As this is Aaron Williamson’s last missive from his residency on the Island of Spike, I am stepping out of his third person narrative and addressing you, the blog reader, directly.
I can now confirm that everything he has relayed thus far – even his outlandish claim to have forged a bowl from meteorite – is true. Although his proposal to remodel Spike Island as a feminist Utopia has yet to come to pass. That, I hope, is just a matter of time.
Whilst both The Affligare Unit and Aaron’s residency are now complete, conversations between us continue apace. This is far from the end of the project, since The Unit is poised for further manifestations.
We are now both working towards a future tour in which his fantastical artifacts make their appearance within a museum, where they can work their otherworldly magic on ‘real’ ethnographic collections. In parallel, Spike Island will publish ‘The Forgotten History of The Affligare Tribe’ by the esteemed ‘Dr A P Williamson’, a text written in academic style that weaves together fiction with fact. Essentially, this is the other half of the work.
This text has evolved in parallel with the objects and draws from many sources, including Borges, Poe and Roussel, as well as Bruegel’s scenes of beggars and anonymous medieval wood prints of unwitting shepherds flattened by meteorites.
With this latter source in mind, it is also worth noting that humour, or more specifically, black comedy, is key to Aaron’s practice. Whether slapstick or sly in delivery, his use of humour undercuts our expectations of the outsider personas he adopts in his performances (a retrospective of which is screening until 6 June 2010 in the gallery).
In this new body of work humour is used as a device that draws us in to marvel and smile at his absurdly believable artifacts. Aaron’s work leaves us then to ponder the serious implications of a ‘forgotten’ disability history - and who has chosen to forget.
As well as these remarkable outcomes, remarkable particularly since The Affligare Unit was produced in the space of just three months, the residency has been an incredibly rewarding collaborative experience for myself and for others too. Aaron has thrown himself into the culture of the organization and, in the process, also extending his fan base across the city, charming curators, students, junk shop owners and iron workers alike.
He has sampled the local cider (vowing never to touch it again), attended and given talks and is currently much missed around the building. I, for one, need to break my habit of walking into his former residency studio and flicking the light on and off as a visual equivalent of a knock on the door, lest it disconcerts the next residency artist who inhabits that space.
I’d like to conclude my interjection by thanking Aaron for his commitment to his three month stay on The Island (fear not, we have bridges and roads for those of you hoping to visit) and to Shape for brokering this opportunity through the Adam Reynolds Bursary.
The best residencies are those that feel as if they end too soon and I think that, between Spike Island and Aaron, this feeling is mutual.
Shape Director Tony Heaton reflects, as the dust settles on this, the third Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary.
For Shape, setting up and negotiating this annual event is a challenging but hugely rewarding activity.
The call for Artist submissions, pulling together the decision-making panel, the increasingly harder job of selecting the winner from a growing number of applications; the negotiating with venues and also raising all the funds to make it happen. Of course when it all comes together it is a great relief and a fantastic pleasure.
The thing you can never control or predict is the nature of the relationship that has the potential to develop between artist and venue. It has been wonderful to watch the developing working relationship between Aaron Williamson and Spike Island curator Marie-Anne McQuay.
Their rigorous approach has resulted in a memorable show and a remarkable bursary outcome and for that I thank them both. I also want to thank the Garfield Weston Foundation for their generous financial support.
It has been a great honour for me, through Shape, to have played a small part in perpetuating Adam Reynolds’s name and legacy.
On Monday I will set off to negotiate with the next venue and Shape will begin the process of setting the next round of the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary in motion.
This is the final posting for this blog. My time at Spike Island on the Adam Reynolds bursary has been immensely rewarding and productive. Far more than I’d anticipated.
The sculpture work particularly took me a long way out of my comfort zone as an artist and challenged me to think about new ways of working. It particularly got me thinking about how to frame work in a way that’s innovative rather than presumptive. I’ve had to consider how art situates itself and takes place in the world rather than being simply some kind of necessary activity.
The way that I approached this problem, through numerous discussions with Marie-Anne McQuay, Spike’s curator, was to create both a conceptual frame – an invented archaeological discovery of a fictional tribe of medieval cripple-beggars – as well as a literal/ physical frame – ie: though adopting the modes and styles of institutional (museum) displays and narratives. Images of the resulting sculptures can be viewed on the Spike Island website
The opening night at Spike was a wildly exciting evening. The sprint to get everything ready was successful in terms of minutes rather than hours but it was so great to get the 15mm Films crew together again at Spike Island. Katherine Araniello, Chloe Edwards, Laurence Harvey, Juliet Robson, Simon Raven all made it along to view the showreel in the huge gallery.
After the opening of the studios to visitors I was tasked with kicking off the party revelries by singing a rendition of ‘My Way’ whilst covered in false noses and thrashing a blanketed ‘dead body’ with a spade (as you do). Thankfully a lot of the mums and dads with kids had gone by then and the ‘watershed’ continued with another performance from the Feral Four – this time consisting in Katherine Araniello, Simon Raven, Alex Oddy and myself.
The whole Open Studios evening was an immense success with over a 1000 visitors exploring Spike Island’s 80,000 square-feet, with the partying continuing until 2am.
The Retrospective showreel ‘The Bell-Clapper and Bestiary’ – almost 90 minutes of footage – continues at Spike Island until 6 June 2010 and contains my solo work together with collaborations with Katherine Araniello and 15mm Films.
The sculptural work will be the subject of a publication ‘The Forgotten History of the Affligare by Dr A.P. Williamson’ to be published by Spike Imprint around July 2010.
Marie-Anne McQuay, Spike Island’s curator is looking to continue with the Affligare Project, along with Shape, and partnerships are being sought with institutions for the fictional collection/archaeological discovery to be placed in (or to infiltrate) a museum setting.
For the Adam Reynolds Bursary 2010, I would like to thank Shape London and Spike Island. Everyone would like to thank the Garfield Weston Foundation for their support.
Aaron Williamson's new retrospective of videos/films and sculpture installation is at Spike Island from 30 April
In addition to the new sculptural installation that I’m currently working on, Spike Island’s curator Marie-Anne McQuay is also staging a retrospective selection of my video/documentation together with films by the Disabled Avant-Garde, 15mm Films and two video works by Katherine Araniello.
These will be exhibited on a large screen projection in one of the two enormous galleries downstairs on a showreel, lasting up to 90 minutes. Trying to avoid sounding immodest, this will be a key moment for disability arts and must-see for anyone wishing to view videos and films that have been made over a 10-year period. Some haven’t been shown for quite some time.
If that isn’t enough of an inducement to visit the wonderful (and accessible) Spike Island then on the opening night I will be restaging a couple of previous performance pieces along with 15mm/DAG stalwarts Katherine Araniello, Simon Raven and Juliet Robson.
After making the Meteorite Porringer for my invented tribe of medieval beggars, ‘The Affligare’, I’ve been literally up to my elbows in tools and grease (see photo) fashioning objects using a wide range of materials but mostly ending up with only one colour – brown.
I’m sure psychologists have a word for this tic, but the medieval period, which my fictional hoard of objects is meant to be from, didn’t have fashionable ‘seasons’ of colours like we have now. . . it just all seems to have been light, medium or very dark/ burnt brown - as attested by most museum displays that represent the period.
If any readers have suggestions as to how to inject a bit of colour, glamour, glitter or even pomp into the picture then do please leave them in the comment box below. I know about gold leaf and Giotto blue, but any other suggestions are most welcome.
It’s a curious thing staying after hours in the studio to work as a sculptor. I haven’t yet taken to muttering ‘let us enter the sublime’ as the door closes behind, or removing my underwear as suggested by one reader (apparently that would bring me closer to the methods and successes of Eric Gill).
Nonetheless there is a sense of being suspended in time and space that is hypnotically enjoyable as I move around the studio from one incomplete sculpture piece to the next and back again, accidentally breaking things or cutting my fingers as the hours slip by. Is there a word for this style of artistic process? ‘Hobby-knobbling’ or some such?
I now have quite a number of curious objects/ implausible things in construction that I’m reluctant to describe here since they may or may not make it into this version of the installation coming up at Spike Island.
The museum vitrine parked in the centre of my studio is now dubbed ‘the Affligare Unit’ - the title of the installation - and it is a further uncertainty of the work’s form (with 20 days to go) to decide whether the incredibly heavy case/ unit will be moved, removed, filled to bursting with objects, left empty or perhaps painted with expensive gold leaf and Giotto blue . . .
On the Subject of Begging
The association of begging with disability is very well-established and so, almost equally, is the counterfeit claim of ‘sturdy beggars’ who impersonate disability in order to maximise their takings.
Indeed, there is a branch of literature (representing a decidedly reactionary outlook) that claims many ‘crippled beggars’ to be not only bogus but, in fact, secretly wealthy; accumulating much more money through playing on the public’s sympathy than they would if they did an honest day’s work.
This is the sub-plot, for example, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’. Spoiler alert: the solution resides in the titular scarred and crippled man turning out to be a perfectly normal person who cannot afford to keep his family through working at the bank and so invests in an incredible disguise as a crip. He rakes in vast sums of money through begging on the streets of London in order to keep his family in a Big House in the English countryside.
But going back in time from there, the prejudice/suspicion that many beggars fake their circumstances is a recurrent theme in those few histories that mention their existence.
The Glimmerers, for example, were a sub-category of beggars in the 17th century who would claim to have lost all their belongings in a fire and to limp or crawl as a result of their (cosmetic?) burns. Carrying charred wooden objects about with them, they were known as ‘demanders for Glimmer’ ie - for some sparkling coinage with which to lift their spirits and replace their belongings.
On the other hand, the ‘Dummerers’, although treated with a similar level of scepticism by the 17th century giver of alms, may have been more credible. Since gouging out the tongue was a fairly common auxiliary to being dumped and pelted in the stocks, many people were left without speech as punishment for their social transgressions, (or just for looking a bit like a witch).
The Dummerers were apparently quite aggressive beggars and made strange grunting and squealing sounds which only the giving of alms could allay. The easy opportunity for subterfuge was possibly tempting for people who could in fact speak but, if caught out, the appropriate punishment would turn them into authentic examples of their type.
‘Counterfeit Cranks’ carried bars of soap about with them and after attracting the attention of a crowd by behaving strangely on a street corner, would secrete the soap into their mouths and stage ‘the falling sickness’, or what we now refer to as an epileptic seizure. Similarly, ‘Poor Toms’ either were, or pretended to be, ‘mad’, illustrating this through irrational and/or amusing behaviour in public that would attract an audience and their money.
Perhaps the strangest (or unlikeliest) type of panhandling 17th Century beggar was the ‘Whipjack’ – a fellow who, sporting an eyepatch, empty armsleeve and a peg-leg (and perhaps with a parrot, on his shoulder, why not?), claimed to have survived a shipwreck. The Whipjacks though, offered wares in return for alms: crudely carved boats, anchors, whales and other unexpectedly-themed memorabilia.
In the course of this project – which, roughly, is about the interface between begging for money and worshipping meteorites for their being lucky bringer-ons of ‘pennies from heaven’ – I’ve recalled, or been told, darkly amusing, rueful stories about disability and money.
Firstly though, a bit of background theory. Historically, receiving charity has been overwhelmingly the most prominent source of monetary gain for disabled people. Most charity advertising (even to now) has a simple design and effect.
Using black-and-white photography and featuring a model looking pleadingly to the viewer, the message is simple: this person lacks colour, joy, life, happiness and health, but most of all s/he lacks your money – there’s something missing, please give.
Of course it wouldn’t do for a charity ad to show a group of psychedelically luminous crips getting hammered on champagne, scoffing sushi and begging for ‘more’, but that brings me to the first quick tale.
Katherine Araniello and I were working as the Disabled Avant-Garde in Liverpool late last year when we went to a rather smart restaurant and very much enjoyed a couple of bottles of a pretty decent vintage bubbly that we couldn’t really afford, to accompany some also-pricey cordon bleu cooking.
At the end of the meal we requested the bill with some trepidation but it transpired from the waiter that a local businessman had been watching us in fascination all evening from a nearby table and had insisted, 10 minutes ago, on paying our bill anonymously on his way out. . .
Another disability artist friend, Liz Crow – who I’ve met here in Bristol – was out shopping and was drinking a coffee from a paper cup in the street while her friend went to the loo. As she sat waiting for her friend to return, a chap strode passed and flipped a fifty pence piece into her coffee...
A few years ago I was making my way home from a friend’s birthday party in the small hours when a young man jumped in front of me brandishing a knife. I handed over what cash I had but the man continued shouting in my face.
As I couldn’t lip-read what he was saying, (and speechless with fear before his knife), I gestured the sign to tell him that I’m deaf. This stopped the mugger in his tracks and by turns he looked baffled, then embarrassed and finally contrite before handing the money back to me and running off...
It can be quite amusing - and mind-boggling sometimes - to enjoy the general public’s philanthropy (or gullibility if you prefer), and supposed well-meaning towards disabled people. If you, the reader, have any other tales to share then in the spirit of the editor’s desire for more commentary on this blog, please do tell us about them below.
The Disabled Avant-Garde record some ‘institutional classics’ - check them out now on their website!
From Iron Aaron to Iron Man
I have described some of the Disabled Avant-Garde’s recent japes and dodges in making our new film in previous blog posts. In the meantime, before ‘No Room at the Igloo’ is completed, Katherine and Oriana Fox have edited and posted all ten of the songs we performed at the Bluecoat in Liverpool last November as ‘The Top Ten Institutional Classics’.
One of these must have been a premonition of my current endeavours as it consists in the riff from ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath, which I play on ultra-loud feedback guitar whilst Katherine intones ‘Skip to My Lou’ over the top. (Try it in your head! It sort of works).
The idea of this piece was to make a survey of the disability community’s ‘institutional classics’ from the good old days of medical-model communal singing (‘I can sing a Rainbow’, ‘Kum Ba Yah’, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, and erm ‘Ten In the Bed’) and to reset them to monster heavy metal riffs.
The DAG got ourselves done up in full Norwegian Black-Metal evil-looking garb and my favourites that I remember us playing are Number 10 (‘Ten in the Bed’,) Number One (‘Skip to my Lou’) and ‘The Real Number One (‘Wheels on the Bus’).
Last week I was back in London on the Monday when I received a series of dramatic texts from Spike Island’s Marie-Anne McQuay and David Martin. Mike at the Foundry had called to say that the porringer would have to be cast as soon as possible since he expected that the incredible amount of heat required to smelt the very dense iron (denser and heavier than any earth metal) would be ready in the crucible in an hour’s time but probably not again.
And so the erstwhile Spike Island curatorial team grabbed the meteorite - and with Isabel from the office at the wheel - they shot over to the foundry to step around all the puddles to avoid indelibly blacking non-ironworking clothing and to literally fling the meteor into the crucible. A very dramatic series of photos were then taken and an hour later the porringer was cooled enough for it to be returned to my studio.
When I got there the next day, to be honest my first feeling was underwhelming. I’d expected the porringer to have the same outer-space sheen that the meteorite had had. But instead it looked dull with a blue-grey craftshop-kitsch finish to it. Until it was pointed out that the object needed polishing and so various types of methods and materials were used until this much-travelled lump of metal once again gleamed as an alien intruder to our planet.
Most meteorites break up when attempting to smash through our atmosphere but this little critter held it together to land in 1576 and then become the Porringer 534 years later.
As a performance artist I’m always troubled by the way that all manner of animation is ascribed to inert sculptures so it was pleasing to know that this object has been shape-shifted around the universe a bit before reaching its current form.
One of the downsides of polishing meteorite iron for two days is that, as it slowly erodes, the stuff seems to seep into your soul and continues to emerge out through your hands and fingernails even after you’ve scrubbed them to a bright pink colour.
It’s like a kind of photosynthesis and over the last week I have had to resign myself to having meteorite particles leaking blackly through my fingernails and skin cells in all kinds of unusual, even demure situations (cocktails in a tapas bar for eg). However, I hope to have clean hands again soon as my days as Iron Aaron are now past.
After posting the last blog I went to visit the Bristol Foundry to talk with Mike Brett about smelting and recasting my 2kg meteorite into a bowl purportedly used for begging by a tribe of medieval crips (‘The Affligare’ – see previous post).
It sounded even to me like a bizarre proposition and Mike wasn’t at all sure that the whole meteorite iron might not just evaporate back into the ether it came out of, since he’d never worked with – or even seen – the stuff before.
I reassured him that the responsibility was mine and that I was really interested in the idea of artistic failure anyhow so please would he at least attempt the cast.
After perusing the very complicated chemical spec that came with the ‘letter of authenticity’ from Argentina, drawing a couple of diagrams, doing some maths and phoning a friend, Mike said he’d have a crack at it a week hence. And so as we ambled along the aptly-named Ironmould Lane together on the outskirts of Bristol in the early spring sunshine I started to get a tingle of excitement.
The bowl – a porringer actually, which is a bowl with a handle and which is also a livelier word – could surely mark some sort of social if not aesthetic achievement in terms of the realpolitik of disability art. If I’d have been born at the time of my invented tribe, then my career options as a deaf person would have been limited to say, carpentry – for which I’ve never really discovered any temperament aptitude at all, (I failed my CSE Woodwork) – or, much more likely, begging.
And so, skip forward 500 years from the fictional setting for this ‘Meteorite Porringer of the Affligare Tribe’ as it is to be known, and I am a disabled person, who has sustained a living for 25 years now as a writer and artist to reach a point where I can realise a fairly abstruse premise for such an object. Not just any old crappy ‘cripples begging bowl’, but a kind of Holy Grail of the genre cast from a rock which flew through space to land on earth in 1576.
It was agreed then that I would return to Mike a week later with a ‘pattern’ – a model of the porringer in any material from which a mould can be made for the smelted iron to be poured into. I am attributing the tribe with a curious cosmology and cosmogony, central to which is the idea that worshipping meteorites will also make coins fall ‘from the sky’ into their begging bowls with much denser frequency.
And so, quite by chance, while rummaging in a junk shop in Bristol I discovered a wooden bowl with a design that looked to be Masonic and I thought it might be suitable since that cult/tribe also combines a worship of money with curious mystical beliefs (but at the opposite end of the social spectrum from disabled people obviously).
This design was a system of interlocking A’s (for Affligare naturally) which looked at one way numbers three, but in another way six. Adding a handle to create a porringer I very soon had the pattern ready then.
This is my 4th week as the Adam Reynolds Bursarist at Spike Island and whereas the actual business of making things has still to be attended to, I think the work is coming into focus. More on this later, but first a description of / homage to Spike Island.
It actually is an island being a thin strip of land about a mile long with bridges at either end taking you over to ‘the mainland’ and it is also – roughly - in the shape of a harpoon spike.
Once over the small footbridge from Bristol, (about 20 metres), for me the Island immediately becomes something fantastical – like with Prospero and his Tempest etc.
I have a thing about islands and a couple of years ago did a performance on a tiny one in Lake Kuopio, Finland. For seven hours I circled the perimeter shouting through a tin-cone loudhailer to shore ‘Olen saari!’ (I am an island’ in Finnish).
The resulting bedlam from the shock-effects of the massive amplification that the huge lake’s weird acoustics created (an effect that I was entirely unaware even as the police helicopters circled overhead) can be read about in my book Performance, Video, Collaboration or in Colin Hambrook’s review of it on dao
Back to this island though. I’m currently studying and imitating anthropological accounts of ‘primitive societies’ and Spike Island, I reckon, could offer itself as the subject of such a study even if the ‘primitive’ qualifier would need teasing out.
The arts centre is the heart and focus of the tiny island and is surrounded by modern flats / wharf conversions for solvent folks who appear to spend most of their time jogging about and looking worn out.
The building –accessible throughout - covers 80,000 square feet and houses 70+ artist’s studios, a design centre, a department of UWE’s Fine Arts course with a large number of students and a print studio and metal/wood workshops.
Then there’s the spacious galleries – current show Amanda Beach – the café and the research centre/room where a breathless series of talks and presentations take place and another independent gallery ‘Works / Projects’ housed at the rear of the building – now showing new work by Edwina Ashton.
The curator of Spike Island, Marie-Anne McQuay is currently at the eye of this storm of activity, and last week gave an engaging talk on the subject of utopias / dystopias. I was struck, as a ‘foreigner’ to the island (I sneak back to London at weekends) just how this subject could have been addressed a little closer to home and the island itself appraised for its other-worldliness compared to life in nearby England.
There could be many ways of looking at Spike as a utopia / dystopia (categories that I don’t distinguish between but that’s a whole book to argue). The most obvious factor though is that the main work of the island – its sole export - is art, and that is an incendiary, utopian / dystopian product to be handling, for sure.
At nights a good-sized crowd assemble in the island’s crucible of gossip and debate, the Orchard Inn (I’ve looked for trees and there aren’t any about on the concrete docks so presumably the Inn’s name is a joke). Along with Marie-Anne and the alarmingly small number of committed staff that somehow manages to keep things going; the students, the visiting artists, academics, studio artists, designers and anyone else sucked into the maelstrom, all plot and argue, passionately debating the nature and purpose of their toil.
Last week I sat in ‘The Orchard’ among a lively, hunched ring of University lecturers and proposed to them, late on, that the bridges to the island be blown up and an ‘independent state of art’ declared, complete with border controls, an army of naked performance artists conscripted, and an anthem adopted from another island of troubles:
‘The sea oh the sea, is the gradh geal mo croide; long may it stay between England and me, It’s a sure guarantee that some hour we’ll be free. Oh thank god we’re surrounded by water!'
On Monday I was back at the Royal Festival Hall with Katherine Araniello working undercover as the Disabled Avant-Garde to make more footage for our upcoming film ‘No Room at the Igloo’ – soon to be released on YouTube.
We were accompanied by our small crew of volunteers – Abby and Eliza, (erstwhile Fine Art students and brilliant non-actors from Byam Shaw); and Oriana and Marja who did shifts on the DAG camera – a wee pink thing that conveniently looks like you are taking a photo on a mobile phone when filming. This is a necessary tool for the ‘covert’ nature of DAG’s operations.
In the film, Abby and Eliza play a curatorial team who are considering commissioning the Disabled Avant-Garde to make an installation at the RFH.
Certainly the students looked the part in their smart suits and accessories as they dragged us through an improvised itinerary, drawing a great deal of attention to us as they loudly advised which part of the RFH might be best suited to siting our installation.
As they spouted audience figures, outlined health and safety concerns and described possible lighting scenarios the workers and patrons of that august cultural palace responded to us very much as if they were witnessing a somewhat bizarre – yet real - event.
I was dressed, sorry costumed, in a silver parka – to underline the premise that our installation proposal is an inflatable igloo – and wore very dark shades that helped me to stumble and fall over a lot, mumbling apologies to RFH staff and visitors: ‘I’m a bit of a mess at the moment...’
Katherine switches on the charm whenever things get a bit ‘warm’ but generally doors tend to fly open for us, particularly if we ask Abby to sign interpret and then suddenly refuse to comprehend anything said to us.
On this occasion the Poetry Library, being shut, was the only location that proved unassailable by the DAG although a librarian kindly went off to get some forms to fill in. We couldn’t really be bothered and so – very apologetically – the Librarian had to disallow our curators the chance to interview the DAG in the crèche that is for some reason housed in the Poetry Library (‘we need somewhere quiet’ was the dubious premise). That was a shame, as kiddie-environs always offer a good setting for a bit of DAG infantilist business.
Recently, in yet another rejection letter to one of our proposals, the DAG was accused of repeating the same trick – ie of testing public credulity towards us – but there really doesn’t seem to be any bottom to that. The responses we get are different according to circumstances and often unexpected.
In fact, it might be considered that the public’s response to us is the work. In my opinion then, the Disabled Avant-Garde ought not just to be receiving regular commissions, but installed as the (handsomely remunerated) official portraitists of our Nation’s state.
That would be nice as the volume of rejected applications that we sustain is dispiriting even if the proposed ideas are admittedly outlandish.
For example, we recently proposed to play Binatone Tennis Pong (the 1970s bat and ball game played on a TV) against each other on a BBC Big Screen in town centres at night during the World Cup. The idea was to invite the lagered-up masses to take us on at the toggles and then to covertly film the ensuing mania.
We reached an interview for potential funding but sadly this proposal, like so many others that we’ve dreamt up, was eventually laughed off. It’s hard to take good satire seriously, I guess.
Yet we try to avoid a ‘victim’ mindset and DAG has continued to fund recent work ourselves relying on the assistance and involvement of friends. Not forgetting of course, the public who seemingly cannot help us enough.
The shoot on Monday ended with the DAG ensconsed in a small Japanese restaurant on the South Bank. A few words with the proprietor and it was agreed that not only could we openly act and film the climactic scenes to the upcoming film, but that we could also pretend to be in Tokyo while the waitress helpfully bustled around us speaking in Japanese.
The mystery material
According to the editor of DAO this blog has a decent sized readership stretching into double figures now and my previous promise to reveal the ‘mystery material’ that I’ll be fashioning sculptures from has not been forgotten.
If I’d only ran a guessing competition then any manner of prize might have safely been proffered without danger of it being claimed...
A few weeks ago I bought a job lot of rusted meteorite iron from a dealer in Alaska who gets the iron from a meteor that landed in central Argentina back in 1576. It wasn’t cheap, but its great stuff and arrived with a signed certificate of authenticity. So it’s not just any old iron. It looks and feels other-worldy (a bit like Spike Island as noted above.) And its incredibly intensive mass – I’ll skip the chemistry - means that when you pick it up it seems about twice as heavy as the eye anticipates.
This lump of meteor is about to become ‘something else’. At the moment the plan is to smelt and recast it in the shape of a begging bowl and perhaps some coins.
I’ve been thinking about ‘omitted histories’ and the fact that there really isn’t much mention of disabled people until the modern era (the one that we in the disability movement are still waiting for to begin).
So I’ve been inventing the history of a meteor-worshipping ‘Tribe of Mendicants’ (ie crippled beggars) who roamed the mittel-European region for 300 years after the Black Death. I’ve never formally worked with fantasy before so I’m excited about where the Tribe will lead me.
I’ve named them ‘the Affligare’, a Latin word usually translated as ‘the Afflicted’ but which literally means ‘the fallen’. Hence their idolation of, and identification with, meteorites.
Arriving to a large, completely empty studio lit by an overhead skylight I had to immediately think about how to become its occupier for the next 12 weeks as an artist. Working largely through performance I’m not emphatically a studio artist – wherever I hang my hat normally suffices – but I’m aware of the cultural idea of the artist’s studio and what it means and represents to others.
During performance art's highwater period in the late 60s/70s, the notion of art deriving out of intensive privacy was blown apart by the communitarian and social politics of the time. Bruce Nauman had a studio in New York but was reduced to making work about that fact: ‘Stamping In the Studio’ (and so on), are video works addressed to an unmanned, stationary camera; the privacy of the artist and their attendant rituals/neuroses now become the work.
A maxim I recall from my brief flirtation with theological philosophy many years ago claims that ‘religion is what you do when you are alone’. It's quite possibly true: many people conduct actions or rituals when they are alone that, in a sense, is at the core of their belief system; who they ‘really are’.
So imagine willingly adopting cell-like isolation and then observing your own physical and unconscious responses. I remember a student – nameless – who, in the days when education afforded the nascent artist a closed space, made a point of ritually taking occupation through spilling each of his bodily fluids onto the floor of his space.
I don’t do that myself but nonetheless, I do experience transformation into being a finicky re-arranger of objects and furniture and endless prevaricating before, probably late at night, being able to rub my hands together and proclaim ‘and now for some art’.
Katherine Araniello and I have been working on a new opus – a short film – for the grandly titled ‘Disabled Avant-Garde’. Having ‘done’ crafts/ art therapy in ‘Amazing Art’, contemporary dance in ‘Damaged Dance’ and music in ‘Singalonga DAG’ and ‘20 Institutional Classics’ (forthcoming), we are currently shooting a film about a fictional art installation by us.
We usually film in an improvised way in public situations and draw all manner of bizarre responses from the public for no more reason than that Katherine uses a wheelchair and I’m her deaf sidekick. We can get away with cultural murder: blagging our way into first class VIP/members’ areas and last week, staging a disruption of a classical concert at the South Bank without any remonstrance, where normal folks would be booted onto the street.
More about this in future blogs but to my mind Katherine and I are shaping up to become the Laurel and Hardy (or Keaton-Arbuckle) of the disability art world.
Katherine’s current passion, both as an artist, and as an activist, is her opposition to assisted suicide (or ‘the new eugenics’ as it has been described on dao). We made a film in 2007 before the debates really took off. ‘Assisted Passage’ was the covert film of a public performance in which we drew a response from supposedly politicised students expressing themselves in favour of assisted suicide. A significant number signed our bogus petition on the spot to send Katherine to Zurich!
There’s a lot been said and its difficult to add a new slant but its interesting that the high-profile expressions of favour towards the ‘freedom’ of AS comes from people who are expecting their lives to become indescribably awful through becoming disabled.
Charlotte Raven recently in the Guardian for example appears to be most horrified that she might one day be found dribbling and needing someone to muck her out. Her putative loss of social propriety seems to be of greater value to her than life itself. This is a sad view since it reinforces social perceptions of disabled people as, basically, living in hell. In fact, if one removes the crippling social perceptions one is constantly up against from upright folks, then life as a disabled person can be no bad thing at all.
In fact I for one can affirm that my life became MORE not less live-able through my adjustment. Through becoming deaf I gained a life, lost some background noise. Big deal – the most difficult aspect was the adjustment itself since those around me presumed I’d be devastated to wake up as a corporeal doorpost one day.
The arrival at a point where I had to acknowledge and embrace life as a disabled person (I date it to when I binned my use of hearing aids 20 years ago) was a blessed relief and the disability community was a sustaining factor in that process. So what bothers me about AS is that, whereas there will remain an ageing ‘affirmative’ community, young disabled people in remote or under-educated societies will come to see themselves as being subject to an evaluation of their continued existence.
I’m not saying that there will be frothing AS/eugenicist Nazis on every street corner. But to make the breakthrough discovery that life is just fine as an independent disabled person, will become increasingly difficult and the temptation to ‘relieve’ society of one’s burdensome existence will be pronounced by, oh, at least say 39.5% or so.
There was a point where, as an abject ‘hard of hearing’ teenager my outlook might have been moulded into a suicidal one by a society that was only slightly more obsessed than that of the late 1970s with rectitude and social Darwinism. This is the argument that isn’t being staged: by all means ascribe a liberal, legal method of suicide available to those who only expect pain and eventual death (but didn’t someone once say ‘life is pain, and then you die’ – like, anyway?).
But to conflate that ‘right’ with the supposed ‘tragedy’ of physical impairment/ disability is an enormous social reversal that will decimate the disability community profoundly. And besides, I for one shall never personally speak to, or socially recognise a ‘doctor’ who has killed a person on the grounds of somehow ‘assisting’ them. I mean, what the fuck is in it for them? Compassion - or a fat fee?
Back in Bristol, and in the studio for the fourth day – what have I done so far? Well I’ve chosen a material that I really want to work with and bought some of it online – to be revealed next week. I’ve wandered about the city and wondered where it was that I saw the Pop Group supported by the Slits when I hitched down here from Derby around 1980.
I’ve been stamping around the studio and making some exceptionally bad watercolour paintings and thought about learning to walk on stilts. Why? Well what if the world was full of ‘normal’ people with two heads and four legs, three arms and were on average 8 foot tall? Wouldn’t they look at the sad, currently-average citizen model that we now champion and proffer them the favour of doing away with themselves? It must be awful, these people would opine, having only one head.
Go to the Adam Reynolds Bursary website to find out more about the award.