Interrogating Invisibility: the outsider’s perspective

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Following her appearance on the Interrogating Invisibility panel debate, hosted by Disability Arts Online at MAC Birmingham in November 2018, Anna Berry considers the barriers that exist in the visual arts for disabled artists.

Anna Berry standing in front of installation

Anna Berry standing in front of The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine

There is a huge discussion to be had around the barriers to disabled artists in the art world, and it has barely begun. George Vasey’s thoughtful piece gives great insight into how, for example, the physical requirements of ‘showing up’ freezes out many disabled artists. In my bite of the elephant, I will try to shine a light on a few of the insidious factors that resist being easily pinned down. Things like cognitive scripts and using the ‘right’ language, as well as attitudes from the wider culture towards disabled artists.

My role on the panel was that of ‘The Outsider’, as someone whose practice is very separate from the art world infrastructure of gallerists and curators. Most of my work appears in public space, much of it is intervention and, in the rather patronising parlance of the art world, I’m “self-taught”. I spent a long time before the event clarifying my thinking; trying to diagnose the more oblique ways my disability contributes to my outsiderness.

An overarching issue that resonates throughout my years of practice is what I think of as the cognitive script. Building a practice brick-by-brick without cohort, mentorship, role-models, or road map is hard work. You’re lugging those bricks alone, a long way up a foggy path, never quite sure if you’re even hauling in the right direction. This is one of those things that everybody who has been to art school dismisses – as with all privilege, those who have it are blind to it.

People with an art education have absorbed a lot more by osmosis outside the official curriculum than they tend to realise. Even if they do feel a bit lost when they graduate, compared to someone without that background, they already have huge access to the art world just by virtue of having a network, as well as some sense of how to walk the walk and talk the talk.

One essential part of ‘talking that talk’ is the skill of being able to discuss your art in a way that gives art-world people a handle on your work. On the face of it, it’s a reasonable request – any newcomer to your work needs an introduction to it. I’m crap at it. I will always be crap at it. And that’s partly coming from a non-art background, but mostly about being non-neurotypical and not finding it easy to explain things in a way that makes sense to others.

I have learned from bitter experience that the Venn of my cognition just doesn’t overlap much with that of curators and gallerists. What I find is that you have to be able to step into their construction; their narrative; their world. They’re unlikely to meet you halfway. And for many disabled artists, for any number of reasons, that’s not possible.

And I would argue, it shouldn’t have to be. It’s the curator’s job to be able to contextualise your work within the framework that they’re comfortable with, such as the art canon narrative. As an artist, I should be free to engage with the ideas I’m interested in directly and not as they relate to how other artists have previously explored them. But in the real world, if you want to have proposals and applications accepted, (to borrow Aidan’s wonderful expression) you need to be able to play ‘buzzword bingo’, or you’re out.

I don’t seem to contextualise myself in a way the art-world gatekeepers receive very well. I don’t use the ‘right’ language and framing. But – and I’m being frank here – I’m thoroughly uninterested in doing that. Much art-world dialogue, I find, is self-referential – it’s as if it’s stuck in a kind of art-crit feedback loop, talking in ever-decreasing circles about itself. I’m of Louise Bourgeois’s way of thinking: “Art is not about art. Art is about life.” To be fair, I think this is a problem in all walks of life – people’s knowledge and skillsets become a kind of mental runnel, from which they can’t escape, whilst not being aware they’re trapped.

So, in this case, I would say it’s not so much a deliberate prejudice against the art of outsiders; it’s more subconscious than that. I inhabit a realm that they find hard to access, and that I find hard to communicate to them. In some ways it’s an interesting counterpoint – as a disabled person, I don’t have access to the art world, because the art world finds much of my work inaccessible.

Art Installation made from pages of books

Anna Berry’s The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine

These are a few thoughts about what I would term the ‘soft barriers’. And whilst I can attempt to identify them, I admit to hopeless inadequacy when it comes to proposing solutions. I sympathize with curators and gallerists – how do they find artists who are just not in their professional orbit? I wondered about a scheme to pair disabled artists with curators who could couch their work in digestible ways for other curators, and network artists with specific art-world entities who would be interested in their work. But such a scheme would still have to have an application procedure, which is in itself a huge barrier to many disabled artists.

The normative route to an art career, according to received wisdom, is you start off being seen in London shows, which you achieve by entering opens and group shows. Many group shows comprise art school cohorts just getting together and showing their work. If you’re an outsider, you’ll have to enter opens. And that means: applications.

You need to be capable of tackling a language-based form. You can sometimes do it by video, but nevertheless, you have to be able to effectively martial information in a language-based way. So many people can’t get anywhere with applications because they’re unable to deliver the information required in the format required. I’ve pretty much given up on applying for anything without an access worker. And so few opens or residencies have a separate pot of money for access requirements.

Here’s one of the most constructive suggestions I can make to ensure that your open call is more accessible: find the money to create an access fund. It’s so simple, but so rare. Even better would be Arts Council funding to support to disabled-artists’ practices in this area, rather than funding on a project-basis only – I hope the new Artist Development Bursaries might offer just such a possibility.

I’m cynical enough to know that ‘success’ in the art world is uncorrelated with the quality of work. It’s more a function of how networked-in you are, how well you can explain your work so it’s digestible to gallerists and curators, and how good you are at branding yourself, doing social media, all that stuff… Which, to an extent, is the case for people in all the creative industries these days. But I think that’s working against people with certain types of impairments, in that if you really can’t do all that peripheral stuff, then it’s dispiriting to realise the quality of your work is rather irrelevant.

Art installation under a bridge

Anna Berry’s Fake Plastic Trees

Obviously, I haven’t followed a normative path in the art world. My work is often made in my house – including insane 14m pop-up installations for underpasses! Until I went to the welcome day for my Unlimited R&D award I’d never heard of a producer. I didn’t have any sense of the career path in art. And when I made work, I had to figure out a way on my own to get it out there.

So, for example, one of my political pieces, The Political Is Personal, ended up showing at Conway Hall in London. This was literally from phoning up leftist places and asking if they would show my work in their entrance hall or knew anywhere else that might. It requires a great deal of initiative and drive and the ongoing creation of your own opportunities: literally carving out that non-normative path yourself. It all feels like very untrodden ground and very hard work.

But having said that, by some interpretations I am actually doing okay – I got to show for a few days at Tate Modern with Tate Exchange, and this year at Southbank Centre. I’ve done international residencies, I’ve shown abroad; what more do I want, you may ask? However, many if not all the opportunities for exposure have been from connection with disability arts – I got to show with Tate Exchange because of being shortlisted for the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, and I showed at Southbank Centre because of my Unlimited R&D.

But the rub is, in my experience, there’s no real cross over from the disability art sector into the mainstream art world, in visual arts. I might have got some cool-sounding things to put on my CV, but the bottom line is there’s still not a gallerist or a curator in the country who’s aware of my work. I’m perpetually stuck in an invisible parallel place to that of the mainstream art world – it feels like this giant river that there’s no way to cross.

Number of paper ships on water

Anna Berry’s Fragile Viking

The problem for your CV mostly comprising disabled arts opportunities is that they have a sting in the tail. When it comes to planning for art world success, I am advised over and over not to mention disability because it consigns you to a disability-arts cul-de-sac. I wrote an editorial last year for DAO about this – how disability is the poor-relation in the identity-politics family.

It’s not afforded anything like the same recognition about the need for representation in the wider discussion. We’re kind of stuck where women, gay people, and people of colour were in the ’80s, where you didn’t want to shout about your identity because you were essentially confirming yourself as a niche entity outside of the white male mainstream. When it comes to disability, the perception of mainstream curators is of art as a therapeutic activity rather than a rigorous and examined practice.

So I’ve been told a lot that mentioning that I’m a disabled artist openly is massively unstrategic and actually holding my career back. I spoke with an artist recently – one who’s much more successful than me – who admitted that she is also disabled, but never mentions it precisely because she feels acknowledging that identity is such a huge disadvantage in the art world.

I don’t take that advice any more – I try to be quite out-and-proud about my disabled identity now, and this was very specifically as a result of interactions with curators in the US on a residency, which you can read about here. The short version is, I kept being told to ‘miss that bit out’ if I mentioned disability when contextualising my work.

Now, the more I encounter people who want me to shut up about it, the more I feel a tremendous responsibility to do precisely the opposite. Because I’m someone with some profile (albeit negligible), and a voice, and an ability to sometimes use that voice, I must use what platform I have to try to get the art world to change its attitude towards disabled artists.

I am the first to admit that I am thus-far failing miserably to do that, because I’m so at the periphery, that I can’t yet engage them in a dialogue. But nevertheless, when I’m feeling resilient enough, I try consciously to put my disabled identity out there and hope that if I keep demanding that they take me seriously, eventually somebody will!

I hope I’ve managed to capture and communicate a few of the barriers to disabled artists’ success that are elusive to pin down. There’s a cognitive script of how it all works, what language to use, and how to present yourself – and a bit of a schism between where many disabled artists are and where the art establishment is in these respects. There’s also a problem with the perception of disability, within the melange of identity, being hugely disadvantageous.

And then there’s the further institutional issue of the lack of links and cross-over between disability arts and the mainstream. I salute all the artists out there – particularly the disabled ones – who are forging that non-normative path. Take heart in knowing that what you’re doing doesn’t just forward your own agenda, but pulls us all forward with you!

Visit her website for more information about Anna Berry.