The Voice of the Unicorn: exploring alienation, silence and the isolation of disabled artists

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Richard Butchins is an artist and filmmaker who critiques mainstream perspectives on disability with unapologetic fervour. Following his success at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, where he won the The Alternate Realities Interactive Award for his work ‘The Voice of The Unicorn’ (TVTU), James Zatka-Haas sat down with him to discuss his art and politics.

a group of people iare pictured with an installation n a gallery space

Voice of the Unicorn installation © Richard Butchins

Unlimited, the funding body behind the TVTU, have been at the forefront of representing disabled artists since 2012. Unlimited is a commissioning programme that feels like a drop in the ocean, enabling disability-led art and artists to reach audiences both in the UK and further afield. The programme’s aim is to change perceptions of disability around the world.

“Unlimited have given artists opportunities they would have otherwise never got. They’ve given a platform for people to see disability,” muses Butchins.

The subjects of Butchins’s latest piece – the artists at Atelier Corners, a workshop and refuge for artists with autism, based in Osaka, Japan – were already familiar to Unlimited when the programme co-delivered ‘Nama Āto: Japanese Outsider Art,’ a ground-breaking exhibition of learning-disabled Outsider Artists in 2016. The exhibition toured extensively in the UK and showcased provocative works by artists Yasuyuki Ueno and Koji Nishioka, both of whom are present in Butchins’s work.

Atelier Corners was established in 1993 to help combat the lack of opportunities for autistic people in Japan. Since it began, Atelier Corners’ reputation has grown extensively, and a few of the artists on their books are developing international reputations.

After gaining a British Council International Development award to visit Japan, Butchins was introduced to Atelier Corners by dancer and collaborator on the project Kazuyo Morita. Working with producer and Japanophile Patrick Knill, the stories of Atelier Corners artists were documented.

TVTU is about perception and the communicative silence that prevents language from conceptualising and finding a solution to that silence. It addresses what is said and what is listened to, the gaps between what Butchin’s describes as “the multitude of disabled voices shouting” and the “reluctance of mainstream society to hear those disenfranchised voices.” The work is multi-layered, using both video and sculpture. Displayed on easels, videos show artists at work. Next to them sit several jars, representing the bubble those artists exist within.

A series of glass jars perched tree-like on a vertical structure

Glass jars from Voice of the Unicon. Image © Richard Butchins

The jars are a thoughtful and clever interpretation of the bubble that exists around disabled – particularly autistic – people. Butchins expands:

“You can see through and see out of them, but there’s no communication; from the outside you can’t hear what’s going on inside the jar, and vice versa. It’s about that invisible wall that exists around anyone with a disability. Perception from someone with a disability is different to the perception of disability from someone without.”

It’s a clever motif because it can be applied to many areas of disability, for example the media’s portrayal of the Paralympics, the renewed role of disability as entertainment, or the lack of critical attention given to disabled artists.

“On the outside, there’s a tendency to not want to criticise disabled artists because they are disabled. But the other thing that results in that is that it doesn’t get into the mainstream. You don’t see mainstream critics reviewing disability art.”

Why is this? Are able non-disabled people uncomfortable with disability, or have they just not been exposed to it enough? The videos in TVTU are displayed on an easel, and the jars are presented on a shoe rack, like any you’d find in a shop. The former represents the ‘hidden’ workshop, spewing out material, whilst the latter presents the markets the product is sold in.

This, according to Butchins, is why our relationship with Outsider Art is problematic; the line between expose and exploit is at best thin. The artworks leave the workshop and make the money whilst the artists remain in their jars. This preference towards consumption is indicative of the underlying problem with Outsider Art.

“Outsider Art has been ruthlessly exploited commercially. The artists are invisible. It’s only their pretty little paintings. It doesn’t expose the artist or the process, which is what I’m trying to do in this piece of work. Take Frida Kahlo, she’s a perfect example of an artist whose work very specifically attacked her disability, American culture and ‘gringos’. She was very specific about her own agenda and her manifesto. Look at the current exhibition at the V&A. It’s displaying her shoes, underwear and clothes. They even have a barbie doll of her. You’ve taken whatever this woman stood for, diluted it of any value and turned it into a brand. Fuck off. She’s not an issue of Vogue magazine. Her work was powerful. The work she was making and why is the complete antithesis of this crap.”

“It’s 25 feet of industry and 2 inches of art,” sighs Butchins. Although commissioning programmes like Unlimited and exhibitions like Nama Āto are making substantial changes by exposing genuine talent, it feels like the barrage of exploitative interests, as well as the negative view of disability is still the main barrier. Work exploring disability in as visceral and direct a manner as Butchins does is still such a rarity. But he’s certainly one disabled artist who refuses to be silenced.

The Voice of the Unicorn is exhibiting at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival, London from 5 – 9 September.