Colin Hambrook finds out about a disability arts project inspired by the direct experience of being discriminated against by an employer
Using her charcoal drawings as a starting point, Pauline Alexander has been working with disabled sound and media artists Jon Adams and Caglar Kimyoncu to produce a unique series of digital artworks
What does discrimination feel like? If it were a sound, what would it sound like? If it were an image what would it look like? All feelings carry something of beauty. How would you convert the ugly experience of being discriminated against by an employment agency – of all things - into something of beauty? We are so used to discrimination being bandied in terms of disability equality, legislation, policy and statistics – dry words and numbers on dry paper – that we forget the impact discrimination makes on the lives of individuals.
In 2006 Pauline Alexander encountered a series of incidences of discrimination on account of having a hearing impairment. The final straw came when after initially being offered a job interview by an employment agency, she was then presented with a litany of excuses and told she would have to reapply directly to the firm they were acting on behalf of. The agency had not heard of reasonable adjustments, nor the duties imposed on them by the DDA. The fact that she had more than enough knowledge and experience for the demands of the job meant nothing. She was told that she was the one who was being prejudiced on insisting that through using Typetalk and the facilities available on her mobile phone, she could overcome any barriers to communication.
Alexander told them that if they looked up the Employers Forum on Disability website they would see they had a legal obligation to interview her. They retracted and invited her for interview, but presented her with so many obstacles and an atmosphere in which it was apparent that the process was a formaility.
Few find the strength to challenge disability discrimination. However supported by her practice as a Buddhist Alexander decided to take the employment agency to tribunal. It was during her periods of chanting that Alexander began to see images of faces in her minds eye. She realised that the mental images expressed something of the turbulent feelings she was experiencing and she began to commit drawings of these images to paper. Eventually she made a series of over seventy charcoal drawings. The process involved erasing each drawing after recording it and then using the same piece of paper over and over again.
The faces are harsh, animal, trapped specimens. There is a pathos to the way they merge and shimmer within the animation. The traces of marks made with an eraser, describe a language of violated boundaries and exclusion. The drawings are expressions of separateness and indifference. They ask questions to do with how much choice we have in the world – choice to be who we are – and choice to allow others to be who they are. Alexander’s own photographed image merges with the drawing. We are all reflections of each other. Our sense of being an individual is at best transitory, although we often delude ourselves that our personalities are set in stone – that we know who we are.
Alexander was awarded a Grants 4 Arts research and development award by Arts Council South East in October 2006. As part of the process of winning the award she found a partner in the EFD who agreed to find sponsors to match fund 10% of the cost and to launch her project through exhibition.
The work involved finding other sound and digital artists to collaborate with as well as learning new skills herself in using digital manipulation software. She realised the potential of the project in reaching out to other disabled people. As disabled people we tend to sublimate or hide away from our experience of discrimination. We make excuses or blame ourselves, suppressing feelings of anger and disempowerment. Alexander invited a meeting of disabled people to share, in confidence, what discrimination means to us.
Alexander commissioned sound artist Jon Adams to record the sharing day, with the understanding that nothing of what was said would be disclosed to anyone else. Under her direction he then used software to scramble the words and phrases to turn these and the sounds of her chanting and the ringing of the bell into a soundscape – recreating the rhythm of the daily grinding down – the persistent other telling you what you can and cannot do.
The soundtrack takes you on a journey, but one not of your own choosing. It shifts through discordant jarring – mimicking the sound of a stick caught in the spokes of a moving bicycle wheel – through a new dawn – the rhythm of a meditation bell inspiring the strength to challenge the situation.
The sound evokes the repetition – having to relay the same information over and again in words and speech; the shock you encounter over and over in coming to terms with your polarised position.
The sound expresses conflict. At times traces of slowed down speech come into focus, like being whisked down a plug hole. For Alexander coming to the decision to use sound as a way of expressing the experience was an enormous challenge in itself – but essential to the integrity of the piece.
Certain repeated phrases seemed to evoke the song of discrimination - “very stressful” “complete fiction” “powerless” – these phrases kept returning. And so the idea of using them evolved into a decision to create a second projection of words and images. Using ?software Jon further manipulated the drawings rendering them as sound wave images. The final digital sound wave images render speech and drawing as a sine wave.
The film as whole - meticulously stitched together by film-maker and digital artist, Caglar Kimyoncu - describes the journey Alexander has taken through her Buddhist practice and through reaching out to collaborate with other artists. Where the journey will end is not clear at this stage of research and development. But what is clear is the eagerness with which Alexander’s ideas have been received from those disabled people who she has engaged with.
Apart from statistical evidence and research so little about disability discrimination has ever been put into a public arena. Alexander was awarded ‘disability related’ discrimination at her Tribunal but ‘direct discrimination’ was dismissed. She has since learned that only 4% of ‘direct disability discrimination’ cases are won at Tribunal.
When disabled people do use legislation to challenge authority, so often it is on the proviso that details will not be disclosed. Her plan is to take her piece out of the closet and use it within an innovative package that could be part of an outreach education programme on disability and difference for schools as well as for the work place.
The Disability Discrimination Art Project will be launched on 23 June 2008 at Lloyds TSB HQ London to invited members from the public and private sector.
Alexander recently won her case at tribunal. Ben Furner asks what lessons can be learned in The Guardian 12 May 2008