Art, fog, and beautiful brains: thinking about autism and culture shift in the arts.
February 15, 2020 § 2 Comments
I’m a late-diagnosed autistic. The more I learn about myself the more I recognise unwitting social ableism. As a cohort of emancipated autistics at loose in the world we can can be vehicles for change. We need both inner metal and moments of respite because it’s not easy (and it’s not for everyone). We can only work to capacity, and move forward without judgement, because this is painful work.
In my travels I often encounter casually displayed social prejudice embedded in seemingly benign comments, which are rarely maliciously intended. In most cases it would feel wrong to interrupt and say…excuse me, what did you just say?! These are not yet the social rules.
So it would be awkward and seem rude, and yet – there it is! A social ableism which not only hurts and offends your ears but holds back the kind of culture shift we desperately need – not only for equality, but to save lives.
Autistic people die by suicide because they can’t perform as non-autistics. Autistic people also die in social care.
There is urgent cultural work to be done. Yet, faced with such a moment I often fall into a familiar mental fog.
Where to begin?
This is the question autistic people report facing with many even ordinary every day tasks. I’m finding it useful to think about this as a form of ‘brain fog’ which affects my ability to join up facts, marshal arguments or take action in a conventional expected/demanded linear fashion. Invisible barriers descend and conspire against us – and sometimes we haven’t even left the house.
People often use the term ‘procrastination’ to describe such delay in coordinating action or response, but I find this inaccurate and pejorative. It’s not as though we have a will in the matter.
So I want to talk about brain fog as a neurological condition and use fog as a metaphor to think about my disability and my art practice. Logically, I feel, the way my brain works will show itself in my creative method – an obvious point but one rarely analysed in mainstream arts.
It couldn’t be clearer. Procrastination suggests there’s an alternative involving non-procrastination. Namely that I could speed up if I just moved directly into tackling the ‘task at hand’.
I challenge anyone to move swiftly and directly in a dense fog. No. The sensible thing is to adjust your ETA, slow your speed and find a fog lamp. You literally have to inch your way.
Brain fog (I find) can be made up of two categories:
- Too much stuff – options, information, thoughts, hostile demands (which go against brain type)
- To little stuff – lack of relevant information, coded information, not enough working memory, dissociation, loss of focus.
It’s a hugely complex picture as our fog-prone brains are also our best friends. Brain fog seems to be a feature of an expansive and holistic thinking style, and I want to add that it’s not a permanent state which finds a wonderful counterbalance in hyper-focus. We can be incredibly focused when conditions allow.
Also a fog prone environment is a treasure trove of intuition, capable to a fault. This line of thought helps me to understand the kind of learner I am – I have to experience something to learn about it and feel my way.
It also helps explain the methodology of my painting practice, which flows not only from brain-type but also from the origins of my painting practice in an experiential painting group during my art therapy training.
My most recent (obsessive) tomato paintings couldn’t illustrate this fact more perfectly. My method has been to coax my painted tomatoes (signifiant symbols of a very specific childhood memory and location) onto a series of canvases through a process of trial and error. As though themselves emerging from a fog, they’ve come in and out of focus, been marked in and erased countless times along the way. A vital part of this process has been checking my work against the harsh studio lights. If the tomatoes weren’t ‘ripe’/right I pushed them firmly back into the fog. Painting in oils has felt almost like sculpting in clay. Importantly I’ve revelled in sharing my process on Instagram – knowing now that what I’ve really wanted to say is look at my brain! This is how it works…
What’s vital to my process is the to-ing and fro-ing – the freedom I give myself to experiment without judgement and begin again if I’m not happy with the results. It’s so not a linear process. What counts is the visible and concrete nature of this exploration – this is my kind of research.
What I hope to do in my practice is begin to show more of my process so that I can carry on exploring these connections more publicly. Working with a fog-prone brain is truly wonderful (I wish you could try it if you don’t have one!) until I’m forced to complete a linear task in a linear fashion, or I’m not able to access missing data. Feeling my way as a method is vital to my ability to function, stay well, and at times excel. What many of us need is support to make our way in a world not yet fit for purpose, and which forces us to work against ourselves.
And so we return to the start of this blog post and the desire for culture shift, and the needs for resilience in the face of social ableism.
I’ve written previously about reviewing where I am 4 years on from an autism diagnosis – I will be 4 on the 4th of March 2020 autistically speaking. I want to use my practice to talk about accommodating brains that are ‘other’. Our multifaceted, beautiful neurodivergent brains, with which we can be the useful ‘aliens in the room’ (a recent phrase I’ve heard used to talk about innovation).
It’s important to feel useful to stay alive. It’s what I want for us all. We must all feel that we have agency over the things which matter to us. In my studio I know that my tomatoes will dance, sing, and play with me, until they’re ripe and ready to emerge as talismans for a way of being that can’t be silenced – it is too joyful and beautiful.
Okay, I know I can’t effect culture shift with my tomatoes! Though I can add to the growing conversation in the arts sector. I’ve recently been inspired by a colleague about to think about the power of silence as a defence against social ableism.
I’ll be holding the possibility of using silence in any future encounters with unintended social ableism. Let’s see what opens up in the gap.
You can see more tomato action on @s_boue