicals find it difficult to relate to and engage with autistic experience, and vice versa.
A mirror world exists in which the only difference between us is that of number. I promise you that many of the ‘flaws’ suggested by the deficit models of autism can be aimed at neurotypicals from an autistic perspective. This has perhaps been my profoundest piece of learning.
Project leadership and design
To lead a project, I need to work in ways which minimise my anxiety. Anxiety is a constant for many autistic people, and can become disabling.
High standards of professional practice can be extremely helpful in countering anxiety at work.
But my project had unwittingly placed too much reliance on a single means of access, and I was responsible for outcomes without being able to move the necessary cogs directly in an ambitious and complex piece of work.
This was hugely inefficient and anxiety provoking, and at times it seemed my project had been built on quicksand.
I’ve learned that enabling project design will include multiple and direct access routes, and allow for a hands on approach in all areas where outcomes matter, also that truly successful access must be written in at the point of design and not simply added on later. My toolkit and my thoughts about project design have begun to merge.
In the informal freelance arts sector, there can be a high reliance on NT friendship codes and relationships.
Autistic access needs can be socially misunderstood due to prevailing norms and the emotional needs of others. It isn’t easy to find a way to tell your colleagues that the emotional labour they take for granted can be taxing enough to make you lose the power of speech later in your day. Invariably, people tend to feel that your needs don’t apply to them, because these norms are so powerfully dominant and immediate in our lives.
But it is beyond stressful to decipher and manage certain types of emotional demand embedded in social codes at work.
My mid term project hack was to establish rules for contact, and filter interactions by limiting contact time and channelling all communications to one email address.
These simple adjustments quietened down all noise which was not work related. Some forms of invisibility can be a very good thing.
Masking and trauma
But generally we have to mask or otherwise camouflage autism in the workplace, and this is exhausting and destructive in the long term. It is this very issue my research seeks to address.
It is genuinely hard for colleagues to understand this, because autism can be invisible even when we try to explain ourselves, and such failures of communication can be genuinely traumatising.
Our struggles can be made clearer if we talk purely in terms of access and equivalences with other examples of disablement. The will or ability to adapt to our needs, however, lies in the hands of our colleagues and is not often in our power to influence via social means of negotiation. This is the nature of our vulnerability as freelancers.
As autistic professionals we face a bewildering tautology. In order to become visible, we must express our needs in translation. We share language and use the same words about a sometimes radically different set of experiences. We cannot thus assume a shared meaning or understanding. This is why it is vital to focus on the machinery of access – the nuts and bolts if you like.
Translating autism is a job in itself and no guarantee of successful communication, and though I am a huge believer in cultural advocacy in its many forms, I think it is unwise to expose ourselves to this labour in workplace negotiations.
Equality, I’ve come to think, should not require that we ‘overshare’ our vulnerability (so to speak). This can serve to accentuate the power imbalance in collaborations across neuro-types.
I think that smart project design will be the kind that fits so well you can barely see it. And for this, we need the liberty to design our projects around our neurological profiles, and present our toolkits as a matter of high professionalism. For this we need spaces to think and plan autistically, and to share and disseminate our learning, which is my intention.
My quest has taken me much deeper than expected but I think my learning is all the greater for it.
Visibility is not for everyone, because privacy really does matter and may be crucial for wellbeing, and the layers of our suppressions are multiple and complex. But I have found the urge to test these boundaries has brought the richest of rewards – that of personal and professional congruence. I am profoundly grateful to the Arts Council for this opportunity to develop my practice as an autistic creative.
In becoming visible, we encourage others to do the same. This creates momentum and so can lead to change. But, in doing so, we can be measured in what we share, and this too is our right.
We have now officially come to the close of an exciting Arts Council funded research and development phase, which has seen this project change shape in order to truly reflect and accommodate its autistic leadership. I’m incredibly proud of all that has been achieved, and of our contributing ‘neurotyopcial’ artists who have remained so patient and open-minded during this process. For a period this meant not knowing what our project outcomes would look like, and it takes a particular kind of faith to pin a professional stake on an unknown quantity. I hope part of the reward is to see it all come to fruition and be part of something pioneering and potentially revolutionary. We also have some exciting ‘realtime’ outcomes to be getting along with.
I’m especially pleased to have been able to develop a mentoring scheme called WEBworks, for a small group of autistic artists, and to have offered employment to two of my mentees during the latter half of the project.
As a result this website is designed, built and curated autistically, and I’m delighted to say the Museum is an ethical and congruent project both at front and back of house. A huge thank you is due to artist Hugh Pryor for his work on the website.
I’m looking forward to building more content about our WEBworks artists, and tracking our progress as we roll out a new model of mentorship for autistic artists – who so often get left behind despite their great talent and potential.
The website now has a quite wonderful Artists section where you can view each proposal for an exhibition in realtime – which will form part of our next Arts Council bid. We have also included a new Features tab where you can find resources on object related matters, including a growing list of book recommendations and links. You can also read about the fascinating project, Family Snaps! created by artist, Linda Hubbard, in our Artist Interviews section (the first of what we hope will be many such interviews with artists working with objects.) There’s a brand new blog page for Autistic voices – which will gather in posts about autistic relatedness to objects.
Our original Art Blog also remains at the heart of the project as a space for reflection and conversation about object work within artistic practices.
I’m delighted to announce that during this phase of MfOR, we have been able to commission a new video work by artist Naomi Morris which will be ready for upload shortly. Her video piece will be a response to objects from an autistic perspective.
It’s been a hugely enriching experience developing this project, and it’s been a joy to connect with others in the autistic community, notably aritst Jon Adams and the pioneering project for neurodivergent artists called Flow Observatorium.
Especially rewarding has been the opportunity to share my recent research at an event organised by Oxford University TORCH (The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities) – a pod cast and transcript of my talks are both available here.
I can’t end this blog post without expressing gratitude to my two mentors for MfOR and Webworks, Miranda Millward and Sarah Mossop. My project has thrown up many challenges and they have been steadfast in guiding me – I think mentorship (in a freelance context) for artists is a seriously underrated and unspoken need. I can’t wait to carry on our work together to encourage and support our WEBworks artists.
So watch this space! MfOR has become a living breathing entity, which can grow and develop both in online and ‘realtime’ platforms.
Raised up like this she inhabited another world. Looking out over the back of his shoulder while being carried forward. Lights blurred and streamed away from her like a Richter painting. She was being torn away from something but could not remember what. Stretching out her arms to try and grab something, the streaming lights were not solid and evaded her tiny grasp. Was it then she decided her hold on the world could not compete with the forces that drove it forward? Would she always be looking behind for something she had just lost? Aware then that she had been holding onto something, but now she was not. She screamed, howled, from the pit of her stomach and out. It filled the Richter paintings, it tore into them and they responded screaming, howling, screeching till all their colours became solid like glass and shattered into a million fragments.
A sense then, of a colour, a soft yellow, pale tactile yellowy something. She could not remember what it was she had lost.
I have felt sympathy for objects since I was a very young child.
This has caused me a huge amount of sadness and anxiety over the years. I feel sad for the photograph that gets pushed to the back of the display cabinet, the guitar that doesn’t get played anymore, or the once loved camera that has now been displaced by a newer one. Continue reading →
For the past few years I have been systematically culling a lot of my possessions.
I am making a virtue of it to my friends, who often lament their accumulated stuff. There is a defiance about the way I relish the process.
They are impressed and I am now known for my fierceness in facing up to the task. I feel smug that I won’t have to do it when I am older.
Now I am wondering, how much older? I am already 66.
My mother died a couple of years ago, but I had cleared her house way before that, to make way for tenants who helped to fund her stay in the care home.
I have a very few of her possessions, only the small stuff, some valuable but mostly not. I come from an army family, we were never encouraged to hoard possessions. My home is small, it has my accumulated stuff and some of my daughters and most importantly contains my studio space.
Recently I needed a passport, I hadn’t renewed this important document, for 15 years. I kept putting it off. For those 15 years I was looking out for my mum and my daughter, my focus was on them. I didn’t feel the need to travel.
Getting back to the Museum for Object Research, is a passport an object?
I have kept all the old ones.
As a way of exploring self and identity I am making paintings of the 6 passport photos.
The portraits then have selected objects painted in the foreground. The objects are related to the time span of the passports. They are items of significance, but just ordinary things.
However I am aware that the objects I have kept and what I choose to add to my work represents my life. I become self conscious, imagining observers will judge me and it makes me feel vulnerable. The objects accompanying the image cause me to reflect and remember, which makes me nostalgic, regretful and sometimes sad.
I wonder how I can manipulate the choices I have made to enhance my offered persona, to present an alternative narrative, to appear a little more edgy……. I could cheat, just a little.
So far I have made 5 paintings and half way through the 6th. I refine the objects, adding something that I notice fits the narrative and seems to be jostling for attention. The reason some of these objects have survived is quite random. I mourn some objects that I no longer have. I toy with the idea of replacing them, but I know that would not work. Authenticity is key.
By the time I had made these five paintings ….. I had two rings, two hand written objects.
Two objects associated with travel.
Two associated with my daughter.
Two items for my father. Two with ex husband. Two with ex partner.
Three angels! (I had tried to ignore the wooden angel, but was proud when I bought it 55 yrs
Nothing yet linked to my mother.
So then, should decisions about what to include became about fairness, breadth and balance. I must include her, I have a choice of objects.
Do they fit the time span? Does that matter?
As I write this, the objects I have chosen so far for the five paintings have begun to assert themselves, to have a relationship and speak to each other. I think I need to give them some attention and allow them to become more dominant.
AND maybe the most important is the painting that I have not made yet. It covers the 15 years when I had no passport. I plan to represent this just through objects..
These small paintings are a prelude for what I hope will either be larger pieces, or a series of another 6 paintings offering an alternative image of me, or an assemblage, or…..
It’s always a delight to be reintroduced to something you loved and had completely forgotten about, as happened yesterday. It was while I was thinking about titles for a small body of work that the words ‘objects of desire’ came to mind. Maybe subconsciously, I was remembering Matthew Sweet’s programme on Radio Four, a series I had listened to and really enjoyed.
Even the programme’s titles draw me in – The Nest, The Unlovely, Order and Territory and so on, conjuring up all sorts of narratives about the wonder and fascination of objects and how they define us. Revisiting the programmes has also reminded me of my own ‘unlovely’ collection which like so much of my stuff, is currently tucked away in boxes. All a matter of taste, of course, but I’ve always envisaged showing (what I consider to be) these rather hideous and ugly objects in an ornate display cabinet – raising their profile from the unlovely to something rather beautiful.
‘The subject of our mortality is one that has always fascinated me -the fragility of life versus the permanence of objects, in particular …’
A Facebook memory popped up on my timeline over the weekend and made me want to touch base with my ‘Keeping It Going’ blog again. The memory showed a photo of a piece of work that was inspired by objects which belonged to my late Nana. The memory also included a blog post from the same period and it was fascinating to recap and go back two years in time, particularly in terms of world news – politics, specifically. So much has happened!
‘Nana’s Colours’ Part of an ongoing series of assemblage work in tribute to a dear grandmother.
But, as well as what’s been going on globally, the blog post also reminded me about how much of my creative work continues to focus around the life of my late grandmother (Nana) and the many objects associated with the home in which she lived for some 70 years.
It also made me think about my recent involvement in an Arts Council funded project, The Museum for Object Research, created and led by artist Sonia Boue.The proposal I submitted forthe Museumsums up the way in which the ‘Nana’s Colours’ body of workbegan and continues to evolve; how the mass of objects that make up my own personal collection provides the vast majority of raw material for creating work. The proposal I submitted to The Museum for Object Research is very relevant to the overall theme of my work with objects and for this reason, I have included it here:
I propose to build on an existing body of work, ‘Nana’s Colours’ which was inspired by the small collection of things that I gathered from my Nana’s home when she was finally forced to leave it. In the five years since my Nana’s death, I have combined the various items I rescued from her home with others from my extensive lifetime collection to create small assemblage works.
The source material is diverse – china, glassware, fabrics, soaps, powders, paper, plastics and so on – but the objects selected are all steeped in social history and speak volumes about my Nana’s identity, age and social standing and of course, my relationship with her.
The small celebratory assemblages are an ongoing testimony to the relatively simple existence my Nana lived in a small Cambridgeshire village. She lived until the grand age of 102 and the work demonstrates how much life has changed over the past century, particularly in relation to the things we own nowadays – the things we have in our homes and make use of.
Examining my late Nana’s objects in this respect is extremely poignant, homing in on deep-rooted childhood memories around family and relationships – love and loss. The objects still exist – my Nana sadly, no longer does. The subject of our mortality is one that has always fascinated me – the fragility of life versus the permanence of objects, in particular. The objects live on, our emotional attachments projected onto them, and become enriched with the assorted narratives and stories surrounding them.
The Museum for Object Research touches on a recurring theme in my work around the question of value and worth. What is an object ‘worth?’ How do we put a price on certain items? As it stands alone, a used powder puff has no monetary value. If however, it’s one that my Nana used, then it becomes imbued with a highly personal history and narrative. Its emotional value is enormous – it’s worth an awful lot to me. People pay thousands of pounds for John Lennon’s glasses, or even Elvis’s hairdryer. Shouldn’t objects that belonged to ‘ordinary’ people be celebrated too?
The end of summer 2017 is set to be an eventful and symbolic time; my twin sons leaving for respective universities will undoubtedly have a big impact on the amount of spare time I’m going to have. It will be a time of massive change and readjustment for all of us as a family and only time will tell how much of my sons’ leaving will affect my creative output. I’ll be back at some point in the future to report back, I’m sure …
In the meantime, you can read more about The Museum for Object Research – the premise behind the project, the participating artists and so on – by following this link:
Originally published on The Other Side, this post relates to my research and the family history which fuels my art practice. My mission is to create a body of work around the themes emerging from a second generation experience of Spanish Republican exile to England.
My great grandmother sits beneath a bakelite radio, surrounded by family photographs in Madrid, 1935.
A portrait of a small child hangs to her right, it’s an image of my father which now rests in a plastic wallet in my mother’s house in Birmingham, England. This wallet contains all the photographs which graced the walls of my grandmother’s flat in Barcelona.
When my grandparents made their final journey from Spain to England in the mid 1970s the photographs travelled with them in a suitcase. That suitcase sits in my art studio in Oxford.
Packing and unpacking history is a cross-generational game. We shuffle the decks perhaps, but the intense joy of seeing and holding these images can’t be equalled. They centre me and show me the way forward. They tell me who I am.
This woman called Meri, who bore my dearest abuela (grandmother) sits waiting. Within months (a year at most) Spain would be at war, and after the siege of Madrid she would leave her home, travelling to Valencia and then Barcelona. In 1939, she would flee for her life and face the brutal camps of France where Spanish exiles from Fascist Spain were held behind barbed wire and under armed guard.
She was one of the fortunate exiles, allowed to leave the camps and live a civilian life in Angoulême along with my abuelos (her daughter and son-in-law). Work was tough. I recently learned that my abuelos worked 12 hour shifts in a munitions factory, but they were happy to be allowed to rent a small flat and make a home again.
By 1941 they were able to return to Spain, and grated permission to live in Barcelona. Despite being Republicans they were pardoned – they got lucky somehow.
As fascism rears violently in Charlottesville and I try to process this new horror, I look back at Meri. And I ask myself what would Meri do?
Meri was witness and survivor. Meri I feel, (like abuela also) would untie her apron and go to the market for flowers to make a tribute. We are called on to witness, again and again.
Since I began my art practice and tuned in to this history my work has expanded and diverted at times but I have always retuned to the ritual of the tribute. With the Nazi uprisings in the US my senses are sharpened once more, as with the refugee crisis, there are moments in contemporary life when my heritage kicks in and I can’t look away.
The news overwhelms and threatens to engulf us with all our senseless inhumanities. But now I know what to do. I must head to my studio to gather my ancestors and make some work. However small, however fleeting my witness may be I need to stay human. I need to engage and resist.
The Museum would like to thank Linda Hubbard for giving us this interview about her Family Snaps project. Questions compiled by Sonia Boué.
I don’t like talking about my work.
I don’t think art should be explained
The joy is finding out things for yourself.
I have left out answers on some questions, I want to leave them open,
I don’t want to spoil it for others
1. You’ve created a whole narrative world in Family Snaps. What got you started on it?
1.A I was reading about storytelling and was just thinking as you do, this sentence was the trigger ‘There are only seven stories in fiction and that all others are based on them.’
2. Did you have the whole narrative planned or did that evolve as you worked on the pieces?
2.A Both, the idea, the suitcase, were clear in my head, plus the below statement, lots of thinking about building, contents, over long periods, and the contents then just evolve.
There is only ever one story to tell.
This is the story of the house and the people who live there.
Whether the house be a home, church or state. Yours, Mine,Theirs. The plots are always The same.
Winners and losers. Loved and unloved. Have’s and have-nots. The powerful the weak.
3. There’s also a playfulness with objects which I love – there are paintings of objects, objects, and the paintings are also presented as objects themselves (each one beautifully framed/wrapped and unwrapped).
This back and forth between objects and their representations fascinated me and is a subject in itself. Can you say some more about this process?
3. A I don’t want to answer this, don’t want to spoil it for others.
4. You’ve created an intriguing and unsettling series with Family Snaps. I like the way you’ve built it and created links between sections. Each object could stand alone, and the sections can be read separately or joined together. I spent a lot of time going back and forth trying to work it out. My first attraction to the piece was based purely on the objects and the way they’re laid out. I loved it as a visual piece. Are you happy for Family Snaps to be viewed as a collection of objects or is it important to you that the viewer digs deep?
Also your project is pretty dark but it is also humorous. How would you sum up the general Intention behind this work, and do you think objects are helpful in mediating difficult subjects?
4.A What you see is who you are!
Family Snaps is ‘White Propaganda’ its purpose, persuasion, that attempts to
Influence the emotions, attitude, opinions and actions for the good of humanity.
I’m free, privileged, educated, I have a voice and able to speak up loud and clear with impunity. I have things I want to say and believe need saying, and I should say.
Hopefully the narrative is clear, powerful enough, has the smell of truth
for people to see it as a piece of propaganda and that it agitates them enough to think!
It does not bother me if people want to see Family Snaps as a collection of objects.
Yes, I do think objects are helpful in mediating difficult subjects.
5. I’m probably drawn to the Family Snaps because it’s about patterns which can be read on many levels. You’re opening text suggests the patterns of human life are predictable and repeated – did this influence how you structured the project? I’m especially interested in the grid presentation on the website in relation to this.
5.A My first attempt at Family Snaps [some years ago] was much smaller, 9 works altogether.
I created a stop, motion, animation. The case opening, someone unwrapping the objects displaying the contents, shutting the lid. There was also background music. When I changed my website platform I could not carry the animation over from a technical perspective. The grid presentation is a choice from the constraints of website templates it’s like a film storyboard also I am very conscious that most websites are viewed on mobile devices. So when I was building the project, clarity, flow of the narrative was important being able to view it on a mobile device and has had an influence on structure and presentation.
6. The presentation also made me think of Christian Boltanski’s piece, Inventory of Objects Belonging to a Young Man of Oxford, which was also shown in grid form. It probably also came to mind because it’s a mysterious narrative told through objects photographed in a particular way which is immensely pleasing. What do you consider to be of influence to your work and can you trace those influences to Family Snaps?
6. A What influences me, everything and everybody. Big things, tiny things, people, who they are, how they have lived their lives, what they have contributed.
Who I am, what I see, my life experiences influences everything do.
7. Do you think of yourself as an object artist?
7.A Never really thought about it, suppose I am. The cause or message are everything in propaganda, I think objects can give clarity and I think it’s easier for some to people understand through objects. When I was at primary school if the teacher would ask what 2 + 2 is, I wouldn’t have a clue, but I would always understand and solve the maths if presented with bricks to solve the problem.
8. I love how you’ve wrapped and packed these paintings and objects – so visually pleasing and also suggestive of so many other layers to the narrative. What gave you the idea for this as a thematic device?
8.A Ritual, truth. Don’t want to say anymore, I like to keep it open not wanting to spoil it for others
9. Politics, war and religion obviously feature in this work. In the Keepsakes section reliquaries come to mind. Is this something you thought about?
9.A Yes that and other things.
10. Finally, how long did it take you to complete Family Snaps, and do you have plans to exhibit this work IRL?
10.A Difficult to say how long it took me as I have had two stabs at family snaps with gap of a few years. I decided last year after E U Referendum,Trump’s election to have another crack at Family Snaps, so have been working on it since then. It’s not actually finished, all my projects are open and I add to them, make changes, when the ideas flow. At some point I will probably film the process/experience of opening the suitcase, taking out the objects, presenting the images. There will be a sound track, Mantovani And His Orchestra – Charmaine here is the link
I have written to the Mantovani Estate to see if they will let me use it for free with acknowledgement.
I am hoping to exhibit Family Snaps next year. Presenting Family Snaps is difficult, ideally I would like an individual experience for everyone, opening the suitcase unwrapping the objects, experiencing the narrative, then packing everything back up for the next person, is not feasible to do that.
Presenting the film and displaying the contents will hopefully be as near as I can get to a personal experience.
(A powerful and intriguing blog post by Ruth Geldard, featuring some of her work for #MfOR, originally posted on her own blog.)
“The handbag is one of our most debated, most gendered cultural artefacts. It can be a powerful status symbol, and is a universally recognised indicator of femininity.” Sandra Mardin
My own preoccupation with them began in childhood, standing at a stall at a Bring and Buy sale, and the dawning realisation that I could buy nine used handbags with my pocket money, equivalent to the price of a Mars bar today. They were all shapes and sizes in different materials; leather, moc croc, plastic and textile. The thing that stuck though and remained with me throughout my life, was the used-ness of them, what today would be described as being, pre-loved. The surface of the bags bore graphic traces that evidenced the previous owners/wearers, their scent and their very battered-ness, resonated and hinted at, other lives. And I loved them all.
In retrospect, I think this early, multiple-bag exposure, set in train, a heightened perception of and material sensitivity to old bags. I would give anything to see them again. And this has made me think of the long succession of bags that followed, I remember them all in graphic detail, I could even draw them for you…
“…handbags are in some way linked to the feminine and one would have to see a direct link with the womb…” Rosalind Mayo
The idea of the handbag performing as a cipher for the womb in dream analysis, was started by Freud and continues to seep into the culture today. It seems I have chosen an object which carries multifarious, perceptual and literal baggage and so this stage of the project: to identify and define possible areas of work, has not been easy. During this research phase, I began to notice certain commonalities to do with, bag behaviour. At a party, the hostess noticed that I was carrying a small shoulder bag. She joked with me about this being a safe place to put it down and seeing my reluctance, ushered me to a point under the stairs where there was what seemed to be a whole flock of women’s bags all clustered together forming a circle. There was something so tender about this and memories of being in busy clubs and saying to strangers, “could I leave my bag with yours?” came to mind. Safety in numbers perhaps, but I find it hard to imagine a parallel situation with men and their briefcases or man bags, of which more later.
I couldn’t bear to end up as an Elvis Presley and sing in Las Vegas with all those housewives and old ladies come in with their handbags. It’s really sick. Mick Jagger
Interested in the physical evidence of wear, I began a series of bag portraits starting with my own, I treated it exactly as if it was a human sitter. I side-lit the model and placed it on a white background. Then asked friends to come with their bags and sit with me as I drew, while we discussed their bag behaviour. At this point, the project took on an identity of its own, complete with illuminating anomalies, tangents and emotional projections. One friend was “traumatised” when she put her favourite bag in the post, another was so conflicted, she became unable to choose between two of her favourites. The husband of another woman insisted on her giving me a particular bag that he “loved”, but she herself did not and had barely used. There were times when I found myself cheating and breaking self-imposed rules. Each bag seemed to demand it’s own medium, also, I wanted the bags to face me, all in the same position, to do that, I had to pack them out, to make them stand up properly and found myself filling them with whatever came to hand, glasses cases, candles, baked bean tins…Putting my hand inside another woman’s handbag felt decidedly weird.
“Bags also serve as the portable manifestation of a woman’s sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior, an omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life…” Daphne Merkin
And then, talking and simultaneously drawing the model, something I have always managed before, now became difficult, as I was forced to turn my head away from the subject. When I did have a bag to myself, (contrary to expectation) I was able to engage more deeply and with no constraints, would work for hours. But insights from the feedback given by the bag-owners, kept coming and helped me focus. One participant recounted fetching her mother’s handbag and having to hold it at arm’s length, not wanting it to touch her body as it would have made her uncomfortable. This brought up something I have often encountered, bag awe, most noticeable around your mother’s handbag, but in a lesser way, an indefinable aurapertaining to all women’s handbags.
“Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.” Margaret thatcher
With all this talk of handbags, a memory surfaced, of being at a late-night party and a slightly squiffy friend, unable or unwilling to find an ashtray, found an unattended handbag, opened it, flicked her ash into it and casually carried on smoking, occasionally tipping her ash on the rim. Finally, she ground out the butt with the heel of her shoe, flipped it into the bag and snapped it shut. I have never got over the shock and sense of transgression, how could she…? When I recently recounted this story to a friend she looked suitably shocked and said,
This photograph was taken outside the Magdalen Road Studios project space Filament 14, during MfOR’s mid term gathering of artist proposals.
NB. The poem in this blog post first appeared on my (Sonia Boué’s) The Other Side blog site, which is where much of the material about my research on the autistic professional template for MfOR can be found.
So we’ve reach a mid term point in our Arts Council funded research and development for MfOR. Where have we got to?
My professional template research was planned to take place alongside practical development of the MfOR project, but in practice has been so radical in it’s findings that a reshaping of the project has been needed, which continues to evolve.
The key questions to emerge – what is an autistic-led project, and have we designed one – were not even framed at the outset, let alone tested.
The answer to the latter is that we haven’t, because (Catch 22 alert) we didn’t know what one looked like before my research began.
Due to prevailing norms we’ve designed a predominant neurotype (PNT) project, based on PNT principles – which (by definition) are largely disabling to an autistic person/professional.
Redesigning the project is therefore a process – ongoing.
In a nutshell, MfOR began as an optimistic experiment with my autism, yet I was from first principles unwittingly disabled by my own PNT influenced project design.
Autism is a non-trivial human difference, and yet PNT systems are so embedded in the everyday that one is easily wrong-footed and (in very real terms) dis-abled despite being a perfectly competent autistic human. But however competent I may be, I can’t project lead while disabled.
Fortunately, part of my particular humanness is a heightened ability to focus, analyse, unpick and reconstruct. My ‘condition’ (if it is such) makes me a creative troubleshooter par excellence – I have to be to survive.
The job right now is to allow space for this thinking to unfold. I’m discovering so much about being disabled, about the absolute wisdom of the social model of disability and – more importantly still – how non-autistic humans become disabled in autistic spaces. This really does work both ways.
I hope the Arts Council – if they’re watching at this stage – approve that much of my working through of this thinking comes via the poetic form. My last ACE funded project Through An Artist’s Eye had poetry as a core professional development goal for improvement in technique and confidence. Hey, Arts Council – that was money well spent, and this is too. I can’t think of many more important cultural causes than a true investment in diversity. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to carry out this difficult, challenging and significant work – which I hope will be of benefit to others. The personal and professional development for me is proving immense.
Here is the preamble to the poem from The Other Side.
“The context for my poem Perfect storm is the research for my Arts Council Funded project – The Museum for Object Research. It isn’t about any one person or conversation, but more about my growing understanding of the ways in which I am disabled – despite being a competent human – by ingrained assumption and the double empathy bind.”
Dawn brings the perfect storm.
And skylights catch droplets in rapid succession.
Yet I am deaf to their timpani.
Undoing the stitches of my carefully fashioned…
I have spoken for the first time of my disability.
A pointed conversation.
But what of…
Yes! I say (quite shamelessly).
I do have one.
And degrees and so forth.
(Despite scoring zero for I.Q.*)
And, what is more,
I often soar above you.
(The aerial view is our prerogative.
Including the ‘voiceless’ and the more visibly NEEDY.
Sharing a something you can’t reach.
Ah yes – a club of sorts.
Seemingly without a fee.)
And perhaps this difference.
Well. It’s irrefutably so.
Is. Also. Your. Disability.
The places you can’t go.
I am disabled.
But by what?
And by whom?
What (I ask myself).
And. Most certainly.
I can read it.
In the symbiosis of our smiles.
And we can act like kittens.
Playing with string.
Until it’s time.
To bring the dead bird in.
A trophy to trying.
A cup to greet the day.
* My cognitive profile is not measurable as an IQ score.
The project is slowly building behind the scenes and I’ve been blogging a great deal on my own site about my autistic life. Professional development issues have dominated the last three posts, in which I dissect some of the more problematic areas of working life as a freelance autistic artist in a neurotypical world. It’s a good place to catch up on some of the issues which will inform the MfOR project design.
Meanwhile I’ve been enjoying following the MfOR artists online. Elena Thomas is combining work on the project with her songwriting and band work, which has recently taken off. Jenni Dutton is currently enjoying huge success with her Dementia Darnings (they are presently on show at The Hague), and Dawn Cole is working on the fascinating Arts Council England funded, Wasteland to Wasteland project. I often encounter Kate Murdoch’s online work, especially her Nana’s Colours series, and timely interventions on political matters. Ruth Geldard’s drawings (especially one recent stunning portrait of her mother) have often brought us together for a brief exchange.
Patrick Goodall‘s recent residency at New Art Gallery Walsall has provided some memorable video footage and images from his incredible Tool Workshops. And finally, Neil Armstrong has given us a tantalising glimpse of his proposal for MfOR. This will be a collaboration with his longtime friend, art psychotherapist, Dave Edwards. You can read all about it here.
So watch out for more news in this space and follow us as the project grows.
We’ve been a little quiet lately. Much work behind the scenes preparing an Arts Council bid is the reason why. But the the news is good! We’ve been given a Grants for the Arts award to develop our Museum for further consideration in an even more ambitious bid in six months’ time.
So this is stage 1 – research and development – in which we have six months to gather everything we need to take MfOR into production in real time.
So now we get to put our Arts Council banner on the blog, and transfer our archive of blog posts from a-n to this site. We’ll still keep posting on a-n, but we want to reach new audiences here too, where comment is open and we can join a larger conversation.
We’ll be loading up our press release shortly and sending out blog posts from the archives.
Exciting times lie ahead for the Museum – we have a great team and a brilliant group of artist exhibitors. We can’t wait to bring it all to life!
Meanwhile stay tuned for the many treasures that will become available online in the coming weeks. Our artist contributors did us proud back on a-n, and we’re so grateful to them all, including those who are sadly not able to join us for this part of the MfOR story. The archived blogs provide a rich resource and capture the early enthusiasm of all our past contributors.
Like many projects we’ve evolved in fits and starts at times. We can’t quite believe our luck that a core group of artists has formed around MfOR and will now go on to make this a reality.
The air is crisp and I have a book to read. A book about material memory – the backbone of my artistic practice.
I reflect that this book is itself an object. A treasure sifted from the internet. I often go prospecting online. It suits my brain. Sifting is soothing and over time has proved richly rewarding.
For example, a tweet lasts for 18 minutes (I’m told) before it sinks under the volume of subsequent contenders. So you have to sift carefully, scroll and click, scroll and click.
Repeat and repeat this action often enough and either you’ll find something useful in the archive, or suddenly you’re there in the moment when a fleck of gold sparkles live.
Such was the case with, Material Memories, Design and Evocation, (Ed Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward & Jeremy Aynsley) Berg, 1999. It appeared in a tweet by the Art Historian Marius Kwint, who I’ve been following for some time.
My copy is ex library, it has a yellow 7 day sticker on the spine, and a white label which reads Gen. Lit. B—0.5 KWI. A Leeds University Library sticker (green print) on the inside cover has been stamped WITHDRAWN in black. A further loan record slip on the opposite (and otherwise) blank page confirms (in blue print) that it was a 7 day loan book. It bears one stamp – 15 JUN 2009 and a further black WITHDRAWN stamp. The slip also says in bold, Edward Boyle Library. For a second I play detective – withdrawn in 2009 this book has lived another life and known other hands.
Another layer of consciousness? A separate gear? I am suddenly transported to all the libraries I have ever known (as in falling down a rabbit hole) – but to one library specifically. The library of my undergraduate university days on the Sussex University campus, as a student of art history. A sensation no doubt egged on by two familiar names. Contributors to this book include tutors from my degree course – Marcia Pointon and Nigel Llewellyn.
Further good augeries are contained in this book’s colour. Ah, it is orange (the colour of my wedding dress). The right orange (positive vibes ++/ like a duracell battery lasting longer, longer, longer). Warmth and vitality are promised – a dose of intellectual vitamin C.
The pages are smooth and weighty.
Each section or chapter bears a rectangular back and white photograph of a dissected nautilus shell top right. Further visual interruptions (a fine right-angled line at the top corner of each page) signal, I feel, that our subject is visual culture. I like it all.
Willem van Aelst Still Life with Fish, Bread and Nautilus Cup 17th century (detail)
The nautilus for the art historian (one who wrote her dissertation on Dutch still life certainly) subliminally signals vanitas genre at each turn of the chapter heading; the allusion to natural history museums is not missed either (I even make a stab at fibonacci in the far reaches of consciousness).
Now I am in all the galleries and museums I have bodily experience of. But quickly (as before) specifics take over and I find myself in the Oxford Natural History Museum which, like a museums Russian doll, houses the Pitt Rivers (a museum displaying the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford ). I hover between them.
As sometimes in a dream, I break the 4th wall to ask myself a question. When images or objects transport us, when memory is embodied thus, are we floating I wonder? And does this have a steering wheel? But I’ve broken the spell, and I don’t have an answer.
Marius observes (p4) this kind of involuntary memory is,
“…not the symbolic realm of the Freudian unconscious, but something wholly sensual and hence physiological. Here memory connects with the entire body and the full complexity of the world around.”
It’s this power of the object to bodily transport us (or bring back to us visceral memory), which has stuck me most in my work. It was my beginnings with my grandmother’s handbag in 2013, by which I mean to say my formation as the object art practitioner I am today.
It was also the genesis of first incarnation of The Museum for Object Research blog. The extraordinary evocation of a childhood, tinged with the grief of war through this household object, led to my subsequent work on the Spanish Civil War as a postmemory experience – but it also begged some more general questions.
How can an object contain ‘lost’ or hidden worlds (of memory) and restore them bodily to us? By what mechanism; and how as artists can we convey such experiences to our audiences?
In my practice I moved sharply from making objects or distorting them, to conserving them and keeping them whole. I no longer wanted to create objects from found materials or paint over them – a different form of assemblage emerged where bringing objects together or framing them made it possible to be as specific as I needed to be in my allusions to an actual history. I did not want to mark them in any way. And in doing so I opened the door to the viewer’s imagination to sense the atmosphere and fill the gaps (although all the contextual material is available in my blogs).
You could say that I found my subject. But I found my objects too. Yet I was hungry for knowledge, for a framework to understand this work by. I sought to share these thoughts and findings with other object artists and widen the investigation.
The joy of the blog was in finding colleagues and revelling in the richness of their object art practices. In pooling resources we created community, which now seeks expression in offline spaces and is currently in development.
Marius’ book (it turned out) is actually a talking book – as Twitter proves again to be a catalyst for connection and also conversation. By the magic of this digital age I could read and tweet my observations directly to him. Further sorcery – Marius could respond!
How gratifying and instructive to be able to talk about some of the concepts behind this rich collection of writings on material memory, and also be joined by Elena Thomas my MfOR collaborator in chief.
This is honestly the best of Twitter for artists. Making accessible the thinkers who can bring your practice on through their insights, and who you instinctively feel from their writing will get what you’re about. This can only happen when people are open and generous with their time. Thank you Marius!
What a perfect antidote to the current negative trends this lucky find has proved to be.
This is how I began the MoFR with a call out to object artists back in September 2014.
“Don’t all museums have a building, curators, attendants and plenty of visitors for company? Well no. Some museums live in our cupboards and imaginations, awaiting their moment of arrival. So it was with my idea for a Museum for Object Research.”
MfOR quickly ignited the imaginations of a core group of object artists who became active readers and contributors to the blog in those early days. Their enthusiasm and wide-ranging interests made my job of curating and administering the space a total joy, until other projects took over and we experienced a lull in energy and admissions. The beauty of the project was that all the content remained online and still reflects the calibre of guest artist, some of whom are keen to explore further iterations of our format.
Forming a partnership with Elena Thomas (our very first guest contributor) has led to formalising the idea of returning to the core of the project and developing a fully fledged expression of its purpose in the physical world. From digital to actual.
We’re looking forward to putting our heads together to develop this space and take it on to the next level. As we all know there is a huge amount of work to be done in realising a dream or in this case a vision. No small part is designing a format which will work in the real world and also contribute to our knowledge and thinking about the ways we work with objects in our various practices.
Since discovering the power of the object within my own multiform creative practice I have become interested in understanding more, but my ambition goes further. I want to see the Museum succeed in its role as tool for research, and bring forth outcomes of real worth to object artists in arriving at a more formal understanding of why and how objects come to be at the core of what we do.
We will be seeking Arts Council England funding for our work.
Watch as we transfer materials from our original site and build new content in this exciting new space.
This is a painting by my father, José García Lora, painted eleven years into his life-long exile from Spain, due to the Spanish Civil War. My father died in 1989, and it is one of the most precious objects I own. My mother gave it to me for the Barcelona in a Bag project back in 2013. It formed part of my residency – from which the entire project evolved – in our studios project space, Filament 14.
And then it vanished.
Distraught that I had somehow thrown it out in one of my studio clear-outs, I failed to find it. No matter how many boxes I looked in or how deeply I poked about in the corners of the studio rafters, I just couldn’t locate it.
Cursing my absent-mindedness, I believed the worst of myself. I had thrown dad’s (only?) painting away. But I said nothing. Too ashamed in part, yet ever hopeful that I surely could not have been so very, very foolish, and that some day it would return.
Dreadful pangs of grief and anxiety pierced me each time I saw this photograph in my iPhoto library. But at least I have the photograph I would sigh, trying to console myself.
It must have gone missing in about 2014, and slowly it faded from my daily conscience and remained in the margins of consciousness to rebuke me only on occasion. In those horrible moments I was a careless child again, and should never have been trusted with something so precious.
Periodically I searched for it, but over the two years of it’s absence I imagined that ghastly bin bag it must have slipped into by mistake. You know the scene. The pile for throw away and the pile for keeping must have got muddled in my brain. I played it over and over in my mind.
But today, of all days it came back to me. Today of the flat tyre and the hopeless delays to getting to the studios, became THE day. It became the day the painting came home. And it did so in the most unexpected way.
My studio mate has decided to vacate her space for a few months and I’m taking it on. The timing has been perfect for both of us – she needs to take some time out, and I need to stretch out. The deal was done quite quickly, and during this morning of my endless delay in getting there she had moved out, leaving a table, a chair and two boxes.
The table we had discussed. The chair was a nice bonus – I’ve doubled my studio size and I like the idea of two chairs rather than having to move one chair about all the time.
The boxes, I told myself were hers. Though funny that they looked quite like some I have. Funny to leave just two…
My mind took in the scene and I very quickly decided to put aside my painting session and begin sorting. This I happily did for a while – it’s beautiful space – and there is almost nothing I enjoy more.
But the boxes caught my eye again. I’ll send an email I thought. Perhaps she has forgotten them!
I carried on. For several hours. I can sort for England if the motivation is right.
My sorting brought me closer to the boxes. Hmm…what if I move them out from under the table, I thought? That will make it easier for her to find them when she comes to collect them, and I can start stowing my stuff in their place.
On pulling them towards me, a thought suddenly struck. I better open the lid to check what’s inside. Perhaps she doesn’t have space at home and I can stow them somewhere in the rafters for her, but I didn’t want to go lifting them up a ladder if there were breakables inside!
And that was it. THAT was the moment I saw my father’s painting again, and in a blinding flash discovered that the boxes were mine. Old works from 2012, some collage materials, and dad’s painting safely stowed on the top!
I had not after all been careless with his memory. I hadn’t tossed away a most precious object in a family legacy I’ve pledged myself to these past three years. There was no black bin bag. There was no mistake. I DIDN’T TAKE DAD’S PAINTING TO THE TIP!
Instead it had lain in a cosy cardboard box in my studio mate’s corner space. And now I remember. I was short of storage space and she so very kindly offered to stow these two boxes away for me. Its the kind of gesture we’ve made for each other over the two years we’ve shared this space, and I so appreciate her for it.
But the thought remains. Because my memory is poor, and my boxes are never labelled I DID mislay the painting. I really should have kept tabs…
But honestly, words really can’t describe my joy.
I love this painting so much, and can now again study each brushstroke, marvelling that my dad took so much care. To me it reads as well as any letter. I feel I can read his thought processes, and trace his decisions. I think I understand the tone. It brings him closer to me in the way handwriting also does.
It was made so long before I was born, coming from a part of his life I can only get glimpses of through family photos of the period.
Mum thinks the scene is invented but she doesn’t remember too well.
I like to feel it relates to the joy of holiday reunions with his parents – who had different luck and returned to Spain. The family was forever split in two, but reunited countless times after the long separation of 1939-1947 (which marked them all for life). They used to meet in France, just over the border from Spain, in the years before my father was able to visit Spain.
But this object also brings me sharply into the present. I think about the objects today’s refugees hold dear, and the stories of survival and loss, of their most precious possessions.
I feel more and more the living truth that the intimate objects in our lives come to take on signifanct aspects of human identity, and have the capacity to contain a world of condensed meaning.
I know objects are not life and death, but for me this observation makes the refugee crisis all the sharper.
My initial response to this list of objects was one of horror… How could a mother put her child somewhere where it was possible for him to play with these items so that she had to retrieve them from his mouth? How many had been ingested rather than retrieved?
I then remembered that I had once discovered my own child painting with the pigeon poo that had landed on the waterproof cover of his pushchair… Pushing it around in glorious circles…
Parenthood is chaotic. Childhood is exploratory. Any semblance of control is an illusion.
I then began to think about the relationship between artist and child. I recall a female artist telling me that I could not be an artist and a mother… Was this more evidence that gave weight to her argument? To be an artist puts your child at risk? To be a mother puts your art at risk?
I start to think about the collection of high risk items retrieved… Why would you save them? To quantify risk and measure subsequent guilt? And to place them in the grid… Ordered, listed, catalogued…. controlled?
Looking at other work by this artist, there is control, measurement and order everywhere… Life isn’t like that is it?
Life is always a fag butt heading for the baby’s mouth…
The work is beautiful, and conceptually interesting. The photography is sumptuous. Yet as you start clicking on successive images surely doubt begins to creep in? In my case followed by waves of incredulity and concern. I’m not sure how to feel. If I believe that all these objects really were removed from a baby’s mouth I begin to picture a radical and potentially dangerous experiment in childcare.
I picture a baby put out to forage, or one encouraged to mouth all those objects, in a way contrary to the usual parental norms of censure and protection.
I also imagine a sensory seeking baby – one whose compulsion it is to mouth all manner of objects. This being a specific question during my recent diagnostic assessment for autism. I was able to tell the eminent Dr Gould that I had famously swallowed two coins and a burst ballon at 18 months (this becoming family legend). This was what my mother remembered/ knew about and anxiously awaited evidence of evacuation, but most probably there were many more. Dr Gould nodded and ticked, as this fitted all the other information she had gathered about me.
Tiny babies do put things indiscriminately into their mouths, and teething babies will chew whatever it takes, but parents watch them (as much as they can). This parent was, it seems, on it when it came to object retrieval, but what was happening on the gate-keeping front?
There is something about the forensic way this work is laid out, a detachment in the listing of objects such as “sharp metal pieces” which make me snap. I think of a tiny infant’s soft skin and vulnerability to harm. Toddlers are more robust and can seem bullet proof. All manner of things can occur in the blink of an eye.
As artists we push boundaries, but many questions here arise. Perhaps the unspoken and darker undercurrent on presenting this work is the question of privileging and protecting material through the medium of art. You have to ask how, for example, a client of Social Services would be perceived and treated if such evidence were viewed by a caseworker. What in this case would the outcome be?
In this digital era – this presentation is also the child’s legacy. I find it intriguing to think about how this will pan out as the child grows.
I’m keen to hear other reactions to the work and can insert further contributions at any time via email.
This blog post appears as the Museum begins to pick up the threads and we welcome visitors once more after a quiet period. It is written in gratitude for two great gifts – those of friendship and insight. Yet again, here at the Museum we find it is the objects which connect us and draw us closer into narrative. Today Sonia Boué writes an personal post about growing up with food, kindness and love at the end of two sets of apron strings.
I’m on the 17.33 Birmingham to Reading train – just pulling out of the station and I feel a strong wave of emotion pass over me as I reflect on my day spent in the company of strong women.
Sunshine and a smooth arrival by train. Birmingham is my hometown and despite the endless rejuvenation of this incredible city I still know my way. The route to today’s meeting is all about the changes – about noticing what is new and what remains of the Brum I knew decades before. I feel easy and light.
I’m meeting with artist and fellow a-n blogger Elena Thomas, who’s become both friend and now also now collaborator. Today Dr Jacqueline Taylor (artist/researcher) will join us to discuss a project we’re developing together. Jacqueline can provide the kind of theoretical unpinning to our project I’ve dreamed of ever since my earliest adventures with my grandmother’s handbag led to my use of objects in my work. This is exciting.
We sit around the table and talk a while about the genesis of the project, filling Jacqueline in. It’s going well. Elena has a gift for me – but I decide to wait to open it. I want to savour the moment and do it justice. But as the conversation flows Elena needs me to unwrap it – we need it to illustrate a point she’s trying to make about the draw of objects in our lives.
It’s beautifully wrapped with a kind of braid that looks Tyrolean to me. I’m making it up but I like the sound of the word as it trips from my mouth. The real point is that it looks to have unwound itself from Heidi’s waistband. Heidi as we know had no suitcase and wore her entire wardrobe up the mountain. This feels relevant somehow. We will be discussing suitcases too.
I pull it open, unfold the silver tissue, and gasp. It is the most charmingly beautiful homemade apron I have ever seen, I say. Jaunty, with tulips in the design! I thought it looked Spanish? Elena said. I thought of you! Yes – it could be. It could also be Tyrolean. As we take turns at feeling it and enthusing I declare it an apron of perfection.
Performance rose up in my mind and I wanted that apron about my waist, only the cafe inhibited me!
Part of my fascination with Birmingham lies in my schooling, surrounded by warm and powerful women of working class background. Mine was a rough school, in a predominantly working class area, a culture quite apart from my intellectual refugee/immigrant roots across the city in leafy Edgebaston. But a complex learning disability – unrecognised at the time – rendered me alien in my own home in one important way. I was rebellious and not intellectual. At school I was an oddity – hispanic and middle class with outrageously frizzy hair (this naturally was the era before proper “hair products” though we did have tongs and blow drying).
And so I shuttled between cultures on the journey to and from school – a long, winding, and cigarette infused bus ride. I could have, and did at times feel estranged from both my destinations, yet there was enough warmth to draw me into both. Looking back, the “Tyrolean” apron safely stowed in my backpack, I suddenly see that it was the aprons at both ends that kept me going.
My mother on one hand, statuesque at the helm of our galley kitchen (apron at her waist) and the dinner ladies on the other, their deep humanity unconstrained by the white starchy uniform apron. My dinner ladies, wore their white hats askew and twinkled. The food in those days was freshly made in the school kitchen and mainly good. We chatted and queued nudging one another glad to be out of class, we sniffed the air in anticipation, and the chain of whispers would begin. Crumble and custard! Or, oh no! Pilchards!
In my memory of those days I was unfailingly greeted with a wink and an extra scoop of whatever was going. Food, served with kindness, and love.
And so it was at home, equal doses from my mother’s kitchen of food, served with kindness, and love.
At both ends, it seems to me, this was never wavering. The apron – jaunty and joyful with it’s home machine stitched seams nicely fraying in parts – is soft because it has been washed often. It has been washed because it has been used often too, probably in the service of food, kindness and even love.
At the end of the meeting Elena drove me home. I wanted to have a cup of tea with my mum before leaving the city. Aged 89, mum still takes infinite pleasure in doing the honours. Tea and a Mr Kipling apple pie. Not homemade, she remarked, but not bad!
I have a large and capacious apron too. I’ve used it for performance but it also stands by in the kitchen. It strikes me that the apron is one of the great unsung garments of past and present, containing powerful associations. We often talk about apron strings as constraining, but the connotations for me are warm and wonderful.
Please watch this blog for further news on our collaborative project, which is in development.
The Museum is delighted to host a blog post by artist Elena Thomas – our first ever contributor – on the theme of “usefulness”. There are exciting developments for the Museum behind the scenes, so watch this space. For now enjoy! Our thanks to Elena for this most thought provoking piece of great relevance to the current global crisis of displacement.
What does art do?
What is art for?
Those who know, know.
Those who don’t can sometimes find it hard to understand the usefulness of something seemingly useless.
As I contemplate new work, I am thinking of objects and garments… again… of course.
Kate Morgan-Clare in her blog ARTWORKER asked the question “What would you take?” when talking about people being displaced from home for whatever reason.
Of course, as you look around your home, EVERYTHING is useful in some way. Cups bowls chairs blankets phone tools computer… blah blah blah… but you cannot take it. There isn’t room, or time to decide. You don’t know what you will need because you have no idea where you are going TO, just where FROM.
In two weeks time you might discover that you really need that weird little knife from the kitchen drawer, it is just the thing needed. But it is too late. So you manage with something else. So did you really need it? No, but you were reminded of it. The reason we need the thing we took to the tip a week ago is only because we have been reminded of it. Suddenly, too late, we see the value. But we hadn’t used it for ten years. So it wasn’t useful was it?
We cannot anticipate which of the objects of specific use will be useful. So the discussion is moot.
So what do we take with us?
The only thing we know for sure we will absolutely need, come what may, is comfort.
So we take the weird stuff. A smelly old bit of blanket, an old jumper, a toy, a book of poetry, something that smells of grandma, a photo, a letter.
Only the useless can be guaranteed useful.
When I am making, or writing a song, I am taking a thing, an idea, a feeling, a thought, and washing them through my filter. What comes out is hopefully something new. Something seen through my eyes, with my brain, my experiences, my knowledge, my feelings.
The love song has been written a million times. But not by me, in this way, from this angle, about you…
The love song, and the embroidery and the drawing… useless things… you can’t build a house with a song… you can’t bang nails in with an embroidered hankie. You can’t feed a child with a drawing.
But you can comfort… inspire… welcome… encourage… show love… share hope…
The Museum for Object Research is grateful once more to object artist Kate Murdoch for the heads up on a heartbreaking photo project by Dianne Yudelson that deals with miscarriage. It is called Lost and takes on the 11 miscarriages she’s had over the course of several years in the form of a photographic record of related objects for each baby lost. It’s been ten years since her last miscarriage and previously Dianne has kept the objects and mementos she conserved private, but,
“She decided to take photographs of the objects linked to her miscarriages, as a way to not only offer a show of support and understanding for other women, but to document her personal experience, work through her own journey, and honour ‘these precious lives’.”
I found the work difficult to access to begin wth but was quickly charmed and somewhat overwhelmed. I noted to my shame a momentary flinching from the subject. We fear emotional pain, and the loss of a baby is particularly poignant, but there’s something more I can’t quite grasp. An extra layer of difficulty in processing and comprehending this kind of grief.
The photographs are in black and white, which I think serves to create a balance between archival documentation and emotionality. The use of black and white keeps these objects at a distance, signalling that they belong in the past, and yet each one has a name tag and an ultrasound scan image to personalise and memorialise.
The women I’ve known who’ve gone through miscarriage count each pregnancy as though having carried a live child. What seems to exacerbate the loss is often a sense of awkwardness and a lack of acknowledgement of the subject too. I hope this is changing and more recognition of the true nature of grief on miscarriage is dawning.
It feels incredible that women can suffer so many miscarriages – nature is at time unbearably cruel. What I really love about this work is the heartbeat that pulses through it. In particular the image for Georgia, which conjures the body of the child through the clothing, strikes me in this way. It’s almost playful, and would definitely seem so if the viewer was not aware of the context.
I love too the courage and the coming to terms with loss this body of work implies. It commands many emotions in the viewer and is well worth spending time over.
The museum has been quiet since a flurry of excitement about the epic Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy this Summer. I must confess that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to focus on this space with so much diversification within my own practice.
It’s a shame because the museum holds a wonderful collection of blog posts and has been exciting and rewarding to work on. I’m so grateful to all the artists who’ve participated and written posts. The answer in part is to re-tweet the posts from time to time. This is what I plan to do over the holidays. All that lovely material is stored here thanks to a-n so it takes only a few clicks to re-release the goodies to new readers.
On the eve of the biggest of Christian holidays when toys are stowed under fur trees (real or fake – another potential object for the museum!) it feels appropriate to donate these two dolls from my project. They are the postmemory dolls who’ve featured in several experimental videos. They were bought at my local art shop and then painted and dressed by me. They are German in origin but are no longer available through the art shop and I’ve been trying to source them online. I’ve been told that probably they’ve been taken out of production. How sad!
This kind of doll could become rare. I’ve seen others on the market but they don’t share quite the same aesthetic.
The joy of making them and learning to use iMovie to bring them to life has been immense. They fascinate me as vehicles of narrative but also pull at something ancient within me – the years spent in front of children’s television in the 1960s and 70s. My love for the aesthetic and story telling of The Magic Roundabout.
So I’m calling this post The Visitors because I imagine these dolls turning up wide eyed at the museum. They’ll love all the objects and spend a great deal of time trying to make sense of it all. I love the kind of logic children engage in when adults are not around to edit or correct them. I can just imagine the conversations they’ll have!
So it’s happy holidays from the museum and great excitement about unwrapping some of those old blog post! Ho! Ho! Ho!
The Museum hosts an unusual blog post about an unusual and supreme object artist. Less about the objects than the neurology, Sonia Boué attempts to explore a like mind.
Before taking a break away from work and blogging I took in five major London exhibitions over two days and I am still digesting it all three weeks later, on my return from the Americas.
What astonished me was the incidence of neurodivergence I found in my art going foray. For example, I’m certain that two of the three major exhibitions featured artists who demonstrated both in their output and biographies evidence of neurodivergent minds. Perhaps all I am really noticing is the high degree of intersection between artists and neurodivergence. Just to clarify, in using this term I refer to biological differences which alter perception and have been generally considered deficits but which we are merely variations in the human genome bestowing many advantageous qualities, particularly in the arts and sciences where original thought is at a premium.
For a good definition of these terms check this link.
So this blog post will focus on Joseph Cornell, but I have written about Agnes Martin and the autistic spectrum on my blog, The Other Side, which deals with matters neurodiverse.
My inability to keep art out of my neurodivergent blog and vice versa seem to say much about me but also to make my point for me. The intersection is there – I would say it is unavoidable. I would go further – it should rather be approached head on, as we know that neurodivergence has not been recognised, and our contributions to general society and culture remain unacknowledged.
It’s incredibly important to begin to unpick the net worth of this hidden talent in our world. Neurodivergent people have lacked role models and been undervalued for ever. This has to change and the change most logically is being driven from within our community. It is easy for neurodivergent minds to recognise one another at work and this makes it vital for us to write about what we see and know.
In the case of Joseph Cornell I found it astonishing that a quick Google search revealed no hits for autism or Asperger’s – his biography alone allows those familiar with the spectrum of human variation we know as autistic, to recognise many such signs. But then Cornell’s life span did not coincide with advances in the true dissemination of knowledge about autism, it’s range and incidence, which are counter to older and quite inaccurate definitions and stereotypes.
There is also a view that it is wrong to offer retrospective “diagnosis”, which could account for the omissions and lack of investigation that I could find. Honestly – I don’t buy this reticence. As we move further away from medical model views of neurodivergence and understand this as more common biologically driven variations in human experience and perception, the more imperative it becomes to recognise it. Further this ceases to be a case of “diagnosis” and more one of cultural recovery in my view. It seems to me that neurodivergent communities should be welcome to explore this territory. Recognition (as I shall call it rather than diagnosis) only becomes taboo if neurodivergence is viewed as negatively as it has been, but as both our knowledge base and the civil rights movement grows this becomes unviable.
It is also true that neurodivergent perspectives on the life of an artist can bring fresh interpretations to the work. Neurotypical assumptions could be holding back knowledge and understanding in the case of neurodivergent artists.
So my contribution will focus on what I saw and recognised from the perspective of a neurodivergent artist who also works with objects. Aside from the “it takes one to know one” – that is to say the felt response to a strikingly familiar vision – what can I offer in terms of “evidence” for neurodivergence on viewing Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy?
Well, the heat of recognition felt in the region of the heart can’t be discounted. It’s power and the soaring joy accompanying it were immediate. This is how it often is, and forms the beginning of what then becomes more analytical. You have to describe, even to yourself, why you feel you know you have encountered a like mind. A recent comment by a family member, who is also an art historian by training, comes to mind. She described neurodivergent individuals as “mind dancers”. I’ll hold that thought in my pocket as I try to unpick what I’m getting at.
Much of what I could say about Cornell is not exclusive to the neurodivergent creative so this is not just about the consistently meticulous attention to detail or the extraordinary focus and variation within the forms he employs, nor the rich and quirky language this builds and builds on throughout his career. But the embers of recognition are there in the subjects of journey and relationship – more specifically their sideways approach and otherness when compared to mainstream narratives of travel and romance. They are also present in the creation of a most particular world through his oeuvre, so complete and comprehensive as to be entirely convincing and immersive. I hesitate to say it is hermetic but it does stand alone and apart. Bewitching or enchanting are words I would be happy to use, and I sensed the gently tapping rhythms of a mind dancer at work in casting the spell.
But these are general observations. How about a particular example? When I write about the shows I see I generally do so straight off the bat when my memory for detail is good. Here I’m working with a gap – wider than the three weeks due to all the input from the Americas – so I’m going to go with what now stands out and remains. We know that for neurodivergent people relationship can be different and we are coming to know that this is not lesser, just other. Relationship is often not direct, it may also be not primarily human in focus. Both objects and animals can provide rich sources of contact and emotional mediation and modulation. Human relationship may be to a small group (immediate family and a handful of close friends) and can often be transacted sideways rather than head on, or what we call through side by side approaches or activities.
Of all the myriad exhibits on view, my mind flies to the latter stages of the show where touchingly Cornell pays tribute to Mondrian. Cornell still uses the box form but strips it down to a minimalistic grid – the example shown above is not precisely the one I had in mind but demonstrates adaption and adoption – the moulding and mimicry that can form the basis for neurodivergent interaction. But more significantly Cornell I feel attains an intimacy with Mondrian through these pieces. Rather than reflecting a mere admiration for Mondrian’s Theosophy and a penchant for collecting crates at the time (as Dore Ashton in, A Joseph Cornell Album, Da Capo Press, 2009, suggests) these Mondrian homages speak of a deeper empathic and intuitive experience it seems to me.
It would be easy to dismiss the playfulness of Cornell’s pieces and miss the invitation to the viewer I discerned in so many of his works. These works it seems to me form a basis for interaction, the very font of relationship. We are invited to explore and engage through the exquisite objects Cornell has created. I feel he always has the viewer in mind as his playmate albeit perhaps an imaginary one, the relationship invited feels vibrant and direct. This has to do with the many game and toy references in the works as much as with their placing – just so the viewer’s hand is welcomed in. Again the mind dancer finds joy in infinite variation and association and I sense his rhythm. It cannot be beyond the realms of possibility that the works and objects he employs are about this primary relationship (through which other relationships could be mediated), rather than the other way about.
The Royal Academy arrived at a great hook line in dubbing Cornell an armchair traveller and it is true that this extensive body of works was created in his New York basement. Reference is also often made to his limited or thwarted relationship to women. I don’t really want to comment too much on this apart from to say that these observations too come from a neurotypical perspective.
As a neurodivergent artist it feels important to begin a conversation in which alternative perspectives can be recognised and the interpretation of such an artist as Joseph Cornell can be deepened and amplified.
Joseph Cornell was the subject of the last blog post, and it’s very fitting indeed for The Museum of Object Research to run another post dedicated to this remarkable object artist. It’s a particular pleasure to provide a link to Fisun Güner’s thoughtful review – I always enjoy Fisun’s perspective as she seems to me to be a critic and writer of great perception and sensitivity. Fisun is also bold and therefore thought provoking in her responses to artists, while providing an immediacy in her writing, which can make you feel you’ve shared the viewing experience.
I was drawn to her interest in Cornell’s emotional isolation, and a certain adolescent sensibility in his work, which can also read as innocence or guileless authenticity. I would bet good money from reading about Cornell’s life that he was not neurotypical and fell somewhere on the autistic spectrum. This could also reflect in his high level affinity with objects as containers of experience and memory, as vehicles for expression and thus as language. This is a particular interest of mine.
Fisun also prompts me to think about the pitfalls of sentimentality when working with objects. Not that she concludes Cornell falls foul of such a fault, and nor do I, although others such as Robert Hughes have explored this idea. But I do often question my own practice with regard to the dangers of over sentimentality and wonder if other object artists do this too? Recently I had a Tracey Emin beano and watched a heap of her YouTube appearances. I actually think there is a huge difference between emotional authenticity, connecting with the self quite directly through one’s practice, and the opposite – sentimentality. I love the way Tracey talks about this engagement with the self – especially in a recent programme What Do Artists Do All Day. I found this affirming and recognisable.
Though of course it is perhaps for the viewer and critic to truly judge this, and I am aware that my own work through it’s engagement with highly emotive and personal material might at times be seen to cross the line. I hope not and tell myself it is honest engagement with the subject that most comes to our aid in this struggle. I wonder what others think.
I recommend this review highly and please do leave some comments as I would love to hear your views!
I am in awe at the beauty of these works, their breathtaking poetry. If I’m not lucky enough to view this show would any object artists who do like to write their own response for this blog? Send me a message!
The Slazenger Jupiter – an object in transition, is a glorious new guest blog post by Neil Armstrong. The Museum is very proud to host this post along with all the fabulous images provided by Neil. In answer to your question Neil – there aren’t too many photos AND I would have happily uploaded more! Thank you so much for this hugely satisfying read around the life of an object within the life of a man – so much to mull over and enjoy. I’m off for a re-read!
The Slazenger Jupiter was my first ‘proper’ tennis racket. Nylon fibre strung, it would take me another two barter- exchanges before I got my hands on a more expensive, catgut powered, upgrade. In these early years the Jupiter was to loom large in my world; a Thunderbirds generation space child. Tennis racket as monolith in orbit around the ringed planet. I acquired mine in the same year Kubrick’s 2001 was released. Smash, dash, forehand volley; the future was now – and all this well before Star Wars hit the screen.
This one is mostly painted wood, giving it a functional, minimalist appeal. Ultimately I had my sights set on the visually richer, woody looking Dunlop Maxply – the choice of champions – a real piece of furniture. But this lesser model was my starting point, encompassing all the aspirations that subsequent purchases promised to deliver on.
There is something special about the first of anything you own or do, but it’s often the case that these things get lost, destroyed or discarded long before their status becomes apparent. After all, you aren’t necessarily aware of the significance of functional objects in the present. It takes time and the attachment of a personal history to establish that.
So it’s not just a tennis racket. It represents much more, and when I put it into timeline context it’s a signifier of how my overall attitude to life has evolved. It is also an object itself in transition. It sheds its skin a little later.
Why the Slazenger Jupiter? Obviously it had a cool name, but it was in fact second hand. It certainly wouldn’t have been worth my parents paying full price for a new one if it turned out that I didn’t take to the game. I had friends who had already moved on to classier models so this re-cycling was a low risk bargain purchase at the time.
The boy who first introduced me to his private tennis club had one of these rackets but managed to snap it at the neck. His resourceful dad made two metal plates to bolt the thing together again and he proudly brandished the resultant lethal weapon with scant concern for the fact that the racket was now totally unbalanced and potentially quite dangerous. My friend wasn’t talented or tenacious enough to develop a compensatory technique and I don’t remember him ever progressing to another model.
If you want to check out the inner landscape of a person’s character you should put them on the other side of a tennis court. Any competitive game will do, but tennis is particularly adept at testing someone’s resolve. It’s something to do with the points system. You are never far away from disaster. There is always a chance that the player ahead on points will lose their nerve at the crucial moment and reveal a psychological flaw that lets their opponent in. Then there is the question of honesty, nay, integrity – “did you really call that out… I mean REALLY??” People reveal their interior selves on a tennis court.
As I got good at the game I found I was the only one at my school who could beat the teachers at anything (tennis wasn’t taught so not many pupils knew how to play… and for that matter not many teachers did either). I worked out that I don’t like to lose. How one deals with that is fundamental to most things. However You will lose, so you need to deal with that too. I worked out there are countless strategies to be employed once you understand the game is more than the sum of its parts. Know your own strengths. Assess your opponent, then adapt your strategy to exploit their flaws. All very erm… aggressive. Like something out of a hard sell handbook.
And then there is the pursuit of status. Status in a world where to win at something so visible to the rest of the school took you well beyond the constraints of academic success. Opportunities present themselves in the social pecking order. I suspect this played a considerable part in forming the full grown man.
I, like many others no doubt , saw the racket itself as an object of desire. It is something akin to a sword. Both beautiful as a ‘thing’ in your hand to be swept through the air and brandished, and supremely satisfying when, on hitting the sweet spot, you become a master of destiny and leave your opponent (only metaphorically hopefully) decapitated. On a good day this feeling can be experienced over and over again. It’s a bit of a drug… oh and also the basis of capitalism.
Over time this object evolved. Lots of us have stood in front of the mirror with a racket and laid it down with some heavy duty riffing or arm flailing kerranging. Mine was ‘Born to be wild’ and ‘Sunshine of your love’ with a bit of Dylanesque strumming thrown in. The tennis racket transitioning into a new object of aspiration and promise. The guitar becoming the mime made real.
Fortunately I still have my first guitar, well my first proper acoustic guitar. One that I acquired from a shop brand new, duly purchased in 52 weekly instalments. I played it regularly for years despite an exotic selection of wonderfully shaped electric monstrosities also passing through my hands. These, in turn, were inevitably traded for yet more second hand discoveries on the road to nowhere.
It was at about this point that my tennis playing ambition waned and my guitar playing ambition grew. Objects in metamorphosis. I played tennis with my (natural) left hand – but something told me that this guitar idea was a keeper and that it would be sensible to learn right handed so you could pick up other guitars more readily. I am still in awe of my foresight at this juncture.
The guitar went with me to art college. The guitar has taken me to lots of places that I would never have otherwise been, and given me a glimpse of a whole other world. I’m thinking it fulfilled some of what I imagined a tennis racket might. But, in reality, making art has taken me to many more places than both of them.
Part of me thought to make art like I played tennis…to win. Except there is the rub. You can’t win at art. In fact you pretty much always fail; there is always a better, more alluring idea just around the corner and an issue that won’t resolve. That is both annoying and stimulating.
A few years after I left art college I found myself regularly playing tennis in a network which included a previous tutor of mine. Purely recreational – except it never really is once you get locked into combat. One particular game of singles stands out in my memory. I could tell he soooo wanted to beat me, and I was already down a set. This was to be his ‘moment’… and my task was to deny him that. A bit mean really.
We had such a struggle and eventually I won. Strangely though the winning, once achieved, was of little consequence. I remember it was such a well fought game, and that it marked a moment of mutual respect. The battle was more important than the victory. Well to me at least. In hindsight, to be more sure of the reciprocity of that sentiment, I should really have lost I suppose. But let’s not be silly.
Not long after that game the ‘big serve’ began taking its toll on my back, so I made the sensible decision to give up playing for good. To forgo my gladiatorial fix. I let it slip away surprisingly easily.
It made me think about what drives ambition, and how it gets re-aligned over time. Continuing my art practice; to hopefully make something that is more substantial than just ‘me’ – and offering that to others – well that’s about the sum of my vision now. Importantly though, what sets this particular artistic ambition apart from playing a ‘game’ is that, unlike tennis, I can’t imagine giving it up. It is a process without resolution, ultimately beyond ‘winning’ or ‘recognition’, where in fact there is no actual goal at all; rather continuation.
My Slazenger Jupiter may be past its best and no match for the equivalent carbon fibre powerhouses of today, but as an evocative object it has become the embodiment of an evolved understanding of competition, and a reminder to be sceptical of ambition in most, if not all, of its forms.
It’s been a while since the Museum posted a new blog. This happens. A new idea comes into being and there is a flurry of activity and excitement – beginnings are easy I find. Sustaining the effort and keeping momentum is another matter altogether, and often a hiatus is reached for whatever reason. But that is the beauty of a resource like the Museum for Object Research. All you really need to do to feel excited by the idea all over again is to look back over the posts in the collection and rediscover the richness contained therein.
That was a lot of activity back there! I hope for more to come and feel ready to turn my attention back towards this space and make some more of this brilliant stuff happen so that we can keep moving with the idea of both a forum, and resource. A space to sound off in and dig into for fresh perspectives on the value of objects in contemporary art practice.
One of the issues is focus – I’ve been extremely caught up in my own project on the subject of exile, and my practice has recently shifted back into the painterly side of things. The objects have temporarily taken a back seat to allow the flow of narrative onto a series of 20 randomly cut boards, onto which I’m layering paint, media, and thread. It’s exciting and consuming but despite the change in focus in my studio practice, it doesn’t mean I’m not haunting my habitual flea markets and charity shops in search of my other creative materials – the objects that will flesh out the spaces I’m creating and literally ground them in the present.
And aren’t painting objects after all? So for todays’ post, the visual element arrives fresh from yesterday’s session at the studio. It’s a painting with acrylic, thread and wax, and very different in feel to the previous cycle of paintings I was working on in 2014. It feels a little naked and unfinished, but I’m resisting layering up this time. I don’t want to loose what is there – a bold statement.
The painting is entitled “Wherever We May Travel in Our Exile” and is a quotation from my father’s letter of 1939, detailing his imminent release from a French internment camp to travel to England. It refers to carrying a vision of free Spain with him wherever he may find himself in exile. the threads I’m using are a relatively new element – but even so, to have the trail they leave within the media so openly contrasted and exposed is a radical turn. Previous examples have been more immersed and subtle – almost buried under further layers of media and paint.
So while I find my way with these new processes, which include ‘sanding’ back or indeed ‘sanding’ in with some rather curious wax/sand cakes I made earlier last winter, I’m going to be re-tweeting old blog post and gathering momentum around the Museum once more. Spring is springing after all and it’s a good time to show some signs of life.
(Apologies for the poor picture quality of the iPhone capture on this post.)
The Museum of Object Research is delighted to open the New Year with a gleaming post from artist Neil Armstrong, which demonstrates the beauty, depth and power of the object as both symbolic talisman, and vessel of complex histories in our lives. It’s a joy to feature it as our opening post of 2015; beautifully woven with the threads of personal and socio-industrial history running through it. Enjoy!
The plate is solid brass and is very heavy to lift. But it wasn’t always a plate. It was in fact a shallow cylinder with thousands of tiny pin prick holes drilled in by hand, applied in a regular, graded pattern. Not regular enough as it turns out.
This plate sat in the boardroom of Hardings Tower Works from 1934 until 1981. I can dimly recall the boardroom; all shiny mahogany and glass cabinets. I might have had a more complete picture to imagine, had I ever been allowed to get more than a glimpse. On rare occasional visits to the upper sanctum I would pass an open door or maybe even sneak a peek if no one was around.
These were the days of established hierarchy; of knowing your place and generally accepting it. Nowadays we argue the toss of social position. Am I working class, lower middle class, middle class, ruling class? Personally I go for the homogeneous description of ‘educated class’ but apparently that’s just something I made up, and I am told by those who study such things that there are now other nuances, other subtleties that describe the complex web that is the current British class system. Maybe I am an inverted snob, but I would much rather be described as working class than aspiring middle class. That just seems pretentious and a denial of my family background. Of course a certain historical serendipity provides me with the privilege of not requiring to aspire to anything in particular anymore.
To understand how this plate sits in my own life you have to understand that when I was growing up my father was the shop floor manager of the factory that made this object. I say ‘object’ because I don’t actually know what it would have been called. I do know its purpose though. Through each one of those tiny holes there was to be a corresponding tiny pin and, once all of those holes were occupied, the resulting fine cylindrical comb was shipped off somewhere exotic like India and placed on a shaft which would spin it round. Its purpose in life was to comb wool; but not just any wool. This particularly fine comb was for the finest of wool… mohair.
My parents have just moved home to a place where they can get more care. Everything needs more maintenance in the end (although this plate has survived thus far remarkably unscathed). On clearing out their previous flat there are things that won’t make the next stage of their journey and so I have come to be the possessor of this plate. Yes it’s a plate not a comb. It is a plate because the (almost certainly man) who drilled this (almost) perfect grid of holes one by one, by hand and eye, made a mistake. Where that mistake is I cannot find. I am led to believe the holes are somehow not absolutely in line and for that reason it was rejected. WTF you may well ask.
But this object represents a lot of man hours of work and a not inconsiderable amount of brass, so Yorkshire men being Yorkshire men, they resolved to have it made into a plate by adding an inner recessed base. Engraved with the date, it was then placed in the opulent Victoriana Tower Works boardroom as a rather odd (if one thinks this through) homage to their industrial prowess. A mistake, saved from disaster by lateral thinking.
Even though the boardroom always gave off an aroma of polish, they could never quite eradicate that other ingredient… sweet oil, some fresh, some stale and ingrained into the walls, that was the perfume of industry. Downstairs wide open factory floors housed regiments of lathes, each one manned by a predominantly Indian or Pakistani turban clad work force. A cheerful bunch who may not have identified themselves as ‘working class’ due to their own particular, even more complicated, social conventions unpacked from immigrant baggage.
My connection to Hardings was as a boy either as an occasional visitor, made a fuss of by the office staff, or as a temporary labourer during academic holidays. When I grew my hair from the age of fourteen onwards, I would often have to wait for what seemed like hours on end in the car outside the factory. I guess my father wasn’t plugged into the hip ‘n happening world of youth culture and was a little embarrassed at my appearance. Strange now I think back. We rarely saw it but, wrapped up in turbans, those hard working optimists also sported flowing locks. Long hair was cool in my world then, and not least because the Beatles had discovered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and travelled to India. We took from them, they took from us.
Between sixth form and college my summer job was chipping the limescale off the boilers in the Hardings factory. A hard, unremitting, boring, tedious, filthy, damp sort of a job, but I got paid and I was on my way to art college so not all bad. As I continued my education the plight of manufacturing in Britain wasn’t exactly foremost in my mind, but none the less it was declining despite my averted gaze. The miners kept reminding us something was up though.
Turn around and it’s gone.
A failed attempt to diversify to no avail. The doors closed at the Hardings factory in 1981. The auctioneers hammer saw many of the beautifully robust components of another age go to scrap merchants. My father had managed to move on but went back for the memories. He bid for one of the lathes, which he then offered to the local industrial museum, but they had not space. It sat in our garage until eventually he had to admit defeat and sell it for scrap too. But he also bid for the plate. It was never displayed in our house, instead hidden away at the back of a wardrobe until today.
Now it is mine I feel I have a duty of care. My experience of walking those factory floors, of imagining the kind of life the Tower Works represented, and my determination to not follow a similar career path to my father, is part of my own history; a diametrically opposed path from manual labour to more cerebral concerns. The lathe workers of yesteryear might now work in call centres – but just as a temporary measure on the way to who knows where. We don’t now expect jobs for life.
But this story has a happy ending. I am not so far from the man who drilled those fine holes. I too use hand and eye on a daily basis to earn my living. To make a buck I design things. I arrange things into shapes, layouts and visual patterns. They call it graphic design and it is a part of what I do away from being an artist. To do this I need commercial offices; somewhere to meet clients and generally to hang out. My current office is in a reclaimed building called the Toffee Factory in Newcastle upon Tyne.
There is a movement of late to construct modern, eco-efficient, industry sector specific buildings, out of the remnants of past industrial glory. Mine is one of those…but it turns out that the same developer also very recently redeveloped the Hardings Tower Works site too. Both my Newcastle building and the Leeds building house ‘digital’ companies. Generally that means some form of contemporary computer based creative activity. From millions of tiny pins to billions of tiny digits – a stunning example of scaling things down to scale them up again. Digits don’t comb wool but they do control the machine that does everything faster and finer.
It seems right that the plate really should reside in its place of origin as a reminder of this process. So 2015 shall be the year I make sure that it is returned (on loan, for I want to keep some thread of connection) to a suitable spot in the Hardings Tower Works factory. A testament to evolution.
I will have just one stipulation…that it be displayed in a place accessible to all.
A new object for The Museum – a ‘mourning cushion’ one of a pair made on the death of a father. This post explores the importance of moments of abeyance in the grief process and the allusions and associations contained within the stitches of an object that has the potential to become a family ‘heirloom’.
The photograph for this post is of one of a set of two cushions in needlepoint sewn by my sister and me shortly after the sudden and unexpected death of my father twenty five years ago.
I think that my sister bought the first kit and that shortly after I most pressingly ‘needed’ an identical kit of my own, which I bought in a tiny shop in the Cotswolds dedicated to needle crafts close to where I then lived. This perceived need was acute I remember, as was the one for chocolate and other comforts. My father’s life is the subject of my other blog, and the emotional turmoil we experienced on his passing was undoubtedly aggravated by the unresolved and unspoken issue of his own grief at his lifelong exile from Spain at the fall of the Second Republic in 1939.
Our mother was a huge influence in the choice of object with which to mediate our feelings, being a needlepoint cushion queen with many gorgeous creations cheerfully plumping her sofas and those of her family and friends. The very act of sewing steadily along a line with method and concentration becomes an apt metaphor for aspects of our mother’s character. Mum seems to have been born steady, a natural nurturer, constantly yet quietly productive and organised in so very many ways. A marvellous thing to observe from the perspective of a butterfly brain.
I well recall the soothing action of pressing and pulling the needle through the canvas and revelling in the time-stopping concentration required to stay on track (not always successfully). It wasn’t that the grief left you but rather that it was held aloft somewhere while the brain prioritised attention to the task. A trick perhaps but so very welcome. A relief from the constant bruising and chafing of such a complex loss.
Looking at the cushion all these years later I can see how my sister was drawn to the design. Our father travelled to India as a UNESCO delegate in 1957 and was forever taken by the experience, returning with his delegate suitcase brimming with menus, hotel receipts and programmes, hundreds (possibly thousands) of black and white photographs, ankle bracelets, yards of sari fabric, and a broken wrist from falling between the gap at Delhi station while attempting to step onto the platform. Even his fall couldn’t dim his affinity for the people and the place. I’m certain Dad would have loved Anita Gunnett’s design.
To this day we can tell the cushions apart and my teenagers enjoy identifying which bits I fluffed or made a neater job of, even with a pre-set design there is room for manoeuvre and for personality to come through. You still have to interpret the lines and make decisions – you have to stay steady and upright. My sister had a tendency to turn the cushion round and some of her stitches face the wrong way. I tended to make a hash of the elements that needed regular spacing. Yet somehow we stayed within the structure enough for the cushions to form a pair and I am, due to my sister’s extreme generosity, owner of both.
The mourning cushions have recently been rescued from the loft, where they were stored for safe keeping while the children were younger, to reduce the risk of too much of a certain kind of heavy duty wear and tear. To my astonishment I found them to be almost completely flat and in need of new fillings (where did all the feathers go?). A gentle hand wash was also part of their process of rehabilitation. They now sit on a futon which doubles as a sofa and vie with school books and electrical clutter (earphones iPads etc) for space where teenagers sprawl. This feels good, dad is somehow still part of things, in the thick of daily life, and jostling familiarly with the next generation.
A Christmas/holidays post for The Museum of Object Research, which began with a flourish earlier in the year and has been resting nicely after the initial excitement of it’s opening. It’s a thank you post to all readers and contributors – a growing band of object artists and friends who it’s been a delight to encounter. Happy reading and don’t forget all contributions around the growing practice of object art welcome and considered. A merry Christmas/holidays to all and a very happy New Year!
The image for this post is of a spiders’ webs, cane, twine and ostrich feather hat made by the San people of southern Africa in the early 20th century, on display in the British Museum. It’s my rather poor iPhone capture which has also passed through an Instagram filter or two, but I think it captures the atmosphere of the moment I spotted it among the vast collection of treasures at the BM and fell in love.
I happened to find myself standing next to a mother and her teenage son, who spoke most knowingly on the many thousands of types of spider that exist and the candidate whose threads had been so skilfully fashioned into this hat. I knew with a certainly honed from years of proximity to ‘unusual’ minds that here was a boy on the autism spectrum and the exceptional luck of meeting him at this moment added to the magic of the encounter.
At the time I was working in quite an embryonic fashion as an object artist, transitioning from a painting practice and using found objects for assemblage and customisation. I had developed a fascination with dirt as a medium and had a small body of work in which hoover dust was employed for texture and metaphor. Cobwebs had found themselves experimentally between brush and canvas or board, pushed around a surface and left to set before paint was applied in some of these pieces. This kind of playful incorporation of the ‘dirt’ that most of us strive to get rid of was a precursor to the sand I now regularly use in the painting side of my practice. As a metaphor for the historical ‘dirt’ I would need to look at in my current work on the Spanish Civil War it was pretty spot on too. Of course I see this now with the benefit of hindsight. The unconscious is a wonderful compass and usually takes us where we need to go.
But back to the hat; a delicate piece, made without the ‘benefit’ of man made materials or manufacturing processes it wouldn’t stand up to British weather being now cheerfully permeable at almost every point. I imagine the known superior tensile strength of the spider web thread means this wouldn’t always have been so, although it’s function is more likely to have been to provide shade. There’s a Western influence in the design and the suggestion of a potent condensation of socio-political narrative in this BM ‘curio’. This troubles me as much as the object enchants me and I include a useful source of information about the San people here, whom are it seems the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, and once known as the Bushmen, the very people I first read about in The Lost World of the Kalahari by Sir Laurens Van Der Post, for CSE English decades ago.
I look back on my work with dirt and cobwebs fondly and still observe that the ethereal beauty of this hat lies in it’s use of natural (and thus biodegradable) materials, but more specifically of the stuff we in the West think of as an annoyance to be swept or brushed away. It’s frightening arrogant this denial of nature and without doubt the source of our current ecological crisis.
In the context of Christmas the hat is particularly resonant – so much consumerism and plastic tat is it’s contemporary counterpoint. I feel a New Year’s resolution to be more vigilant about my shopping habits coming on. And so I’m thus inspired anew by this wonderful object, which has led my post through such diverse topics as the unconscious, politics, history, ecology and autism.
The Museum is delighted to welcome Patrick Goodall object artist and art therapist, as guest blogger with this wonderful post about the secret life of objects including a ‘superpower’ to absorb molecules and carry the DNA of memory, person and even place within them. I love the freedom and the range of this post – beautifully written and sparkling with life itself. Enjoy!
I have an animistic fantasy that objects are only inanimate when observed, that they “play possum” (in other words play dead), in order to fool our gaze. In this assemblage the pen-knife is “really” a Toucan-like bird, lying immobile, so that the cat’s predatory killing instinct is not aroused. Since I first opened a pen-knife I have always seen a bird when opening a knife, the main blade a beak, the opposite blades and assorted accessories tail feathers, a rivet for an eye and so on.
Shamanism, totemism and fetishism are examples of ancient traditions which ascribe a spiritual life to objects dismissed as “primitive” by Cartesian rationalism. However in Japan there is the ongoing everyday influence of Shintoism, where for example a tool is named after and invested with aspects of its owner, to the extent that if it breaks it is not merely thrown away but ceremoniously disposed of; suggesting that this ancient tendency survives residually in modern society. How many of us name our cars, or ascribe personality to the objects that we own?
Animated cartoons are full of objects that spring to life under magical conditions; brooms that sweep for you, toys that come to life when the playroom is closed, the “Brave Little Toaster” that, when abandoned, heroically seeks its former owner. We laughingly stick “googly” eyes to objects to anthropomorphise them, but aren’t we really recognising that we have a need to invest supposedly inert objects with our feelings?
D.W.Winnicott, the object relations theorist, posited the notion of transitional phenomena being instrumental in our negotiation of our inner and outer worlds, the location of spiritual and artistic experience, and our means of individuating through “me and not me” phenomena. The transitional object in this context is an “as if” phenomenon; it is as if it has an impossible paradoxical existence as being both “me”, and “not me”.
The study of perception suggests that we project meaning on to objects just as much as light reflected from objects projects onto the surface of our retinas. We imbue objects with meaning, memories and associations. They become talismans, containers of meaning and feeling.
My late grandfather gave me a pebble from his pocket that he had smoothed by years of rubbing between thumb and forefinger. He called it his Thinking Stone. It is mundanity made precious by association. It must have absorbed microscopic agents from his sweat, or at least I’d like to think so. Flann O’Brien wrote that the policeman’s bicycle seat in “The Third Policeman” had exchanged molecules over the years he had ridden it to the extent that the bicycle had become part policeman and the policeman part bicycle. The laws of physics are challenged by quantum theorist’s discovery of the slippery nature of matter that is so surprisingly empty and tenuous that the absurdity of O’Brien’s bike becomes almost believable, and my grandfathers presence in the stone gratifyingly possible.
The title of this post is a quote by Saint-Pol-Roux, a remarkable French poet, given to me by my art school tutor Anthony Earnshaw (the imp of surrealism), a master of the art of assemblage. “Objects are ideas with the dust of exile upon them” speaks of the nature of our reality, and the weight of subjectivity in perception.
My work plays with our natural propensity to seek meaning in objects, made more complex by juxtaposing incongruous objects to create a network of associations, in an attempt to blow the dust off of these mundane objects and hopefully create a kind of visual poetry.
This playful guest post from object artist and songwriter Elena Thomas is about objects we desire or indeed need to make progress in our work. Objects can facilitate – change what we can do, can they even change us? Objects as enablers is an intriguing and joyful prospect for The Museum to contemplate. I love Elena’s ability to expand the scope of this enterprise and look forward to the fruits of her first mic.
This museum of objects then… Does the object have to be old? Does the object have to be something I already own?
Can it be something shiny and new? Can it be something I covet? Can it be an object I have already imbued with hope and change, before I’ve even got my hands on it?
Can it be a microphone?
It is already symbolic for me. My first microphone
Like my first car… my first house… my first album (Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon… I KNOW!!)
Music has always been a part of my life… it has bumbled along in the background, it has burst out of bedroom windows, and crackled through the car stereo.
I cannot believe that it is only in the last few very recent years it has actually been PART of my work. Why didn’t I know I could do this? I feel like Manny in Black Books, who suddenly and accidentally discovers he can play the piano! (if you haven’t seen it, it’s on Youtube, go find it!)
I have written poems, usually daft ones at school, and later on the occasional ode of love and lust gained and lost.
But music? I don’t know anything about music except what I like, and that it excites me, soothes me, restores balance to my over-excitable, over-emotional life.
I have always sung too… sung along, that is… school choir, shower, very rare karaoke, and drunken crooning.
And now I sing. Now, I sing songs that I have written. This week, just this week, it got serious.
My musical mentor said “Get yourself a decent mic to plug into your mac and your iPad”.
It was a cast off sentence… it meant nothing to him other than we need my recordings to be of a higher quality.
But it is symbolic in that it means I have a voice worth recording at a higher quality. It is symbolic of this change. It is imbued with hope that I can live up to expectations.
In a recent series of workshops in a community setting, I have been intrigued to observe many of my ideas about the importance and value of objects being not only confirmed but enriched and extended.
My training and background in art therapeutics mean that I am always prepared for workshops to carry emotional undercurrents for participants and I work hard to contain the group – keeping all the members safely held at a level that is comfortable and enabling. It’s not that I avoid deeper waters purposively – it’s simply that the boundaries of the work in community arts must be set in a different place. In therapeutic work, we know our purpose is to confront and contain that which has been traumatic and continues to cause distress. It’s a project which takes time.
In community arts the brief is often to enable, value and support in more immediate ways. It’s life enhancing too, of course, but very different in tone to the therapeutic enterprise. There are many ways of keeping a group within a certain comfort zone while providing enough interest and challenge – also while giving space for genuine exchanges of the self. The trick is knowing how to pitch things and my best trick of all is leading by example – sharing at the level I’m aiming for, enthusing about objects and what they can do for us, and giving some verbal signals about the purpose and function of the group all help.
My observation however, is that the objects also work hard to protect us. I say this knowing that without the boundaries set through the strategies I employ things may be very different. Objects can evoke powerful emotions in us which can be traumatic and at times overwhelming. Yet objects also ‘contain’ emotion. They hold our memories and our felt responses, and because they are not us but separate and at some little distance, we may observe them in a relatively peaceful place at one remove.
Using the safety nets of sound group work practice we found that loss, retirement, loneliness and even personal crisis could be ‘shared’, referred to discretely, obliquely even. Individuals were held and heard by the group and through their objects were valued and accepted. It is possible to acknowledge and bridge these feelings in ways which are light in tone but deep in effect and the net result of these encounters was a noticeable uplift. By week three participants were on a roll, sharing and arranging their objects ready for a professional photographic session, and the possibility of showing this work in various settings spurred them on.
This post for The Museum is perhaps best seen as one of three about the therapeutic potential of objects, maintaining how important they are not only in mediating our emotional lives but also in speaking for us. I came away from this group with such a sense of the lives and personalities of each member through their prized objects – their ability to share them brought each one a sense of intimacy which in turn pierced their social isolation. I can’t help thinking of objects as consummate mediators and connectors and am tempted to say that throughout this series of workshops it was the objects that did the talking.
Today The Museum seeks to follow on from the excerpts from Philipa Perry’s article on transitional objects, which was posted a few blog posts back. In doing so I delve back to an article I wrote as a special feature for The Palette Pages entitled ‘Art As Healing?’ here.
In it I explore my own background in art therapy and what compels me to work with my father’s plays in my work over on Barcelona in a Bag. I suppose it has been only a question of time before The Museum blog and my personal artist blog should meet, if only for one post!
In my own practice I consider it vital to unpick the therapeutics of the work – it is after all autobiography of sorts and very much a ‘felt’ response to the material I encounter in my research. An understanding of the emotional entanglement with my subject allows for a distancing eye to come into play and I find there is no conflict in ‘working through’ my subject, and the visual output from the project. For me this is natural and harmonious but not always easy. We can’t control the material that may be encountered when using research into past lives, but also as war is my subject I am exposed to atrocity in many forms.
Thus an understanding of therapeutics, for me, is a tool of the object artist’s trade. I wonder how other’s see this?
This is an incredible collection – apparently 400 suitcases of former patients of the asylum, found in the attic of the building several decades later in 1995. It’s suggested that these are the possessions patients brought with them on entry to the institution with which they were perhaps never reunited. It’s almost overwhelming to view the accompanying photographs and their poignancy strikes harder the more the eye scans the objects in each case shown.
These photographs are sumptuous – beautifully curated, and I read in one comment some doubt about authenticity. I think this seed of doubt is a product of the curation process. Is there something which goes against the grain of authenticity in these photos, and challenges belief? Certainly there is a sense of the ‘editing’ hand at work. Where is the sense of chaos and distress that might accompany admission to an asylum one might ask? And yet – isn’t the process of packing one of ordering, sifting and deciding, and might not relatives have helped? The reasons for entering an asylum were perhaps also social and moral at times and mental illness poorly understood – we can’t make assumptions on a supposition about a state of mind. So many questions are laid open – and of course the ambivalence shown in the comment raises the importance of documentation and narrative. What are we being shown exactly? At what stage in the story are we?
My own desire shifts between wishing to see photographs of the discovery – the attic and the suitcases as they were – and feeling grateful for the opportunity to see the beautiful and sensitive work of the curators and photographers.
I am extremely grateful to Dawn for suggesting this rich find – so many angles for object artists to bring to and draw from. I’m looking forward to your responses.
Riches are arriving at The Museum door in quick succession and the past few days have seen a lot of activity and interest in the project to create a forum for ideas and a resource for artists working with objects. Last night ‘The Gift’ arrived from one of The Museum’s earliest supporters and inspirations, artist Kate Murdoch. And what a gift it is. Striking at the heart of the emotionality often contained within the simplest and most ‘valueless’ objects that pass through our lives, Kate turns the question of value upside-down, and her arresting photograph brings home the beauty of a gesture underlined by a grim social reality. Kate’s work is delicate and powerful all at once, and the Museum is most grateful for this precious donation.
My offering to the Museum of Object Research is a small, gold-coloured, heart shaped brooch, cheaply manufactured to promote the Variety Gold Heart charity, which was established some 20 years ago. I saw these brooches everywhere at one point in my life, but the only ones I see nowadays are in charity and junk shops. The face value of them isn’t high and they usually sell for around 50p – £1 apiece. A lot of you I’m sure, will be aware of them.
This particular brooch, however took on a completely different meaning in terms of its value because of the circumstances in which it was given to me. Being handed the brooch as a gift, marked a symbolic moment and an exchange of friendship and kindness which touched me, emotionally. It’s something I still find myself thinking about.
I wrote about how I came to be the owner of the brooch in a post on my a-n ‘Keeping It Going’ blog in January of this year – the poignant circumstances in which it was handed to me by ‘yet another emotionally bruised and battered casualty of the recession’, as I described the shop owner at the time. As we spoke, in his abandoned, near empty shop, people were loading vans with the few remaining items – bargains galore! – the owner’s voice was despondent as he gave things away for virtually nothing.
The fifteen minutes or so I spent in the shop saying my farewells summed up value and worth in a nutshell to me. The items in the shop were worth nothing to him now that his business had failed and I saw in the once proud, creatively-driven shop owner ‘…yet another person left feeling devastated about their business ‘failing’ – all that time, all those hours, all that money invested – all for what?’
As it turned out, I came away with something of greater value and worth than anything I could ever have paid money for – this small heart-shaped brooch, handed to me with a quick ‘here y’are, have this’ by the shop owner. His action for me is a pertinent reminder that even in these difficult, cash-strapped times, kindness costs nothing.
The brooch demonstrates perfectly the way in which seemingly insignificant objects can become objects of great personal value. So often, the emotional attachment we make to objects transforms them from being irrelevant into something special – to be valued, cherished and carefully looked after.
For me, donating the brooch to the Museum of Object Research, to sit alongside other objects, all with their own unique attached stories, increases the significance and worth of the brooch still further.