How was it for you? #NUNOproject

a pile of leaflets on a table in front of a red, wooden door
a pile of leaflets on a table in front of a red, wooden door

What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.

Soon I will be asking the artists on the Arts Council England (ACE) funded Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) project, how was it for you?

I have to do this as part of my evaluation process, but I’m also genuinely curious. This has been a unique project in which I have explored what it means to lead autistically (in my case). 

I won’t have got things ‘right’ in all cases, but we made it to the finishing post of our exhibition opening in quite some style. I’m anxious to hear if and how my leadership has made a difference to the artist’s experiences of participation – and if this has further impacted their lives. 

What I can tell you is what this project has done for me, by investing in my participation as a ‘player’ at a more senior level in my profession. In doing so I make the case for more of this for more of us. Autistic arts professionals are currently lacking such opportunity for progression – not only as artists but also as artist organisers. This needs to change.

It’s really very simple. In enabling me – through funding – to lead a significant project like NUNO, ACE have helped me to shift from a state of aversion to one of enthusiasm. Autistic aversion (in my case), I see now, was clearly fostered by a lifetime of exclusion. Not understanding neurotypical social code is perhaps where an autistic person begins in life, due to fundamental perceptual differences. What is less understood perhaps is the continued impact of this as a mechanism of our exclusion across a lifetime. Or indeed, what might happen in terms of ‘social appetite’ if the dynamic of exclusion were somehow ameliorated by genuine inclusion at any given point in time. It’s all so obvious once you’ve lived through it, but how many of us get this chance? 

I feel we should be more aware that for some autistics social exclusion and a resulting aversion is a dynamic predicated on social bias, which once in play generates a serious barrier to our ability to decode social situations over a lifetime. Through such a dynamic myriad points of learning are lost, by which I mean two-way learning. 

So what impact on the possibility of ‘social learning’ across neurologies can genuine inclusion make? I pose the question thinking that I know the answer. I think the impact can be highly significant because of the quality of my own experience in my shift from aversion to enthusiasm. Suddenly, elements of shared social spaces stack up. I am exposed to learning and foster learning in others. This is a two-way conversation. 

I’m careful to mention the other side of the neurological coin in terms of learning (so-called neurotypicality). I’ve found that leading as an autistic person enables learning to flow in all directions. Neurotypical learning around me is probably the bit I can’t see, but which I reckon has made a whole heap of difference to how I am received and therefore to how I feel. I know that I am lucky in this regard – it can go so badly wrong when people can’t listen well. I’ve built up to this moment and have chosen my shared social spaces very carefully.

Being a ‘player’ has been vital to this process in which I now find myself wanting to engage with people and places in new and unexpected ways. I still crave a duvet day when life gets too busy, and I don’t love crowded events or small talk. I haven’t stopped being autistic – that not a thing, and I wouldn’t want it to be. What I’m talking about is appetite. The vital waters of my professional life no longer feel cold and uninviting. What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug. 

Social anxiety and social sensitivity are often seen as negatives, but what if they have fostered a deep sense of responsibility and generated a high level of care for the people on my project? I myself know that they most definitely have. What also, if by some mechanism unknown to me – other than sharing my neurological status and leading autistically – I have been treated more carefully in return? I feel this must be true.

What if seizing the opportunity to lead autistically and to design my project as accessibly as possible has led to something really fundamental? I look forward to gathering more evidence for this exciting notion in the weeks to come. 

Currently, we lack models for what is needed to challenge the stranglehold neurotypicality has had on our culture. The dynamic it creates for autistic people is, in my view, toxic. So I very much hope that in time NUNO may provide one such needed template for others to riff with. 

Why NUNO is a model for inclusivity in the arts

A white landscape with stormy clouds and hude moon made up of hundreds of drawn lines

The recent Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) exhibition curated by artist Sonia Boue bought together two of her peer networks, one a group of artists who work with objects in their practice, the other a small group of autistic or neurodivergent artists who are part of WEBworks, a peer mentoring and support network founded by Sonia.

I was invited to contribute a piece to NUNO and decided that I wanted to explore the issues of isolation experienced by autistic creatives. At the time I was wrestling with my own complex feelings around being a neurodivergent person. To be a successful professional artist I need extra support around communication and networking difficulties and support to navigate the complexities of funding applications and identifying opportunities. However, I was also feeling extremely uncomfortable with some of the labels I needed to attach to myself in order to get that support. I cannot identify as disabled (although many people with my neurology do), I still have not worked out why that identity feels so alien to my sense of self but it does. It’s not only that I have a non typical neurology, I also have an autoimmune condition that is physically disabling yet still I cannot call myself disabled.

Neurologically I have decided to identify as a mildly eccentric introvert, rather than the medical term that I have a formal diagnosis of. Years ago, people with a different take on the world were considered eccentric and it was a term that came with a certain affection, people seemed to be rather proud of our British eccentrics. They were certainly recognised as people who contributed something positive, if a little odd, to the world.

My peers, those people who are happy to identify as autistic or neurodivergent are a group of people that I love to hang out with. The feeling of shared understanding of the world and supportive camaraderie is a wonderful thing, but that peer group is not my everyday experience. Most of my friends, family and colleagues and people that I meet professionally are not neurodivergent. Most people, when they hear the term autistic, for instance, are largely ignorant about what autism is, what autism looks like and they bring this ignorance and their preconceived prejudices to the table when they meet an autistic person. Better people than me are able to be ‘out and proud’ about their neurological difference and can somehow manage being talked down to, being othered, being seen perhaps as a bit stupid, or someone who is suddenly going to have a scary meltdown. I can’t do it, I’m too vain maybe, I just know that I have had enough of being treated differently and the uncomfortable feelings it brings up. If you are different to the norm it can feel very isolating, which I absolutely hate.

A white landscape with stormy clouds and hude moon made up of hundreds of drawn lines

My initial response to the NUNO project was to focus on isolation and to explore the actual, physical isolation autistic and neurodivergent artists experience as a consequence of being a minority. There are physically nearly 500 miles separating the WEBworks artists. My initial idea was to use walking to experience the distance and isolation that autistic or neurodiverse artists might experience.

However, creating my work for NUNO has made me re-evaluate using walking as a metaphor for isolation. Instead, walking for NUNO gave me back a feeling of competence, emotional strength and a dawning realisation that if I am in a place that is right for me, or taking action in a way that suits my particular way of thinking, then I feel completely alright and very competent.

This is of course what the Social Model of disability is trying to get across to the wider public; that people are not inherently disabled by their physical condition or neurology, but rather they experience being disabled by the physical, social or cultural world they live in, which may impact negatively on their being, or cause them to function in a manner that causes them extra difficulty. In the ordinary world, in the city or in a typical workplace I am in some ways disabled; struggling to function well surrounded by lots of noise, social interactions and rapidly changing visual stimuli. Walking for NUNO I came to see clearly that in a city environment I cannot function healthily, while walking in the countryside I am enabled.

Of course while walking I meet with challenges, I experience physical discomfort, I get lost. It isn’t an easy option but it is one that fits me. It’s where I feel that I can meet the challenges that arise, where I can enjoy a feeling of competence. Sometimes the going might get very tough, when it rains relentlessly or my pack weighs a ton at the end of a long day, or a farmer’s dog comes rushing at me teeth bared. It’s not that walking is not difficult, but that it’s a difficulty that I can meet. Somehow, the typical world of city life, of buses and cars, of office work and supermarkets and all that craziness is a difficulty I cannot meet.

So what has been wonderful about working on the NUNO project is that it is a space where all artists are enabled, not disabled. Where it is accepted as a given that your neurology does not make you a better or worse artist, where your neurology or other potential disability is considered only for as long as it takes to put measures in place to ensure that you can contribute. The project is adjusted flexibly to fit everyone. Working with Sonia, all one has to do is say, “I need this” and it is accepted without quibble, adjustments are made, tweaks are tweaked and we all move forward together.

What makes it work I think is that Sonia has taken good long look at herself. She has investigated and accepted her own neurology and closely observed where she struggles in the world. Confident of her own competence, she has had the intelligence and courage to carve a way of working that suits her. Doing this inner work for herself means that she can be open to and accepting of other’s quirks and difficulties, and embrace them. I think a great many arts organisations and networks could benefit from adopting the inclusive, can-do approach developed as part of the NUNO project. While I no longer feel comfortable talking about my personal neurological diagnosis, I will never stop being hugely proud to be a part of the WEBworks cohort and continue to support Sonia to deliver intelligent, creative projects that are genuinely inclusive.

Dead or alive: the permanence of objects versus the fragility of human existence

Here Today…’

One silver and turquoise Art Deco hand mirror, one blue velour Parker Knoll armchair: two random items, both of use to their owners, but of no particular significance – until you’re made aware of the history and narrative associated with them, that is. 

The art work I make is often motivated by my connection and close relations with family. ‘Here Today…’  was created through assembling pieces from my late Nana’s more personal, intimate possessions and placing them on a bedside cabinet; a hand mirror, a vintage silk flower and palettes of used make up – items that she had handled and used over and over; old, well-worn objects, still in existence and now, with an even greater emotional charge, having survived my Nana by some years. 

Likewise, with my late father and the continued presence of a favourite seat. How was it that my Dad’s blue armchair stood so resolutely in the living room of my parents’ home on the day of his funeral, begging the question: if the chair could survive, then why on earth couldn’t he? 

Themes of loss and remembrance are present in a lot of the work I make and reflect my fascination with the permanence of objects versus the fragility of human existence – crucially, how things outlive people. The histories associated with everyday objects give the work its meaning, not solely for me, but for an audience for whom some objects will inevitably resonate. 

A lot has been written on the subject of the emotional attachments made to the everyday things that surround us, and none more powerfully than Sylvia Plath who captured her love for objects in many of her poems, ‘Tale of a Tub’ and ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ being examples. 

Tisha Nemeth-Loomis in her research paper ‘Plath’s Possession Aesthetics: Visual and Object Libido’ wrote: 

‘Plath employed a visual exactitude which indicated surprising states of perceptual awareness; it filled her poems and objects with curiosity and dimension. When engaged in these states of visual connection, it is possible that Plath attempted to integrate herself with images and objects. For Plath, objects surpassed the mundane; they were unique, enviable entities.’

And her late husband, Ted Hughes, noted Plath’s psychological investment in the everyday object: 

‘This genius for love she certainly had, and not in the abstract. She didn’t quite know how to manage it; it possessed her. It fastened her to cups, plants, creatures, vistas, people in a steady ecstasy. As much of all that she could, she hoarded into her poems.’ (quoted in Holbrook 279) 

From a completely different literary genre, I found this piece of writing by romantic novelist Erica James. In this extract from her novel ‘Precious Time’, James describes the thoughts of a character who runs a house clearance firm … 

‘It was the bedside tables that invariably got to him. It was in those little drawers that, often, the most personal and poignant objects had been kept, and which gave the deepest insight into that person’s habits and thoughts. Today’s bedside table had revealed the usual old tubes of ointment, packets of indigestion tablets, buttons, rusting safety-pins, bent hairpins, and a string of cheap gaudy beads. There was a tiny-faced watch that didn’t work, a money-off washing powder voucher (dated October 1988), a pair of tweezers, a throat lozenge that had oozed a sticky trail across an envelope of black and white holiday snaps, a crumbling bath cube that had lost its scent, and a small trinket box containing a collection of Christmas cracker jokes, unused party hats, two plastic whistles and a key-ring. There was also a small Bible, its pages thickened with use.’ 

It’s difficult sometimes to find the words to convey the true, agonising sense of loss and the very powerful emotions that we project onto objects that are left behind. Items presented as objects of remembrance and associated with the dead, are imbued with deep sentiment and emotion.

The hand mirror bears the physical marks of a well-used object, the metal and patina worn and eroded by my Nana’s endless handling of it. My Dad’s empty, unoccupied armchair, following his death, came to symbolise his absence, heartwrenchingly so for those who loved him – his revered place within the family unit and the actual physical space he once occupied. How on earth can we ever find it in ourselves to part with such precious items? 

The reality is of course, that we can’t keep everything and for practical reasons, some things in our lives just have to go. House moves, house clearances, downsizing, relationship break-ups and other life-changing events inevitably lead to a serious rethink and overhaul about what we can and can’t keep. 

William Morris stated that we should have nothing in our houses that we did not ‘know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ While I understand this sentiment, I know that peoples’ homes sometimes also contain things they positively hate but find hard to throw away – unwanted gifts from long deceased relatives, for example – the hideous ceramic owl inherited from Auntie Elsie who loved it and thought you would, too. 

There’s no doubt that the bonds we form with certain objects are stronger than others and that our decision making about what we keep in our homes is often determined by the depth and strength of the emotional attachments we make to them. As time passes, these objects get handed down through the generations; their condition might become more battered and fragile, but their significance and sentimental value continues to grow – living on, immortal and becoming increasingly robust as they accumulate and carry with them, layer upon layer of their ancestors’ histories and narratives. 

Kate Murdoch 2019