By Steve Hollingsworth
Where Art can inhabit a space outside of the gallery, other things become possible. I’m interested in testing myself in other contexts (which is what Artlink has done) I’m a fine-artist based in a music school, as a non-musician or an un-musician. The Conservatoire is a space of virtuosity, it is a space which trains people to read music and to perform in orchestras. As an artist I wanted to do a piece about performance but not about virtuosity to critique that notion of virtuosity. A professional musician Alison McGillivray (world renowned) her beautiful Gamba or Cello, we swapped positions, to disable both of our identities in order to explore another kind of meaning, but in front of an audience expecting a musical meaning, so this is indicative of the work I do with Artlink, in trying to use trying to understand a mutual language which we both don’t understand at first, when working in the context of PMLD (learning disability). Over time we develop a (temporary) mutual language where we try to connect through things we don’t know. So I don’t see any separation between my Artlink work and gallery practice, the same ideas go into both areas. I see my job as an artist to open up the thoughts of people to experience new perceptions, to reframe ideas, to open up new possibilities, cross referencing and creating new circuits of creative exchange-A new community of radical ideas. How do we see? A lot of my work is to do with perception and how we sit in the world, how we understand what we see, how our brains work, people develop habits of perception and beliefs that can be hard to shift-that’s the work, to provide new ways of seeing and understanding. When I first started work with Artlink I thought it had nothing to do with my creative practice as an artist, I thought it was very separate. Deleuze and Guattari who collaborated together spoke about the micro-fascisms we all have in our heads ‘the propensity for hierarchy, fixity and stasis’ with which we are all used to but which can stifle and we might say ethical living. So with Artlink I work in Sensory workshops with another artist Jim Colquhoun, I also work with the Ideas Teams. So, this Idea of a Sensorium with which I could allow, this guy Ben, an experience of art, that was fed (nourished) from learning about him, through this idea of radical pedagogy, which was really to think about how somebody else understands the world with a brain that’s not the same as mine (his normal) Which involved trying to immerse myself in his world, trying to form a bridge to his world and learning from him. All this is fed from Ben, not me. So a lot of the work is about thinking through time and different time and slow time and slowing time down. I think a lot of the medical profession, write people off such as Ben, because they cant understand THEIR world, because they don’t process the world at the speed of a Doctor say, therefore people such as Ben are written off because they don’t understand them. The medical model of disability, is disability based, which means it is based around a lack-You Cant do! Whereas an Arts mindset is ability based which means that it seeks to empower people. So, me an Artist, I’m kind of a catalyst, I guess, in this other world, trying to open up new ideas and new possibilities. I’ve also worked (luckily) with some one I’ve found very interesting, A retired professor of vision science, Gordon Dutton (I refer to him a lot) but he’s a lot like a Scottish Oliver Sachs, in that he taught me how we see the world, because if you cant understand how someone understands or perceives the world anything you put in front of them will be invisible and non-understandable. So Gordon Dutton Says: ‘It is my belief throughout the world the fact that nearly everyone communicates with them (PMLD) and shows them information at their own speed, leads to the foregone conclusion that such people will not learn’ this is I think, the medical position from an un-enlightended position.
Being with Artlink challenged my perception of who I was as an Artist and it forced change upon me to think beyond gallery definitions of work into what experiences are through time as art, so it made me think about performance, how we perform ourselves, how we behave. How we understand, how we see, it re-enforced the importance of time based experiences, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how we perceive time, how people with disability perceive time and also about the importance of collaboration, between me, a person with disability and other artists. Its no accident that I now collaborate with the artist I work with, Jim Colquhoun (whose a writer also) and that both the Laura’s collaborate also, through virtue of being in a workshop together, sharing ideas. I think that is the huge creativity that occurs in these two spaces, through time (of the workshops) the absolutely incredible creative energy that comes from these unique spaces, its because it is an open field, anything becomes possible. This piece is called the ‘Profane Illuminations’ where Jim and I (non-musicians) play bass guitars, single notes, for a long time, we made a film, with Tam Dean Burn. The Profane Illuminations is a Walter Benjamin essay on him smoking hashish walking through Montpellier, where tiny details take on huge significance, my work is all about detail, looking for detail and perceiving detail, understanding detail through time in order to reveal something- ‘We perceive the worlds in our heads (brains) not outside, all the colour in this room is generated in our brains, I think that is quite a radical notion, we paint the world with our own perceptions. Just thinking about time again-Yves Alain Bois, wrote an essay called slow fast
modern, ostensibly about painting, about a sustained gaze, this is a quote about the essay (which I think more interesting than the essay itself) the essay assumes an apology for slowness or rather for the value of the sustained gaze that returns to the same object (or in this context a disabled person) that probes the depths and subtle rythms of its/his/her surfaces that pays tribute not to the fast and loud but the fragile and delicate nuanced, the fine grained. I really love that, its exactly what goes on within Artlink, the fine-grained, the inbetween, the imperceptible, the delicate, the fragile. Also, I guess art within this context interrupts the usual mundane normaility of existence and allows a mutual language to emerge, it takes time, long duration, commitment and patience, also an open-ended, unframed engagement in art offers huge possibilities for new engagements with the world, it can allow new agency to occur. This work is about a conversation, developing a mutual language of exchange and about learning, consciously looking at tiny details for meaning and possibilities for transformation. Often (as the Laura’s do, we use a lot of their stuff-costumes etc.) we change our appearance, in order to appear other, but in changing our appearance, it allows us to behave differently, it allows us a different way to approach the problem of communicating, once we shed ourselves of our learned identities we can be other things. Back to Time- so from Artlink work, Jim and I started performing together, We call ourselves-Two Ruins, and again its about language and an understanding of language and trying to find significance through action and communicating together through time. Again through Artlink we’ve been using sound as a material a great deal, not music itself but a much more open ended kind of sound, which is not bracketed like a three minute pop song, but the materiality of sound is (one of the) mediums through which we communicate. Sound is touching at a distance, through your ear (or vibrations through your body) it is intimate. So, through learning about Ben and the Sensorium, I wanted to give him a sense of travel, interstellar travel, going beyond the confines of his world, but giving him agency and choices about what he saw, what he perceives, what he enjoys, and there have been amazing results with that project, but he was telling me what he wanted, what he wanted to enjoy, through a sustained engagement with his world. I think myself, coming from a conceptual art background (not to reduce PMLD people to conceptual puzzles) but there’s a kind of link where they can be slowly understood through time and art becomes the mutual language (or medium) to bring together an understanding of different perceptual subjective worlds. So, through using sound as a material took me to a music school, where I’m other, I become the other and I become fragile and different. So Jim and I make films, performances, photographs, neon works. This piece is called A Voyage to Arcturus which is a very little known sci-fi novel by David Lindsay, who came back traumatised from world war 1, but wrote this incredible novel of travel to another planet where his body has to grow different senses in order to understand this new terrain, new colours (of this new world) he invents a colour called Ul-fire and physics becomes backwards, theres a thing called ‘arcturian back rays’ where light rays pull you towards their source, rather than emanating from something. So I love that, the creativity in that book, where a body morphs in relation to a new world and has to develop new senses in order to actually perceive a brand new plane of existence, which is fantastical. It’s a brilliant book, I urge anyone to read it. Also at Cherry road (where the sensory sessions take place) I work with staff to rethink how they understand people with disability, so I get them to draw blindfolded, or deaf in order to change their perceptions. I think we all develop perceptual habits where we stop looking, stop seeing and stop perceiving. Myself, I’m obsessed with detail (I cant help myself). This is from a voyage to arcturus-Image, within the workshops, Jim and I, carve up time, half and hour into 7.5 minute segments of performance, where we move slowly. Slowness means a sustained moment, like in a film, like in Andy Warhols film Empire, stretched moments, people with disability perceive time differently from us. Hopefully within the workshops we learn about them, their likes-dislikes and perceptions over time and I think, I hope, they come into being with us because we somehow develop a connection, hopefully. An engagement with art can hold someone for a time, be it a sound, a performance or an image, or some combination of all three, if allied with the perceptual processing speed of an individual, this experience can be empowering. An aesthetic of care primed by a reverse and radical pedagogy subverts the hierarchy of a top-down approach and allows a creative rethinking of that person, through an exchange through the space of art. We perform ourselves differently in order to UN-learn our subjective habits temporarily, in order to be different for people. This work through time, it’s a change from a formal aesthetic, to an engaged, conceptual, critically rigorous approach, a connecting aesthetic, developed from a disability perspective, an aesthetic developed from their understanding of the world. Also (this work) is about play. Play is devalued in our society, hugely. This is a quote from Alan Kaprow- Essays on the blurring of art and life, which really chimed and resonated with a lot of my ideas, when art comes out of a gallery how it can be empowering when it is put into other contexts. I’ll just read this quote-
‘ Play is one of the most conscious levels of participation, only when artists willingly cease to be artists can they convert their abilities, like dollars into yen into something the world can spend-play. Play as currency, we can best learn to play by example and an un-artist can provide it in their new jobs as educators, they can simply play as they once did under the banner of art, but among those who do not care about that, gradually the pedigree art will recede into irrelevance.’
This is a Tuesday workshop where as soon as someone with disability is over the threshold they are into a space where we are all equal. I resist the notion that this is therapy, there are obviously therapeutic aspects to the work, but therapy means that your held (and someone else has decided an objective to which you will strive and be held) to a specific border of what the work is. This is process led work, creative experiences through time, and that time is slowed down. I also work, with other staff who care for specific individuals and get them to reframe an understanding of that person, by exposing them to an experience and get them to write down their reflections and ideas creatively-in order to re-think their views and ideas. The performance I did with Jim, it was based around Chris Burdens bed piece, which I’m really fascinated by, he didn’t tell the gallery owner his intentions, he just got into bed and let them deal with it. Jim played with Burdens text a bit, altered some aspects. But for us to do that piece, where we were moving around slowly, we were linking two different times-1973 and the present, so we we’re inhabiting different spheres of time. So this Sensorium Idea, its not finished yet, there is much to do on it, but it has become for me a really fascinating project, that has made me re-assess our perceptions really. So this work is about using art and aesthetics to reduce problems and open up new perceptive worlds to people with severe disabilities. When I work with people with severe disability, I gain an understanding of them over time, of who they are. This work, hopefully offers them agency and the ability to open up and alter what interests them. And to be able to do that is a huge thing,
Alison Stirling (artlink program director)- This guy here that Steve has been working with has profound learning disabilities. And actually, Steve, working over a very long, long period of and what he has been able to get Ben to do is quite phenomenal. His mother couldn’t quite believe or think he could do these things, and lots of people didn’t. Ben is working that machine and you can see the relationship between them.
Steve-I guess also as well, and I’ve said this before, it rewrites the narrative identity for Ben, because before his narrative was- Ben cant do this, Ben cant do that, He himself has become in charge of his own story, even his mother has re-written her opinion of her son. So, I guess the work is about relationships, relationship to the world and relationship to each other and reconfiguring those in a really positive way, hopefully.
I think he’s bored a lot of the time, and he comes alive in these moments of interaction, when he’s able to do stuff, he’s got such a strong personality. Even his mum watched this footage, and she became choked up, She said ‘oh look, he’s stopped dribbling, people dribble when they’re bored stupid, but once they are engaged, suddenly, its like a higher function goes on (becomes switched on) But, its not me that made this, its Ben who told me what he wanted and needed, I suppose.
Can I ask a question? How bespoke is that to Ben, clearly you’ve made it with him but how transferable is it, to what extent is the object or idea transferable to other people.
Steve- Its really transferable because for Ben, he likes really strong noise, or sound or images so I downloaded hubble space telescope images and sound from Nasa of the sound of Venus or Neptune (magnetic field) and other planets and music from Stockhausen, really strong (powerful) sound. But, I’ve started using in with other people, and I want to develop the software so you can put in other profiles, so ultimately you could put this on an ipad and have a bespoke interface. Ben has quite strong hand movement, other people haven’t and I need to work that aspect out, but it could be really empowering for lots of other people.
Laura Aldridge (artist)- So he’s making the images move? With that lever?
Its sound but he can also move through the image. He know what he’s doing (the cause and effect) because one day the fire alarm went off in the centre and he moved the joystick like crazy trying to turn the sound off, so he understands he has control.
Alison-if we think about that in the wider sense, in relation to anybody, anyone marginalised, taking time and looking at the detail and actually sharing a conversation with them, and creating some form of communication, actually opens new worlds and creates and makes things happen very differently. And within the systems (care systems) we have and live in now, its incredibly necessary.
Jan-Bert (Artlink Director)- Its very much an understanding of who Ben is?
Alison-Its understanding who anyone is
Jan-Bert- I guess what’s interesting about the conversation is, sometimes it becomes about what Ben can do, an understanding that Ben can do more, Ben can be perceived to do more.
None of us are fixed beings, no matter how damaged your brain is, given the correct stimulation you can still learn.
Alison-It’s also what’s around you (a PMLD person). Because often, what’s around you (people or opinions or systems) prevent abilities developing
Kate Gray (Director Collective Gallery)- The implication of that on a wider political level being about not defining people by lack in general, by a lack of money or a lack being defined by a disability, but finding ways toward mutuality.
Steve- Also, people like Ben now are considered economically inactive, which is appallingly dehumanising. Where Ben reveals his incredible humanity through this and his huge worth if you start to look at things differently.