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.