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Talk at the Tate Modern

By 11th April 2019 Blog
Black and White image of artist Lauren Saunders standing at a podium. The large screen behind her shows two surreal collages she created.

This Friday it will be three weeks since I delivered a presentation on my practice at the Tate Modern as part of Shape Arts’ Flux/Us: Be part of the art event at the Tate Exchange. Usually, I would write something almost immediately after a big experience like that but I’m challenging myself to allow some space and reflection in between now. Three weeks though. Wow, it’s totally flown by. I’ve been really busy with some other things recently, such as The Critical Fish stuff (going to print next week – eep!), my second UNION; Arts & Activism residency (of which there will be another post in the coming weeks) and, if I’m being blunt, needing to safeguard my head a little.

It’s been quite useful to give myself some space actually as I’ve processed some of the things that happened.

I went down to my hometown, London, on the Thursday and stayed with my dad, his partner and my awesome little sister. It felt so nice to be back in the hustle and bustle of the big city, to the point where I was the only person grinning on the Victoria Line to Blackhorse Road during rush hour. I had forgotten how much I missed the grotty seats, the deafening rumbling and screeching and the faux-aspirational adverts lining the train carriage in which one is denied any resemblance of personal space. Home! I ended up after my dad’s gaff after getting separated during an impromptu family visit to Ikea (“Marco! Polo!”). Before bed I went through my freshly-edited presentation with my sister and laid out my green dress in preparation for the morning.

I had just arrived at the Tate and felt excited looking up at the huge building. As I was heading in, I had a tap on my shoulder – fellow Emergence recipient Fae Kilburn had recognised me (the blue hair kinda does that) and we worked our way upstairs to the Tate Exchange. Up there I met the other two bursary recipients Letty McHugh and Leo Wight, Jeff and Isabelle from Shape, Trish and LD from DAO. It was great to finally meet them all and put real faces to email addresses and social media handles! Everyone was so kind and it was really good to start getting to know the other Emergence artists a bit better. Take it from me, we’re all pretty awesome people as well as super talented! The four of us were understandably nervous though but we did a good job of egging each other on and of course Shape and DAO were really welcoming and supportive of us too.

We we’re in a cooler room to the side of the main Tate Exchange area. At the front, there was a big projection screen, a podium, a couch, a palantypist and a screen for her real-time subtitles. Then about 30-40 chairs were laid out for the audience. Our presentations were part of a wider discussion surrounding the barriers facing disabled artists. Talking about our art and sharing our experiences as disabled artists helped to highlight and illustrate some of the issues explored within the conversations held in between presentations; Letty and Leo presented in the first half, Fae and I talked during the second. I enjoyed watching the others talk about their work and the things they had done and achieved and I valued the honesty in which they spoke. I was genuinely moved at some parts too. Although each of our disabilities are different, I could relate to a lot of what they were saying about all sorts, including the exhausting expectations of the art world and the negotiationary defiance in relation to ones disability. It truly was a really interesting and enlightening few hours. Fae and Letty have both blogged about their experiences too.

Possibly because of the context in which we were presenting, something that really stuck with me was a point from Leo – like me, his work is about something ‘other’ than anything relating to disability. He said something about how being a disabled artist with an invisible illness whose work has nothing to do with their disability means you feel like you don’t belong in either mainstream arts or disability arts. I feel like I’m straddling between the two too. Like Leo, I’m in the inbetween, where your disability can be at odds with the demands of the mainstream arts industry, but because your art isn’t explicitly about disability it’s easy to feel an outsider within disability arts too. Although I felt it, I hadn’t considered the words around it, and Leo did a great job of articulating that sentiment. Something to think about, I thought.

Admittedly, my mind was occasionally elsewhere (anxiety will do that to a person) but I really enjoyed hearing what the public had to say about different things too – the everyday barriers related to disability, the socio-economic complications and personal experiences relating to the non-always-as-inclusive-as-it-thinks-it-is art industry. Jeff shared that the biggest theme in the Emergence applications was this theme of ‘isolation’, in whatever form that may take. It didn’t surprise me somehow, but it did sadden me. I can empathise with the real, perceived, enforced and self-inflicted isolation that artists, especially disabled artists, face. I spoke about some of these issues in my presentation.

I spoke about quite a few different things in what was really quite a short time! I purposefully tried to speak positively about my ‘journey’ to not bring everyone down – which, experience tells me, is very easily done when talking about a long history of poor mental health. Using a number of image-based slides as illustration, I spoke honestly about how I got to now; including my pockmarked road through Higher Education, moving to Hull from London, feeling isolated, losing total belief in ever being an artist, my day job(s) in the NHS and the reinvention of myself between 2016-18… before introducing my current practice. I talked a bit about The Critical Fish, how my making doesn’t really relate to my disability, about my philosophical influences (yes, I took them down that rabbit hole), my process and about how I draw in the expanded field. Got through quite a lot in ~13 minutes, didn’t we? It went really quickly and doing it wasn’t as terrifying as I anticipated – saying that, I was relieved when I had done it! It felt like a big achievement, and it was!

After the wider discussion we spoke to Ellen Wilkinson from a-n – she’s lovely and really interesting to talk to. She was supportive of giving us advice, resources and opportunity that a-n could provide. I spoke with some members of the public. The response was brilliant and I was happy to share the knowledge and talk about the experiences they asked about. In one instance, however, I was indirectly challenged about the legitimately and need of my bursary award by the mother of a physically disabled artist (impressively, in a really nicey-nicey way), suggesting that I wasn’t ‘disabled enough’ (and/or no longer ill enough) to be deserving of the opportunity afforded to me by Shape Arts, DAO and a-n. I’m not going to lie, it hurt and it did really affect me. I considered omitting this part from my blog because it was raw and there was the risk of giving away too much of myself, but screw it. I’m not going to censor a genuine issue that I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing.

Compassion is something I for whatever reason struggle to apply to my own experiences. I fully acknowledge that poor mental health is a disability in it’s own right, I advocate for mental health causes everyday and for ~23 years I have wrestled with a mind that has literally attempted to self-destruct… and yet I need to justify the fact I’m disabled. That’s weird isn’t it? If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t dare think it. I think none of these things about anyone else with mental health challenges. It’s not about feeling shame about my experiences (Mad Pride, all the way!!), it’s not disdain or pride – it’s not anything that stems from some sort of egotistical thing like that – but because of a fraudulent self-imposed narrative that requires I need to justify to myself my own mental health disability. I wonder why that is? Is it some sort of self-stigmatising thing? Is it because it’s an invisible illness? Because I can cope ‘well enough’ these days? Because the traditional discourse around disability place mental health below physical health in the hierarchy of need and support? Don’t know. Maybe it’s simply empathy for others that discourage me from using up the scarce resources available. It’s totally bizarre really. This is one of the reasons I wanted to wait a while before writing about what was otherwise a great experience. I had needed to go through a difficult justification process to myself during every step of the way to be where I was, and she had challenged the legitimacy of my being there. If I was in the worst state I have ever been, would I be more justified in being there (despite the fact I wouldn’t have been able to handle it)? I am confident that a lot of people with mental difficulties feel, or have felt, in a way similar to this. Or any invisible challenge, in that respect. If you have come out the other side/manage your condition better, why is guilt a thing? It’s almost like ‘survivor guilt’, in a weird twisted way.

Afterwards, we went for a drink in a Tate bar – the posh, trendy one with the skyscraper views. I shared with the others what happened and they were very angry at her but very supportive of me (massive love guys, thank you), as were Shape and DAO when I told them about it. In fact, everyone I’ve told about it have been shocked and disgusted at her audacity. Which, you know, is incredibly reassuring and reinforces the idea that she was an anomaly in the wider picture. Still, if I lacked the support network or my new-found resilience, or she had said it to someone like a younger version of myself, it would’ve been crucifying. I loathe the fact that I felt the need to explain myself to her. I wish I had said something else instead.

Yes, I’m one for meaningful reflection but I’m consciously not one for making everything a depressive-fest. Apart from that little moment (which from the amount I’ve written about it, makes it seem a much bigger thing than what it was!), it truly was a fantastic weekend. I didn’t get to see much of the art in the Tate though, which was annoying because I had been looking forward to that wander around for ages! On the Saturday, my super-amazing little sister and I went for a mooch around the London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest. We spent some time at the William Morris Gallery (his old gaff in Walthamstow), watched wildlife in Lloyd Park and was dazzled in God’s Own Junkyard. We even found time to sneak in a cheeky Nandos.

After seeing my ageing East-Ender auntie and a soriatal ukulele jam on the Sunday, I jumped back on the train to ‘Ull. I was sad to leave but looked forward to seeing my other half and my cat again. It was a really good experience at the Tate and I’m so glad that I done it – these things build confidence and self-assurance, don’t you know. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next now!!

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