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Anne Teahan describes her preparations for visiting the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC in summer 2010 / 9 July 2010

image of artists' work on show at revealing culture exhibition

Wedding Shoes (fragmented paper drawings on tosashi paper in perspex) 2006 - 2009 © Anne Teahan

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In April 2010, I started tackling an Arts Council application on ‘Revealing Culture’ an international disability arts exhibition on show at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington DC from 8 June - 29 August 2010. I had work accepted along with 54 other artists.

I aimed to turn the experience into a research project for DAO, but there were many obstacles between me and my desired goal. Globally – there was volcanic ash, nationally there were strikes at airports, at home, there were mountains of Arts Council guidance notes to digest, and physically, two conditions (Laryngeal Dystonia and Sjogren’s Syndrome, an energy-sapping auto-immune nuisance) were taking their toll.

And yet it is 9 July and I find myself on an US Airways plane, bound for Washington, with three interviews planned, two with Washington artists and one with a Smithsonian director of exhibitions.

But the seat next to me is empty; Sue my friend, fellow artist, co-conspirator and support for three of my days in Washington has been turned back at Gatwick. Her passport which has 2 years to run and worked perfectly well in Europe, has been rejected by US Airways who turned digital after hers was issued. No amount of pleading with officials has made any difference. I’m on the plane to Washington – she has been sent back with heavy cases and heart, to queue for another passport.

In addition, my voice has run right down and I need to top up my empty water bottle (Sjogren’s Syndrome dehydrates - you have to keep watering yourself: eyes, throat, mouth). I feel like a plant in a desert; I try to ask for help from a stewardess who looks chillingly like Sarah Palin. She can’t understand me and is clearly irritated by the effort. I point to my throat as I struggle to speak. But she is resolute; she insists I speak up; I know I cannot compete with the loud background rumble of the plane but I try anyway.

Laryngeal Dystonia is a voice-throttling condition, with a will of its own. If you try to force volume into a tired, dry voice, the vocal cord spasms will sabotage your speech. So I launch a sentence which has little chance of being delivered in one piece. I intend to say ‘my voice doesn’t work properly so be patient’ – my lips move, but only one word, ‘Voice’, lands loud and clear. The resonance contradicts my mime of voice loss. ‘I heard that !’ she declares triumphantly, vindicated in her disapproval. Perhaps she thinks I am attention-seeking. Perhaps she thinks weak speech denotes weakness of character.

And so I am strapped into my seat on a crowded plane, avoiding asking for water top-ups from a flight attendant with a loud, healthy voice. But I am on my way to Washington, I have a camera and charger, a recorder with plentiful batteries and I’m looking forward to exploring the work of 54 artists at the Smithsonian’s International Gallery. I just have to endure the journey. 

And I manage to catch the attention of another air steward who makes no vocal demands and has no problem providing me with water. I drift off to sleep dreaming about Little Britain – only the man in the wheelchair can’t get out. 

To see some example of Anne Teahan's work on DAO go to the Tales from the Boarders gallery.

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