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.


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Adventures in Object Art #MfOR

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Art and Autism (a creative edge).

August 12, 2016 § 8 Comments

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Photography Stu Allsop: At RE:collections at the North Wall Gallery, Oxford. 

An interesting article appeared in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, featuring my good friend and fellow autistic artist Jon Adams.

I like this particular quotation from the piece,

“Adams says it’s impossible for his autism not to affect his work. “It’s not separate so it must inform every bit of the work I do, even at an unconscious level. I make work touching sound, finding patterns and observations from my life all woven together as one.” He feels it may even give him an advantage: “It’s both my downfall and my creative edge,” he says.”

I’m chuckling though.

“…may even give him an advantage…”

Are you kidding?

While not wishing to indulge in trumpet blowing, I have to say that autism is of course advantageous in the making of art. No question.

Jon and I have talked about this on several occasions and conclude that  art making has emerged in our lives as an inner compulsion – we live and breathe it – this is what drives us to create to our best abilities.  Hyper-focus, perfectionism, task completion and originality (by default we see things differently), are my four (not so) secret weapons.

This doesn’t make me Rain Woman!

AND there is a downside. In the making autism is an advantage, but it is in the professional development and dissemination of our work that we often suffer.

Professional structures are socially driven and thus biased against autistics.

It’s a criminal mismatch when you think about it.

All that creative talent and very little scope for opportunity.

What a waste.

 

 

 

The art of autistic self-hood

June 1, 2016 § 21 Comments

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(Uncertain Weather System in Place, 2016)

 

As there seems to be no specific aftercare following my diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, I’m quite busy working things out for myself.

Fortunately for me this is one of my autistic strengths.

But specialist services would make a huge difference to my life. So going it alone is not entirely desirable, and yet I consider the alternatives. Would I want aftercare designed and provided by neurotypicals? Perhaps not.

It would probably end up feeling like wearing the wrong size shoes. A bad fit.

One effect of diagnosis is that I now recognise my dislike of most organised/group activities as being legitimate. It’s a genuine case of poor neurological fit. What you (the neurotypcial majority) generally like/need from a group experience is not what I like/need – I honestly just can’t relate to most of it. And with good reason.

But this can also happen to me when faced with #actuallyautistic events that somewhat resemble neurotypical ones. Please, please don’t take offence, but an autistic pride picnic in Hyde Park (I hear there’s one coming up in June) isn’t for me. Not that I am not proud to be autistic – I AM. But I don’t want to gather in Hyde Park.

There exist three main reasons for this – all autistic.

1/ Travel is stressful.

2/ I don’t like meeting with strangers (especially en masse).

3/ I have no way of predicting the fine details of the day.

But I have to confess that it isn’t just dealing with the resulting overload that puts me off. I also experience a creeping dread of what I will call neurotypical templates. Subjected to them forevermore – think all school, college and most work settings for starters – I feel nothing short of magnetic repulsion for any event which resembles these formats. Neurotypical templates for group fun or even group displays of pride seem to have the same effect.

And so I ask myself what autistic templates might look like – and I get no clear answers. I just know I don’t want more of the same. Too many uncomfortable associations, too much time spent in exhaustion and recovery. I want my time to count, and I want my pride to show without the usual consequences for me.

Pride in a sense – in my sense of it – is about saying NO. No to neurotypically designed social spaces. Pride, surely, must contain some measure of self-care too.

With this in mind, ( while hoping fervently that the autistic people attending this year’s pride event have a blast) I will be sharing my pride online.

 

 

 

 

Reflections on the birthday ritual and autism.

May 22, 2016 § 9 Comments

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(Dirt Cups 2014, my homage to Meret Oppenheim’s 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon)

It can be hard to strike the right birthday note. This post is about alternatives in the all pervasive social narrative of what makes for a happy birthday. While this dominance is unintentional, nonetheless it carries a potentially damaging myth about what can and should make you happy.

It’s my view that the happiness and mental well being of autistic people will be enhanced when our own versions of sociability and celebration are inserted and validated within mainstream culture. Without this we continue to be prone to false expectations, which can be harmful and destructive to an autistic sense of self. We are only made fragile through denial. A robust psyche (conversely) is created through authentication in the wider eye. Recognition and respect are fundamental to accepting and assimilating plurality of neurological existence, including autism as an alternative paradigm.

Birthdays can feel every bit as alienating as other major holidays for some autistic people.

As a society we must begin to take note that for some of our citizens birthdays can be a trigger for traumatic memory, an emotional minefield to be navigated with care. Birthdays can manifest as foci for isolation, on one hand, or social pressure and overload on the other. Over and over. Year on year.

This is because autistic people are so often excluded, not only from social invitation, but also (almost entirely) from the public imagination. A narrow concept of what autism is, and what autistic people can bring to the broader neurological table of humanity, is to blame. Clearly we have a long way to go, but we also need to start somewhere. We need to chip away at misconception on all social and cultural fronts, including attention to our rituals. I believe it is our rituals that make us.

We could be so very much more imaginative (pluralistic) and kinder as a culture in both our understanding of and performing of birthday rituals, and extend our rather limited concept of celebration to include a gamut of options. There is but a small repertoire of actions, which value only one style of social behaviours, and are riddled with assumptions. It takes courage, if not defiance to break away in both practical and emotional terms.

As I write, I realise that there will also be non-autistics who would also like a little less social pressure around birthdays, and although my post attempts to go more specifically into autistic identity, I will be very glad to have you on board.

I’m not traumatised by birthdays myself, but I am a little wary. Memory is hazy, but I have a sense of childhood birthdays as boobytrap days. Days brimming with hidden depths and shallows.

Having just revisited the secret comforts of ageing privately, I observe once more that there’s an advantage to piling on the years – it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to hide it

Straightforward right?

No. Not once you start to unpick exactly how deeply social assumption runs through the veins of our neuro-dominant culture at each and every turn.

While we’re conditioned to cover up signs of ageing, this too can be a pretext for social activity. Neurotypical people are more likely to do this covering-up in company. Sound oxymoronic? Only when viewed from the outside, perhaps?

In some versions of what birthday is, the problematics of ageing are performed and mediated as a group experience. Wrinkles can be commiserated, if not toasted, and hilarity ensue over the less appealing aspects of ageing. Some people need this kind of validation and benefit from what I might term social superglue.

I get it (and even why), but I don’t want to do this, or any other version of it. Not that I don’t love my friends, I emphatically DO. I’ll even happily talk wrinkles and chin hairs over coffee or a glass or two. It’s simply that what I most want on my birthday is quiet and the absence of pressure.

So what’s the problem with that? You will probably only ask this if you are not autistic. The problem is that mainstream culture serves to mock and pressure those who don’t conform, and we are made to feel lesser about our needs and choices. Societal expectations just DO NOT FIT.

So I want my own oxymoron – to assert quite LOUDLY the absolute legitimacy of the quiet birthday. And I will give you my three main reasons (which may be different for other autistics who prefer a quiet time).

I don’t like to be the focus of attention.

Less is more.

I only have so much social energy (spoons) to call on in any one given day. Socialising comes at a great cost (think a two day hangover or jet-lag).

There’s one proviso to all this – there will be autistic people who DO want to go clubbing on their birthday, or hang-gliding, or get plastered with their bessie mates. And that is okay by me.

What we need in cultural terms is to take a step back from these models of birthday fun and take the judgment out of staying home, being alone, and binge watching on Netflix (if that’s what gives you joy). It’s NOT sad, it’s not Nobby no mates, it’s not wrong.

It’s TOTALLY okay to be you.

My one unshakeable birthday ritual is tea and cake – in a clean cup though, the above image is only art!

 

Making it through.

May 6, 2016 § 7 Comments

Photo on 05-05-2016 at 14.01

My last post was about waiting for Arts Council England (ACE) to make a decision on my project. Funding from public money in the arts is limited and brings a great responsibility to the recipient. So I feel incredibly fortunate to have been awarded funding under the Grants for the Arts scheme, and will give my all to this work. The ability to maintain a sustained focus and perfectionism are real assets in my job. They are also what enabled me to put three months into the project development and application – though I could not have made it through without my network of helping hands. Trusted neurotypicals, who were willing to share their insights and skills with me to navigate the NT world.

Autistic artists face multiple barriers in applying for this kind of award. These became apparent to me during the application process, and I have begun to write some survival notes for other artists in my art blog. Yesterday this particular blog post was shared on Twitter by the Arts Council itself – it feels as though my message about the inequities faced by neurodiverse artists is beginning to filter through.

ACE have a wonderful helpline for those who can access the telephone and you can also email. There are generous access measures in place if you can find them and they happen to take the form you can get along with. I felt encouraged at every turn by the people interface at ACE. But difficulties remain in accessing the access for many of us (a frustrating tautology), and further barriers created by the clunky new online portal called Grantium. A more detailed analysis of what is so very wrong with this template for neurodiverse artists will be a longer and more technical matter than befits a blog post – and possibly the work of consultation with ACE if they’re willing.

These are major issues for neurodiverse artists, but could be improved without great difficulty I feel. From my days of social policy study I reckon these to be “at a stroke” changes, meaning that they require only  policy shifts and administrative nods to implement. SO it is important to bring them home to source, as I’m certain ACE are committed to access and equality and that these obstacles are systemic and unwitting.

The larger more insidious inequities are those of the social world which are embedded in arts opportunity on every scale and form. This will take a great deal of unpicking to arrive at an adequate description of what is so very disadvantageous for autistic artists in particular. I’m ready for the long haul.

 

 

 

Uncertain Weather System in Place: autism, stigma and metaphor

April 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

I have a new piece of work. I have a new metaphor. I have a new dance with stigma.

Thoughts swirl. Light on shadow, and shadow on light.

I have courage and I am scared. I have privilege and choice.  New work takes time to absorb. I am almost six weeks into knowing that I am autistic – this too is a process of assimilation.

This short video – featuring a new work in my studio (for a group show) brought me to another level of realisation. The concept for this work – one of uncertain weather – is a metaphor for so many aspects of my life as an autistic woman.

I am impatient. I choke on the hard edges of stigma and the truth of it won’t go down.

The weather is uncertain, dictating all my experience of the sensory world. Uncertain weather is a daily encounter with both climate and social spaces.

My piece began as an exploration of exile but I find it works for autism too. You can read more about this connection in my work here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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