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.
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.