DNR_RND: Artist and academic Kai Syng Tan


Ashok Mistry has been interviewing artists and prominent figures in the sector as part of DNR_RND, a project he initiated to examine how the arts sector can change to be more equitable post-Covid. Here, he speaks to artist and academic, Kai Syng Tan

A digital drawing of swirling shapes featuring the artist, aa woman of east Asian descent swirling around in the image

Artful Agitation. Digital drawing towards new model of neurodivergent leadership. Kai Syng Tan 2020. www.kaisyngtan.com/artful

When I started developing the DNR_RND series I was looking for voices that were leading the change and challenging assumptions to both disability in the mainstream and within the disability arts sector. There are few people that so openly and proudly exude the energy of being neurodivergent as Kai Syng Tan.  Kai describes herself an artist, curator, academic, consultant, person, woman, migrant, and a lot more besides. Characterising her work as “using my body and mind in motion and commotion as forms of interrogation and intervention in a world that is also in motion and in commotion”. 

Kai uses art to open up dialogues with people not in the arts – or, as Kai describes them “members of other species”. This includes scientists, psychiatrists, urban planners, and so on. Kai commented on the volatility of the moment. “We live in a very interesting moment of upheaval”. One of the issues Kai was keen to explore was the idea of leadership in moments of crisis. In particular it was the freshness brought by young people leading important conversations around climate change, Covid-19 and the 2020 Black Lives Matter whilst older generations who are supposed to lead have failed us. 

“We’re seeing very young people going out in the streets and being really courageous and leading conversations. And a lot of these people are people of colour, neurodivergent people, people who are from minority, disadvantaged backgrounds and so on, and they haven’t had that sort of opportunity before, or when previously people from these backgrounds try to speak up we’ve not been listened to before”.

A group of people at an exhibition look up at a large collage-based digital artwork

Picturing Happiness? Still of live performance in collaboration with 2 artists and 2 computer scientists, Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore. Kai Syng Tan 2019. Photograph by Philip Tan.

The conversation turned to the hypocrisy and elitism in the arts sector. These are major issues as we try to address both the difficult situations people worked in before the pandemic and the magnification of those problems as cultural venues were forced to close. 

“The interesting thing is we’ve always thought, oh, we’re so liberal, we’re so open, actually, we aren’t at all. We are as racist as any other sector. We have sophisticated ways of covering it up. I don’t want to resuscitate that. And I think it remains the job of a lot of us to keep calling out on bad practices and faux liberalism”.  

Kai pointed to the preoccupation with track record, something that is a core enabler of elitism and how those attitudes and conventions may become exacerbated. In particular, Kai feared for those whose backgrounds don’t fit and we discussed how they would be shut out of the arts because, for instance, they didn’t go to art school or they don’t know the right people. 

“When there’s no resources now the excuse is to say we’re not going to fund something that we don’t recognise. We’re not going to fund someone that doesn’t look like us”. 

We discuss the prominence of disability and neurodiversity in the arts sector as a result of the pandemic and in particular, the burgeoning visibility of neurodiversity in the eyes of public bodies and institutions. But much of this is down to the heavy lifting done in the background by neurodivergent communities themselves. A great example is The Neurodiversity In/And Creative Research Network which Kai established earlier in the year with Dr Ranjita Dhital from Reading University. It’s a loose international network of neurodivergent artists and researchers which had over 120 members after its first month. 

Group of women standing on one leg in a city park

Running Discourse. Still of participatory art, Documenta, Kassel, Germany. Kai Syng Tan 2012. Photograph by Hayley Newman.

“I think that that’s really encouraging. Yes, it’s interesting that the World Economic Forum and NESTA and so on are all paying attention to neurodiversity, but we have been around for a while”. 

Kai was exasperated at the burden on marginalised people to prove their marginalisation and the amount of work needed to create change. 

“We’ve seen this a lot during Black Lives Matter. Every institution, when you call them out, instead of actually replying to your question they respond by saying ‘look, this is what we’ve done.’ On this document, page 49, line 6000. We’re doing diversity here. No, you are not ‘doing’ diversity, and stop being defensive.”

The Black Lives Matter movement was not new and had been going for a number of years. It was only the scale and visibility of the protests in the last few months that brought it to the fore.  For neurodiversity, which is an invisible disability, it was a completely different set of circumstances. As Kai explained, invisible disabilities need to be foregrounded in a tangible form and a greater level of energy is needed to maintain momentum. The visibility of neurodiversity is something that is growing as people come together, however, there is still a long way to go.

“We need to make it more visible… and by organising ourselves together and by getting your allies together and by getting like-minded people together, you can create that visibility, you can create that critical mass, even if it’s a small critical mass it is still critical.” 

In terms of the road ahead, Kai left us with some advice and a taste of how she hopes to organise change:

“I prefer making some noise. Disturbing the ground by irritating others.  By being productively antagonistic, not just antagonistic for its own sake. Yes, there’s a lot more work to be done. But we’re getting organised with other folks like ourselves.”

DNR_RND is an ongoing project, the questions covered are below. You can contribute your own answers which may be used as part of the research, via this survey.

  • How do you feel at the moment in general, like right now?
  • How do you see the arts sector changing in the years to come?
  • What is the single positive change in the arts that can have a big impact.
  • Is there one aspect or practice within the art sector that you think shouldn’t be resuscitated?
  • What is one of the main barriers to diversity having seen barriers to having agency in the mainstream.
  • How can we stop the value that disabled people have neurodivergent people, for that matter bring to society and to the arts from losing prominence.
  • Do you think protected characteristics are more visible now?