Back where I belong: traumatic memory in an art practice.

March 17, 2019 § 6 Comments

I’m a little in love with this picture. It features one element of my new installation, which I’m about to show as part of a large group exhibition called Neither Use Nor Ornament or NUNO for short.

My work is called Conversation and it features an audio piece with an excerpt from my play Playa y Toro, (2014)

A bit like a Russian doll, my play contains a play, and it also combines characters and action from my father’s play Tierra Cautiva, which was written in about 1951, with characters from my art blog Barcelona in a Bag. The typewriter you see in the picture is the exact model he used to write his play. Those who follow my work will know that my father was exiled from Spain in 1939 when Franco’s Fascist forces defeated the democratically elected government. 2019 sees the 80th anniversary of the tragic events in which nearly half a million Spaniards fled for their lives across the border to France. My father’s early plays were a response to the continuing dictatorship and the beginnings of the tourist boom.

Since 2013 I’ve been working with my family’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War as a postmemory project. Postmemory in my case meaning that I grew up with an unspoken, yet inherited trauma. The Spanish Civil War was not my own first hand experience, but I lived with all the consequences of it, and it’s effects on my family, which were significant.

I’ve been aware that on a professional level I should be producing work in this year to mark the terrible events of 1939, and yet I’ve fallen largely silent, just when I might be expected to be most vocal. In part NUNO has taken a great deal of my time, but more truthfully I’ve felt emotionally overwhelmed.

For many of my 5-6 years of professional practice dedicated to this work, I’ve attempted to address the silencing of this history in some quarters, and the lack of awareness in others. This year I can’t complain of that. There is a tidal wave of material which is at last coming to light, and I predict swathes of responses to it in years to come. I’m delighted, but I’m also rendered mute.

I’ve had to think through why my response is one of flight.

Working with traumatic memory has consequences, and I’ve often been aware of the need to pace myself over the years. You can’t work close up with this material and not be affected. What I’ve learned in this anniversary year is that it’s incredibly hard when such a tidal wave hits your online networks. I finally realised this when a friend sent me a video the other day which I just couldn’t open. Earlier in February I wept at 6am, as I logged onto FaceBook with my morning coffee and viewed footage of countless Republican Spaniards streaming towards the border. That was my family, my dearest ones. I can’t help myself, I scan the screen searching for them. It’s quite terrible. Any such footage, photographs or mentions have this effect. I relive this moment of flight in my mind, and the deeply painful truths that were hedged as my family gave my sister and I golden summers on the beaches of Barcelona.

I think it’s the type and volume of information which appears randomly at any time of the day which makes me recoil. I spend a lot of time online. Exposure can happen when least expected. When I’m on a specific Spanish Civil War project and researching, I’m in control of the flow. Probably that’s the difference.

So I’ve been working quietly, and am so very grateful to my NUNO group – there’s a sense of safety in numbers and my work nestles within the collective showing to the public. My piece is gentle, but it does probe at the trauma site.

I’ve called this blog Back where I belong, because in the last 24 hours I’ve reconnected with a font of inspiration for my play – a series of recordings made by Federico García Lorca of Canciones Populares Antiguas. They recall a period of intense studio practice in which I was truly connected to this unspoken family history and surround by ghosts. Project management has in many ways disconnected me from this, but on hearing the music on my iPod I’m transported back there.

I’m also back where I belong in terms of my identity, in at last regaining my Spanish nationality. This feels like a pretty spectacular year to have done so.

Once more thank you so much Arts Council England, your funding of my work for NUNO has been a profound award in so many ways.

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#NUNOproject – a case study in inclusive practice

March 9, 2019 § 2 Comments

This blog post was first published on @an_artblogs

I’m very interested in inclusion. This is probably because I’ve experienced exclusion. I know what’s like to find yourself behind a glass wall looking in.

As an unidentified learning disabled child, I failed the 11+ and watched my sibling sail through the gates of a prestigious independent school. My parents were a teacher (at the same independent school)  and an academic at the local university, I felt foolish and left out when each morning they journeyed together in the family car, while I took a long bus ride alone to a pretty rough comprehensive school which has since been razed. It taught me a great deal.

I know what it is to try and to ‘fail’ early in life. Bewildered by an exam I couldn’t decode, I couldn’t know at this time that the system was failing me. I look back now and see the system as failing many.  Don’t get me started on education cuts and the news that some schools now have to close on Friday afternoons.

I remember smelling privilege at the independent school’s gates on the odd occasion I found myself there. I looked on and saw confidence and opportunity oozing from the very fabric of the building. I understood that I was an outsider, but could not have articulated it. The world inside this place simply felt intimidating and unreachable. A closed door.

Did I want to be part of this world? I really don’t remember, but I know I felt lesser. I didn’t discover the joys of study until I was 16, but then with my geek fully on I began to motor my way to university. It wasn’t plain sailing. I struggled greatly with my learning and will never forget the powerful knock back from a tutor in my second year at uni, who told me my work lacked the polish of my privately educated contemporaries (of which there were many studying history of art at this time!) Yes, this was 1982 and this conversation really did happen.

Red rag to a bull, I summoned my geek and got a first class degree.

I haven’t yet touched on how undiagnosed autism has impacted on my trajectory, nor the importance of a diagnosis in overcoming barriers. But I’ve written about this extensively on The Other Side.

My story is just one – of exclusion, and of pushing through. Each of the neurodivergent artists on my Arts Council Funded project, Neither Use Nor Ornament, (NUNO) will have their own story. On NUNO we are working to address the impacts of exclusion over a lifetime. It is very deep work indeed, which has required great thought and adaptations along the way.

Working responsively means that NUNO has had to change shape in the making. A fact of which I’m incredibly proud. I’ve observed that the neurotypical template for freelance project work seems to be that we must adapt ourselves to a pre-designed project. In this model the ‘project’s needs’ are paramount. NUNO turns this on its head. Artists needs are my first consideration and if I haven’t got that right I must adapt the project.

This process has taken place throughout and as we get closer to delivering our project I’m looking forward to the richness of the evaluation process.

I’m not blowing my own trumpet. Daily I give thanks to Arts Council England for backing the project so that I could work with 13 incredible artists across neurotypes. It is extraordinarily hard work to project manage, I often have to work against myself as so many tasks fall to me which require heavy duty admin, and that’s just not my forte. Next time can I have a PA please!

But we can’t wait to show you our work – it’s such a rich offer due to the wonderful NUNO artists whose object-based practices we are lucky enough to showcase. Bring it on!

Register FREE for our spring event at our Eventbrite page or just turn up! We’d love to see you.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/neither-use-nor-ornament-exhibition-nunoproject-public-opening-tickets-55013404574?aff=eivtefrnd

Press release is on our website https://www.museumforobjectresearch.com/press/

Angel Hair and New Year Resolutions

December 31, 2018 § 4 Comments

Reflections on autistic project design and leadership at the half way mark #NUNO

A random memory. Cabello de angel – sugary threads tucked inside the belly of an ensaïmada. Angel hair wrapped in the lightest sweet doughy spiral of my childhood.

I shower and reflect on the year about to pass. I think of angel hair. I feel its curious texture between my teeth once more as the white marble staircase to my grandmother’s flat flashes before my minds eye.

Under the influence of steam I’ve visited the bewigged cake shop owner on the street below and am racing up the stairs with my treat. I’m probably seven years old. In my memory of her this kindly woman resembled a mature Betty Davis, but underneath her wig (I was told) she was completely hairless. In my imagination I saw her wig-less at her counter one time but this is surely fantasy.

Cabello de angel means that I’m both nostalgic and happy. Angel hair is all about rewards.

The family have been enjoying a peaceful Christmas, and in the gaps between viewing ancient Kodak slides on the viewfinder I gave my mother, and seeing off the remains of the Christmas pud, I’ve been evaluating my Arts Council England project.

A non sequiter I know.

The evaluation had landed in the online portal 10 days beforehand, and I’d only happened on it by accident as there had been no notification. Not a good look to miss this particular deadline. The second part of our funding depends on it.

So my boxing day was interesting. I spent the day in a blur playing catch up.

Managing a complex project can feel like a big ask sometimes due to the combined challenges of autism, dyslexia and dyscalculia. It can be scary for example when your brain goes walkabout and you know meanwhile that the pesky checklist of vital project tasks won’t tick itself. I like the phrase buffering which I’ve come to trust as a necessary period of processing. It describes perfectly those periods of time when I simply can’t focus on the ‘right’ details. In such a state it’s honestly better to watch an entire series on Netflix than try.

But when the stars align there is nothing to match what can be achieved by the converse state of hyper-focus.

It seems there must be other states too. States in which we try and fumble. Ones in which we ‘do our best’. I often find it hard to remember these in-between places as being anywhere near useful, and yet they must be because I don’t think that I’ve oscillated between the super functional and resting states in a constant loop from July to December. My main impression has been of grafting and trying – without the luxury of time and space to either buffer or hyper-focus in my preferred manner.

So it’s surprising to me that we’ve achieved so much as I write about it for the Arts Council.

My project is about making a difference and it is doing just that thing in pleasingly measurable and incremental ways. The angel hair for the artists on this project is not for me to share in any great detail, but for some of us it has been transformational. The opportunity to work autistically has allowed for important developments to occur, the most obvious being our (potentially) day after Brexit exhibition opening!

Other effects will be longer lasting and relate to vital relationships and networks forming (and consolidating), and further opportunities of work alongside present employment – which will lead to profiles being raised and reputations made. These are the staff of working lives but the stuff some autistic artists have been long denied due to specific challenges in the area of social semantics among others.

So despite the sweat at times – or more likely because of it – we have some really important half-time outcomes to feel good about. I want to be very un-British and blow our project trumpets loudly!

I want to be clear that this is what happens when you begin to work in autistic ways. This is what happens when we are free to design our own projects. This is what happens when we lead.

So my New Year resolution is very different this year. For 2019 I promise not to change a thing.

Alternative Networking

December 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

Image created by NYFA from an original photograph by Philip King

I love it when nice offers come into my inbox through my artist website.

So I was delighted when New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) recently invited me to take part in a Twitter Q&A on ‘Alternative Networking’.

Since my autism diagnosis in 2016, I created WEBworks, a peer support and mentoring group for autistic and neurodivergent creatives, and have written about networking and social disability. I’ve been able to gain Arts Council England funding for my work and am leading an ambitious inclusive project called, Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO), to be delivered in Spring 2019.

It was this work which brought NYFA to my door.

It’s been a joyful and collaborative experience to work with NYFA’s Mirielle Clifford and Amy Aronoff, who produced the Q&A and worked with me to accommodate my needs. So much so that a blog was created as a permanent post, so that those (like me) who find processing fast moving conversations a challenge can read the Q&A at leisure.

I’m immensely grateful for the welcome given to neurodivergence at NYFA on this occasion. To reach out to an artist like me, to really listen and go the extra mile by incorporating their learning from me into the fabric of the Q&A feels like a dream. It has been a marvellous end to a truly remarkable year for me.

So if you would like to read the full the full Q&A you can!

Sharing practice as an ‘autistic artist’ – some personal observations on ableism.

December 5, 2018 § 3 Comments

Sonia Boué, Dirt Cups, 2012

I’m still processing. 

This is a phrase commonly heard among a particular cohort. The group in question is a network of autistic women (I’ve come to know) who’ve been diagnosed autistic late in life. 

What I’m processing (to get back to it) is a first ever experience of sharing my practice as an ‘autistic artist’. Previously I have only ever had cause to share my practice as an artist, period. Let me tell you, there can be a huge difference!

For the first time, I understand the fear attached to being labelled.

Perhaps to no surprise, it turns out that outing yourself (to people who don’t know you well enough nor have an evolved understanding of autism) closes down the shutters of perception. It can even dictate (it seems) what is considered fair comment – the like of which I don’t think would be tolerated for any other minority group in the room. We probably occupy what is currently the last frontier in minority rights. Others will emerge, I’m sure. 

When I share as the usual art me Sonia Boué specialising in postmemory work relating to the Spanish Civil War – I feel understood. I never fail to be met with respect and often even a gratifying interest in the many layers of my practice. Hurrah! 

It is also understood that I have a track record, that I’m a professional person who has worked hard and gained significant experience in many areas of practice. So far so brilliant! 

I have always felt included and certainly never felt ‘othered’. What I now know of as privilege. 

I wish I could say that I was afforded the same respect when presenting my work as an autistic person more recently. Ableism klaxon!

With hindsight I can see that it was my fault. Doh!

I had tried to broker any misunderstanding of my practice head on. My work is implicitly autistic (because I am) but autism is not my subject, was what I went with  Keep it simple, is a motto I try to live by. 

But I had opened a crack in the door for ableist comment and aggression to pile in (unwittingly, it has to be said). 

Do I exaggerate? No, not really. 

Autistic people are subject to aggression and disrespect all the time. It’s just that I’m masking and passing usually. 

A code of practice? 

For me this has highlighted a particular need for a code of practice when sharing our work as autistic artists, which I feel moved to think about more deeply – and process a little more. 

It shouldn’t be needed and perhaps won’t be in all contexts – but until we make more progress on autism I’m for being ‘share ready’ or indeed not ready to share. I think this is about being more boundaried as individuals but also about pooling knowledge on how to highlight and protect the needs of a community of creatives that is now coming forwards. 

A great deal of what I encounter in my mentoring and consultancy practice is a gaping hole around ‘mindfulness’ where diverse neurologies intersect. I’m not talking about a buzzword version of mindfulness. I’m referring to slowing down to a speed at which we can ALL process more effectively. I ‘m talking about (where we can) controlling the parameters of our engagement. This is my ambition for my cohort. 

It is an absolute myth that good work happens at speed or that those who are quick are also more effective. 

In my minds eye I see a giant hand. The palm is out-turned, signalling stop. It is gentle but firm – not a deity but rather a traffic signal. 

I am secretly enamoured of the road sign and street paraphernalia that controls the flow of traffic. I long for tee-shirts with stop and go symbols! No entry! One way! Dead end! All beautifully simple and clear as means of communication. 

You can’t get a license to drive until you’ve learnt the Highway Code for a very good reason – you’d kill or get killed pretty quickly without it. 

I like the idea of a nice laid out set of rules for engagement. I like rules. 

My ideal beginning for sharing my practice as an autistic person would be; STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. (responses on a post-it note ONLY)

Now where have I heard that before! 

What does inclusion look like?

November 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

Detail from a work in progress for the Neither Use Nor Ornament project.

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.

 

 

 

Portal: disabling bureaucracy #ActuallyAutistic

May 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

 

Portal 10I don’t want to write too many words. I’d like my video to speak for itself. Mainly, I need Arts Council England to know that their bureaucratic processes, in current form, disable significant groups of autistic and neurodivergent artists.

This is a specific issue in my life – but I also want to make a more general point that bureaucracy physically hurts us.

I know autistics who succeed in making Arts Council applications – I also know many who are unable to contemplate beginning one. The argument often goes that “neurotypical” artists struggle with it too. Albeit true, (in the sense that it is a gruelling process of competition for limited resources which also requires ‘insider information’ to succeed) it is also an ableist thing to say because it minimises exactly how uneven the playing ground is for us as a group. Just because some of us push through doesn’t mean it is okay. The bar is high – but the bar is also structurally unfair.

I want also to say that those of us who do take on the beast can be harmed in the process. I think this is disabling.

I think the Arts Council should know.

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