A brief blog about a culture shift in accessibility under #COVID-19 #disability

April 1, 2020 § Leave a comment

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Updated and retitled, this blog has been republished with a new image

So we’re in COVID-19 lockdown.

Many neurodivergent and disabled people are watching, the abled neuro-majority, with fascination.

We are witnessing a moment that is spectacular and beyond our wildest imaginings. The tragedy is that it’s taken a lethal pandemic to create the culture shift we need. Accessible work norms are being adopted on a global scale, when many of us have struggled to gain basic access accommodations so much closer to home. That this is so brings a sense of awe, the scale of which (like the pandemic itself) is almost impossible to grasp. For once, we really are all in this together. Many will want to say, welcome to lockdown! Welcome to our world.

This is the moment to say that not all neurodivergents or disabled people are the same, and that some of us are extrovert, highly mobile, and need frequent ‘real time’ social contact.  We do, however, all face barriers to participation in our daily lives (including stigma).

In this moment the variously identifying stay-at-home veterans are looking at you. As you join us in your vast number, we gasp. As you struggle to adjust to lockdown, we can only gawp in wonder. You’ll finally know what it is to live with restricted mobility, but will you even consider us? What will you learn? And when the nightmare is over, will you still remember?

In the UK Spring has sprung. I sit writing this piece by my widow. My neighbour’s cherry tree is almost in blossom and the sky is picture-perfect blue. I noticed yesterday that the birds are returning. No aeroplane trails cut through this pristine sky. It’s as virgin as untrod snow. Our planet heaves an audible sigh of relief, and on one level so do the normally-stranded.  My usual status is more out-and-about than some, but staying at home is the best way I can avoid the significant impact of sensory stress.

Yesterday I visited an adult autistics’ social support group via Zoom for the first time. It was magnificent. What pleased me beyond the ease of this technology were the clear rules of engagement. Our facilitator also directed the flow of conversation like a skilled traffic cop (in a good way.) Not that the traffic was heavy, and all of the drivers followed the rules. No jams and no confusion. Text chat options enabled multi-modal yet simultaneous group dialogue to take place, and one of us chose to participate with sound only. The advantages quickly become obvious. Avoiding the sensory assault of travel, and access to a greater number of communication options make meetings not only do-able, but also without negative impact. This is revolutionary. This is the layer the abled neuro-majority need to know about and understand.

At the close we talked briefly about this moment, and I feel it must be spoken about more widely and acknowledged. As the abled neuro-majority scramble to adjust, I admit to a feeling of calm in this respect, though I fear the virus greatly.

As I process all the implications I wobble, but I don’t fall down. For now, I’m distracting from the horror of COVID-19 by gazing at our new world order and wondering how this access story will play out.

You can find my tips for online networking in my previous blog post.  You can also find out about my art practice here.   I’m @s_boue on Instagram and @SoniaBoue on Twitter.

NB. I’ve chosen to republish this blog post. I can no longer distract from this pandemic by thinking about access issues, but nonetheless the moment it captures is important. I hope we can all learn the lessons COVID-19 brings.

My artist freelancer’s guide to online networking. #COVID19

March 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

Woman with short dark hair wearing collaged tomato glasses and yellow rubber gloves grips a camera.

New Tools for Life © Sonia Boué 2020

My top tips for surviving and thriving online.

We’re all at sea with this coronavirus pandemic, and for freelancers in the UK it’s also been a body blow to learn that  (the the time of writing this) our Government has failed to support our incomes in line with employees. With so much creative industry work cancelled (for the foreseeable future) we’re entitled to feel hung-out-to-dry.

We know that world health matters most, but meanwhile we need to make a living, and find ways to “stay calm and carry on” from home.

It’s wonderful to see so many rapid responses to this crisis. A-N have created guidance and information for artists, Disability Arts Online have responded by creating new commissions, and Mathew Burrows recently launched the Artist Support Pledge. It’s all good. We will refashion our working lives.

But in all the uncertainty, there’s one blinding truth. Abled freelance creatives who’ve taken mobility for granted can no longer do so. We don’t know for how long, or in what ways the coronavirus will impact our future working norms. With self-isolation our new reality, and lockdown round the corner, we will all experience the same level of dependancy on the online world for communication.

So I want to say, welcome! This is where we (the variously-identifying stay-at-home freelance veterans) hang out and do our business. We know that you’ve enjoyed these spaces too, and found them a useful support to life and work. But this is a whole new level of habitation.

You’ll quickly connect to this next level but it can be overwhelming. I’ve spent 10 years building a career online, and this is what I’ve learnt about how to avoid the pitfalls and thrive.

  1. Ignore social hierarchies that shame online interaction. It’s not shameful to be seen to be a regular online user.
  2. We can break through social isolation by daily sharing. Regular sharing builds networks.
  3. Sharing and responding is important. You don’t have to respond to everything. Promote the voices you believe in without expectation. It’s not a given that they will like or share your content in return.
  4. Sharing quality content is key. This includes process and context for your work, as well as finished works. Visual artists especially, the quality of your images is important.
  5. Sharing is also the work. Online is also the work. You’re constantly building.
  6. The pace of online connection is different. It can feel and be instant at times, but deeper connections take more time and patience.
  7. Share for you, not for likes. You’ll find your own level. It has to feel good and useful to be right for you.
  8. Don’t worry if no one engages with a post. This isn’t failure. There’s an avalanche of information to process online. It’s not personal.
  9. Only tag contacts into posts if it’s likely to be useful/relevant/interesting to them. Repeatedly tagging contacts can be off-putting.
  10. Boundaries can get blurred. Remember online sharing is publishing and subject to publishing law.
  11. ‘Oversharing’ can be a hazard of spending more time online. This is what the Direct Message (DM) function was made for.
  12. People respond more to positive messages. It’s okay to share negatives, but a consistently negative message can be off-putting.
  13. Be true to the core of your creative practice online. Don’t try to be all things to all people, but do link what you do to others, and to what’s topical, when relevant.
  14. Using hashtags is an important networking tool. Researching relevant hashtags is time well spent.
  15. In 2020, filtering, muting and blocking options have become an essential part of the online freelance toolkit. It is your right to inhabit and work in a positive and  conducive environment. This is now also useful information for safeguarding your mental health online regarding coronavirus anxiety. You don’t need to stay away, you can filter trigger words on some platforms.
  16. Online platforms can be overwhelming. It can take time to find out what works for you. Follow the people and organisations that interest you, but with multiple contacts it’s wise to use filters. Enabling notifications for key contacts is also a great tool for keeping in touch.
  17. A watched kettle never boils. Follower numbers are the same. Network for the joys and benefits of connection and your numbers will grow themselves.
  18. Adopt what works for you, you don’t have to do it all.

 

www.soniaboue.co.uk

Instagram @s_boue

Twitter @SoniaBoue

 

Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows : my provocation for a public conference.

March 18, 2020 § 3 Comments

 

In this blog I share my provocation for the Public Conference – Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows at the Midland’s Art Centre in Birmingham. Anna Berry is an artist and the curator of the exhibition Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement at the Midlands Art Centre. For her DASH Arts Curatorial Residency, Anna curated this event as a public conversation. 

Anna asked panelists to bring a sacred cow of disability arts to the conference for slaughter! As she explained in an email,

‘The idea of the day is to try to create a space where people feel they can think and express their thoughts freely, and be accepting of a multiplicity of opinions, even if it’s not toeing-the-party line when it comes to disability politics.”

My approach was to unpick solidarity to share frustrations about the lack of diversity within disability arts. The conference was super-interesting and my reflection about it will be published shortly on Disability Arts Online.

 

Version 3

 

“I want to begin by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with my own argument (I’ll leave that up to you to work out), and that I’m treating this as being like the debating societies I was excluded from due to failing the 11+  spectacularly – because of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and being selective mute at the time without knowing it. So, this is my opportunity to be an obnoxious smarty pants! That’s the persona I’m going to adopt. 

My argument pokes a stick at Anna’s question… 

Where do mental health issues and neurodiversity sit within disability arts?  Although, I will focus more on neurodivergence stick to what you know, I always say.

I also want to ask: can we laugh at ourselves without fear of offending one another? And why does this all feel so uncomfortable? I’ll leave that out there. 

As a late-diagnosed autistic person I’m a newcomer to disability arts and think of neurodivergents as the next frontier marginals. 

So, like the youngest child of the disability arts family I’m going to misbehave royally and go for the jugular! 

My sacred cow is solidarity – that fluffy idea that we’re better together. Well, some autistics might disagree – just putting it out there! 

(This was meant to be a joke!)  

I feel solidarity contains the illusion that disabled people can all work together; that we can consider one another’s disabilities sufficiently to be good comrades in the joint struggle against our oppression. But are we? And can we? 

The definition of solidarity is “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”

Even I’ve got to admit it sounds good. So what’s the problem with it? 

Well, I want to put it to you that the notion of solidarity for such a diverse, and increasingly diverse diverse group of people is terminally woolly, and, that in 2020, it’s quite possibly not unlike trying to herd cats. How can we contain all the cats that are likely to go off message? I’m thinking particularly of some of my neurodivergent friends and colleagues who don’t even want to identify as disabled! 

I think that solidarity probably depends on a shared history and understanding, which makes it difficult to include newcomers, let alone cater for all groups and perspectives that could come under the umbrella of disability arts. 

So I argue that, however far it may have got disabled artists in the past, our solidarity today is a perhaps a mere fantasy. I argue that indeed our so-called solidarity is, in reality, a hot mess of bickering and jostling in which the specificity of need is lost and no group en masse actually has their needs met. Perhaps because the abled are just not literate in nuance and we’re too busy perpetuating our own misery by arguing. 

(At this point I noted that there were no communication badges or flapplause.)

I wonder if we’re doing both ourselves and the abled a disservice in not talking-up and educating about the wonderful diversity within our solidarity, and also if we’re not just a bit crap at meeting each other’s needs too? Shouldn’t we just admit this? 

In herding together, are we also unwittingly sustaining our marginal, outsider status? You can’t have insiders without outsiders. But, can I only be naughty and ask this because my disabilities are invisible and I’m congenitally tactless. (I think my disability and my privilege just got tangled up there.)

Shouldn’t our end goal be to destroy this outdated and delusional idea of solidarity, because it shouldn’t be and won’t be needed anymore when we’ve swallowed up the mainstream with multiple ninja infiltrations of the system. 

As I’m not really sure whether my argument has legs or even wings, I’d like to end abruptly with the assertion that solidarity is so yesterday, and throw it open to the floor with one last petulant, youngest-child-thinks-they-know-best, retort.

Aren’t we all just better off blowing our own trumpets and talking about the brilliance of our art?” 

I have a neurological condition: further notes on an autistic identity.

March 1, 2020 § 2 Comments

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A blog post about exploring new language through visual research. 

I’ve written a lot about my autism over the past 4 years, but that’s because discovering you’re autistic late in life can feel like a page-turner. With an introspective disposition and a bent for self-analysis the plot twists keep on coming. I’m glad of this. Who doesn’t love a good story and, let’s face it, there’s nothing more gripping than your own. I don’t minimise the inner struggle for autistic self-knowledge, but dull it isn’t!

Discovering autism can quickly become an identity quest. For a late-diagnosed person the self-image of a lifetime can suddenly feel like a case of mistaken identity – there really are no words to capture the magnitude of this. There follows a process of adaptation for which there is no guidance and little if any formal support.  We must work things out as best we can, and for many of us this can mean a lot of online activity, including reading and writing blogs. Wherein autistic adults are amassing a truly wondrous resource, which also serves to document both an important cultural moment and a movement for social justice. Good times.

Access to a collective autistic wisdom, absent for a lifetime, is a powerful force. Through it we can discover the language and concepts we need to ease our passage towards more congruent identities, but there are no emotional short cuts. Truly understanding and owning autism is something which evolves, I’ve found. Where I was last week is not where I find myself today. In a recent blog post I considered ‘social disability’ as a useful term.  Right now my eureka! is a post-it note on which a version of me seems to have written, I have a neurological condition. The me who wrote it must have been the schoolgirl me trying hard to please at handwriting practice. The note pictured above was written (left-handed) by the artist-advocate me who wants you to know that my neurological condition affects my handwriting. This blog flows directly from my visual research.

My post-it phrase also featured in the blog post about ‘social disability’, but sometimes we bury the lede. I must have written my post-it as an aide memoire. It was waiting for me yesterday on my return from a 12 hour working day (including travel), and today I’ve struggled. This is not ordinary tiredness, this is the ache of overload which I now understand to be neurological at core. So much so that I realise my post-it contains the message I must now front-load, not least to myself.

And with these words I am reminded of all the binaries we seem to peddle in our online lives, in which my lovely post-it could be seen as a pathologising message about autism. This is not my intention, and autism as a cultural identity is something I will also uphold to my final breath – I see no conflict in this duality. I continue to be joyful, and to celebrate my autism unreservedly, but I must develop the means to communicate more effectively about my autistic needs. What’s required is clarity of thought and vision. We can’t truly know what we need until we learn what’s holding us back. It’s all a work in progress.

I’ve worked with many artists and I know how challenging it can be to seek to make autism visible when the narratives surrounding autism remain skewed and contested, but I believe it to be important and fertile ground. For example, I intend to talk and practice more self-care as a result of working on the image above. The act of creating it conjured the idea that one simple thing could have improved my yesterday and can help me in the future. My yellow post-it! I’m now excited to discover what happens when I carry it with me – both literally and metaphorically speaking.

I’m loving this phase of my becoming. My post-it isn’t designed for sympathy, no, no! For me this is a powerful image, brimming with ownership. I’m all for that!

 

 

Art, fog, and beautiful brains: thinking about autism and culture shift in the arts.

February 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

Two very red tomatoes painted on a rose/white background

You can’t tell me how to paint tomatoes #WIP

 

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’.

But no.

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:

  1. Too much stuff – options, information, thoughts, hostile demands (which go against brain type)
  2. 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

 

 

 

 

The building blocks of learning. Thinking about ‘social disability’ and access.

February 6, 2020 § 5 Comments

Red, yellow, brown, green, blue and orange toy wooden building blocks arranged in towers. Shapes include cubes, cylinders and a triangle

A blog post in which I talk through some new thinking about the term ‘social disability’.

 

I love an epiphany!

God, being autistic is sometimes an absolute blast. I get to peel back layers of a life time’s accumulation of faulty learning and go, wow! so that’s how it really works…

Recent adventures have got me thinking about ‘social disability’ as an important addition to the terms I can use to help articulate accommodation needs. This could be a sensitive term for some, so here comes the bit where I make the usual disclaimers. As ever in my writing I only speak for myself, and please remember that when you’ve met one autistic you’ve only ever met one autistic.

The point is (however) that each autistic has to work things out for themselves. We mainly have no such thing as aftercare following an autism diagnosis. I’ve been through many a recalibration of my identity since my official diagnosis in March 2016, but my love for the word autism has never wained. I was luke warm on the term neurodivergent for the longest time, but have recently cosied right up to it – it’s so useful and brings much needed solidarity with a wider group. I’ve got a lot of affection for the term invisible disability, but rarely remember to use it (note to self to do more of this). But in almost mint condition is my sudden mental adoption of the term ‘social disability’ which I’m test-driving here. I’m excited by it mainly because I feel the need for clarity and specificity. This is about refining and recalibrating where I am 4 years on from my diagnosis and readying myself to meet new challenges.

It’s taken 4 years for me to absorb that I can never fully compensate for my autism with workarounds, accommodations and self-care. There’s no magic neurological catch-up or compensation that can level out the playing field (ergo it’s the playing field that needs to change, by the way!) I HAVE A NEUROLOGICAL CONDITION ( which affects me in many ways) as well as an identity to forge – and for me the two must go hand in hand.

The penny has finally dropped. It doesn’t matter how much learning I do, or how much I am accommodated, I will remain at core disabled by my hyper intuitive and sometimes scrambled navigational systems. This insight, by the way, does nothing to negate my autism positive position – I see autism as both disability and identity, and find no conflict in this position.

I feel great joy at being me, I love myself and my autism quite fully, right up to the brim in fact. But I will forever spend my days in hostile environments following norms I can’t ever hope to understand. I will always need to use my native intellect and find the will to be assertive and seek adjustments, but I need more than this. I NEED IT TO BE UNDERSTOOD THAT I AM RADICALLY SOCIALLY DIFFERENT – AND THAT I DON’T WANT SUPPORT TO APE YOU OR OPERATE LIKE YOU (if you are a non-autistic reader). This is not rudeness on my part, I’m talking about neurologically based social orientations and needs.

I do a lot of writing, thinking and advocating about autism and the arts, and I encounter a lot of artists who are autistic and struggle with the question of how to place themselves in their professional lives, and in the art world as a whole. There is no such category as ‘autistic artist’ that would fit us all – as stated above, once you’ve met one of us you’ve only ever met one of us. So what kind of beastie are we, and where do we fit, if at all? What does it mean to be an autistic artist?

We return to the conundrum of extreme diversity within divergence, but I believe we can perhaps haul some commonalities out of the possibly infinite variety of minds, though once more I can only truly speak for myself.

A social difference that’s disabling and is life long means the building blocks of learning have been (and will continue to be) different. THIS DOESN’T GO AWAY. Our thinking can run so counter to the non-autistic that we can feel alien even when we appear to be joining in and on side. We’re conditioned to mask our difference and often don’t know how to drop this adaptation. We can also find many points of joyful and genuine connection, but it takes colossal effort on our part to ‘make it’ into the room. Once there, we may well have no idea how to network and ‘makes things happen’. We can learn some of your tricks though kindness and information sharing, but THIS TOO DOESN’T GO AWAY.

So what’s my vision, and what does focusing on the term ‘social disability’ gain? I feel this would be suitably radical and risky. Talking about social disability is usefully uncomfortable and revealing. We reward neuro-normative sociability with popularity and power and we judge those who can’t perform it. In doing so we must sometimes confuse neurology with personality – neither should be judged, but disability is a protected characteristic and requires positive action.

Accommodations are vital, but so is culture shift. Please understand that I don’t want a leg- up to join the ranks, I want to break the current neuro-normative socially biased mould. I feel social disability as a term enables me to pinpoint a very particular aspect of my struggle as an autistic artist. At the forefront of articulating and carving out autistic space and power is where I want to be.

Critically reviewing disabled artists.

January 9, 2020 § 1 Comment

 

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So last week I went to the fantastic closing event (conference) organised by Disability Arts Online as part of the Contested Spaces exhibition, at the Foundry in London, curated by Aidan Moesby.

Access arrangements were superb and the event was pithy. Succinct, and brimming with content, it was concluded with a quite beautifully poetic performance by Malgorzata Dawidek. Aidan deftly chaired the panel, which featured Jennifer Gilbert, Ashok Mistry, and Elinor Morgan. I came away enriched and energised.

I was especially struck by the lack of critical review for disability arts as a topic – though  I’m a relative newcomer to the field. This is a good moment to say that I’m autistic, and that I can’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, and that I will focus on critical review in my blog post.

Jennifer Gilbert highlighted some shocking examples of ableism in mainstream reviewing of disabled artists, Elinor Morgan suggested strategies for disabled artists to gain access to feedback and build confidence, which might in turn lead to critical review. Raising the quality of our work was also touched on in this context. I will come back to this.

I was pleased Ashok Mistry spoke about having something to loose in engaging with the art establishment for approval – our very difference is precious. It is. Our very difference is our sometimes very ‘marketable’ USP (unique selling point), among other arguably more important things. I can’t think of anything worse than contorting the self to fit in. Surely we need to infect the ‘mainstream’ with our glorious USPs rather than try to second guess it.

I left the building with Artistic Director of DASH, Mike Layward, who kindly saw me to Marylebone Station. I’m indebted to our conversation for helping me articulate what I think I feel about the critiquing of art made by disabled artists, certainly I feel it about the area I know best, autistic creatives. We are all of us outsiders by default unless masquerading as…well…just artists.

Someone (I think it was Mike) had earlier pointed out that Frida Kahlo has been assimilated by the mainstream through the erasure of her disability despite it often being her subject.

Another good point which I hadn’t considered was raised by the panel that critics can be frightened of reviewing us because they might ‘get it wrong’, thereby causing offence and also loosing credibility. Time for some tough love. Do the work. Research the field, don’t avoid it. Yes, it can be quite hard to get it right, but a lack of familiarity with disability issues as an excuse in 2020 looks as weak as a used teabag. Get on with it, because here is where the good stuff often is!

I’m autistic, so as usual I experienced a lot of upside-down thinking about this topic. I so appreciated Ashok’s comment that he’s a professional outsider! Okay, critical review is important. Informed critical review can be vital to a career, but the uniformed critic who’s anxious about getting it wrong isn’t what we need. I say this as someone who supports neurodivergent (ND) artists professionally. Often the job is to unpick the barrage of unhelpful mainstream ‘critique’ they’ve experienced over a lifetime.

These nascent artists need nurture, and perhaps most importantly autistic artists may not find conventional critique/ review helpful as a form – though of course they may benefit from exposure. It isn’t just that we need to build ourselves up. There can be a genuine cultural difference, I’ve found, whereby our need for input is simply that – different. So I think we need a range of methods for evaluating and elevating artists. ND artists may not need conventional critique so much (because it may misread or prove irrelevant to them) to improve the quality of their work, but may perhaps benefit more from access to the kinds of resources which enable better production values. Quality issues (if they exist) may be about being cash poor and unable to invest in materials or production processes. That’s not to say that encouragement and tailored mentoring aren’t vital. They can be. It’s just that the current model for artists’ elevation via critique and review is like the hotel elevator that ain’t working. We often don’t get off the ground floor and I wonder if this resonates more generally for disabled artists? What would really help you, is my question.

Little about the way many ND artists work best is reflected in neuro-normative professional practice. There can be a great deal of unlearning to do in unshackling ourselves from these tyrannies. Perhaps more needed than conventional critique is help in understanding neuro-normative codes. It’s very simple, you can’t be expected to navigate what you can’t see or even begin to process. The current system is completely weighted against us.

So my heart sinks a little at the idea of chasing conventional critiques – though ironically if my most recent DYCP ACE funding bid is successful (very slim chance), I will be doing exactly that thing, but doing so autistically and on my own terms! Surely the best critiques consist of dialogue and if reviewers are frightened then that’s a sign that such a dialogue is lacking.

So, what’s needed first is a culture shift, and projects or initiatives which dare to throw stakes in new ground. Critics need to understand what they’re viewing if they’re to be any good to us. Review isn’t just about exposure, it’s also about framing. Ah yes, and it’s about bums on seats, which is an area I haven’t yet touched on and probably won’t for lack of time.

Ashok unlocked something vital when he talked about the need for us to be allowed to be our ‘messy’ selves (forgive me if I haven’t paraphrased you correctly, Ashok!) For me this is the key to making a necessary 360 degree turn.

Critics need to know what they’re looking at to get it ‘right’ and be helpful. It goes without saying that we need disabled critics and curators, but we need ally curators too. I hope that if some of the Shaping the next ten years (Arts Council England) policies go the right way we may see a real development of ‘hybrid’ ally professionals along with more of us (of course!) I’m very keen on collaboration as a way forward.

In the field of invisible disability (which has a shorter history) I feel we are in a useful moment of transition where disruption can occur (and I hope this resonates more widely with my more experienced disabled colleagues). I don’t think that what we need is judgment on abled/neuro-normative terms, but rather that our products must be allowed to flourish as they need to and be equally valued. What I feel we need is opportunity on our own terms to create what we believe to be good, which may be very different from the current mainstream critical agenda.

We also probably won’t be equal until the boot is on the other foot and the ‘mainstream’ values and seeks out what disabled curators and critics think about its cultural outpourings. Dialogue is all.

I began my 2018 catalogue essay for the Shadowlight Artist’s Arts Council England funded RISING exhibition with the following provocation.

“What if everything you ever thought about learning disability is wrong.”

A power imbalance exists because the ‘mainstream’ gaze monopolises and is uninformed. It creates insiders and outsiders and is extremely outmoded, as Drag Syndrome are currently proving on the global stage in taking it by storm.

I think the conversation has probably moved on already and it’s now for the ‘mainstream’, so-called, to catch-up if it can.

 

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