April 15, 2018 § 7 Comments
My name is Sonia Boué and I’m an autistic artist. I’ve had a lot of luck in my career lately – which has largely come about using my own autistic methods and working with two truly wonderful mentors. On the face of it I look pretty networked in, but most of my opportunities have come from sharing my work and ideas online. At the end of each project I have to start from scratch, and I have no idea how to ‘use my contacts’ or network neurotypically. The sheer scale of the social labour involved in networking neurotypically is beyond me. This is why I have created a new kind of network called WEBworks, which is autistic in conception and in all it’s various manifestations. It’s for autistic artists and has a focus on professional development and creating access to opportunity. It’s a small pilot project – manageable and yet ambitious. It’s about empowering us all to become more visible and gain parity in the arts.
People are probably attracted to my work because of the intense autistic focus I am able to give to it – my attention is directed at what I do and not who I know.
So it’s been a jolt, and a hugely painful experience to be told by someone from Arts Council England at a recent conference (in a room full of professionals) to just “get networked in.”
Invisible disability is a box you can tick on a funding form to indicate who might benefit from your project, but it remains invisible in terms of just who might be present in a room full of professional people all grappling with the diminishing funding pot in the arts.
Autistic people are invisible as players. We’re so invisible that I’ve unearthed a major inequity in the funding requirements for those like me who aspire to be players. You see, I need big funding for my project, which includes support for WEBworks. Under present funding rules I need to prove why I can’t compete on a level playing field to match fund my project – and make the case that disabled people should not have to match fund their own access needs (and in my case that of my autistic colleagues). Perhaps no-one has thought of this, because no-one like me has ever applied to be a player?
(NB. I have been told ACE rules don’t demand that we match our access costs, and that exemptions exist within the present system – but this is simply not reflected in the mixed messages ACE give to it’s funding interface users).
When I found myself quite by accident at an ACE funding surgery in my local area and brought up the possible problems with match funding for disabled people in general – I was told this would have to be proved. If you just have a foot missing we wouldn’t be convinced.
I let this ableist comment go at the time, but made a mental note – this person needs training – and I (and all my autistic colleagues) hold much of the the missing knowledge.
A missing foot (if you will call it thus) could imply almost any level of impact in a person’s life (invisible disability such as PTSD, chronic pain, fatigue…we just don’t know and shouldn’t assume) which could affect their ability to raise the signifiant sums of match funding required if they are also not networked in. We’re not talking peanuts, we’re talking resource rich networks from whom signifiant favours can be drawn into a project – for which you have to be resource rich yourself to earn them (in ways I, and those like me just can’t be).
I shouldn’t really be blogging. I have my Arts Council application to finish, but this is way too important not to bring to light.
You see something profoundly (if unwittingly) ableist just happened to me, so aspects of Arts Council England’s disabling funding system have literally fallen into place.
I tried to speak about access in the system at a recent arts conference where Arts Council representatives were present.
For context, I rarely go to arts conferences because I find them inaccessible and they often don’t tend to speak to my experience. I don’t generally go about with a large ‘A’ stuck to my forehead, or a, hey, I’m autistic! t-shirt on either. In fairness not many people knew my status (though I did make a point of telling everyone I spoke to). If I go again – as I now feel I must – I will break all my own sartorial rules and wear the t-shirt (with flashing lights if needs be).
But when I raised what I consider to be a very real problem of access I have myself encountered and blogged about on the a-n blog site, I was just not taken seriously by the Arts Council representative. In the time it’s taken me to cut and paste this link I’ve received a comment from another artist. I know I was speaking for many.
“Yes, yes, YES! Keep going! I didn’t know there were diversity officers. Thank you for writing about this.”
Yet when I did speak up I was assured that everyone could have access to this particular service – just like that!
One person who heads a National Portfolio Organisation agreed. We have a regular meeting where you can talk to an Arts Council relationship manager (people who hold key information and can help with an application process) – as though I should perhaps have known about it.
Like the Alf Prøysen character in the illustration above, I immediately shrank to the size of a pepperpot! But something made me go on (I’m autistically stubborn and all about justice).
But you have to be networked in to have this access, I pointed out, without stopping to reflect that this might seem rude. I was contradicting someone who had (oh, to hell with it) contradicted me. As I look back on it now – they were essentially making my point for me.
Well, get networked in! the Arts Council rep replied, as though this were the easiest (and most equitable) thing in the world. That appeared to be the end of my ‘non-point’. I was to join the NPO groups’ monthly meetings, job done.
I felt the room close in on me. I had both humiliated myself and been silenced.
In the break that followed, there was no processing time. One kind person offered to send details of the NPO group meetings, and another told me they too had struggled to get access to a relationship manager.
Then darkness – a film presentation to end the day. An unexpected event. Tears rolled suddenly down my face. Have you noticed how obvious tear wiping can be – so much rustling and grabbing for tissues, and elbows wiggling as you surreptitiously dab at your eyes. I let them roll.
But why tears? People had been nice to me, and the moment had passed.
I cried because the film was just so beautiful. Broken lives were being made whole again through the arts. I cried because I had been disabled by taking a risk and speaking out. The profound silencing of autistic people is historic and deeply painful within each one of us.
I want to talk to all the regional directors of Arts Council England. I want to talk to the director. I would like to tell them about our struggle, and the bias of their systems.
I want them to know how art redeems every aspect of my life and keeps me connected. That I and others like me have so much to give – that we can be players if the playing field is levelled. What’s more we bring authenticity to the table. Truth is that Arts Council need us as much as we need it.
I’m not networked in, I will probably never be so in a recognisably neurotypical way. I rely on people to ‘get’ me and meet me half way. What interests me is how to make the system open and fair.
I want people at the very top of the organisation I apply to funding for to know how hard it was for me to stay in the room at this conference. How hard I have to work to be present, and what it took for me to raise my voice. So here goes.
One of the presentations just goes on and on. Everyone in the room is loving it I think, but the stage lighting sends an never-ending series of blows across my retina. I’m sitting too close to the stage. And the voices won’t stop. So many voices.
I’m caught by surprise. This shouldn’t happen now – the conference is in its opening stages and I have all day to manage. I struggle to find a strategy or any kind of relief. I begin to wriggle in my chair conscious that I mustn’t do this too much or someone will notice. Surely it will stop soon I think, so I try to hang on. But no, it just carries on and on.
I dig into my bag for the the soft tangle brush I sometimes use to rub across my palms to regulate the build-up tension, but by now I’m honestly near screaming point – the option of screaming occurs to me but I fully understand this would break an unbreakable rule. I realise after the event that the voices were too loud – the mics were set at the wrong level for someone with my sensory issues sitting so close to the front of this theatre space – I received information from the sound system which others can filter out. I’m desperate but rooted to my chair. The brush is as effective as a wet sponge. I dig it into my palms but it may as well be in my bag for all the good it does me. The voices just won’t stop – I close my eyes but not for long. Drawing attention to myself is the last thing I want to do. As the presentation draws to close I suddenly remember to pinch my skin under my sleeve and I step out of the storm.
The lighting shifts again and we’re brought back into a room I can regulate myself in more easily. I can appear ‘normal’. There is no visible sign of my distress or the energy it took for me to survive this level of unexpected sensory onslaught. I’ll know in future to sit at the back with easy access to an exit.
I want everyone at Arts Council England to know that telling anyone who begins a conversation by saying that they have struggled with access (in any context and for any reason) to get networked in, is simply not equitable. And I’m sorry, but for invisible disability it’s like telling a wheelchair user to grow a leg.
If you listen bottom up to authentic voices you’ll also discover why not everyone can just speak to a relationship manager.
It’s time for social currency (and who’s got it) to rise up the Arts Council diversity agenda.
An Arts Council award can be a profoundly life changing event in the professional life of an artist. This is what I want for all the artists who are involved in WEBworks.
In fact, I might just attach this blog post to my application. Why not – it sums up the need for my project perfectly.
February 5, 2018 § 9 Comments
(I’m taking a camera which can’t take pictures to document the erasure of this history).
The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia
BBC Radio 4
Transmission Date Monday, 19th March 2018, 4pm
Presented by Sonia Boué
Produced by Anna Scott-Brown
So I’m finally returning. I can’t help wondering what Abuela (grandma) would say?
I wish too that my father could know that I am going back to Catalonia, via the beaches of Barcarès and Argèles (where he was held in refugee interment camps), to retrace his exile journey to England in 1939.
At the age of 18, he, along with 500,000 other Spaniards, fled for his life across the border to France. I have spent the last five years building a body of work in response to this family history, and have also cast my net wider to encompass figures such as British artist and Spanish Civil War volunteer, Felicia Browne, and the exiled Spanish writer and broadcaster, Arturo Barea.
Now, I have been asked to make a programme for Radio 4 with Overtone Productions, and my question about taking my practice to Spain will in part be answered. I will be retracing my father’s footsteps and creating responses along the way. We have a very short timeframe to make this programme and so I’m thrown into sifting and planning (in ways I am very conscious the exiles couldn’t) the artistic side of my journey.
The job feels vast, and at times overwhelming in the time available – not helped by a brain which likes to canter off in 10 directions at once. Reigning in and staying focused is the thing. Here is where my obsessive nature is hugely beneficial to my work. I dig in and apply myself to the detail.
My feel for the bigger picture is pure intuition – I trust I can make the stages of my journey join up by getting each stage right conceptually speaking. My work is made easier because I can draw on some existing pieces in my growing collection, but I will be making new responses and hoping to bring them all together by the end of the programme.
I’m brimming with gratitude to Overtone Productions for pitching this programme, and feel a weight of responsibility – this is a highly sensitive history. Also Lurking is the spectre of inherited trauma – as I probe more deeply into it I gain a firmer grasp on the terror through which this history was suppressed. I hear new information from my mother which confirms it and brings it closer.
I feel my father’s fear as though it were my own. As though it were live.
I conclude that it is. This is what we mean by the term, postmemory. Recent events in Catalonia serve to demonstrate how difficult Spanish history is, how tensions remain from the unresolved legacies of the Civil War.
I won’t really know how to respond until I get to the beach of Barcarès, or until I’m confronted with the entrance to my grandmother’s flat (which she left in 1975) in the Barceloneta. All I can do is plan and pack my suitcases full of artistic possibility.
Each morning I pinch myself anew. Somehow I’ve landed the job of my dreams.
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 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
(This image is of continuing work on a tribute to Heather Heyer, I must now find a way to extend my witness within my practice to grieve for Barcelona.)
There are no words for the atrocity which has taken place on the Ramblas in Barcelona. Yet I persist. I need to try.
I watched the horror unfold on my laptop. It had been a gruelling day. Unwelcome family news, a day spent in hostile sensory environments and the predictable near meltdown in a supermarket. It all paled as I took the news in.
Yesterday was also my wedding anniversary. As I held a glass of chilled Cordorniu and took my first sip I closed my eyes invoking a memory. It’s the same delicous cava my grandmother ritually served in celebration at our arrival from England to Barcelona between 1962 and 1975. Her dusty flat overlooked a series of now vanished warehouses to the old port area. You could see the statue of Columbus, from which the Ramblas begins (at the port end) from the shared roof terrace on which my grandmother hung her sheets to dry.
In my imagination the Ramblas begin almost at the foot of the marble stairway which opened out from my grandmother’s door and down five flights to the street. In reality it is several blocks away, but they seemed to melt as I drank on, recalling the particular intense dry heat of Barcelona, which in my memory always greeted us on arrival from England. As the taxi from the airport ejected a travel sick child onto the pavement, she would be moments away from grandmother’s joyful pinching of cheeks and the popping of a cork. Small sips of cava were encouraged and a cream confection was served back then. Our arrival was met by such ceremony (I later learned) because our separation from my grandparents had been forced. My father was living in England in exile and all our reunions were both joyful and filled with grief.
The bubbles on my tongue connected me to the Ramblas. They formed a memory hotline to that smaller me whose footsteps wore lovingly at the wavy paving which appeared on my screen as a crime scene shot. It was my stretch and I walked it so very often with my hands held by one parent now 90 and, one too long dead.
As a child I adored the decorative pavements of Barcelona – they were my friends and helped distract me from tired feet. Even as a child I understood the Catalans knew how to do street furniture, while in my other home (Birmingham), not so much. The Ramblas appeared to me as a paradise of exotic (and not so exotic) birds in cages, luscious flowers and foliage, magazine and book kiosks. It wasn’t a tourist trap back then. It wasn’t a death trap either. No one had invented cars and vans as lethal weapons for terror.
Barcelona had seen other atrocities, but I was blissfully unaware.
And now this. A senseless bloody carnage.
And the questions.
I don’t have any answers of course, I only know that when I grieve it’s for the old seemingly safe Ramblas – those seemingly more innocent times (and yet I know now that their backcloth was dictatorship). My nostalgia is thus tainted, and I fear we will hear more about how good things were back then. I hope not.
My work now entails researching aspects of the Spanish Civil War. As I viewed the colour photographs of chaos on the streets and armed police defending the public in 2017, my mind superimposed the black and white photographs of the street fighting in Barcelona, which marked the outbreak of civil war 1936.
Tricks of the mind.
And tricks of the mind is what we seem to face in all this horror. Somehow, somewhere human minds are being warped in dark and not so dark corners. We don’t yet know what this pattern means – the cycle of wanton carnage by the few and civic defiance by the many, as we witness again a show of citizenry on the streets chanting, we are not afraid. We only know that it’s becoming all too familiar, like a ghastly tape on a loop that won’t stop playing in increasingly rapid cycles.
I only know that a few days ago I began my tribute to Heather Heyer, invoking my Spanish ancestors to help me in my witness, and now I must cast my gaze to my old home town of Barcelona. Somehow these moments are joined despite their distant geographies.
My heart is breaking for Barcelona. For the Ramblas, and for all the victims of this latest act of terror. It seems the acts of witness are never done.