In my day job I am a visual artist with my own practice, but I’m also a community artist, mentor, trainer, and consultant. I work on various community arts projects as a freelancer, and I also lead my own project over on The Museum for Object Research.
I’m writing to share some of my findings after three months of working towards an inclusive Arts Council England funded project, where autistic and non-autistic artists will exhibit their work together (in March/February 2019 in Oxford). So there’s still a way to go. Our project title is, Neither Use Nor Ornament, or #NUNO for short.
It began with the grand idea to bring together two distinct networks, one predating the other. The longer standing group of non-autistic artists were to show their work in an exhibition that had already been planned. The newer group of autistic artists would create an events programme to run concurrently, thereby creating a distinct but equal platform while allowing for a cross-pollination of ideas and influences.
In my minds eye – the group show appeared as a fixed point at the core of the project and the events programme whizzed around it like a Catherine wheel! I liked thinking about the dynamic interdependence of each element as a metaphor. Could this be a new model in the making?
Audiences would certainly gain a sense of contrast – and when we began the project, the two networks were indeed quite separate, their only real point of intersection being me. But would it make any sense beyond my own imagination, and would this represent genuine inclusion? As a visual artist especially I need to ask myself, what does inclusion look like?
The project (in a nutshell) is really about one person’s professional journey towards congruence after a late diagnosis of autism, and their (my) greater commitment to journeying in company for the benefit of a wider group. My project is about making change happen for some of the artists involved, it also seeks to inform arts organisations. Challenging audience perception is important to us though our spirit is not confrontational.
Our first model was what you might call high on visibility. At this point, I didn’t know any better.
High vis ( or ‘Day-Glo diversity’!) could meet with approval from a body like Arts Council England, who we know need to be seen to be doing better on this score.
But as my project progresses I’m increasingly wary of the Day-Glo approach, which you see quite a lot in the arts right now. Genuine work is taking place in some cases but I’m disquieted by this trend in diversity signalling.
Inclusion should be an every day thing, rather than exceptional.
A hegemonic insistence on ‘normality’ conditions us to believe that signalling ‘difference’ in highly visible ways challenges perceptions and therefore creates an instance of inclusion. There are times when this works precisely because our assumptions about who can be a player in society are so rigid.
But this strategy of ‘watching’ difference and ‘noticing’ it (as inspirational often) implies a norm from which ‘difference’ is discernible. This is hidden ‘centring’ and we must tear off the fetid blinkers of normality conditioning to see it.
Losing that fixed point, ditching that norm, and embracing diversity within humanity as the default setting would have us up in arms at the inequities of our very biased everyday assumptions.
At this point I refer back to the wisdom of an autistic child I knew, whose logical insistence that if we’re all different (as we are) then nobody is special when it comes to educational need (or anything else for that matter).
Ghettoisation (in the name of inclusion) within mainstream education can definitely be a thing – and it has marked this young person – as a teenager their instinct for survival prompted them to ditch all visible support. Not wanting to appear ‘different’ (because it so stigmatised them) tells you everything you need to know about being singled out for ‘special’ attention in ‘mainstream’ education.
Obviously school pupils turn into adults. Some will go on to wield power and be the decision makers of the future. What will inclusion mean to them? What does inclusion look like?
Some of them will also buy lottery tickets – an important source of Arts Council England funding streams. Therefore (if current systems remain) some of these pupils will go on to fund projects like mine. Their adult counterparts of today have indeed funded my project, and ideally they could be among our audiences too.
My project is an attempt to reach out across these invisible fault lines, but the scales have fallen from my eyes. My Catherine wheel was never going to take off, I was in thrall to a ‘neurotypical’ hegemony called ‘normality’.
As our work has gone on, I’ve listened to the artists on my project and absorbed the effects of high visibility on each one of them – and not all of them want it. Creative practice may seem like a ‘safe zone’ for the kind of self expression which extends to autistic unmasking – but how safe is it really? The problem with gaining a professional platform is precisely that you can be seen. Irony!
And where invisible disability is concerned (such as autism) – some of us have been conditioned to mask our difference in order to survive – stigma and discrimination threaten if we show ourselves.
Art practices do not exist in a vacuum and art alone cannot dissolve ableism – we’ve needed to get real about this. We don’t chose to use masking strategies, they occur as an adaptation. I know that it’s a relative privilege to mask, not all of us can do this, but for those who can it is a right.
Yet increasingly privacy is being eroded – we are encouraged to share professional profiles on the very social media that friends, families and colleagues use. It is now almost impossible to control personal information which forms any part of a public persona. Very recently this happened to me.
The funny look at the non-autism related exhibition opening. I experienced it only the other day. Oh, you’re Sonia Boué. My ‘fame’ in this instance was an autistic person not an artist. A googely-eyed stare is not the end of the world but it’s not a great look. I’ve learned to brush it off, but that’s not the point. Invisible disability can demand a calculation at each and every turn. It’s exhausting and sometimes the cause of great anxiety.
How much of myself do I show? Where are my safe zones? How often must I pretend and wait for my unmasking?
Mainly we must ask ourselves, what will it cost me? Will it cost me my job, if I have one? Will it affect my mental health?
Will I be bullied or abused?
And here, of course, my heart bleeds for the autistics who cannot hide. The point is that no-one should have to face this.
But for me this is one reason why an ideal model of inclusive practice comes without a whizz and a bang. Some of us need to mask our identities while gaining in rightful professional development.
In any case, I wonder if great inclusive practice is something you can’t necessarily see!
Increasingly, I think this could be a truth to live by. Not only is inclusive practice potentially a quieter, more careful and considered game than I’d imagined, but the ultimate goal is that we genuinely don’t see ‘difference’ because we’re all included equally.
So it isn’t so much about what you see that counts. What matters is the activity that goes on behind the scenes to make a piece of work happen in a manner that’s ethical and beneficial to all.
As I move forward with my project I find that my ideas are shifting.
Our new model is still forming, and the much longed for cross pollination of ideas and influences is taking place. I’m pretty sure I haven’t always got this right, but the learning curve gives a spectacular view. I have a brilliant team and the most wonderful artists on board. The biggest change for me is that I no longer see my project as being one of two parts. Probably that’s what inclusion looks like.
I’m grateful for ongoing conversations with the Arts at the Old Fire Station & Crisis Skylight partnership in Oxford, and with my mentor Miranda Millward, and with Thomas Procter-Legg Headteacher of Iffley Academy in Oxford, in informing aspects of my thinking about inclusive practice.
I’m also grateful to Alastair Somerville of Acuity Design for his thinking on normality, in particular his latest writing on Building a normal world.