Reflections

I knew more than ever that my time at sense was valuable when, on my last day, I was nearly in tears as I left the building. I couldn’t believe how quickly my time at Sense had gone, or how many people I’d grown to enjoy spending time with.

My original research questions when starting my placement were

  • How can I make my practice as accessible as possible?
  •  How does my depression affect my performance aesthetic?

These questions still feel relevant, although I have inevitably discovered more questions along the way.

So, what have I learnt about making my practice accessible?

Firstly, that you cannot create a workshop or performance that is totally accessible to absolutely everyone. Someone with no sight needs sounds, which are no use to a profoundly deaf person, and if you use them together then both people are missing out on an aspect of the experience. I suggest that to make a single experience that is valuable to anyone and everyone who comes along is impossible. This does not mean I cannot have a totally accessible practice that is valuable to anyone and everyone who comes along. I think the key lies in individual tailoring, flexibility and the ability to think on your feet. And underlying all of this, the belief that everyone has the ability to access creativity in their own way and that their experience should be valued, their creativity nurtured and their voice heard.

Some more technical tips I’ve picked up;

  • Explaining to someone without sight where they are, who is in the room and what is around them isn’t patronising, it’s quite useful . . . as long as you don’t do it as if you’re speaking to a teletubby.
  • Table height is crucial when someone using a wheelchair is taking part. Too high or too low will mean the participant won’t be able to reach it.
  • Touch is OK – just follow the same rules you would with anyone. Don’t be invasive or dominating, do be helpful if someone needs you to guide their hand, or open if someone needs a hug (Celebratorary high fives are also good stuff).
  • Even using little bits of sign is both helpful and generous. You wouldn’t refuse to speak to someone in a different spoken language (well, hopefully you wouldn’t), so go for it in sign as well. If you don’t understand a sign, just ask. Or take a guess– for simple words it has a fairly high success rate, and people usually know what you’re getting at.
  • Every person is completely different and has individual needs. It is your job to find out what they are and to cater for them. (Why this approach is only used in the context of disability I don’t know. This should be applied to everyone, in my opinion.)
  • Disability isn’t a tragedy. Blocking people out because they don’t fit the mainstream is. Someone in a wheelchair is not a problem. Buildings without lifts are.
  • IF YOU ARE NOT SURE ASK! Very few people will take offence if you ask what they need. They are usually more than happy to tell you.
  •  Hugs are always good. Banter is excellent. Allowing all feelings to come out, whatever they are, is essential.

Moving on … how does my depression affect my performance aesthetic?

Depression is often invisible. If it is written on my body, no-one seems to notice. It is shameful, it is feared, it is shunned and it is ignored … and therefore it is hidden. Invisibility is a skill that many people practice.

How do I create work about disability when mine is invisible? What right do I have to talk about bodily difference when my body is not impaired? What ties disabilities together? My experience is wildly different to someone with cerebral palsy, profound deafness or downs syndrome, so why are they given the same category?

 I would suggest that many more people are disabled than we think, far more than have impairments. If disability means to be disadvantaged in society due to difference, then any body with a gender, a race or a sexuality is at risk. Is my depression my disability, or is it my fluid gender, my bisexuality, my liberal political views, my unshaven armpits?

Are disabilities of the mind feared more greatly than those of the body or the senses? When the thing that is different is as ethereal as ‘the mind’, people seem to shudder. Maybe this is what links my experience with the experience of those with learning difficulties whom I worked with at Sense.

As you can see, I am left with a mind teeming with questions.

These questions have overflowed into the text in performance module I studied alongside my placement. My experiments within that module made me ask if you can ever really communicate what it’s like to be depressed through art. In one performance I attempted to make an invisible disability visible on my skin, but it was very unsatisfactory for me as a performer. I stuck pins with negative thoughts attached to them into my skin, but it was too neat, too calm. The skin is punctured, yes, but it is not painful, and it heals within days. I am still exploring how the constant fluctuating agony of depression can be represented on the body, or even if it can. Should I even attempt to make my disability visible?  Should I have to prove to the world that my disability is real by translating it onto a physical plain?

My ideal performance? To make everyone in the audience become depressed for a month without warning. To make them all try antidepressants and seek “professional” help. It would probably get the message across. Although I think it may by that point have left the realm of performance art.

I have a lot to think on in terms of depression and performance. My next investigation will take place in January, when I perform in Francesca Lacey’s “Let’s Not Talk About The Weather”.

What other questions are still burning for me?

  • Where is the line between facilitation and performance? They both create experiences for a group of people. The can both aim to communicate/entertain/teach/inspire/shock/make you think. They both involved a degree of collaboration.
  • What is collaboration? How is it used, and how could it be used? Do you need more than one person to collaborate? I often feel my life is a constant collaboration between my depression and myself.
  • Are broken minds scarier than broken bodies?
  • What is the value of enjoyment, pleasure and entertainment in performance? They seemed to be shunned as cheap, meaningless and superficial. I couldn’t agree less.
  • How can I find an excuse to go back to Sense? (I miss it already)

Here’s to a 2014 full of questions and, if we’re lucky, a few answers.

Happy New Year!

Why the Final Christmas Performance was the Best Way to End My Placement

  • I played the violin in front of people. Massive barrier crossed.
  • I sang in front of people. Another barrier.
  • I got people on stage with me to sing ABBA songs. Everyone enjoyed it. One woman who was new to Sense had an amazing time. Because she had an amazing time, I had an amazing time
  • I saw Ian dance for the first time
  • I saw Josh dance for the first time
  • I saw Alison enjoy performance for the first time
  • I collaborated with other musicians for the first time in ages
  • I sight-read Christmas tunes on violin in front of a room full of people. And didn’t die.
  • I met a lot of new people who had come in just for the concert
  • I got to talk to everyone I’d worked with in a relaxed and fun way
  • I got lots of sweets
  • I saw performers from Sense I’d never seen before
  • I got to shamelessly plug ‘Into The New’ to everyone
  • I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Merry Christmas!

Day 3 of Christmas madness …

This morning I got my violin out to play along with the storytelling session. The first group was a school group, so I was working with a group of people I’d never met. This was not a problem, as the group were very enthusiastic and very talented. We had two volunteers playing along with the first story, the whole group joined in the second story, and by christmas carol time the room was up on it’s feet dancing. It was gratifying to see. especially after my observations yesterday (check them out here). However, people who stood up to dance were often told to sit back down again, which was frustrating. I would make a guess that as this was a school group rather than a group of adults there is a more protective attitude, especially in a new building. I would be very keen to work in a specialist school in future, to see how the attitudes differ from those at sense.

It was great to see how much people played with rhythm in the session. One of the first musician was playing a drum, and despite being very young kept strong steady rhythms as well as playing with more complex rhythms over the top. It was a very clear, intelligent and totally spontaneous response. It shows what natural talent there is for music both at Sense and in those who are yet to start at TouchBase.

In the afternoon dancing played a large role. One group member danced the entire time, and both because it looked fun and also because I wanted to send the message that dancing was OK I ended up joining her. It was great fun! It became a half mirroring , half freestyle movement collaboration to the whole group playing christmas bells and tambourines. Spectacular. Another group member was also very excited by the movement. He uses a wheelchair and has limited control over his movement (although I’ve never noticed this stop him). He had begun the session quite still, became more active during the stories and by the end was so animated I was genuinely concerned that he was going to brake his chair. The room that the story telling sessions take place in is a music room, and therefor has a lot of instruments lying around and limited free space. This can make movement a bit tricky, but was more of a problem for the support workers who are concerned that something will get broken or someone will get hurt. Also, wheelchairs can take up a lot of space, so a bigger room would help avoid collisions.

Tomorrow is the last day before the christmas concert, and the excitement is building. The two musicians in the second session were member of the TouchBeats music group who are performing at the concert. I can’t wait to see them in action!

I (nervously) start to improvise …

This morning I worked again with the arts team facilitating the chocolate workshop. Despite my comment in the last blog, there was a participant from this morning’s group for whom taste was not accesible. He couldn’t take any food or drink by mouth, being gastro-fed like many other people at sense, and therefore couldn’t join in with the chocolate making. It was a good reminder that whatever you do it can’t be totally accessible, and that you just need to be flexible, sensitive, and willing to tailor your plans to suit the people you’re working with. This morning one of the tutors did a different exercise with the participant, using tissue, starts and clear resin to make christmas themes decorations.

I was working with the same participant as I was yesturday, and the development in her confidence was astonishing. I was already aware that she had made great leaps since coming to TouchBase, but even within the space of a day she had moved from watching me and others do the activity, to joining in with actions such as pouring the chocolate and putting on particular decorations. When I think back, it is easy to see how some people may dismiss these developments as small, but I couldn’t disagree more. As with my slow journey with depression, the smallest of steps can shake the world of the person taking them. During my journey with depression, one sure sign that I was starting to improve was that I could read a news paper article. Before then, I had neither the concentration nor the will to read anything, and had to take in any words through audiobooks or the radio.

One member of the group was markedly more excited than usual, and when I asked what she had been doing to make her so excited one reason was that she had been to the One Giant Leap event the night before. One Giant Leap is a project that supports people who are moving from school or college into adult life, whether that be work, support, or a mixture of the two. The research I have done on the politics and issues surrounding learning difficulties suggests that it is often during the big transitions such as changing house or school that people can feel the most unlistened to. This was reitterated when, in conversation with one of the staff at sense who has a learning difficuty, she told me that her doctor never listened to her during consultaions, and often gave her medication she didn’t want or that had strong side effects. This is deffinately something I can sympathise with, having been on more anti-depressants than I can name and all of them having had moderate to severe side effects. I often find that doctors are unwilling to listen to or believe what I’m asking for. Protecting agency in someone’s life choices is a major front for improving the quality of life for people with learning disabilities, but also everyone else. Most people, I would suggest, would like to have agency in their life choices.

In the afternoon I helped once again with the sensoy storytelling. A I knew the score of the session, I felt confident enough to try improvising along with the text using percussive instruments and my voice. When handing out percussion instruments to the group so they could join in with the second story, I noticed Louise (who is also doing her placement at Sense) was far more succesfull at getting people to take the instruments in their hands. I had been shying away from touching people, so if they didn’t take the instrument straight away I placed it within reach. Louise was actually placing the instrument in their hand, and as a result people joined in with the story much more reasily. I suppoes this teaches me not to be afraid of touch!! I am always worried that touch will be read as forcefull or invasive, but simple assistance with pysical objects is neither of these things. This conversation around qualities of touch was continued as Louise, Adrian Howells and myself ended up getting the same tube home. We had a chance to discuss the TouchBase performance group’s latest project, as well as Adrian’s collaboration with Ian and Gary on He’s The Greatest Dancer.

To round of the session both Louise and myself ended up having a mini-jam with a service user I hadn’t met before. He was taking part in a one on one session with a music tutor, and had asked Louise and I to join in. As someone who was taught music classically, using musical scores and hours of pratice, improvisation terrifies me. However I couldn’t turn down the invotation, and finished my day at sense with a beautiful musical investigation with guitar, squeezebox and voice.

Stories and Sweeties (the best way to start a week!)

Today was the first day of TouchBase’s Christmas week, and I started it by helping two of the art tutors run a drop-in session. The workshop was based around the activity of melting chocolate in the microwave, then pouring it into shapes, decorating and leaving to cool. The decorations included rose petals, dried raspberries, jelly babies, marsh-mellows, honeycomb, butterscotch, popping candy, smarties, nuts fruit and many more. Each participant was given a small bowl so that they could try all the different flavours and collect the ones they like best. It was a fun way to start working with taste, a sense that all of the people who came along could access, despite any other impairments or difficulties. I was working with a new member of Sense who had previously been quite shy and introverted. It was great to see that after just a week at TouchBase her confidence had grown, and she was vocalising much more than she had done before. I think with food there is something really important about exploring, as it can often become a necessary but inconvenient fuel, especially when someone is being fed by a support worker. As with touch, it is easy for food and taste to become practical and utilitarian and this session invited people to let it be a more creative experience.

The session was pretty bonkers, with everyone wanting to join in all at once. Getting everyone in the space would have been impossible, so the participants split into two groups. The first group had a noisy, hectic atmostphere, which seemed to really suit some of the participants. The second group was far calmer, which again suited some people very well. It reminded me that when I was with teachers in Oakgrove Primary School last year there seemed to be an emphasis on everything being fun and active. This often lead to busy, chaotic energies in the classroom. The only alternative seemed to be total still and silence, when listening to a story or perhaps doing a worksheet. Just as it was assumed that primary school children could only cope with extreme busy-ness or stillness, there can often be an assumption that adults with learning difficulties require calm peaceful atmospheres at all times. I agree that everyone needs some calm in their lives, but I don’t think there is any need to be afraid of noise and hectic-ness. For those who enjoy that atmosphere it is really very important!! And even for those who don’t like it, it is important they have the opportunity to try it and find out for themselves.

In the afternoon I joined in the Sensory Storytelling session with the drama and music tutors. This was held in the music room, and involved projections, shadow puppets, music (performed my three musicians from Sense) as well as the all important story read out-loud to the group. The first story was a performance for the group, the second became more interactive as the group were given instruments to join in with the story. The session finished off with some christmas carols for everyone to join in with. The session was enjoyed by the group, but part of me would like to see how movement could be fitted into the session. One group member was more than happy to engage with the sound physically, often standing up to dance. However, she then returned to her chair, which seemed oddly static. Petra Kupper’s essay “Stillness, Silence and Space in Mental Health Settings” got me thinking about the politics surrounding movement within facilitatory practice. Although she discusses mental health settings and institutions, I feel that there is a large overlap in the experience of mental health services/institutions and those providing for people with learning difficulties. Kuppers says;

“I soon realised the existence of a connection between the physical and the representational … lack of physical and mental privacy had undermined many people’s ability to be confident in their use of space … with this inability to take space, simple actions such as reaching and touching became problematic … validating our spatial experience became an important aspect of our work. We had to rethink spacial and temporal aspects of embodiment, and politicise them. In other words, we had to find ways to assert the simple acts of breathing and being as interventions into the social space”

I feel this lack of physical and mental privacy can very much be present in systems providing for people with learning difficulties. On top of that, many people have physical impairments that may limit their movements. Alternatively, some people have vigorous movements that others may try to restrict to make them seem more acceptable or ‘normal’ in social spaces. When I saw Robert Softly-Gale’s ‘If These Spasms Could Speak‘ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he spoke about how he used a wheelchair despite his ability to move around without one. He did this because people were uncomfortable with him moving around on the floor in an ‘abnormal’ way, using his hands and knees. In my experience of depression, I have noticed that when I am down my spatiality and physicalization reflects this dramatically, as does my use of voice. I would enjoy seeing how the group would have reacted if movement was built into he session. It may not go down well at all, but I feel it is something that is very important to investigate with a group.

Preparing for Christmas Week!

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Christmas banner made during the session, to be displayed in the common room

Today was another opportunity for me to test my facilitation skills. I decided to continue the Christmas theme from last week, but instead of participants creating solo work I wanted to try a larger collaborative piece. The starting point was a single unfitted bed sheet that I taped to the table. I invited the group to use whatever materials they wanted to create images, text, patterns or anything else.

It took a while for the group to get into the activity, and I feel this may be due to the loose structures I tend to use. Previous sculpture classes had more specific activities using specific materials, and people had found this easier to click into. Using a more prescriptive method like this can also be very effective in stretching people’s creative skills, as they may have to move away from their preferred style and method. However, I think there is also value in a looser structure such as the one I used today. It allows people to follow what they want to do on that particular day, and is a chance to use the skills developed in previous sessions. One method of easing people in to having so much choice was to start of with an outlined image for them to colour in. Once they’d started with that, they were often very happy to continue by themselves. In future I want to combine more prescriptive and looser styles of activity for optimal learning.

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A collaborative piece between myself and Claire

After a little coaxing the group began to engage in the activity, and it didn’t take very long for the participants to appear very enthusiastic. One participant’s engagement with the session was very interesting, as at first he did not want to be involved at all. He resisted coming into the room, and reacted to being offered a paintbrush by physically moving himself away from the table and the rest of the group.  It didn’t look like there was going to be much chance of getting him enthused about the work. However, things began to improve as various support workers went to talk to him and showed him the work everyone else was doing. He started to show some more interest, and came back to the table although didn’t join in.  I came over tried suggesting other ways of working with paint than using a paintbrush. This seemed to go down well; at first we squeezed paint straight onto the sheet and then used our hands to feel the paint and move it around. This went down very well, and suddenly everyone had their hands in the paint. Below is the on of the images created using the hands with paint. This slowly descended into people painting on their faces which, to my surprise, the support workers were fine with. That was a great example of how Sense are very open to the arts! There was a camera in the room, and the participants started to take pictures of each other. I enjoyed the way photography and visual art had begun to merge again, as it did last week.

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A work using finger-painting

At the end of the session we wrote the name of the participants next to their drawings or images. I noticed that many of the support workers were reluctant to write their own names on the work, despite them often having a large input into the final product.  I think there can be a strangeness when you are facilitating a group of people, half of whom are service users and the other half are support workers.  Because one group are there to support the others, and it could be said that all the activities at sense are ‘for’ the service users, there is a fear of admitting if the work was a joint effort. This wasn’t always the case; there are some support workers who are very open to their own creativity and often suggest ideas of how an activity could be altered or developed, which is very welcome as far as I’m concerned.

The Christmas work that had been left to dry from last week had all been collected, which was great to see. People obviously wanted to keep it and possible share it with others. Yay!! I’m always looking for evidence that the work is valuable to people, and not just something they’ve been forced to do. This is massively important hen I facilitate a session; why should I tell people what is good for them to be doing? However I am confident that so far the work created in my sessions has gone down well.

Today and once again made me question different collaborative relationships and methods of working, as well as the nature of facilitation. These ideas still feel rather etherial in my mind, but hopefully they will start to solidify over my final week at sense.

Ice and Snow won’t stop us …

Today was a scary day for me … I had been given the opportunity to plan, run and evaluate my own workshop at Touchbase.

I decided to jump on the Christmas bandwagon, creating a workshop based around tinsel, glitter and all things sparkly. As many of the projects at sense had focussed on recycling materials, I designed a Christmas mobile that was made out of decorations hung from a decorated coat-hanger to make a Christmas mobile.

As it turns out, my workshop was well times as the planned trip to the Transport Museum was cancelled due to bad weather. Therefore there were a lot of people at TouchBase who didn’t have much to do … and therefore ended up joining me to engage in some Christmas crafts! My original Christmas Moblie workshop plan gave way to a collaboration between myself and Karen Brodie (http://www.karenbrodiephotography.co.uk/glasgow) who had been planning to accompany the museum trip.

The workshop became a two part event, with the first half involving the group going round and taking images of the wide variety of Christmas decorations at Sense, and he second being where those photos were made into Christmas cards and images for family, friends and TouchBase Staff.

Although the workshop deviated from my original plan, I don’t think it lost much and gained a lot from the participants seeing the ways different art forms can combine. Also, unlike other projects were the final work is stored or displayed at TouchBase, everyone was free to take what they’d made with them. I liked this twist as although it is fantastic to collaborate on large pieces of public art, there’s something special about being able to display your work and share it with others on your own terms. Also, you can enjoy total ownership over it as it is solo work.

The group took well to the class, but seemed slightly less engaged than they had been in previous sessions. I noticed one participant was particularly fidgety, and walked out a few times. At first I thought she might be bored and disengaged in the activities, but despite this she did finish quite a few pieces of work that she took with her with (I think) a sense of pride over what she’d made. I decided not to let this phase me, as it was probably more a result of the cancelled trip and chaotic morning than of my facilitation skills. I think any group who was promised a trip that never happened would be more flighty and less focussed than they would be otherwise.

I found facilitating the group far more relaxed than other groups I have led of either primary school students or young people in drama classes. One massive factor in this is that there are a team of support workers who are on your side and working individually with participants to engage them in what you’re doing. Talk about luxury! It means that even in a big group you don’t need to worry about missing people out or not noticing that someone’s started throwing scissors around (as was a constant worry at the primary schools). Another thing I really enjoy about working with the groups at Sense is their honesty about what they do and don’t want to do. Ok, it may be a bit off-putting if someone doesn’t want to do any of the things you’ve planned, but it does mean when someone is choosing to do your activity or asking to do your class they are wanting to be there. Which, I have to say, is a very gratifying feeling!

In the afternoon I ended up running a one-on-one session with a participant who usually comes to the sculpture classes. At first I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to hold just one person in the space, and that me being there constantly would put them off whatever it was they wanted to create. However, I felt that we got a really good balance of creative work and general chat about what he was making and the horrific weather. In the end the participant actually chose to write the card he had made for himself so he could keep it, which I felt was a good signifier that he was proud if his work. Another participant popped in for a small time to finish his card from the morning. He had a visual impairment, and I felt that his obvious enjoyment of the visual arts we’d been doing proved the argument I’d made in my previous blog post: https://researchingartist.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/is-visual-art-important-for-people-with-a-visual-impairment/

Where from here? I feel really glad I had the chance to facilitate a group myself, and it’s definitely improved my confidence. In future I’d like to try out the different styles and types of activity that I’ve observed from other facilitators to see what works best and what suits me best. Next week, if there’s still Thursday morning’s free, I’d like to try a large collaborative piece to display in TouchBase to see how this type of project would be received.

Dan