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Perspectives on Reality

Panel Discussion, Sheffield Doc|Fest 2019
Supported by Wellcome

This is a transcript of a 10 minute presentation originally at Sheffield Doc|Fest 10/6/19 about the contribution of outsiderness and perceptual differences to social change, with reference to my work. This was part of a panel discussion with artist Nwando Ebizie, senior producer Jo Verrent, and Neuroscientist Peter Kok.

I’ve been asked to talk a bit about outsiderness, about my work, and the relationship between that and social justice, resistance to the mainstream, creating change, etc.

A lot of my work has been about trying to get people to think outside constructed narratives – or at least trying to get them to realise that what they take as something objective about the world is something either constructed by their own cognition, or constructed culturally by the sum of our cognitions.

My work is outside of the mainstream – I show almost exclusively in non-gallery spaces, often just interventions in public space, I’m non-neurotypical so I come from a diverse place cognitively, and a lot of my work is about social justice – space and land ownership, homelessness, electoral apathy, benefits, etc.

I think something that’s key to being able to effect change is getting people to realise that actually change is possible. The more we think that stuff is ‘baked in’ – that this reality that we see, feel, touch and experience, is absolutely out there and faithfully represented in our perception and our psyche – then the more powerless we are to change anything. We lose our agency over our world. If everything is necessarily this way, because ‘that’s just how it is’, then we really can’t change anything or make anything better.

I think that the work I make comes from the way in which I think and perceive things, and that comes from who I am, and who I am is non-neurotypical. There’s a lot of downsides to experiencing the world inherently differently to the way most others are experiencing it – and I won’t go into any of that today. But one corollary is that if everyone else is seeing one thing, and it’s apparent that you see something else – you’re forced into the position of realising the contingent and subjective nature of things that appear fixed and objective to others. You very literally have another perspective, and that allows you to be outside in a unique way. And, of course, we all know there are many many downsides to being the outsider. But it can also bring this Cassandra-like quality of somehow being able to see things that are closed to others, because you find yourself unwittingly in a sort of meta-place, standing outside of a cognitive box that other people are trapped in.

Most of my life I’ve been told by society-at-large that there’s something slightly unacceptable about me – whatever it is that I am, that difference is not quite acceptable. But that outsider status that is conferred upon you – no matter how unwanted – can also make you a bit like the fool in Shakespeare – a sort of truth-seer and truth-speaker.

And I think that becomes very relevant when we start to think about how social change is effected. There are only new ideas in society because of what social psychologists call ‘minority influence’. This is how we come by civil rights, and progressive change. How what initially seems radical comes to shift the Overton Window and make what were once radical and progressive ideas the social norm.

Paradise Lost

I do quite a lot of work that is about social justice, radical politics, and radical economics. I know Erinma, who organised this event, particularly wanted me to touch on the piece I did last year with the homeless community, so I’ll talk a little bit about that. This was a project for MK50, which was the 50th birthday of Milton Keynes, where I live, and about where I make a lot of work. There was a lot of whizz bang fireworksy stuff, and that was all very nice, but I wanted to try to talk to people whose voices were perhaps not being represented much in the MK dialogue, so I teamed up with Rosemary Hill to to make a project with the homeless community. We forged a relationship with one of the local homelessness charities and through them forged tentative relationships with some of the clients. We chatted to them about how they felt about Milton Keynes. And whilst we talked, they ripped up old architectural plans of original buildings in MK. We recorded what people had to say and filmed their hands ripping anonymously, and I presented the film inside of a tent in an underpass, which is where lots of the MK homeless community tend to live, and the tent had all of the ripped plans coating it.

It was obviously a delicate project and had all the ethical considerations that I’m sure many documentary makers face. You don’t want to be this middle-class poverty tourist exploiting vulnerable people by asking them to make themselves even more vulnerable through self-disclosure. So we kept the chat and the questions very much centred around MK as a place, and if people wanted to talk about their situation on a more personal level then they did. And actually the sense of place provided a really good conduit to give voice to people’s narratives.

Milton Keynes conceptually and architecturally was built with very high, quite utopian ideals, and inevitably a lot of that hasn’t worked out as envisaged. And there’s a parallel there with how we try to be the best architects of our own lives, and often that doesn’t work out brilliantly either. So the title of the piece is Paradise Lost and that title was suggested by one of the participants, which I thought was brilliant.

A lot of my early work was about changing and colonising and inhabiting ubiquitous and generic structures in public space. They’re all made from repurposed books and paper, and require this long repetitive performative stage of making, culminating in something ephemeral and hence outside of the realm of material value. I think this determination to effortfully produce something that resists being corralled into a material object with value or longevity is itself undermining of capitalist structures. So there’s an amount of quite radical stuff you can unpack in that I think.

Dirty Money

This is a piece about clean trade called Dirty Money – that’s actually poison ivy, so that money can’t be touched or go back into circulation.

Breathing Room, Original

This is my original incarnation of Breathing Room, which is now being funded by Unlimited. Again I won’t talk in detail about it, and it’s actually a kinetic piece, so do check out the video for a quick sense of the movement.
In a nutshell this was donated paper from individuals and community groups that I put in the relentlessly commercial shopping centre space in Milton Keynes, to kind of re-colonise that public space with a living breathing representation of citizens and the community as opposed to consumers.

Fake Plastic Trees

This is my piece Fake Plastic Trees. Again, I won’t talk in depth about this, but again it’s about public space – the famous Midsummer Oak in Milton Keynes staged the most magnificent protest by slowly dying over a period of a decade after a shopping centre was built around it. I managed to steal a fragment of it, and I built this 14m pop up intervention comprising a sort of forest of tiny photos of the life and times of MK and its people. You made a pilgrimage through this sacred forest of photos enshrined in plastic to touch the fragment of the oak at the centre, like a saint’s relic.

The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine

The piece I’m probably most proud of is an interactive installation I made last year about consumer capitalism called ‘The Constantly Moving Happiness Machine’. I won’t go deeply into the concepts it explores right now, but do check out the video of the kinetic interaction if you’re interested. I also did an accompanying talk about the individual’s relationship to consumer capitalism with an amazing academic called Jason Hickel who talked about economic degrowth. And this was about how we think our way outside of a model that says we need infinite growth, and that we need to manufacture endless pointless shit, which means that you then need to manipulate people’s self-image and self-esteem with advertising to desire and buy this overproduction of crap, and what a kind of toxic end-times death-spiral this form of capitalism has become.

And I wanted to end on this piece, because I think it’s the case that at the moment most people still can’t think their way outside of capitalism – it is almost unthinkable that there could be something else beyond that. And I think it’s like a kind of Stockholm syndrome that we’re just really institutionalised within capitalism itself. We can’t see outside the current power structures, and efforts for change become about grabbing what power you can from a kind of hopeless position trapped within those structures, rather than overturning them and finding a true freedom.

I guess my takeaway – what I’m saying – is this: being the outsider, for all its drawbacks and pain, gives you the gift of being able to be radical just by literally existing in this way that is different, and the fact that that allows you to see differently, and see from the outside, in. I think existing non-neurotypically is kind of radical by default whether you want it or not!

Below are the answers I drafted to potential QnA stuff:

  • In the arts sector in the UK, who is setting ‘the reality’?

I think everyone is living a more different reality than we would imagine. And I think we are all desperate to find a consensus as to the nature of the world. And that leads to narratives, and canons, and the collective fastening onto the prevailing view of something. It’s just how we make sense of the world.

But that’s something that’s also always changing with social norms, changing sensibilities, awareness, etc. 

Even with that flux, fine art – visual art – in the UK is quite an institutionalised thing. There are gatekeepers, there are gallerists and curators and such, and they have quite similar backgrounds and expertise. And it’s good that they have expertise – but at the same time it can be hard then to kind of disrupt that canon and prove that value can be found in places in which they’re not even looking. It’s quite a small world. 

It’s all to do with cognitive script. People are rarely actually malign. The brain just develops along certain runnels, and that then dictates their experience and their reality. It’s a function of human cognition that subtlety gets erased in favour of simplicity/binary to facilitate categorization by our inadequate short-hand-seeking operating system.  It’s a really difficult – arguably impossible thing to step outside of that, because that is the very thing that is creating your reality. 

  • What’s the problem with the so-called reality?

The problem always comes with power structures. Who’s doing well out of the current narrative and who isn’t. Which voices are heard. 

But beyond the specific content of our current ‘reality’ – it’s having that very fixed notion that kind of bakes-in things which are actually contingent. It makes it hard to change things, have agency, make the world a better place. Or just to change your mind about stuff, because you realise that maybe things aren’t as you thought they were. 

And then at the same time we have the mass abuse of this notion, where people don’t believe anything anymore and you have denialism on the rise with climate-change denial, flat-earthers, the apotheosis of which is the execrable Alex jones and his Sandy Hook denial. 

So for me there’s this tension between where is the optimum to hold onto our perception of reality as something we can trust and where to let it go as something we need not to trust in order to allow change to be created. 

  • Can it be changed (if so how)? 
  • And how might those who are ‘othered’ have a role to play in this?

Forms of resistance. How do you resist your own cognitive biases! The tricks your brain wants to play on you! We need a psychologist to answer that! 

There are certainly ways and means – there are those nudge guys form behavioural economics who know how to manipulate behaviour.

I don’t want to say the word ‘disruption’ too much because it just makes me think of spotty coders in Silicon Valley who think that they’re the first people to invent workforce exploitation and not paying tax – it’s the same old neocon shit rebranded as “disruption”! 

I always come back to Raquel Meseguer’s work involving resting in public space and how subversive that is. And how actually we can do quite passive things to resist power structures sometimes. She’s taking that space and changing it and making it her own and hence changing the rules for everyone else in that space too – and I find a parallel to my work there. And that act of change comes from a place of disability – from having to live differently! 

I also like the conectp of ‘Resistance-In-Place’  in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy:

“To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system[…] It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.”