Sculpture Graduation Ceremony!

Today was the last day of sculpture, and so there was a final push to complete the bottles and be ready for their installation next week. We had a very large group in the morning, as photography was not on, leaving the room buzzing with energy. I sat next to a participant who I’ve struggled to communicate with before as I don’t know much sign and don’t catch her words easily. However, I felt today I was slowly begining to get the hang of things, aided by the occasional point, tap or drawing to aid a point.

At the end of the session Certificates of graduation were handed out, and everyone and their picture taken with scroll and graduation hat to boot. One participant was so excited by his certificate that he ran out of the room to start showing people downstairs. I’d chatted to Alison about the idea of certificates, and she had mentioned that at first they seemed a bit too school-like or resonant of exams and objectifying learning. This is something I can very much relate to, as I despise education systems that aim for products and targets as opposed to investing in the learning journey of each individual. Despite our reservations, we both had to agree that the participants got a lot out of the certificates with many being very excited and proud about them. It’s useful to be reminded every now and again that no-one can predict the people, and that to ever really know what works and what doesn’t you just have to try it.

In the afternoon we had a quieter session, but still very productive. One participant from the morning came back because she had enjoyed it so much, which was good to see. I was once concerned that people at sense would have difficulty expressing what they did and didn’t want to do, and that they would be forced to do art as it’s ‘good for them’. I had no need to worry though, as I have become very aware that ethos of sense is that you do it if you want, you don’t if you don’t, and no-one seems to have any problems letting you know one from the other.

Two of the participants spent the session holding hands, which as well as being incredible cute reminded me of the problems caused when adults with learning difficulties are put in the same category as children. If the service users at sense are seen as children it gives no room for them to develop romantic/sexual relationships, agency over their life choices (such as wanting to go to work) or living independently. I feel this is incredible dangerous and am always uncomfortable when participants are compared to children. However, I know this is not a new problem, people with learning difficulties have faced barriers around these issues for years, something I would like to investigate and research further. Could performance and art be a way to develop society’s thinking around these issues?


Magic in Your Fingers! as published in Home Magazine, (May, 1932)

Transcription, “Magic in Your Fingers!” by Helen Keller

Few people who see realize how many and how great are the marvels of touch. Blinded by their eyes, they never stop to think how vital the sense of touch is in all the processes of their physical development, what a potent ally it is in all the activities of life. They attach far less importance to it than to sight, hearing or even smell. I have to smile when some one pities me, saying, “She has only the sense of touch.” “Only,” indeed, when touch is the key that opens to me the world of nature — leaf, bud and flower, fluttering wings, singing, cool streams, the sun’s warmth, the voice of the violin, fields of wheat swept like AEolian harps by light breeze-fingers! All the time I pity those who look at things with their hands in their pockets and do not take the trouble to explore the delights of touch or understand how it ministers to their growth, strength and mental balance.

Yet it was with this sense that the earliest forms of life began upon earth and developed into higher organisms. To make this clearer, it is necessary to define touch. It is that peculiar sensibility which causes us to feel the resistance of external matter and perceive the qualities of objects — hard or soft, big or small, rough or smooth, liquid or solid, hot or cold. The baby learns all this through touch in the cradle. He has also a muscular sense which gives touch its amazing power.

The sense of touch resides in every part of the body, but it is most sensitive and efficacious in the palm of the hand and the finger-tips. Perhaps the chief marvel of the hand is the long, mobile thumb with its easy lateral movement which gives man a vast physical superiority over the monkey. It is pretty clear that without the long thumb and its power of opposing each and all the fingers few inventions would be possible, and human arts would probably not be far above the monkey stage. It invents wonderful machines with which it spins and weaves, ploughs and reaps, converts clay into walls and builds the roof over our heads. At its command huge titans of steel lift and carry incredible burdens and never grow weary.

Look upon your hand, reader, and consider the incalculable power folded up in it! Think how the hand of man sends forth the waters to irrigate the desert, builds canals between the seas, captures the winds, the sun, the lightnings and dispatches them upon errands of commerce. Before its blows great mountains disappear, derricks — the hand’s power embodied in digits of steel — rear factories, palaces, monuments and raise cathedral spires.

The hand of the blind man goes with him as an eye to his work and by its silent reading with finger on the raised page shortens his long hours of ennui. It ministers as willingly to the deaf, educates them, and if they cannot speak, its fingers speak words of cheer to their eye, which thus becomes an ear.

The Buddhist monks have a symbolism built up on the hand. Each finger signifies a quality essential to human well-being. The first finger stands for benevolence and filial obedience, the second for seemly behavior and wedded happiness, the third for righteousness and loyalty. The little finger means wisdom and family affection, the thumb sincerity and faithfulness to friends.

We may smile at this elaborate symbolism, but it is a poet’s perception of the power of the hand for good and evil. With all our five fingers strong and swift in noble action we can grasp what we will. Opportunity and the precious treasures of the world are ours, but if we are selfish, disloyal or lacking in the community spirit, we break off the fingers one by one. The hand becomes helpless, “it is only a club,” as the Japanese put it.

I have experienced marvelously the qualities of the spirit in the hand during my dark, silent life. For it is my hand that binds me to humanity. The hand is my feeler with which I seize the beauty and the activity of the world. The hands of others have touched the shadows in my life with the divine light of love and upheld me with steadfast faith. Truly, as seers say, the hand of a good man is beneficence made visible and tangible.

Blessed be the hand! Blessed thrice be the hands that work!


The Beauty of Music – Communication and Creativity

I arrived early at Touchbase this morning, as it was my first day working with the music team. I got an introduction of the ethos of the music sessions, along with previous projects and sessions that had taken place, both with individuals and groups.


The images above are from sense scotland’s Twitter feed, and show the Touchbeats at their most recent performance at the CCA. The instruments they played were created by the group from recycled materials and during the show light projections were used to highlight the movement and beauty of the instruments. I was put in mind of Theo Jansen’s Kinetic sculptures.

As well as the work of Diet Weigman and Tim Noble and Sue Webster

I’ve not had the chance to watch the touchbeats perform yet (or have a go on their amazing kinectic-sculpture-eco-friendly-accesible-magic-instument-machines) BUT I have tickets to see them live at the Sense Christmas Concert, held at the City Chamber halls this on the 4 December. Although I don’t think these instruments will be featuring in the concert, I really want to hear the kind of music the TouchBeats are creating, a well as ask them about their methods of collaboration and creative process. Although, maybe not at the christmas concert – let’s leave all of that for after the mince pies and mulled wine!

First off I joined in an individual session with one of the service users at sense. We had a good chat about the music he was into, and ended up jamming to some 80s hits. He had grown to love the tracks we were listening to as he was a DJ at Falkirk ice rink during this era. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and it was good to know that ABBA was still very popular outside of the art department. Although I played music extensively before I moved to Glasgow, since starting my degree I have slowly lost confidence in my abilities. However, drumming along simple beats began to build my confidence a little and eventually I really got into the music. What an excellent way to start the day!

The second session was a group session and I hadn’t met any of the participants before. The different instruments and how they were used was really interesting to watch. I ended up sitting next to one participant and holding her hand throughout most of the session. She wasn’t so keen to join in, mainly she watched, but when I ran the brushes of a drum-brush over her hands she seemed to enjoy the sensation. I was reminded once again of the importance of touch as a sense. Not forgetting, of course, that sound is just vibrations that touch your ears. There were two participants who were deafblind and who seemed to be fully engaged in and enjoying the sounds and instruments around them. Proof that it’s never worth writing something of as inaccessible to a particular individual!

For a wee introduction to music at Sense, have a look at this video.

A ‘double whammy’ Prejudice

Gayle Rankine
Gayle Rankine: ‘Indigenous people make up 3% of the Australian population. At least 50% of these are affected by some form of disability. This is a very high number. A lot of our people haven’t connected with agencies because of the ‘Stolen Generation‘ – the fear of having a child removed from them and that child growing up institutionalised. I am extremely passionate about it – fighting the fear, fighting the racism. Being Indigenous and having a disability, you get a double whammy.’

Collaboration and Engagement

This morning we continued working on the bottle sculpture, using pva glue and coloured tissue paper to decorate the plastic bottles. The groups were working so fast we had to keep running around the building to scavenge bottles from recycling bins! there were only four participants in the first session, and the participant I usually work with wasn’t there, making the class feel very quiet. There was, however, a new participant that I had not worked with previously, and his practise was very exciting. It started with him placing my hand on the page, and telling me what to draw. This slowly morphed into him holding my hand as we drew together, negotiating who was leading and what marks we were making together. Sometimes he worked by himself with me watching, and then we’d morph back into collaborative drawing. I was interested by the blurry line of collaboration created here – was this his, my or our work? If he told me what to draw and I drew it, whose artwork is that? Does he gain more satisfaction from others drawing his images than he does drawing them, and if so, why? These are all questions I would like to ask him in the future. Even before that, I shave began to think about performances that use this morphing collaborative style to question audience/artist creative roles and agency.

In the afternoon we continued working on the bottles. Rather than getting bored, the group attacked the task with real vigour.. We had to make quite a few trips to the recycling bins! A member of the art team who has just started working at Sense said that in her sessions she doesn’t shy away from doing the same tasks over several weeks, claiming that it is important for the participants to realise the time and effort that goes into creative projects, as well as giving them a greater sense of achievement and ownership with the finished project. The way the group were engaging with the bottles supported her point. With this level of commitment to the task, people’s individual styles began to come through very clearly, which you might not expect with such a simple activity.

Today has lead me back to my many questions around collaboration and ownership, particularly within the context of working with adults with learning difficulties. I am interested in how the collaborative style change when working with the participants at Sense, and if this is a good or bad thing. I will continue to ponder these questions over the coming weeks.

Engaging in the ‘Dis’

Whilst studying artists who investigate disability within their work, I quickly realised how many way there are to do this. You may explicitly discuss a disability, merely make reference to it, or try to avoid the discussion altogether. It could be argued that a disabled performer who creates work avoiding conversations around disability will leave audiences thinking about it anyway, because audiences read everything, including the disabled body. As a performer this unsettles me slightly; will my work only ever be about my ‘disability’? Will I never be free from the ‘diagnostic gaze’ that Petra Kuppers talks of?

I’m not sure whether this is bad, good or neutral. I’m sure it’s a question I will return to throughout my career. However, I was drawn this week to write about three works where the artist has chosen to make their disability the focus of their work.  These works are; ‘My Bed’, by Tacey Emin, ‘Undress/Redress’ by Noëmi Lakmaier and ‘Involuntary Dances’, by Rita Marcalo.

‘My Bed’ was a installation of Emin’s bed after a long depressive period. The bed is described by Neal Brown of the Tate as “urine stained, and with completely sweat-stained pillows” and around the bed are a multitude of items including “knickers soiled with menstrual blood, innumerable cigarette ends, desiccated apples cores, the remains of a take-away meal and it’s barbeque sauce, soiled tissues dirty bondage, a cute child’s toy and an Orengina bottle”. Brown claims that by avoiding an “over-theatrical, darkened environment” Emin gives the work a more intense sense of “brutalising self-harm”. I think it would be strange to call this work un-dramatic because even if the presentation is simple, given the context of the work in a prestigious art space the statement was radical and controversial.

I feel this same use of simplicity for dramatic effect was used in ‘Undress/Redress’. In this piece, the female, disabled performer sits in a room, fully clothed. A male, able bodied performer enters the room, undresses the woman, and leaves the room to mingle with the audience. At a time of his choice, he will re-enter the room and re-dress the woman. This is all clearly visible to the audience, as well as being live fed onto T.V. monitors. It is a very simple performance score, but in it’s simplicity is it’s power, as the audience is asked to make sense of such straightforward but unexplained events. Who has the power here? Is the woman consenting? Is the man assisting with a daily task or abusing? What is our role as audience, watch these events happen behind a glass window or T.V. monitor? I can image that watching this piece made the audience question their actions in an uncomfortable and raw way.

Rita Marcal describes ‘Involuntary Dances’ as “a one-off 24-hour event presenting epilepsy as performance; a work where I put myself through the bodily experience of inducing an epileptic seizure in order to present my ‘involuntary dances’ to an audience”. In order to induce a seizure, Marcalo stopped taking her medication, deprived herself of sleep, took excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol and played loud and bright t.v. screens. An epileptic seizure itself can be very dramatic, as it is violent spasm of the body that threatens to be dangerous both to the epileptic and anyone or thing nearby. Of course, the fact that many people choose to hide their seizers means that most people have never witnessed one, adding to the drama. Combined with the radical choice to set it as a performance, to induce it by choice and to perform inside a cage, this performance will avoid drama with some difficulty. So how does this performance aesthetic compare with the simplicity of Emin and Lakmaier’s work?

Of course every performance is different, and requires different choices to be made around it’s aesthetic. However, when a disability is being presented in performance, I feel that choices around the levels of theatricality, it’s potential to be read as a spectacle by the audience, are massively important. The history of disabled people being toured in freak shows, and the theatricality and sensationalist style of these performances, are still ringing in the ears of disability performance. One disability activist called these freak shows a ‘pornography of disability’, a phenomenon I believe exists today. A neuropsychologist from the National Society of Epilepsy said that although ‘Involuntary Dances’ got people talking about epilepsy, “it’s being presented as a freaky type of entertainment as opposed to teaching people about seizures.” The lights, sounds and bizarreness of the performance may have scared people, causing more distance between the ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ sectors of the community. It could also have created the feeling that having epilepsy was fun and exciting, with one epilepsy charitiy expressing concerns about “the message to others who could think it’s OK to withdraw from medication without consulting a clinician”.

How are performances that choose a less theatrical, simpler aesthetic to investigate disability avoid these problems? I’m not entirely sure they can. Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ may just leave people with the impression that depressed people are filthy, lazy, promiscuous lay-abouts who needs to learn to do the laundry and stop smoking in bed. By showing the living quarters of a depressed person in this way, it could begin to feel like a strange wild-life documentary, where people crane their necks to views the ‘natural living quarters’ or a rare breed of jungle creature.

I feel the simplicity of ‘Undress/Redress’, and the obvious choice to let the audience watch from outside of a glass room, acknowledges the history of freakism within disability, and uses that to it’s advantage. We are asked to watch as a disabled woman is dressed and redressed. The act of putting on and removing clothes is a daily activity; is this what this woman does every day? How do we feel watching this happen? What is our role as an audience? How uncomfortable are we watching something as if at a zoo? This is not the only performance to engage with a history of freakism within disability performance. Check out the Last American Freak Show. It also investigates what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “the Stare … a pervasive, tangible gaze that the disabled confront on a daily basis”. Similar to Kupper’s ‘diagnostic gaze’, ‘the Stare’ works with the medical model of disability, as the able-bodied person looks for a distance and tries to work out what is ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’ with the other, different, body.

My conclusions are mixed and varying around how theatricality can affect performance investigating disability. I feel that the disabled body, whether a visible disability that the audience are seeing on stage or an invisible one that they can project onto a body, is viewed in a totally different way to ‘normal’ bodies. The way we watched these ‘marked’ bodies has a huge impact on the way a performance is received, and should be carefully considered in all disability performance.

Click here to read about the Norwegian Politician whose recent nude photoshoot asks us to question our concept of beauty.

Photography of the disabled body, in fact of any body, is not without it’s controversies. David Hevey claims that photography “enfreaks” bodies and shows them as “other”, as “photography often voyeuristically offers up the body, particularly the disabled and disfigured body, on a platter”. Ann Millett-Gallant comments on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s views of photography, saying that “images produce social discourses on and contribute to the social instruction of disability, due specifically to their photographic form and how it constructs disability as a spectacle; in addition to producing “reality” photography provides a means for reproducing and circulating problematic images of disability,as well as provides the opportunity for the distanced viewer to stare at and diagnose the human body”.

I agree that photographing disabled bodies can add to disabling social ideology around disability. However, in these images I feel a great sense of agency in the subject of the images, as well as a clear pride and honesty. It feels to me much less that an image is being taken of a body, but that a person is celebrating their own body with the use of a photographer.

Also, I found my initial reaction to this story interesting. I was more impressed that Norway had elected a disabled politician than by the beautiful photography. Read about Disability Politics UK for information of the movement to get more disabled MPs into parliament.