The recent Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) exhibition curated by artist Sonia Boue bought together two of her peer networks, one a group of artists who work with objects in their practice, the other a small group of autistic or neurodivergent artists who are part of WEBworks, a peer mentoring and support network founded by Sonia.
I was invited to contribute a piece to NUNO and decided that I wanted to explore the issues of isolation experienced by autistic creatives. At the time I was wrestling with my own complex feelings around being a neurodivergent person. To be a successful professional artist I need extra support around communication and networking difficulties and support to navigate the complexities of funding applications and identifying opportunities. However, I was also feeling extremely uncomfortable with some of the labels I needed to attach to myself in order to get that support. I cannot identify as disabled (although many people with my neurology do), I still have not worked out why that identity feels so alien to my sense of self but it does.
My initial response to the NUNO project was to focus on isolation and to explore the actual, physical isolation autistic and neurodivergent artists experience as a consequence of being a minority. There are physically nearly 500 miles separating the WEBworks artists. My initial idea was to use walking to experience the distance and isolation that autistic or neurodiverse artists might experience.
However, creating my work for NUNO has made me re-evaluate using walking as a metaphor for isolation. Instead, walking for NUNO gave me back a feeling of competence, emotional strength and a dawning realisation that if I am in a place that is right for me, or taking action in a way that suits my particular way of thinking, then I feel completely alright and very competent.
This is of course what the Social Model of disability is trying to get across to the wider public; that people are not inherently disabled by their physical condition or neurology, but rather they experience being disabled by the physical, social or cultural world they live in which may impact negatively on their being, or cause them to function in a manner that causes them extra difficulty. In the ordinary world, in the city or in a typical workplace I am in some ways disabled; struggling to function well surrounded by lots of noise, social interactions and rapidly changing visual stimuli. Walking for NUNO I came to see clearly that in a city environment I cannot function healthily, while walking in the countryside I am enabled.
Of course while walking I meet with challenges, I experience physical discomfort, I get lost, it isn’t an easy option. Sometimes the going might get very tough, when it rains relentlessly or my pack weighs a ton at the end of a long day, or a farmer’s dog comes rushing at me teeth bared. It’s not that walking is not difficult, but that it’s a difficulty that I can meet and can enjoy a feeling of competence. Somehow, the typical world of city life, of buses and cars, of office work and supermarkets and all that craziness is a difficulty I cannot meet.
So what has been wonderful about working on the NUNO project is that it is a space where all artists are enabled, not disabled. Where it is accepted as a given that your neurology does not