Chapter 2: Talking to Strangers
Benedict Phillips and Aby Watson explore how a dyspraxic dancer and a dyslexic visual art came to reflect upon each other’s work and collaborate on a 24 hour project at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the summer of 2018.
Q.1- How our conversation began…
AW: It could be said that the conversation between Benedict and I has been ongoing for several years, yet our exchange hasn’t always been objectively reciprocal. My undergraduate dissertation studied Benedict’s work as I wrote about dyslexia, performance and self-representation. I immersed myself in his work from afar, quietly studying, surveying and spying on his projects and then writing about them. I did make contact at the time and planned to visit a lecture of his but, being dyspraxic as well as dyslexic, I got my times muddled and, to my frustration, missed the event. So, we technically remained strangers, despite one of us knowing the other rather well from a distance.
BP: For as long as I’ve been talking about my experience of being severely dyslexic and making work about it, people have been contacting me with questions. In the early days it seemed to be mostly parents, disorientated and upset by the lack of available information. More recently, it’s become common to hear from students discovering me online or through word-of-mouth. A typical email essentially tells me that my work is like their work, though it’s clear that I’ve been working this way for over 20 years and they’ve only just set out on that journey! Very occasionally someone contacts me with well-framed and specific questions. These I’m happy to answer and often involve pointing people towards the variety of materials that exist about my work online.
Q.2 – What happened next? Developing a conversation…
AW: I returned to studying Benedict’s work during my PhD research when writing a paper for the Conservatoires UK Conference in 2017. My paper examined his performance ‘The Agender of the Agresiv Dislecksick (1996)’ and applied the affirmative philosophy of that work to my field of dyspraxia and choreographic practice. I connected with Benedict once more for this research, this time through an interview over Skype. I sent him my dissertation and the once one-sided discourse opened into a mutual dialogue. We met common ground when discussing our practices, philosophies and interests, and then we asked what can we do together?
BP: Aby first contacted me in 2012. She had spotted that I would be doing a talk in Glasgow and planned to attend, wishing to meet to talk about art and dyslexia. After a complex series of arrangements (and re-arrangements), our conversation took place online; and that, as they say, was that, until…
Aby contacted me again towards the end of 2017: ”I emailed you quite a few years ago when writing my dissertation, you may or may not remember?”. I did remember. Aby was planning to reference my work again and contacted me to discuss inclusion in the annual CUK Research Students Conference. In Aby’s presentation she reaffirmed her belief that this piece of work from 1996 went beyond a social model of disability: ”it could be said that his work aligns with the relatively new affirmative model”, further drawing out the narrative in the work, by concluding that ”Phillips’ discourse actively and aggressively goes against the grain, and forms a radical dyslexic voice that refuses compliance, advocates the power of dyslexia and rejects pity narratives”.
Q.3 – How the lecture and workshops at RCS came about…
AW: As a PhD candidate at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I was aware of the Equality and Diversity Creative Fund (EaDCF); a small pot of money open to fund independent projects from student and staff members that promote and develop equality and diversity initiatives. I have always been aware of the high number of neurodiverse students at the school, (as an undergraduate, 75% of my final year group were neurodiverse). However, I felt there was a lack of awareness, visibility and discussion of this populace within the RCS. I was reminded of how pivotal Benedict’s practice was to me as a student-artist and thought it would be wonderful to share that experience with the current cohort. I applied to the EaDCF and was successful, so Benedict and I got to work on planning our event due to take place in Dyslexia Awareness Week 2018.
BP: By the beginning of 2018, myself and Aby had started to broaden the conversation, concluding that it would be great to find an opportunity to finally meet up and have that conversation we had planned to have in 2012. Around this time I was developing my project ’How to be Dyslexic Artist’, part of which was an offer to present my lecture ‘3-D Thinkers in a 2D World’ alongside an accompanying workshop that I was devising. As it happens, around an hour or so after discussing this very possibility, Aby received notification of a fund that specifically supported bringing in outside expertise to reflect on issues of exclusion and disability. It didn’t take long to work out that this was clearly the opportunity we had been waiting for…
Q.4 – 25 hours in Glasgow: what happened working on ‘How to be a Dyslexic Artist and Other Stories’…
AW: Benedict arrived into Glasgow on the afternoon of the 4th October. It was a typically rainy day when I met him and we travelled to his Airbnb where we made it inside to drink coffee and discuss our plans. For the first time, I was able to examine one of Benedict’s beautiful ‘DIV / Dyslexic Intelligent Vision’ suits in the flesh, or should I say the fabric, and question him on the craft of how it is made. After such a long digital dialogue, it was a great to finally talk in person. It was soon time to prepare for that evening’s performance lecture.
En route to RCS, Benedict assured me his visual memory and orientation skills were excellent; his solo return journey would be easy. I was reminded of the difference between us, me with my added dyspraxia meaning that navigation and orientation of new places is a confusing and nerve-wracking prospect: we are two rather different dyslexics.
We arrived at the lecture theatre, where there was a group of students and staff already waiting outside. Following a warm welcome of applause, Benedict began his lecture. In a conversational, yet clearly constructed address, he spoke without referring to any notes, sharing stories of the development of his current practice of artmaking. He walked us through his past as the most dyslexic boy his childhood educational psychologist had ever met. Yes, Benedict is very good at being dyslexic, and he illustrated why. We heard about a breadth of different projects of different mediums in different locations, not all projects about dyslexia, but all carrying the same dyslexic creative skill that Benedict embodies. He spoke of reversing the paradigm of medical and deficit discourse of dyslexia, a reclamation of language, the idea of memory as a cassette tape coil, and the virtues of 3D and visual thinking. We engaged with a Q&A, in which I was so engrossed that I did not take notes and therefore cannot recall the topics of questions and answers, but I can tell you that they were so interesting that the conversation carried into a local bar where a group spoke into the early hours of the morning.
The following day the workshops, ‘How to be a Dyslexic Artist and Other Stories’, took place with attendance from neurodiverse attendees from throughout the whole school; staff, students, musicians, performance makers, tutors, lecturers. Benedict, fully donned in his ‘Grey DIV’ get up, moved through facilitating the group to create their own character that simultaneously embodies their neurodivergent identity and reverses the medical, deficit paradigm commonly assigned to dyslexics. The group were led on a process of generating text and wearable sculpture to create these characters which were to be captured through a short moment of performance and photography. Given A0 sugar paper of different colours (allocated via paper airplanes, flown to them at random) and tools to create their unique paper outfit, each individual manipulated and adorned the paper in unique ways and created a moment of performance, which they could further develop in their own practices.
The aftermath of the workshop was a visual delight, a papery mess of discarded costumes which in itself became a new sculpture; a collaborative sculpture, a temporary sculpture soon to be recycled. And soon enough, that was that and all our plans were achieved and it was time for Benedict to leave the Conservatoire and Glasgow. He got a taxi from the rank and began his return solo journey.
BP: The application to bring me to The RCS for Dyslexia Awareness Week was successful and, several months later, I arrived in Glasgow at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. By 5 o’clock the following afternoon, I was back on the train having presented ‘How to be a Dyslexic Artist Other Stories’ in its first manifestation alongside two workshops.
I have designed and delivered many workshops in the past twenty five years, with everyone from pre-schoolers through to architects and planning officers. My golden rule is to communicate clearly to people that they are very best resource, that it is their opinion, their creative ideas and their solutions which are at the heart of what I’m asking for. As national education policy moves away from the idea of learning and closer to the idea of training, it’s position becomes further from the idea of independent thought and, in my interpretation, closer to the idea of the individual as a mere facilitator of external knowledge. Further and higher education however, still provide support and the space to develop independently delivered outcomes.
There is something clearly emotive and possibly even slightly dangerous about delivering a workshop around something which is so personal to the individual who leads it. Part of the freedom of taking on ‘The DIV’ persona is to draw borders and lines around the personal experience to aid and support a rigorous process of reflection and expression. It is this idea of creating a persona to express personal feelings around experiences, to take not only the negative stereotypes presented by the world but the ones that we’ve taken upon ourselves, and turn them on their heads.
The workshop in Glasgow was an opportunity to develop a sketch of an alternative persona for the individuals who attended, in a workshop led by my latest iteration of the ‘DIV’ persona ‘The Grey DIV’. We asked ourselves to think about those negative interpretations that we carry, and that we have been given all of our lives and to reflect on this. What happens to the message that describes us as ‘disfunctional’ or ‘in need of repair’ when we turn it on it’s head? Or when we look for words and forms to create a visual presence for something that hides within us?
Q.5 – Time to reflect on the work we have now done; what happens next?
AW: What happens next? That is a very good question to which I do not objectively know the answer. I am open to more collaborate projects, where we can continue the conversations and ideas we have begun to explore together. I’m interested in Benedict’s practice of performance for camera, as seen in ‘The DIV (2005-2006)’, and how this could be a methodology applied to capturing ideas from my own performance practice. I also aspire to continue to widen awareness of our neurodiverse student cohort at The RCS, where I study and work. I also plan on wearing the t-shirt that Benedict sent to me, which reads: ‘Everyone can be dislecksick, you just have to try harder’.
BP: How do we cover up, block and disguise our experiences? More importantly, how do we identify the differences and the strengths we have developed to help us navigate a rigid text-dominated world and share these bespoke techniques and journeys with others? Through playing. Through not knowing. Through digging down into ourselves. Through listening and talking and then making, the act of thinking through doing; this is new knowledge, this is our knowledge. You will not find it in a book – because we have not written it yet! Let’s do it again sometime…
Benedict Phillips is running the world’s first Foundation course in becoming a ‘Dislecksick Artist’ at The Tetley, Leeds from April – June 2019. Click on this link to apply and find out more