November 29, 2017 § 6 Comments
Rare is the artist who can focus on their creative practice alone. My own professional life has become so varied that I myself struggle to balance the work that pays with my studio practice. Creative project development, managing the projects I create, my consultancy work, and mentoring, are all incredibly engrossing, rewarding and (I have to say it) time consuming.
It’s been a struggle to keep my own creative practice going as I’ve pushed forward all the other aspects of being a socially engaged artist-activist-facilitator, since my autism diagnosis in 2016.
I can’t complain (because I love it) but I do now need to ‘get organised’ – a term which ordinarily is an anathema to my brain.
Butterfly brains like mine don’t ‘organise’ in the conventional sense. No. Brains like mine like to organise through flow. And yet, I recognise that my in some ways super-efficient tendency to tackle work demands on an immediate – it’s in front of my nose so I’ll do it now – basis is not always going to get me into the studio early enough, or necessarily help me strategise longer term (beyond this being my strategy, as it were).
In fact, the truth is that unless I ignore my inbox entirely, or deactivate Twitter, I may not leave the house before midmorning some days. Some urgency will grab my attention – I can get sucked down a rabbit hole of questionable use (though I maintain this is how I research, and that my best finds come about when I’m browsing), or throw myself into a fresh piece of consultancy that means I’m still in PJs when the post arrives (these days around 2pm). And then there are the inevitable meetings, meetings and more meetings – from which I must decompress.
OK, that quick-fire attention to new work leads is a plus, and can really pay off, as nothing impresses potential clients more than speed of attention to their needs – which in my case is genuine, I really do care. We autistics have to play to our strengths in the workplace after all. But could I prioritise my studio time in other ways?
Obviously social media can be a big ‘drain’ on one’s time – except for the fact that it can also act as a quite wonderful addition to the autistic freelancer’s workspace. Water cooler chat, professional networking, and a gymnasium for the ‘overactive’ mind – it’s all pretty positive when you frame it like this. I often tell the artists I mentor that some of my best opportunities have been created online, by hanging out, dawdling a while and putting great content out there as a calling card.
None of this has been done strategically by the by – it’s just happened.
Equally, I’ve had some major fallow periods and this has been pretty amazing too. There have been times when ‘realtime’ (how I hate the term for it’s hierarchical connotations) has taken over (as in days of old) and there simply hasn’t been time for Twitter, Instagram, and the like. It’s been edifying in many ways, involved a lot of masking (not so good) and made me intensely productive in the studio. AHA!
You see this is it. The autistic mind in my experience finds regulation tricky, and how the butterfly brain loves to flit from email to blog post at will! I speak for myself, of course, but so so often it’s an all or nothing thing for me. I’m either ONLINE or I’m OFF. Time spent away makes the social media platforms seem glitchy and a bit like Teflon – my brain forgets how to connect. People move on, the platform ‘upgrades’ and it’s all shot. You have to work at it to get back to where you were as a presence in people’s online minds. Don’t get me started on how bad the non-chronological timeline can be for autistics. We need our networks dammit! Sometimes this is even life-support.
So the prospect of creating some kind of structure for my work beyond the reactive is intriguing – how will I regulate the switches involved and will I really be ‘more productive’? My suspicion is that I will be differently productive, my worry is that I will lose out on flow. The ultimate goal is to manage it all, hold onto to all the plates I’m juggling without going into overload.
It’s my deep suspicion that much of this will require fine calibration, and that like taking vitamins (which I’m also trying out) I will be prone to forgetfulness, and lose track of the various jars which will gather dust and simply litter up the place. New habits and routines can be hard to sustain – like the over eager resolution, destined to fizzle out before Christmas.
Wish me luck. I really, really don’t want my creative work to slide away. So that’s a major motivation. A studio practice is all about turning up, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. After all – I should really practice what I preach to my dear mentees. Keep it going, find space for your work, carve out time!
November 17, 2017 § 1 Comment
Out of the Ashes – notes from the frontline of creative practice on the boundaries of visibility.
My talk for:
Untold Tales of Neurodivergence and Mental Health in Oxford, a panel hosted by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and Pitt Rivers Museum. Pod cast also available.
My talk today is about navigating the rapids of freelance work as an autistic creative and the challenges of working collaboratively across neurologies. My recent research has been a personal journey but has included a consultative partnership in the US and many conversations with autistic professionals across the globe.
I have come to know of so many talented hidden voices, and, while my talk is about a singular process, so much of what I have to say has a wider application.
My contribution to the theme of ‘Hidden Beneath the Surface’ is a tale of struggle in which becoming visible is an ongoing process and at times a question mark. What I offer are some preliminary thoughts culled from a much longer draft report for Arts Council England.
I am an autistic artist and creative project lead. I stand before you as a person in translation.
I form part of what has been termed the “lost generation” of individuals who are diagnosed late in life due to recent advances in knowledge about autism. In my work as a freelance professional, I need accommodations to access the same level of opportunity as that of my peers.
I am now coming to the close of a unique piece of work, a personal case study in the field of freelance project work funded by the Arts Council. The aim of this research is to design an enabling toolkit for my work as an autistic project lead, which I will also use to enable and mentor other neurodivergent artists.
The key to understanding this piece of work is that I have had to build my tool kit from scratch as my project has unfolded. This is the first time I have worked visibly as an autistic person and attempted to advocate for my needs in the workplace.
Freelance project work in the arts is often informal, characterised by highly individual working practices, and without clear structures. We need funding to create self-led projects from which to build sustainable artistic practices in line with our peers. Yet, without adjustments for the challenges involved, we can quickly become disabled in the freelance melee.
Our ideas are often powerful and original – funding us can be hugely beneficial and reap rich cultural rewards – but the barriers to our inclusion can be overwhelming. I have made it through the funding barriers, and yet my project proved disabling and needed major adjustments.
Autism as culture
Autism is both a neurological and cultural difference. We are a small minority with a unique social difference. We live in societies which expect and demand from us a social orientation and aptitudes which are quite other. This is pervasive and disabling in ways not easily recognised or understood by the majority.
But those who work with us don’t need to ‘get’ autism in its entirety – this is a big ask for our colleagues. Indeed, the demand to share personal information about ourselves to gain access is an issue in itself (Mia Mingus). In an ideal world, our needs should be accepted without question and active measures taken, but in reality, they are mired in social complexities, and we are currently forced to navigate access via the very social codes which can disable us.
Deconstructing the power imbalance
Aspects of my experience stand as a cautionary tale. The earliest iteration of my project floundered on the question of inclusion despite this being its primary goal.
The bare bones of my situation were that I had agreed to work collaboratively to shape a project around my needs. I had lent my creative idea, and my neurodivergence was the rationale for funding; but still my needs became submerged. So how did this happen?
Well, I think we need a wider understanding that effective inclusion is a two way street of adaptation, and that accommodating autistics requires the will to focus adequately and make significant and responsive behavioural changes towards us – especially in close collaborations across neuro-types.
And, while we may seem to speak the same language, our innate human difference as autistics can be greatly misconstrued, and our value as the very people who can generate ideas and employment can become easily obscured in practice.
There exists a certain ‘tone deafness’ to the nuance of our autistic being, which has been dubbed the ‘double empathy bind’ (Damian Milton).
Neurotypicals find it difficult to relate to and engage with autistic experience, and vice versa.
A mirror world exists in which the only difference between us is that of number. I promise you that many of the ‘flaws’ suggested by the deficit models of autism can be aimed at neurotypicals from an autistic perspective. This has perhaps been my profoundest piece of learning.
Project leadership and design
To lead a project, I need to work in ways which minimise my anxiety. Anxiety is a constant for many autistic people, and can become disabling.
High standards of professional practice can be extremely helpful in countering anxiety at work.
But my project had unwittingly placed too much reliance on a single means of access, and I was responsible for outcomes without being able to move the necessary cogs directly in an ambitious and complex piece of work.
This was hugely inefficient and anxiety provoking, and at times it seemed my project had been built on quicksand.
I’ve learned that enabling project design will include multiple and direct access routes, and allow for a hands on approach in all areas where outcomes matter, also that truly successful access must be written in at the point of design and not simply added on later. My toolkit and my thoughts about project design have begun to merge.
In the informal freelance arts sector, there can be a high reliance on NT friendship codes and relationships.
Autistic access needs can be socially misunderstood due to prevailing norms and the emotional needs of others. It isn’t easy to find a way to tell your colleagues that the emotional labour they take for granted can be taxing enough to make you lose the power of speech later in your day. Invariably, people tend to feel that your needs don’t apply to them, because these norms are so powerfully dominant and immediate in our lives.
But it is beyond stressful to decipher and manage certain types of emotional demand embedded in social codes at work.
My mid term project hack was to establish rules for contact, and filter interactions by limiting contact time and channelling all communications to one email address.
These simple adjustments quietened down all noise which was not work related. Some forms of invisibility can be a very good thing.
Masking and trauma
But generally we have to mask or otherwise camouflage autism in the workplace, and this is exhausting and destructive in the long term. It is this very issue my research seeks to address.
It is genuinely hard for colleagues to understand this, because autism can be invisible even when we try to explain ourselves, and such failures of communication can be genuinely traumatising.
Our struggles can be made clearer if we talk purely in terms of access and equivalences with other examples of disablement. The will or ability to adapt to our needs, however, lies in the hands of our colleagues and is not often in our power to influence via social means of negotiation. This is the nature of our vulnerability as freelancers.
As autistic professionals we face a bewildering tautology. In order to become visible, we must express our needs in translation. We share language and use the same words about a sometimes radically different set of experiences. We cannot thus assume a shared meaning or understanding. This is why it is vital to focus on the machinery of access – the nuts and bolts if you like.
Translating autism is a job in itself and no guarantee of successful communication, and though I am a huge believer in cultural advocacy in its many forms, I think it is unwise to expose ourselves to this labour in workplace negotiations.
Equality, I’ve come to think, should not require that we ‘overshare’ our vulnerability (so to speak). This can serve to accentuate the power imbalance in collaborations across neuro-types.
I think that smart project design will be the kind that fits so well you can barely see it. And for this, we need the liberty to design our projects around our neurological profiles, and present our toolkits as a matter of high professionalism. For this we need spaces to think and plan autistically, and to share and disseminate our learning, which is my intention.
My quest has taken me much deeper than expected but I think my learning is all the greater for it.
Visibility is not for everyone, because privacy really does matter and may be crucial for wellbeing, and the layers of our suppressions are multiple and complex. But I have found the urge to test these boundaries has brought the richest of rewards – that of personal and professional congruence. I am profoundly grateful to the Arts Council for this opportunity to develop my practice as an autistic creative.
In becoming visible, we encourage others to do the same. This creates momentum and so can lead to change. But, in doing so, we can be measured in what we share, and this too is our right.
November 17, 2017 § 2 Comments
We are a “lost generation”, who are finding themselves. We’re adult autistics, diagnosed later in life, and we are all pioneers!
The truth of this hits me everyday as I find new people to marvel at, and so many new voices emerging from the shadows of invisible neurological difference.
Yet, being first is both exciting and difficult. The birth of my project The Museum for Object Research is a perfect example. We have struggled to come into being – but we have arrived at last!
We’ve grown from being a small WordPress blog (now deactivated) into a website to be proud of. So please do check us out at www.museumforobjectresearch.com We have migrated to a new host, to accommodate all the wonderful content we have gathered during our recent Arts Council funded research & development period.
Currently, we are still listed on WordPress, but you won’t find our blog posts on the WordPress Reader when we publish new content, so do make a visit, you can now subscribe and explore our exciting new features, including the, Autistic Voices, section. We also feature our new autistic initiative, WEBworks.
Objects can can have a very particular resonance for autistic people. I am no exception. my connection to objects is joyful, and at times playful. It can also be deeply serious. I’m interested above all in objects as a language which transcends the need for words in creating meaning for us.
You can tell I’m excited, right? Right! So do pop in to see what all the fuss is about.
We’re also looking for content – in particular for the, Autistic Voices, section – where the focus is on autistic relatedness to objects.
If you would like to contribute a post contact me here.
Cultural identity in the face of political suppression – a longer view of Spanish exile: thoughts on #Catalonia.
October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Lately I feel muzzled. I’m taking a crash course in some of the issues surrounding the current turbulence in Spain, but my brain won’t make the stretch required and I don’t know how to talk about it. It’s become my job to respond with my art practice, I’m just taking my time getting there.
The debate (such as it is writ on screens) narrows into ugly nationalism pinned to flags, and fists knocking against a glass fronted Catalan radio station. Soundbites scream at me from opposing sides, I try to read longer articles in the night as insomnia claws my brain’s waning powers, but it is all like treacle. Words, drip and meld. Right or wrong? Legal or illegal?
But, my remit is never going to be the fine detail of political analysis involving finance and corruption, among a plethora of arguments about who did what. Forget questions of legality – I will never fully grasp them – they are a maze of contradictions, with confusion (as far as I can see) between EU enshrined rights to self determination and the Spanish constitutional legacy with it’s roots in a bloody history of civil war, the long Franco dictatorship, and an unresolved passage to democracy.
From the perspective of an Anglo-Spanish exile ( yes, I am still to reclaim my lost Spanish nationality) the hands of Mariano Rajoy have Franco’s fingerprints.
Yet many on the left remain silent. Some are even vocal against Catalan self-determination. It is ugly nationalism, the Catalans owe Spain money, the Catalan parliament has been tainted by Pujol’s and other corruptions, they say. And on it goes. Rajoy’s corruption of course figures in the argument, but only takes this particular brand of opinion so far in terms of tolerance for the Catalan question.
They’re certainly no fans of Rajoy but they are tired of it all – they want the Catalans to pipe down. And that’s the generous view. Okay, the Spanish nationalist backlash is a great worry for them, but in a very real sense the nationalism (if that’s what it is) shown on both sides is received with the same odium in some quarters. Forgive me, but I feel this lacks nuance given the historical background – and yet it is some of those who know this background intimately who aren’t sympathetic to Catalan secession. Of course, I realise that not even all Catalans want independence, and the current situation is proving divisive within the region too. But I have had my eyes opened to the lack of support for the separatists in unexpected places.
What is little spoken about is the quite visceral hatred of the Catalan people (and their cause) which is to be found in other parts of Spain. It’s an uncomfortable truth, often lacking in the international coverage of events. And yes, this level of hostility can work both ways, but you have to ask what’s provoked it from the Catalan perspective?
People say follow the money, it’s all about finance. On one level this may be correct, but then again what is it that ordinary citizens who voted for independence want, rather than the politicians and financiers? What is it that they want to separate from?
I take the long view, and I’m again astonished by the silence of the left in this respect (no doubt someone will fill me in). Surely the impulse towards self-determination lies in historically suppressed and contested questions of culture and identity.
You see I’m old enough to remember Barcelona in the Franco era, and to have heard stolen snatches of Catalan in the night air on my grandmother’s balcony. Back then it seemed a quaint language – I didn’t know it had been forbidden. Catalan phrases sometimes tripped off the tongues of our friends and neighbours at home. But it was swallowed back in public spaces, and I never learned more than fragments alongside the Castilian I picked up so naturally in my grandparents home in Barcelona. I was the second child of a bilingual family and I now wonder if I could have been just as easily trilingual.
I can’t separate what I’m gradually learning and absorbing of recent history from this present struggle. Why is so little spoken about the open wounds resulting from a national failure to face up to and negotiate historic memory. Franco sought to destroy Catalan separatism, and with the fascist victory at the Battle of Ebro (1938) he took control of the region. More than three thousand people were killed and significantly more exiled, including my father. He had been born in Madrid but as the son of Republican civil servants followed the elected government in retreat to live in Valencia, and subsequently in Barcelona. He was at the Battle of Ebro too, a young reporter with a commission to write for a regional magazine called Blindajes, which covered the armoured forces of Catalonia (tanks).
After the long dictatorship the degrees of autonomy were granted at the negotiation of democracy in 1977 have been played heavy-handedly with by Madrid, leading to the growing call for independence since 2010 when the Constitutional Court in Madrid overruled part of the 2006 autonomy statute.
Isn’t it this heavy hand which feels like Franco’s? Isn’t it this clumsy game of cat and mouse which has inflamed the separatist feeling so?
So I return to my reading – the treacly texts sometimes stick and I get glimmers of understanding. Catalans who want independence have been abandoned. The EU supports Spanish unity despite the obvious violence against citizens at the polling stations, and the proposed state control of the region’s parliament, it’s police and telecommunications to ensure ‘order’ for a new election process (not a referendum) to replace the sacked officials.
It will all be temporary it is claimed – but the intention seems clear. We are back to Franco’s imperative to squash Catalan separatism once more. Nobody knows where this will lead contemporary Spain, but you can’t help feeling, nowhere good, is the likely answer.
October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
This is quite a specialised blog post. I’ve been excited to find a slide show presentation from 2014 on a memory stick (autistically I burrow backwards and rely often on chance encounters with the past – the trick is to leave a trail…)
Like Hansel and Gretel before me I left some breadcrumbs, but still I’m rather awestruck that I could have missed working my way back to this somewhat seminal moment in the evolution of a project called The Museum for Object Research.
It’s a singular slide show. Many of the references will be obscure. It relates to my father’s two earliest plays – one unpublished and the other published in the Castilian language in small number and now out of print. Many of the references would be known only to the conference delegates of 2014 (familiar with the history of Spanish exile). Other references perhaps only I, or a handful of other people would understand. This doesn’t really matter. It’s the conceptual framework for my object work that matters – this is the exciting nature of my find!
October 2, 2017 § 7 Comments
I am not Catalan but I feel the recent events in Spain very deeply. I am an Anglo-British daughter of a Spanish Republican exile born in Madrid. My grandfather was from Galicia and my grandmother from Southern Spain, but they returned from their exile in France in 1941 to live in Barcelona. This place was my home from home as I grew up. Barcelona was my long Summers’ idyl, the city of all my high days and holidays, and my absolute love.
I have written often in my art blog about the long erasure of the Spanish exiles from the history books of Spain, and how my father and my grandparents never spoke of their internment in the French camps of Argelès sur Mer and Barcarès. I didn’t know or question why I lived in two places, or why my grandmother wept so bitterly in her kitchen each time we returned to England.
This is what violent political repression does – it silences you. Not just in the streets with batons. No. The erasure of memory and the taping of tongues creeps deeply into the everyday fabric of our lives. In many ways the invisible brutality of a dictatorship is at the heart of my recent cycle of paintings called simply, Buenos Días Dictador.
The dictator is everywhere and nowhere. The dictator follows you wherever you go.
The Catalan question itself is too complex for me to write about. I am an artist, not a historian or political analyst. But I know about living with exile. I know about suppression. And I know what’s more that these wounds run so deep in Spain that even 81 years on from the start of that Civil War it is hard to talk about Spain. Mine is a postmemory experience. My contact with the history is indirect, but my fear is present and real.
I have changed my social media settings to share this blog post.
The Catalan question can be hard to grasp, but you can recognise state suppression when you see it. All the hallmarks are there – and it’s impossible to argue with the statement by Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau. A line has been crossed and Rajoy is not fit to serve. Like so many bullies before him he is a coward, one who has set armed police against an unarmed citizenry.
There have been many opportunities to negotiate, which is what democracies are made for. Democracy is talking. Democracy can never be throwing citizens around like rag dolls, breaking their fingers, kicking and batting them with truncheons. Someone has died I believe, and more than 800 injured.
Most sickeningly there have been statements by Rajoy and his deputy claiming a proportionate response. But, no. This is not ‘normal’ or right.
With my art practice I witness. It’s all I can do.
August 20, 2017 § 3 Comments
I began a tribute to Heather Heyer called Rest in Outrage.
Shortly after the vile act of terrorism which took her life, we witnessed another – the atrocity of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. So I’ve felt compelled to cast my gaze back to my beloved childhood haunts, and stretch my tribute work across these two traumatic events.
I’m using labels for my tribute, which I’ve worked with in the past, especially during another tribute to Alec Wainman (2014). Looking back through some of my archive boxes I’ve found two further examples of label work, which now seem prescient. They could even have been made for Rest in Outrage.
I’m not clairvoyant of course, but my practice while seemingly fragmentary at times becomes coherent retrospectively.
The colourful Landscapes of Resistance labels were made in response to Trump’s inauguration (Jan 2017). In 2013, I made labels with fragments of printed family photographs featuring Barcelona among other places. It seems I was beginning my journey towards my current preoccupations back then.
I’m so glad I can use them to some purpose, that somehow this work hooks up and begins to make sense. My work may be as simple and inconsequential as finding missing sock and making a pair, but it’s all I can do.