August 12, 2019 § 5 Comments
Sonia Boué explains her new project: to create a tribute in 2020 for the Convoy of 927
I have been lucky enough to be invited to join www.appletye.org Paper Trail project:
“100 pieces of heritage paper spanning over 100 years, given to 100 artists to create a piece of work.
Each piece of paper represents a year. We have invited the artists to create a work in response to something that happened during that year.
The paper must be used in the creation of the work. It can be printed, painted, written word, pulped, re-created, sculpted, folded, cut, collaged etc”
As the founding artists of appletye, Dawn Cole and Dan Thompson, know my practice well they have chosen the perfect Paper Trail year for me. I’ve been given paper 16 from 1940 made at Hayle Mill, weighing 150gsm (hot pressed). The sample sent to me is approximately 10 x 7 cms.
The subject of my family’s evasion of a Nazi roundup of Spanish republican exiles at Anguoulême on August 20th, 1940, to the Mauthausen camp, continues to be the focus as I build my Paper Trail response, and it’s suddenly gone from a tiny sketch (inkjet print on tracing paper which I’ve clipped to the 1940 paper sample) to an ambitious project, which I’d like to realise in 2020 as an act of remembrance. So I’m already looking for gallery space!
This new work is entitled ‘Convoy’, because the roundup has become known as El convoy de los 927 (927 being the number of Spanish exiles herded into cattle wagons that day). Almost overnight the tiny sketch evolved into a big idea with unexpected mathematical underpinnings. Through this exploration I’ve become enthralled by the idea that a number (repeated) becomes a pattern, and that this can in an immediate and powerfully visual way tell us something about the inability to ‘see’ dehumanisation in the face of number.
What you are looking at in my tiny sketch are three members of my family, my grandmother, grandfather and great-grandmother, more accurately a photograph of them. It was taken in 1939, and sent to my father (most probably to reassure him in his exile in England that they – in their exile in France – were okay). By August 1940 they had somehow ‘faced down’ a second genocidal threat (the first being their evacuation from Barcelona in February 1939). By 1941 they had made their way safely back to Spain. My father remained in England.
What I’ve done is to imagine their alternate fate with a red mirror portrait, which has created a square-shaped image. I’ve multiplied it repeatedly, et voila, together with the small size of my print (10 x 7 cms to match the Paper Trail sample), you can’t immediately see that the image is made up of faces. What you see is pattern.
How my family knew, and what they knew remains unknown. Who told them of the danger and who they then told (if anyone) is probably unknowable. A fragment of oral testimony mentions a friend, but this is vague and quite elusive information narrated almost 80 years on by my mother who is now 92. She goes on to say that they returned from their place of hiding (a forest) to find “the Germans had cleared the place.”
As the pattern builds the orientation turns to reveal the possibility of an alternate destiny in which historians would refer to El convoy de los 930.
As I tentatively made my way into this work I chose red to symbolise the bloodshed and for the association with communism. Spanish exiles were targeted as ‘Rojos’ whether they were communists or not.
I quickly realised that my use of the square in a square formation was problematic, also that in using 6 faces I could never aspire to creating a piece of work which would represent the 927 Spanish exiles. In any event I wanted to work with 930 to include the 3 who, as my son remarked, “got away.” I am sure they were not alone in this, but Convoy is about a very personal response, and perhaps even the expiation of survivor guilt. This feels to me like an act of both memory and solidarity.
In overshooting the mark to create 1536 faces, I began to dial back to work out how to make my 6 faces become 930, and what shape they could form.
In working this out I have arrived at my plan, to create 155 squares (10 x 10 cms). The formation will be 5 rows of 31 squares, measuring 50 cms by 3.1 meters. I now need to find a space which will take me and my tribute (probably rendered on photographic paper on whatever kind of support works best with the gallery space in question).
There may be other versions and/or further sketches but I feel my concept is whole. I have never experienced inspiration like this (based on pattern and number) and this is a whole new way of working for me, though my commitment to the history I’m working with feels the same and I’m determined to see this important tribute come to pass. There is something quite compelling about the form I have chosen.
There is much more to say about El convoy de los 927 and I will blog about it as I make my way.
Meanwhile if you know of a venue which would welcome this work in 2020 please do let me know!
April 11, 2019 § 2 Comments
What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.
Soon I will be asking the artists on the Arts Council England (ACE) funded Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) project, how was it for you?
I have to do this as part of my evaluation process, but I’m also genuinely curious. This has been a unique project in which I have explored what it means to lead autistically (in my case).
I won’t have got things ‘right’ in all cases, but we made it to the finishing post of our exhibition opening in quite some style. I’m anxious to hear if and how my leadership has made a difference to the artist’s experiences of participation – and if this has further impacted their lives.
What I can tell you is what this project has done for me, by investing in my participation as a ‘player’ at a more senior level in my profession. In doing so I make the case for more of this for more of us. Autistic arts professionals are currently lacking such opportunity for progression – not only as artists but also as artist organisers. This needs to change.
It’s really very simple. In enabling me – through funding – to lead a significant project like NUNO, ACE have helped me to shift from a state of aversion to one of enthusiasm. Autistic aversion (in my case), I see now, was clearly fostered by a lifetime of exclusion. Not understanding neurotypical social code is perhaps where an autistic person begins in life, due to fundamental perceptual differences. What is less understood perhaps is the continued impact of this as a mechanism of our exclusion across a lifetime. Or indeed, what might happen in terms of ‘social appetite’ if the dynamic of exclusion were somehow ameliorated by genuine inclusion at any given point in time. It’s all so obvious once you’ve lived through it, but how many of us get this chance?
I feel we should be more aware that for some autistics social exclusion and a resulting aversion is a dynamic predicated on social bias, which once in play generates a serious barrier to our ability to decode social situations over a lifetime. Through such a dynamic myriad points of learning are lost, by which I mean two-way learning.
So what impact on the possibility of ‘social learning’ across neurologies can genuine inclusion make? I pose the question thinking that I know the answer. I think the impact can be highly significant because of the quality of my own experience in my shift from aversion to enthusiasm. Suddenly, elements of shared social spaces stack up. I am exposed to learning and foster learning in others. This is a two-way conversation.
I’m careful to mention the other side of the neurological coin in terms of learning (so-called neurotypicality). I’ve found that leading as an autistic person enables learning to flow in all directions. Neurotypical learning around me is probably the bit I can’t see, but which I reckon has made a whole heap of difference to how I am received and therefore to how I feel. I know that I am lucky in this regard – it can go so badly wrong when people can’t listen well. I’ve built up to this moment and have chosen my shared social spaces very carefully.
Being a ‘player’ has been vital to this process in which I now find myself wanting to engage with people and places in new and unexpected ways. I still crave a duvet day when life gets too busy, and I don’t love crowded events or small talk. I haven’t stopped being autistic – that not a thing, and I wouldn’t want it to be. What I’m talking about is appetite. The vital waters of my professional life no longer feel cold and uninviting. What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.
Social anxiety and social sensitivity are often seen as negatives, but what if they have fostered a deep sense of responsibility and generated a high level of care for the people on my project? I myself know that they most definitely have. What also, if by some mechanism unknown to me – other than sharing my neurological status and leading autistically – I have been treated more carefully in return? I feel this must be true.
What if seizing the opportunity to lead autistically and to design my project as accessibly as possible has led to something really fundamental? I look forward to gathering more evidence for this exciting notion in the weeks to come.
Currently, we lack models for what is needed to challenge the stranglehold neurotypicality has had on our culture. The dynamic it creates for autistic people is, in my view, toxic. So I very much hope that in time NUNO may provide one such needed template for others to riff with.
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.
December 23, 2018 § Leave a comment
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!
December 5, 2018 § 3 Comments
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!
October 12, 2018 § 16 Comments
I acknowledge my privilege – I am enabled to give in my art practice. How many autistics are excluded? Process image for a forthcoming performance piece.
Giving is getting.
Yes – I’m talking power dynamics and socially embedded disadvantage.
My thoughts flow from a series of encounters. Most notably a comment about ‘functional’ language in autism. Neuro-normative culture misinterprets autistic expression. It tends to frame what is considered ‘functional’ through the lens of its own (culturally dominant) social orientation.
Dominant cultures tend to make pathology of what they perceive as ‘other’. For example, not recognising language acquisition on its own (collecting and repeating words) as functional because it seems to serve no obvious ‘social’ purpose.
Neuro-normative hegemony has it that a child of a certain age ‘should’ talk about their day, their friends, and so on. Within this framework of understanding, building a vocabulary relating to a ‘special interest’ would probably not be considered ‘functional’ even if it is a shared (and joyful) activity (ie between parent and child).
To the neurodivergent eye (and heart) these interactions (based on repetition) can appear intensely social. They form the back and forth of call and response. Word acquisition can be a joy in itself, which can be shared to the point of deep bonding. It’s all a case of tuning in.
But neuro-normatism (if I may call it such) doesn’t meet autistics even quarter way, and there’s a deep lack of welcome for ‘otherness’ which kicks in early.
Thinking about autism as a culture (rather than a medical diagnosis) strips back the skewed deficit models that neuro-normatism imposes on us. It breaks my heart to think that what so many neurodivergent children experience is – simply put – a lack of welcome. All because our ‘receiving culture’ (neuro-normatism) fails recognise us as a minority culture.
But, we are far greater in number than anyone knows. I knew this the day I began to recognise my own autism because I had been party to a major historical blunder about what autism is. Figures vary greatly depending on the source, but daily ‘ordinary’ citizens are discovering their autism. This trend will continue as more of us gain access to the right kind of information. We’ve been mislead on autism since the term was coined by Leo Kanner in 1943 to describe only the most visible members of our tribe.
A welcome – in cultural terms – is going to be increasingly important as our numbers grow.
We are many, but – even if we were not so great in number – the failure of welcome is a gross social injustice to us.
Big money can invest in gene detection and ‘cure’ (anti-welcome) but advances in thinking and understanding of autism will ultimately outstrip this kind of project, I believe. Nothing convinces me that autism (as a biologically driven social orientation) can or should be cured. To be clear, I’m not talking about co-morbid conditions, I’m talking about the core features of autism.
I know some who feel cursed by autism (due to societal cruelty) and want a ‘cure’. I respect this and mourn the lack of anything near genuine welcome in their lives, which is I believe the root cause of this negative self image. We practice a ghastly death to difference in the post-modern world with the deficit model of autism, and it’s a cause for profound grief.
But stripped back and laid bare – borrowing the language of ‘cure’ momentarily – the ‘cure’ lies in the social realm. The remedy is social progress. The ‘cure’ is welcome (genuine welcome that is), and this has everything to do with giving and getting.
You can’t welcome what you don’t perceive. A culturally dominant misinterpretation of autistic focus and communication creates a feedback loop of rejection.
There follows a process. When your natural and joyful communication is stigmatised you are barred from giving (unless you learn to conform). Those of us who learn to adapt do so at immense cost (which is unsustainable), those who can’t are quickly marginalised.
But wait, what am I doing talking about giving? Surely I should be focusing on what autistics need to be given by others?
And here we are. We are brought up on the truism that giving is receiving, but this is usually meant as a somewhat vague spiritual reward, and is rarely understood (or acknowledged) as a power dynamic. My use of the word getting is very deliberate – it is active, whereas receiving is a passive word.
That our fundamental need to give in order to get is seldom spoken of is (at bottom) due to social lying. Neuro-normative culture sentimentalises what is in fact a vital social contract.
People who give are good, worthy, inspiring and downright decent human beings. Yes – they can be (I don’t deny this) , but people who give are in a position to do so. People who give get back untold riches – and not only of the spiritual kind.
Countless micro transactions take place on a daily basis in which invaluable commodities are exchanged. Good will is perhaps one of the most important commodities of all. In so very many contexts good will can be converted (somewhere along the line) into hard cash. Social fluency (of the dominant kind) creates the conditions for this powerful ‘alchemy’.
Without the means to wield this power autistic people can fall prey to a form of ‘social’ poverty which can create a devastating impact on a person over a lifetime, from infancy onwards, from the point at which a child’s babbling is labelled ‘not functional’.
I feel it is this anti-welcome culture which creates a deathly cycle of rejection. Some can face a lifetime of not getting. This is not just manifest by the grand obsession with ‘curing’ us, it is articulated through every organ of the state in which autistics are deemed deficient and our communication dysfunctional.
This is a catastrophic pile-up of not ‘getting’ which can result in lives lost, lives not lived even halfway to the full, and lives lived on the margin of both economic and emotional survival.
As I write, a vast clump of anti-welcomes forms before my eyes, like a scrap metal tower teetering up into the sky. I tilt my neck, but I cannot see the top.
It sounds like an exaggeration – I wish it was. The truth is that the current neurological hegemony practices daily micro-aggressions in which autistic people are not welcomed. They’re also barred from giving in the mainstream of life.
Some of us experience just enough welcome (important to acknowledge a relative privilege) and gain the tools with which to carve a niche. But too many don’t. Every human needs a baseline of welcome, and access to the power of giving.
Giving is invaluable – a golden seam with which to make a life whole and prosperous. We all need access to the endless rounds of being there and fitting in that a neurologically sanctioned childhood brings, all of which leads to the kinds of ‘getting’ I’m talking about.
For any of this to be put right we need a revolution – and I do believe it’s coming as our understanding about autism continues to grows. At heart the measures needed are truly simple.
We need to change the language of deficit and take the focus away from a ‘cure’ for autism. We need to begin with an open armed welcome for neurological difference within the spectrum that is human culture/s.
We also need to understand that this is not a question of kindness. This is about understanding the nuts and bolts of social power. This is about giving as a right.