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.
“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?”
October 9, 2019 § 1 Comment
The painting you see before you is literally buzzing. It’s a good representation of my brain right now.
I painted it with great emotion, inspired by a piece of classic Spanish cinema called The Spirit of the Beehive (1972). Bees swarming. Having a bee in your bonnet. It’s all connected. But what do you do when the bees are inside your brain?
Such is the sensation sometimes with autism (I find). I qualify this because it will feel differently to others. We don’t need a bunch of bee-brain theories (or pea-brain theories, to be honest).
That’s why it’s hard to write about the less comfortable aspects of autism – you don’t want to fuel the ‘bad autism’ beast. See! Naughty autism got you, they might say, but I won’t let them. It’s not the autism that’s naughty. I guess I should blame the sillies who tried to tell me I was slow (for example) when it’s quite obvious I am fast (too fast at times). But I won’t do that either.
Increasingly, I’m inclined to believe that these people and many others just don’t know about brains, probably because they’ve never had to think about them (or their brains in relation to others).
Thinking about our brains (and what’s ‘wrong’ with them) is probably the sole preserve of the ‘misfit’. Majority brains don’t have to bother. In my view this labour is advantageous and our ‘misfit’ brains hold many advantages too.
It helps to identify the volume of traffic caused by the bees (ideas), and they don’t always swarm so. They also connect parts that other brain can’t reach.
What interests me about the mark-making activity documented in the painting above is that it narrates the impulses of my mind via the movement of my arm (and hand). The movement of my whole body indeed (because it was suitably frenetic – you won’t know this but I just typed frantic in error.)
I have therefore (in a way I can relate to) shown you the inside of my mind, without recourse to any words. You will see it. You will see my joy and my rage. You will also see my freedom. You have even seen my autism as it is. Dynamic, rhythmic, capable of control (for I have stayed within the picture frame and given you a harmonious dancing surface to gaze at.)
I want to show you more.
May 31, 2019 § 2 Comments
I’m out of office and in a new country, but I’m not on holiday.
This is because I’m helping care for my 93 year old mother who needs 24/7 at home, after a sudden acute infection and a two week hospital stay. My sister and I kept a constant vigil at her bedside and her recovery has exceeded expectations.
Caring has taken over for now. Everything’s been on hold, but I’m inching my way back to elements of my previous existence. Life took a turn, something happened (as they say) and I don’t quite feel the same about anything.
Hospital life is a parallel universe – you both live on the edge of your nerves and wade through treacle. There’s an airless tension to waiting for (and advocating for) wellness within a vast institution, and to observing extreme ill health at extremely close quarters. It makes you think (a cliche of course).
BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs kept me going through the quieter night shifts, and also settled me on my nights off. I could just about post to Twitter and Instagram on occasion, but all I could really think about was getting mum through it. Hyper-focus enabled me to keep going despite exhaustion, anxiety, and sensory stress. Autism was helpful in this situation (despite extreme challenge).
My art practice focuses on objects, and now that we’re out of hospital I can find moments in the day to touch base with it a little. I’m indulging a growing obsession with an intriguing thimble I bought online just before everything kicked off. My husband brought it for me one visiting day, tucked among my spare clothes in a small suitcase. Emerging jewell-like from it’s cardboard tube, it seemed impossibly exotic and evocative – speaking to me of my other life – amidst the wreckage of the elderly ward.
So I’m now on the trail of this thimble, and have found that it is one of a set of six. Why they have been inscribed with Spain 1937 is of great interest to me. I need to find out what occasion they were made for.
By great luck I’ve managed to find a seller who has the remaining five thimbles (of course I snapped them up), and one set that was sold only three days ago. My only clue is Marin Spain in the listing that was sold (for which there was a box).
The two current leads pursued are a suggestion that the thimbles could have been made as souvenirs for the famous Paris Expo of 1937 (for which Picasso created his seminal work Guernica), or that they could relate to Marin Chiclana dolls (as each thimble seems to feature a flamenco dancer). But, if they are Marin Chiclana related, why the inscription Spain 1937?
Is it possible that Marin Chiclana dolls were featured on these thimbles for the 1937 Paris Expo?
Another possibility suggested to me is the occasion of the antifascist Second International Writers Congress in Defence of Culture (1937), with the Paris Expo being more likely.
Whatever the case may be (including possibilities not yet touched on) the date, 1937, and country, Spain, make these thimbles significant and probably politicised objects.
A curious symmetry of circumstance means that I have to wait a little longer for my thimbles to arrive, the seller has been suddenly called away from home to care for their mother…