Neurodivergence and tokenism in the arts!

November 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

Fragementation 2

Stills from video capture: Sonia Boué, 2017

I’m autistic. It’s my job to be anxious. Being anxious is one of the things I do best, so I’ve done some good worrying about some of the more recent approaches I’ve experienced from arts organisations who I am not in partnership with.

I’ve started to fear the spectre of tokenism towards neurodivergence in the arts and worry that the direction of Arts Council England’s (ACE) 2020-2030 strategy could even unwittingly fuel such a development. I’m also worried about artists funding in general and for neurodivergent artists in particular, a concern which runs though my piece.

I believe that good practice for working with and supporting neurodivergence in the arts is emergent and there is much to be hopeful about in the coming decade. But I remember reading ACE’s Shaping the next ten years draft strategy document at the consultation stage and wondering what its shifting imperatives might lead to, including the possible contortions on the part of those seeking funding to fit criteria set by ACE. I’ll need to go around the houses to give the context for my specific misgivings regarding neurodivergence, but bear with me and we will get there in the end.

Since completing my own ACE funded pioneer support project for neurodivergent artists earlier this year, I’ve had cause to wonder how the new imperatives might translate at the funding interface for others? What effect might they have on potential applicants? And what of those whose practices and services won’t ever be recognised as “relevant” by ACE but are nonetheless meaningful and valuable?

Cultural historian and commentator on the arts, Robert Hewison, wrote an article A strategy for self-preservation, in Arts Professional, critiquing the Shaping the next ten years strategy thus,

“…it seems Arts Council England (ACE) intends to achieve a transformation from a country where ACE exists to help the arts to one where the arts exist to help the Arts Council.”

I admit that aspects of the document were perplexing to me. Should we now call ourselves creatives rather than artists? By which logic, what of Arts Council England as moniker! Time for some expensive rebranding, perhaps? Must creatives now also primarily seek to become agents of social change to achieve funding? What about the artists whose mission it is simply to make great art – which incidentally the sector/industry relies on?  Can we as artists be expected to do all that is required by ACE without becoming something else in the process? I can speak from experience on the latter.

A paper by Susan Jones, The chance to dream: why fund individual artists? lays out the current disparities in the ACE funding system and the paucity of direct funding to artists, without which (I repeat myself ) the sector would dry up.

“The decline in volume and value of direct funding to artists from ACE is unambiguous. Notably in 2009/10 fewer than 2.5% of artists were directly funded by GftA, but by 2013/14 this reduced to less than 1% with DYCP showing a further decline.”

For those who don’t know, Grants for the Arts (GftA) now replaced by National Lottery Project Grant (NLPG) is a general sector pot. Artists must demonstrate audience engagement figures and provide match funding in order to get NLPGs, as well as making the ‘creative case’ for diversity. In my experience the effect on an arts practice is to develop invaluable project management skills (among the myriad benefits) but to lose out significantly on time to make work. Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) is a ‘no strings’ award designed to address core NLPG barriers for individual artists. However, DYCP is a tiny pot with only a 10% success rate for applicants, I’m told. The subtext in all ACE’s material on DYCP is that it’s almost impossible to gain this type of funding. I worry. What kind of message does this give to artists!

The stipulations within the previous GtfA, and current NLPG, have already shaped applications and had an impact on what’s produced within the arts in recent years.

In future to achieve funding applicants will need to demonstrate “ambition and quality”, “inclusivity and relevance”,  “dynamism and environmental sustainability” – if you can decode what this actually means in practice.  As an artist applicant it can often feel as though you’d better offer to tap dance on the roof too – the list of promises made in an application can be legion. You begin to see my point about contortion, which is an especially serious one if we’re to consider the artist and the sustainability of creative practice.

Is, as Robert Hewison seems to suggest, the tail wagging the dog?

So I’m frankly worried about a possible rash of quick-fix funding bids and tokenism at an arts organisation level too, because I’m not sure all are cut out to be ACE’s agents for socially engaged creativity (however laudable and desirable this would be in practice). Also, because I now provide pockets of sector support in this area I know how intensive and specialised the work of building authentic, robust, and meaningful programmes/services for neurodivergent communities can be. I’m immensely lucky in my partnerships, but am also sometimes approached in a tokenistic manner, which is how I know.

Specifically, in the case of neurodivergence then, I must ask where the knowledge base is for working with us? Further, how can the sector provide services that represent a good investment of public funds without such a resource, which I would add should be self-led. Until that knowledge is acquired and those relationships have been built how can arts organisations do the deep learning that’s needed? Enter Jon Adam’s long and at times painful mission to fund the Flow Observatorium hub in Portsmouth as an example of self-led/user-led organising to fill the gaps in sector knowledge and provision.

Interestingly for us ‘next frontier’ marginals – the neurodivergent – Shaping the next ten years coincides with our gradual seepage into  mainstream conversations about diversity in the arts. Hence the arts are now peppered with references to neurodiversity, which in itself should be a welcome development but with which I sometimes find myself at odds.

My heart sinks knowing that uninformed bids, featuring neurodivergence, are quite possibly sitting in the Grantium portal as I write.  You can understand it. We’re now more visible.  I often see neurodivegence tagged in the growing lists of marginalised identities, which is lovely but at this stage of our evolution into public consciousness is often shorthand, or a friendly nod.

What a well-intentioned temptation it could be to throw in support for neurodivergent artists (for example) to strengthen a bid’s “relevance” without understanding the first thing about the need for tailored programmes/opportunties and relational work. I want to write it large, you can’t just offer the same stuff in the same way – the thinking and design around what we need has to come first and can’t effectively be bolted on afterwards.

I worry too that the imperatives for ACE “relevance” may (albeit unwittingly so) create even more barriers for the neurodivergent applicant. I could write reams about this but don’t have the unpaid time to offer up to such a task.

I’m often approached for support with ACE applications and questions about the DYCP in particular – the ‘no strings’ opportunity to focus on being an artists is probably every artist’s dream. My advice until now has been to opt for NLPG, which has a surprising 42% success rate, I’m told. But I’m beginning to wonder if we should all apply for DYCPs to demonstrate our need, rather than be put off by the mixed messages embedded in this opportunity.

I feel incredibly blessed to have gained both GftA and NLPG in my time – a combination of doggedness and good fortune. I know how vitally important these awards are to an artist’s professional life, and I’m confident in saying ACE have invested well in me. I can now give back 100%+. And now that I’m almost at the end of my piece you’ll see that it’s all connected – artists are our industry including the neurodivergent. We need to fund so many more experiences like mine to build the knowledge bases I’m talking about. We also need to be allowed to remain creative practitioners as well as developing such vital sector support skills.

So in the last round of DYCP I submitted an application too, feeling not a little unlike Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket now that I think of it, but as Susan Jones says we artists need the chance to dream – preferably funded.

On all the above, watch this space!

 

 

 

Time to go; the deeper failure behind Grantium.

April 20, 2019 § Leave a comment


Journalist Christy Romer has written an article for Arts Professional entitled, Arts Council England urged to replace Grantium.

Romer states, “Arts Council England (ACE) has admitted that it’s “intuitive” funding portal Grantium, intended to “bring [ACE] into the 21st Century”, is seen within the sector as a failure.”

This admission follows a public consultation into ACE’s forthcoming 10-year strategy.

For those of us – including those with hidden disabilities – who have battled quite vociferously with Grantium over the years it’s a case of, no shit Sherlock!

I have no compunction in saying that it is a truly dreadful, ableist, contraption, which could have been purpose built to frustrate and tangle the mind. Access help is available – but this has always been an add-on accommodation which many have not known about, and which in any case is not suitable for all.

I won’t go into the details of the newly published ACE report here, but rather I will focus on Grantium and the application system from a personal perspective.

When I myself answered the consultation document it was with dismay at yet another online form which didn’t fit, and which seemed instead to cover many irrelevancies to my professional life as an artist and latterly as an arts organiser.

The language ACE uses is rightly criticised – it is often jargonistic and hard to read or make sense of. It also speaks to artist applicants and arts organisations as though they were one and the same thing. This is a major issue, as it places individual artists under great and indue pressure at the point of both application for and delivery of an ACE funded project.

I feel that the possible attempt to ameliorate this through the creative practitioner funding stream is compromised by the relative smallness of this particular pot.

In addition I have long wanted a conversation about the more deeply rooted inaccessibility of the funding model for many individual artists that goes beyond any physical portal (dreadful or otherwise). Grantium in a sense is the symptom rather than the malady. I feel there’s something deeper and more grave at the heart of ACE’s ongoing diversity ‘conundrum’.

I often think of the current criteria for funding applications as a series of demonstrable promises which must be made to weight the application in your favour. The need to impress, to be seen to cover all the necessary bases and more, is a worry at best, and disabling at worst, where disability/divergence are concerned. In which case, one of the present choices at hand is to offer up the ‘divergent self’ as the project. But this in itself (while being a successful and robust strategy when offered knowingly), is not entirely equitable. Indeed, you must still make your application promises, and articulate them in the requisite jargon, in addition to opening yourself up to the kind of sharing not necessarily required by other groups.

Loathe Grantium as I do, despite my learning to use it and to succeed in applications, I am almost more disquieted by the latest ACE pronouncement on ‘relevance’ as a driver for funding, as reported by Romer.

In some ways protected groups like my own (autistics) have been and will continue to be at the forefront of funding opportunities (mainly as subjects or recipients) – we are socially relevant as a group. We’re just so beautifully and unequivocally ‘divergent’! But how well our needs will be matched through these means is an ongoing question. Whether we will be even more likely to be opportunistically ‘targeted’, and/or our divergence harvested by others is an open question.

What concerns me and what I encounter in my working life, are the needs of neurodivergent creatives who are disadvantaged by a heavily coded system, where demonstrating outcomes which are value driven apply equally to organisations and individuals. This is not consonant with meaningfully supporting artists, especially those with ‘protected characteristics’.

Paradoxically, artists like me are ‘relevant’ by our very nature, but demonstrating the relevance of our projects may be beyond our ken because it will be further encoded by a neurotypically-led bureaucracy

How was it for you? #NUNOproject

April 11, 2019 § 2 Comments

One of my favourite images from our opening. Alex Forshaw and me listening to Rhiannon Lloyd-Williams’ poetry reading.

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.


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

March 17, 2019 § 6 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#NUNOproject – a case study in inclusive practice

March 9, 2019 § 2 Comments

This blog post was first published on @an_artblogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel Hair and New Year Resolutions

December 31, 2018 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

A non sequiter I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Networking

December 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

Image created by NYFA from an original photograph by Philip King

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

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

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

It was this work which brought NYFA to my door.

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

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

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

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