May 22, 2017 § 4 Comments
It’s time to talk networking and how it can work against autistic art professionals in particular. I won’t talk beyond my own experience but I hope what I say can apply more widely.
From the outside I appear relatively networked in. I have public funding, and I’m a member of an artists’ studios – I have in the past participated in group shows and events from time to time. I also have incredible collaborators and artists working with me on a group project. As I grow into my autistic self and gather congruence in my life I’m making professional relationships which feel safe and sustaining.
But in a wider sense I struggle with networking in ‘real time’.
Professionally speaking, I fall into the category of ’emerging artist’. I’m not really sure what comes next – possibly being an ‘established’ artist. These are subtlties that barely register with me as an autistic person.
But I do know that generally speaking networking is a significant factor in gaining visibility and access to opportunity and the elusive commodity of gallery space to show work in. I’m less bothered about status but more about finding square footage and audiences.
The practice of a certain kind of networking demands being out in neurotypical spaces – often way out of comfort zone. The majority of professional networking spaces can feel out of reach for many autistic artists, though we’re a varied bunch and some us will be more extrovert and confident in public spaces. Nonetheless we are a group for whom accommodations for networking could open up a whole new world. For now it’s a case of suck it up buttercup.
I’ve been inspired in some of my more recent thinking about this by excellent guidance issued by Shape Arts, for Global Access Awareness Day, 2017.
Access becomes an issue the more we must inhabit neurotypical spaces for professional development and visibility. The more one must perform neurotypicality the more disadvantaged, and ultimately networked out we can become. Physical environments can also be too hostile to our sensory integrity, and we lose out doubly.
For the autistic artist whose social vocabulary includes camouflaging neurology there exists a painful dilemma; to get out there and mingle, with all the attendant drain on functional capacity, or defend against it and experience the consequences of remaining networked out in a real and important ways.
Networking is a sometimes I can but more often I just can’t thing. There can be such lovely and genuine people out there, but what I experience is a bewilderingly fast paced array of possible introductions in a vertiginous sea of knowing faces. And they all seem to know something I don’t.
Art circles can be intensely cliquey and competitive too. I can sense this faster than the average person takes to breathe in and out again. I have to be here and play power games? Ugh no.
I recently turned down a very high level networking opportunity indeed, for self-protection. Alienation is bad enough – who wants it with knobs on?!
I do know some autistic artists who would make the opposite call and suffer, and I know ones who wouldn’t make it inside the building. Either way – they’re all heroic to me. I know what guts it takes to handle this kind of stress.
Each of us has to make that call, and I usually bail, preferring instead to focus on what I can do, and what works for me. I guess this is the point I’m trying to make. Exploring helpful means of being there so that opportunity is not lost, and/or initiating and inhabiting new kinds of networks of opportunity. Working the systems to autistic advantage to locate alternative sites of influence.
I’ve recently tried asking for help with access in an informal yet significant space – my own studios – where networking involves pub meetings. But what would such accommodations look like?
An online forum I suggest, wondering how many other artists with access needs who miss out on these meetings would potentially benefit from such a thing? Associate artists who live out of the city, artists with small children, artists who also have a disability (invisible or not)…anyone who can’t make it to the pub that night…
We do have a space online but it’s pretty dead. So if that’s the space – how to animate it and is that down to me? Should it be? Or should the people who inhabit ‘real time’ feedback online?
I found it both hurtful and significant that of the 40 or so people in the email chain I made my request to, only one eventually responded.
No-one opens those emails a separate friend told me – and immediately I understood that outing myself to a group comprising of plenty of unknowns had been a non-risk. Hah! Talk about an anti-climax!
But these are serious questions – which I think all art organisations should be asking themselves in 2017. What are you doing to be inclusive (especially those with public funding and/or charity status’ to protect) – how are you excluding disabled people through basic assumption? Autistic professionals may be one of the last frontiers for such awareness – but accommodate us and you accommodate many others with access needs, I would argue.
When met with a request for help with access it will be because the person who needs it has been brave and taken a risk – because in this socially risk averse society it takes guts to do this. But unless we say so the playing field is not going to level on it’s own.
May 5, 2017 § 3 Comments
Well I’m very glad to have sorted this conundrum out over the last few days.
I guess you could say my artist website has suffered from jet lag since my diagnosis of autism in March 2016. I processed my evolving identity as an autistic person through this blog, which has always felt more dynamic to be honest. My website is a little bit ‘best behaviour’ and Sunday dresses – which I guess is it’s function, to show me at the top of my game.
It has a showcase feel about it, whereas blogging is earthy and of the moment, but I’ve come to think that I really don’t need a dinosaur of parked features which rebukes me from afar. My blog has raced on, and at times got away with me, but it’s always been about nourishing identity.
It’s a wonderful thing then to have worked it out.
Part of the issue is with the website platform (clunky though familiar) but truly the professional dilemma has been that my work predated my diagnosis, and that I’m known for a specialism which ostensibly is not related to my autistic identity.
The issues have been twofold:
- How to talk about autism within a unrelated context.
- How to talk about autism without detracting from my topic area.
What this boiled down to was working out how to front load my identity without obscuring my specialist subject. Without achieving this balance I had begun to lack congruence and hence also the growing irrelevance of my website.
And so this half way house wouldn’t wash. Or certainly not for long. I had ended up feeling compromised by, and demoralised with my Sunday dress.
This process of enlightenment has been eased by gaining funding for my own professional development as an autistic artist – I can’t overstate how incredibly affirming this has been. It’s opened up autism and access as a new and complementary area of specialism within my practice, and armed me with the confidence I need to focus on becoming more congruent in my self presentation across platforms.
Not wanting to be pigeon holed and dismissed is a valid concern for any autistic, but being professionally out – I feel – is a state of mind no one can mess with. If I know who I am I can communicate this to others more easily.
Sure, there will be those who won’t get it – so be it. Maybe in time they will.
But I must own that this is a privilege. I can’t be sacked as a freelance, though I might lose opportunities and audiences.
SO, I risk becoming a specimen of a certain kind of patronising anthropological interest I’ve come to loathe. Humpf.
There’s just no price tag on congruence
If you can be this thing, then I think it’s truly important to do it. There are many ways in which you can assert both an autistic identity and a professional status.
It’s a process and I’m not judging – but the more we do this and more we self-define the more powerful we become. Don’t wait for someone to pigeon hole you is what I say. Get there first and stick it to the wo/man &/or gender fluid person.
May 1, 2017 § 2 Comments
No easy subject, dealing as it does with the wilful and systematic murder of disabled children by the Nazi regime – I left the intimate subterranean Jermyn Street Theatre for a matinee performance speechless and shaking, but in a good and important way. We should be shaking, and vowing over our own dead bodies that this should never happen again.
Meticulously researched, this two act play features the little known yet toweringly impressive historical figure of Bishop Von Galen whose opposition to the programme, through his published sermons, led to Nazi house arrest (1941-1945). Unwin also conjures a small and perfectly formed cast of fictional characters in the suitably claustrophobic setting of a Nazi appropriated clinic office, in which all the action is set.
Through each character we examine our own morality (and potential for activism) in the face of a seemingly absolute and violent oppression. As we witness an ailing and morally compromised Dr Franz at work, on what outshines any bad day at the office you could possibly imagine, we see a man in turmoil as he signs off innocent lives under the slimy and thuggish Nazi administrator Eric. By the end of the play Dr. Franz’s catholic maid Martha has made a journey towards the realisation that disabled children’s lives are of equal value to those she has previously viewed as being more ‘normal’, and thus she redeems the ultimately doomed Franz, inspiring a late resistance in him.
But the heart of the action centres on the intercessions of two passionate and imposing forces for good – Elizabetta, mother of a child victim called Stefan (whose nascent incandescence ignites in Act 2), and the Bishop himself whose dialogue with Dr Franz reflects the care with which Stephen Unwin has researched this material and considered the arguments of the time.
As well he might – for much of the research for this labour of love is a lived experience as the father of an intellectually disabled young man called Joey.
And here is where I make my disclaimer. Stephen Unwin is my friend, and his son Joey has – without us ever meeting – stolen my heart. This is neither pity nor perversion. I see in Joey (through his photographs) a beautiful and irresistible soul. And what I see in Joey – as an autistic woman – is a reflection of my own lived experience in a joyful yet often fragmented sensory world. I sense Joey’s intelligence as other and irrefutably valid, and he has an incredible smile.
This is the dynamic which powers the play – as you realise a father’s love animates Elizabetta and howls a tortured FUCK YOU! to the Nazi regime – just before Bishop Von Galen prepares to enter the stage.
Stephen sent me a copy of the play to read just before Christmas and so I knew what to expect in terms of dialogue and action, yet viewing it on the stage was quite overwhelming for me. The performances of Lucy Speed and David Yelland in particular, as Elizabetta and Bishop Von Galen stood out in a terrific cast. The set is beautifully designed and the theatre is a delight, but this play deserves to be seen on a greater scale.
By coincidence, Stephen sat behind me in this tiny theatre setting, and just before the action began he showed me another gorgeous picture of Joey on his phone. How chilling then to hear Elizabetta describe her boy Stefan, and act out his epileptic seizures. This (albeit fictional) child victim of Aktion T4 would have been Joey had Joey lived under the Nazi regime. There were thousands of Joeys, and by 1941 when the play is set more than 5,000 children like Joey had been killed.
This is a powerful and important work, and a love letter to Joey. Its message is universal and timeless. I do hope you get a chance to see it.
But if you live far away from London you can buy a copy of the play on Amazon.
April 28, 2017 § 3 Comments
The Museum for Object Research
– a project born out of an autistic practice.
– Press Release/ Phase 1
The Museum for Object Research has been granted Arts Council funding for research and development.
The Museum for Object Research (MfOR) launched on a-n blogs in 2014 as an innovative online forum for object artists to share resources and develop a network of like minded practitioners. MfOR quickly sparked the interest and enthusiasm of a core group of professional artists who form a unique community around object work as practice.
Objects as cultural signifiers and material memory comprise the artistic focus of the Museum’s work.
The MfOR blog was originated by artist Sonia Boué, who also leads the Museum’s pioneering initiative to create a template for her work as an autistic arts professional. Artist and educator, Elena Thomas is MfOR’s project co-lead and key to the development of MfOR in its current form.
MfOR is an inclusive collaboration, whose work on autistic leadership seeks to develop best practice outcomes.
We seek partners committed to inclusion and diversity for dialogue, venue spaces, and conference participation. We are keen to explore areas of intersection with other minority groups.
The culmination of this initial phase will be our Arts Council funding bid for MfOR – Phase 2. Exhibition, day conference, artists talks, workshops, publications and a project film are included in our plans.
MfOR is based in Birmingham, Oxford and online.
Sonia Boué – project lead/ artist
Elena Thomas – project lead/ artist
Simon Meddings – design
Sarah Mossop – curation
Laura Rhodes – film/ photography
Dr Jacqueline Taylor – research/ conference planning/artist
Kate Murdoch – artist researcher
Sonia is an autistic multiform artist, creative project developer and manager whose recent work includes a film collaboration with Tate Britain.
Her practice encompasses paint, assemblage, video and performance. Objects form the springboard for the many branches of her work, which is concerned with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice.
Born in Birmingham to an exiled Spanish Republican, she grew up between cultures. Family visits to Spain during the final decade of the Franco dictatorship form the bedrock of her practice as she continues to unpack her grandmother’s handbag.
Her writing on autism can be found on, The Other Side
Elena Thomas is a multiform artist and songwriter, creative project developer and manager. She has exhibited nationally and internationally. Her work comprises textiles, installation, performance and song.
Her object inspired practice encompasses touch, both physical & emotional, and the traces of influence of one person on another that are implicit in the objects and garments left behind. Imagined narratives are manifested in the stitching and the songs.
She has collaborated with producer and songwriter Dan Whitehouse on her recent Arts Council Funded Nine Women project.
Her blog writing on Threads forms a large part of her reflective practice and can be found at elenathomas.co.uk
(NB this project is about autistic leadership and contributing artists are not autistic)
April 25, 2017 § 17 Comments
Yesterday I learned a great deal about being invisible as a socially engaged artist – in the context of intersecting minorities.
I am an autistic white Anglo-Spanish woman of middle age. My current project in collaboration with Elena Thomas; The Museum for Object Research, does not on the face of it seem concerned with the kind of social and political issues that characterise my practice. The group concept is one thing but our individual practices are another. Social engagement is woven in to what many of us do.
As I arrive in a very particular context to speak to potential parters I’m confronted with the full force of a fundamental project truth. Our project is white, though not without a core of significant diversity. I knew this – but stepping out of Elena’s car I knew it in a more immediate and profound sense.
Our whiteness as a group is accidental – but we must own our privilege and understand this coincidence as part of a wider privilege in the arts, and of course globally. We must own it and act responsibly.
As I surveyed my surroundings I drank in the crumbling Victoriana and sixties high street design with zest. Unlikely juxtapositions that shouldn’t work, that don’t work – but are fascinating when seen in relief. This is history made visible, laid bare.
A nearby mosque, kids on the streets and cars piled up on the pavements crammed along side roads, while the main artery rumbles with heavy buses heading to half remembered places.
This is an area of Birmingham – a city seemingly in a fit of constant reinvention to the point of frenzy. My old home town.
I experience this autistically – knowing that my love for this moment would be considered intense by many. All day I have been touching the edges of an unknowingly autistic childhood. I have stepped into memory like Dr Gloucester – up to my middle – as a series of tangible intrusions.
In another part of my brain, I register my whiteness as an exclamation mark. I feel my autism thus most often – have I let it eclipse my whiteness as I reach deep into a newly discovered identity?
I gather my senses for a meeting. Quickly I must adapt to strangers. This is my autistic challenge – to follow the conversation and decode it in the moment, to sense the tone in the room and become it, to pass as a typical neurologically privileged human. My act is now second nature with aftershow fatigue as the encore.
I have done this now so often. I know how it will go. I will appear as a privileged white woman of middle age and middle class – articulate and lively (unless my energies run down, unless the room fractures through light and sound input, or I am suddenly too cold. Unless, unless…) Unless my words fail.
But I have measured my journey to this moment carefully, I have conserved my faculties (just) by planning. Only my collaborator knows this, and she knows too that my way in to this meeting is for her to lead, while I find my feet.
We talk pleasantly – I find my moments of entry as Elena carries the conversation. But there is a question of fit, of specific community, of reaching hard to reach groups. Yes.
I see it of course – we don’t fit, which is fine. But I won’t be unseen in my struggle. I gather my courage and my moment comes to say to a small group of strangers – I am an autistic artist.
I explain the roots of this project in my autistic practice, and my funding from Arts Council to make a professional template for my work as project lead. My voice almost leaves me but I hold on.
I am met with blank faces.
We talk some more – the topic is back with our hosts’ agenda. This is of course fair and proper. We are in their space.
But I can’t leave this. I have to ask about our intersections – autistic and black, Muslim and autistic. I am met with a level of confusion – I’m told hesitatingly but in so many words that autism is associated with children and is a stigma among these communities. I nod. It’s a hard sell, I say.
Another level of my privilege. To have an autistic community and access to the current wave of thinking on neurodivergence.
I hold my breath and think about my people.
Did I imagine it or did my voice become a little monotone and robotic as I edged across the tightrope of my disclosure?
As I became visible did I become more stereotypically autistic – did I do something so subtle (I have awesome camouflage and acting skills) as to act up to my audience expectations of an autistic person?
It is highly possible, as my finely attuned social calculator calibrated their responses – or lack of them.
Would they now be looking at me anew?
Of course they would. And with somewhat more curious gazes.
I come away with some serious questions. How can our museum become inter-sectionally inclusive? Am I engaged enough with the whiteness of my autism? I want to turn my coat inside out and show you the seams of my difference – my many differences – which like the buildings around me on that windswept afternoon in Birmingham lay bare a history.
This is research at its best. These are the dialogues we must share.
My thanks to our hosts for their input to MfOR R&D thinking and to Elena Thomas for her part in this enriching process.
April 20, 2017 § 5 Comments
Yes, we do have power. My post is not a simplification of wider more intractable structural power imbalances which work against autistics, but rather seeks to address a specific area in which power may be regained.
Society tends to ignore the contribution of autistic workers – both employed and potential workers (for many of us it is said are unemployed largely due to the myriad complications of ableism in our lives). Visible autistics are often cast either as recipients of charity in the workplace or as tech trojans, maths professors and sundry geeks.
There’s also a galling new trend to laud autistic workers (with the help of stereotypes) as work-horses. Honest as the work day is long! Give them a repetitive job and they’re happy! Accuracy means productivity! Wink, wink! Employ an autistic!
I’m very glad people are getting work, don’t get me wrong, but we have a long way to go because so much of this is predicated on neuro-normative thinking – but I better stick to what I know and talk about my own case.
I believe that many of us probably form an invisible workforce, whose skills can’t easily be replaced by others in the market place – because they are not autistic. We are both employees and freelancers – some of whom may also create opportunity or employment for others. Our brains work differently and often originally – we can gain recognition but also do so for others by association, or more darkly though imitation and appropriation. Subtle use of autistic smarts by neuro-normatives is a thing in the creative sector – conscious or not – and it has to stop. We often do not receive recognition or added value for what we bring to the job, in my experience. Neurotypicals can be slow to grasp the deep benefits autistics bring to work, and overlook them as the players they are or could be. Cultural deafness to autistic smarts, and lack of access to the rules of the game are often to blame. This is what must become transparent.
In some sectors – we’ve gained a curious market value but this does not necessarily filter down to us. Inclusion in the arts is hot, for example. We are, in bald capitalistic terms, currency. Our presence in a organisation or on a project can be valuable in terms of funding (invisibly) because we are autistically good at what we do, and (visibly) because we help tick boxes. Boxes mean cash, and thus we are in the narrowest sense ‘tokens’. We may however be used as token autistics unless we watch our backs and realise our market value, and unless we also assert that our market value must be linked to accommodations. This is really the key to what I’m trying to say.
To hook all this together we need first to identify pattern and causation and call time on certain practices. The nothing about us without us motto works so well at every level of our engagement with co-workers and organisations. I have begun asking where the accommodation is, and doing so in open forums when there is no obvious alternative open to me. Social media is one good forum I’ve found for teasing out hidden code and asserting value.
This is not passive aggression – it is the use of accessible platforms for autistics. If the social codes and means by which they are passed on are hidden to us, we may have an option to use open channels when we judge it is safe for us to do so. By which I mean – minimal personal comeback and maximum gain in clarity.
In many cases I’ve been fortunate in finding true allies – but making visible and engaging in ‘clear-speak’ can be effective where commitment or understanding has been less obvious. In the arts at least, people must be seen to be accommodating – SEEN being the operative word.
I believe it is time to stop talking about inclusion or access in neuro-normative terms altogether, because we need less warm fuzz and more hard outcomes. We have to define this in our own terms. We can’t wait around to win the info war on autism to make a living. We need our jobs and our projects to pay us fairly and not kill us in the process. SO what can we do?
Well, we have some serious bargaining chips in certain environments when we find the means to assert that our skills create outcomes (autistic smarts make for invaluable contributions and demonstrably so). Similarly so when our presence as autistics brings in monetary value to organisations in terms of funding. This we bring to the table, thus we must gain at the table. I don’t want a place I can’t use or decode from – I want an accommodated seat where I can be acknowledged and equal.
I am learning not to be confused by the mere appearance of friendliness or put off by other people’s agendas. I’m late diagnosed, hell it’s time!
April 8, 2017 § 8 Comments
Photograph of Sonia Bouè’s Refugee Stack, 2015 by stardaffs.com
SO, something happened.
In collaboration with my trusted colleague Elena Thomas (artist, song-writer, performer and educator), I have asked Arts Council England to support me in creating a document to outline my needs in the workplace. They just said yes! This piece of paper (or more likely powerpoint, video, series of poems, and – oh yes a handy list!) will be my ramp into neurotypcial spaces as an autistic arts professional.
All workspaces are the wrong neurotype for me. All of them. No invisible ramps exist for invisible conditions that I know of. So we have to start talking up visibility and making change happen.
Alongside the challenges of my autistic difference in an often hostile world, I have co-morbid conditions which present me with further obstacles to access. A restricted diet due to functional gut disorder, severe contact dermatitis, and Raynaud syndrome are on the daily menu. I must manage my energies and environments with the greatest of care, and commonly found canteen fare, air con and synthetically perfumed environments can act as enemy agents sending me into a spiral of ill health.
I need control over working conditions but as a freelance this is often a difficult and sometimes impossible challenge. My professional template will be designed to turn this around. A personal breakthrough in managing my conditions has been to gain a diagnosis of autism – at which I learnt that they come with the territory. They’re not autism per se but they come as an attachment and form part of the package.
What this does (in practice) is to bring this trio of troublemakers to heel. I click my fingers to round them up, and we become one. Autistic + co-morbids is the deal with me. I require detailed and specific accommodations in a complex and fast paced milieu – ie the arts!
But of course it is autism – and the myriad disadvantages faced in a neurotypical working context I hope to tackle head on. This is no add-on or postscript to my project. It is the core of my project. If I am to lead and create opportunity for others (my project brings employment among other benefits) then my team must come with me and I feel so lucky knowing that they will. Too long have autistics tagged along or even had their work exploited. Together we may just create a pioneering model.
I feel empowered and grateful – at last I have a way of gaining some leverage and intend to share my learning with other autistic artists who may also benefit.
So how did I get my funding – how did I make this opportunity happen?
- Teaming up with professional and trusted neurotypical allies has been key to this process.
- I have now spent two years of my professional life learning my way around the lower tier Arts Council England Grants for the Arts funding application process.
- Through the combined autistic skills of hyper focus and hyper connective thought I can create effective, coherent and strategic funding bids.
So in addition to my own work, I’m now in a position to offer a consultancy service. I can help to analyse and structure a proposal for a GFTA bid (currently at £15,000 and below, and in the near future for higher tier awards) for individual artists and small organisations. My skills are not limited to autistic/ neurodivergent artists & organisations but this is a specialism.
My services can be hired at an hourly rate, and I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.