Audiovisability: the project that drove my creativity

For three months last year, I was an artist and writer with Audiovisability, supporting their research and development (R&D) project funded by Arts Council England.

The project revolved round deaf Para-dressage rider Laurentia Tan, a multi-medal winner who has been competing in Paralympic and global sports events for ten years – and yet has never won gold. It came about due to her growing frustration over barriers to participating in individual freestyle, the only dressage test set to music.

My role was to shadow her in a variety of ways – online discourse, information-sharing meetings, interviews, flying to Cologne for a weekend – and combine that with my own research and development, eventually writing a report accompanied by my own drawings. The result can be viewed here, with a shorter version on Disability Arts Online here.

Laurentia has cerebral palsy. It was for that reason – among others – that Audiovisability’s creative director, Ruth Montgomery, invited me to take part. I am, after all, a parent to a child with cerebral palsy who has explored that road through my blog and my Kindle book, My Daughter and I, which can still be downloaded from Amazon UK. Besides Laurentia and I had been wanting to meet for years – almost since my daughter Isobel was diagnosed at age one in 2010, just after the sportswoman had entered competitive dressage.

Audiovisability therefore facilitated a precious moment where, Laurentia paid us a personal visit and lent Isobel her latest silver medal, won at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, to wear for a photo opportunity. I can’t overstate how significant this was for my child’s self-confidence, for her younger non-disabled brother to witness this, and how proud I felt that day.

Meanwhile Ruth sought to both bring the R&D to a wider audience through a variety of creative disciplines, with music at its core, and use it as an unique opportunity for the artists to build on existing skills and expertise.

So not only did Laurentia boost her music literacy through a combination of music lessons and collaborative discourse – but as one of the contributing artists, addressing a subject that I knew very little about enabled me to spawn a new writing language; which in turn, also pushed my drawing into a more innovative, almost allegorical style.

Given the almost polarised demands of the two strands – bombarding my mind with structural, grammatical thought for long periods of time (even when taking a coffee break!), and then switching to freeform drawing – it was possibly the most challenging and intensely creative task I’d taken on.

Nevertheless, it provided an invaluable opportunity to drive both forms of creativity to new places, transforming my art and my writing as a whole. This new development will be crucial in realising an ambition that I have of producing illustrated children’s books in future.

I am privileged to have worked alongside such a wonderful bunch like the Audiovisability crew, and I look forward to more collaborative work with them. Indeed we are planning for workshops, funded by Decibels, to take place at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury later this year, which will explore similar dressage music themes with their students.

May I extend deep thanks and appreciation to Ruth Montgomery, fellow musician and producer Eloise Garland, sound designer Chris Bartholomew-Fox, German dressage coach Volker Eudel, film director Louis Neethling and most of all, Laurentia Tan and her mother Jannie, for their kindness, patience and time.

Advertisements

Behind Closed Doors: WOW Exeter 2018 and Deaf abuse survivors

I am taking the train to Exeter St David’s on a beautiful day. The peaceful cumulus straddling the giant expanse of blue outside my window reflects my thoughts: assured of my place of safety and comfort, but not resolutely clear.

Today I’m joining a 2pm panel discussion about domestic abuse, Behind Closed Doors, chaired by Jude Kelly as part of WOW Exeter 2018, and I’m keen to share some of my Deaf survivor experiences.

The risk, in doing so, is inherent. I have PTSD and depression, both of which were triggered by cyberbullying following previous ‘outings’. (You can see my first one here.) I have young children to protect.

I belong to a 156,000-strong, intrinsically expressive Deaf/BSL Community that thrives on open communication and gossip – ensuring a high concentration of British Sign Language (BSL) users who know both me and my ex-partners, especially if they’re Deaf. (I expand on the theme here)

So if I don’t divulge certain details, focussing instead on information that doesn’t ‘date’ the abuse at a specific point in time – you know why.

However, I will not be cowed. My perpetuators know that I am one of very few Deaf women not just prepared to speak out – but able to, because I have the ability to articulate myself well to a mainstream or hearing audience. But you know what? If they try to stop me, they cannot profess to be an ally of the Deaf/BSL Community when they practise what we seek to overcome.

Since beginning my work with fellow Deaf survivors – both in a professional capacity, and more informally – I have come to realise how vital their contribution is to everyday discourse about domestic abuse, and yet how lacking it is. As an artist and writer who values freedom of expression in her work, that speaks most deeply to me.

And there are honestly others who recognise this too. In 2015, I was invited onto a panel discussion at the Women’s Aid annual conference, where I became the only Deaf survivor addressing a packed room directly. Later that year, I gave a 45-minute presentation at the NHS Safeguarding annual conference, in which purple became the token colour.

Again, I was the first Deaf survivor to speak out there. 350 people fell completely silent.

Earlier this year, I collaborated in a workshop with DeafHope survivors as part of Statements in Semaphore, an Arts Council-funded project led by Susan Merrick. (You can read more about the workshop here.)

In two hours, I had become a fan of the survivors. The dignity and composure they showed, as they worked patiently on their effigies, reminded me of our unbroken spirit, and evoked memories of how I felt after completing my own course with DeafHope some years ago.

It also made me very sad. These women were resilient because they had to be – but how many of them could stand up on stage and address a hearing audience? For Deaf women, the usual disincentive to come forward is aggravated by, again, communication barriers.

Visible though the survivors’ art is, it exists only as anonymous messages. Their experiences, and what they do afterwards to ensure their safety, remain hidden.

Within the wider society, our position is vulnerable. 90% of all Deaf and hard-of-hearing people come from hearing families, the majority of whom don’t sign. Having a deaf child doesn’t guarantee increased deaf awareness, ensuring that the communication barriers between child and parent become their own institution.

Being clueless in the matter, if they’re not inquisitive enough, parents will then turn to medical advice to ‘solve’ the problem instead. Some will, unfortunately, start abusing their deaf children as a way of deflecting their guilt – thus setting the tone for future toxic relationships.

For people like that, the very idea of calling out domestic abuse in adulthood becomes an insurmountable challenge. I am very lucky to have had loving parents (communication barriers notwithstanding), and an understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship – but even I have faced enormous pressures to not come forward.

Sharing my experiences briefly with a compassionate audience at WOWExeter today, I am assured of their support. There are four other people on the panel besides me – chair and WOW founder Jude Kelly; Elizabeth Langley and Karen Atkinson of SPLITZ; and Sasha Nathanson of Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE). It’s a lovely panel, with courageous stories of their own to share, and Jude is kind and accommodating. The 45-minute discussion is even-handed, with a few more minutes for audience questions. My PTSD inhibits me a little when I give my background, but I push on nevertheless, and hope the audience gets the message.

However afterwards, when the BSL interpreters are gone and people come up to congratulate me, the barriers remain. I wonder then how I can advance from this?

I am not Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Even within my own community I don’t have an international movement backing me with #IBelieveHer on social media. I do not have the time or the energy, for practical reasons as a single parent and carer of a disabled child, to campaign for better support for Deaf survivors.

I can write and make art, and use both to effect change. I can get others to do the same, collaboratively or otherwise. I can continue representing Deaf survivors at mainstream events. But I cannot do that alone. There needs to be a Deaf collective, not a one-woman band, for real change to take place.

The onus is on you, dear reader, to share this blog as widely as you can. Make sure it reaches Deaf survivors and their allies, and encourage them to join ranks with me. We may not be able to hide the emotion pouring forth from the sign language we use, or even avoid their symbiosis altogether. But if we can be emotional together, the more powerful our message will be.

The cumulus is passing. It is time.

(Edited on 16th October 2018 for clarity.)

Statements in Semaphore: an evaluation

IMG_9566.JPGWomen’s struggles. Women’s pain. Women’s compassion and resourcefulness, and the coded messages they send out to the world every day through their clothes, their language, their actions.

I cannot call this post an objective review of Statements in Semaphore or its accompanying exhibition, A Series of Events (Part I), which ran for almost a week at Platform 1 Gallery in Wandsworth Common – because I have made my own emotional investment as one of its contributing artists.

But I can tell you my impressions of what the project was about, and what made my work with fellow artist and sign language interpreter Susan Merrick, who initiated and led it, so invaluable.

Statements in Semaphore aims to highlight the rights of women; particularly, marginalised women. It began with Susan visiting the National Archive building in Kew and discovering the voices of suffragette prisoners and women ‘hidden’ in its archives during an art residency – before climbing the roof to make literal semaphore signals, filmed by an accomplice (for want of a better word).

In the two ensuing years, a socially engaged art practice exploring power, access, language and control in perpetually exciting and diverse ways has emerged. From initial workshops that involved women being photographed from behind making semaphore signals, each of which were printed on giant fabric banners and displayed in public spaces, Susan has reached a point where she is able to create ‘safe spaces’ for creative conversations with women whose voices are often ‘unheard’, so she can invoke thought, debate and awareness around contemporary women’s issues, and link it to her archival research.

As an experienced and qualified sign language interpreter, she felt compelled to add Deaf women’s voices to the mix. They are, after all, twice as likely to experience domestic abuse as hearing women, primarily because the Deaf community is so small and gossip is rife, placing them at increased risk of abuse. Deaf women also experience language and communication barriers in accessing support services, exacerbating their isolation.

In order to empower Deaf abuse survivors to speak for themselves in their own culture and language, Susan resolved to get a Deaf artist running the workshops instead, and invited me to take it on. That I had previously been involved with DeafHope, the anti-domestic abuse charity run by and for Deaf women, was sheer coincidence. I accepted without hesitation.

My workshop, which took place inside Platform 1 Gallery at Wandsworth Common station, was just two hours long. It consisted of a 15-minute ‘brainstorm’ of words the survivors associated with their experiences of domestic abuse, and then a hour 45 minutes making small-scale, mixed-media effigies that were pegged, like washing on the line, above our heads. Immediately afterwards, Susan made a 360 camera clip of the gallery space with the same associated words fading in and out as the film progressed.

In another workshop, I was filmed conversing in BSL with my partner in crime on the steps of a former Victorian hospital for women and children, as if on hidden camera. This became one of several ‘documentary’ pieces looping on a laptop screen in A Series of Events (Part I), the partly obstructive imagery of Platform 1 trains thundering past heightening the sense that you were prying into a confidential dialogue.

Platform 1 Gallery isn’t a large space. For that reason A Series of Events (Part I) felt more like an all-white sanctuary than an exhibition, the perky upcycled or vintage furnishings dotted around giving it an elegant intimacy. That was Susan’s direct invitation for visitors to sit down and chat with her about their life experiences over a cup of tea or coffee.

On the one day I was able to visit the completed exhibition (single-parenting commitments kept me away), I found it very moving. There was a sense of the outwardly pristine finally unveiling signs of women’s oppression, like gilded houses occupied by victims and their still-active perpetuators. You had to engage directly with the effigies, the documentary pieces, the 360 film clip (now accessed as a virtual reality installation), the vintage clothing that Susan had strung up like a giant textile cobweb, in order to identify the coded messages.

Susan extended the theme to the train platform. At 12 noon and 6pm every day, she’d venture outside to make semaphore signals, but her performance had no fixed content. Over time, she also lined up vintage shoes, some of which she walked briefly in; quietly knitted an ultra chunky scarf after a particularly affecting conversation; and roped in volunteers like myself and a couple of others to  copy her signals with revolving layers of borrowed clothes. Each of these performances symbolised the myriad ways in which women try to reach out to others for support without endangering themselves.

This was women reflecting upon themselves, simultaneously looking for a means to liberation and self-respect while maintaining their right to be treated as fellow human beings. As a member of the same gender, it made sense that I should respond to the project with two pieces of my own – and one of them was a gilded house.

Reaching (2018) was a 3D cardboard house model sprayed metallic turquoise on the outside with white tissue roses jutting out, while Selfie (also 2018) comprised a framed 300mm x 300mm largely blue monochrome self-portrait with (obviously) a mobile in my hand, drawn on manilla paper.

IMG_9497

Reaching seems to have left a huge impact on many people. Given the deceptive appearance of the exhibition – although I am obviously touched by the public’s emotional reaction, I am not surprised.

You entered the space, saw the metallic turquoise and gold house on the low side dresser with the pretty white roses and, wondering why some of them were singed, peered inside – only to be confronted by dark fake blood and debris splattered across one corner of its pretty floral-print walls and gnarled roots. I don’t need to explain why the roses got burnt as they erupted from the house.

Further enhancing the sense of ‘living space’ was a rail and a floor pile of donated vintage clothing, rows of shoes fringing the adjacent side dresser. These were offered in free exchange for the shirt off your back, as if to give you another crack at a fresh start or a new identity.

Interestingly, within four days of its opening, Susan – who had manned the exhibition from day one – was exhausted after several intense conversations with strangers, and wanted to hide; hence the enormous textile cobweb, part-draping the gallery entrance.

If you have been following my work on Instagram, you will know that for the past year or so, I have been making and posting almost every day very small mixed-media drawings that utilise fine lines, cross-hatching and sometimes experimental use of colour and tone.

For some time now, I have been seeking a way to free up my drawing and my thinking so my work on Statements in Semaphore, however much it diverts from my practice, is a crucial step towards developing a bolder and more experimental approach.

Certainly, I valued being able to avoid following a rigid structure to my work with Susan Merrick. Not only did it allow for childcare responsibilities, but also real scope for flexibility and lateral thinking. I am honoured and proud to have had such rich and fulfilling discourse with her and those who participated in my workshops, and more crucially, feel more emotionally grounded as an artist, a Deaf person and a woman – which is exactly what meaningful, socially engaged art practice should do.

Statements of Semaphore is a project led by Susan Merrick and funded by Arts Council England. A Series of Events (Part II) takes place at Princes Hall, Aldershot on 18th and 19th October 2018. See website

2015 CINEDEAF Awards

Cinedeaf photo
Me at CINEDEAF Festival, the day before the Awards

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING was unexpectedly nominated for Best Documentary in the 2015 CINEDEAF Awards in Rome on Sunday 7th June, where the film had its Italian premiere and I was invited on stage for a brief presentation in International Sign.

It was also the documentary’s first screening abroad. Congratulations are in order for everyone involved, particularly Neath Films, the interviewees and the children who also featured.

Upon my return I gave a brief account of my visit to Rome on the BSL Zone here. I don’t mind repeating that I felt welcome and loved my stay there.

Click here to watch the nominated film

Zoom Focus: LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING goes live

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/fb1/15983254/files/2015/01/img_1666.jpg

The documentary went out on Film4 at 8am today, and has so far received an enormous positive response. It will be repeated tomorrow (Tuesday), Thursday and Saturday – more scheduling details, including channels, can be found on http://www.thebslzone.co.uk (click on ‘TV schedule’ at the top of the page).

It is also live on the BSL Zone website. Watch it here: http://www.bslzone.co.uk/watch/zoom-2014-listen-even-when-your-heart-crying/

Zoom Focus: success!

In May I became one of two people selected to participate in Zoom Focus, the advanced Deaf film-making scheme run by Neath Films and Samuel Dore in association with the BSLBT. This follows on from the success of CODA, a drama short where I made my debut as writer and director under the Zoom banner in 2011. Click here for more details.

image

I am proposing a 28′ documentary called Grief and The Deaf Child (working title), which explores a longstanding issue that strikes at the heart of the Deaf Community and affects long-term relationships, families, behaviour and attitudes.

I’m terribly excited about it as it’s a topic that has never been covered in the media from a Deaf perspective, and it’s earmarked to go on TV release in November.

Development is already under way, and I’ll be posting updates here about it soon.

Review: Poetry and Sign

Poetry and Sign was a unique event exploring the relationship between sign language, spoken poetry and dance, which took place at King’s Place in central London on 15th May.

Photo by Lauren Harris
Photo by Lauren Harris

Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 19 May 2014

As a harbinger of Deaf Awareness Week, which begins today, Remark!’s collaboration with Poet In The City was a strategic move that enabled sign language poets Ashley Kendall and Jean St Clair to showcase their talents alongside actor Tim Barlow (a cochlear implant user), Rambert dance choreographer Deborah Galloway, and performers from Roehampton Dance.

I am always more drawn to poetry when it is performed in BSL, rather than seeing it performed in spoken English with the words projected alongside on-screen. It’s not just that it is more accessible; rather, by default it calls for a much more animated and physical delivery, ensuring that images of flowers, snow, horses and even wind materialise from one solitary upper body alone.

I liked all of them! But one stanza that stuck in my mind was from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy eve’:

‘He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.’

What the performance did admirably was to demonstrate how spoken poetry contrasts with its BSL interpretation. (Here, I use the word ‘interpretation’ loosely, for reasons given below.) Essentially, the event was structured so that each time a poem appeared on-screen – it could be Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, or Ted Hughes – it was first recited orally by Barlow, and then performed in BSL by Kendall and St Clair, taking turns.

Rather than relay information in the manner of a formal interpreter, they developed their own take on the poetry, enabling them to bring not just a fuller BSL perspective but also their warm, individual personalities into their performance.

I liked the fact that instead of having voice-overs, it was left to the audience to follow their performance using projected words on-screen behind them, as guidance.

That some of the poems initially looked difficult to translate into BSL, but in actuality never were, also made me smile; it reinforced how fluid BSL is as a language. “It is not the fittest, or the strongest, or the cleverest that survive,” Charles Darwin is claimed to have said, “but those who are most adaptable to change.” Given its protracted oppression, no language can be proven to be more adaptable than British Sign Language.

Here and there, the poetry was intercut with speeches. Jean St Clair gave a sounding-board for how creative English-to-BSL translations work; Tim Barlow talked about how he became deaf and how that influenced his decision to become an actor.

Unfortunately, Deborah Calloway provided one of the few irritations of the evening when she perpetually obscured her assigned sign language interpreter with her exaggerated choreography. This might have been fine if she was dancing. In fact, she was simply explaining the theory behind her movements. As for the Roehampton dancers moving (and signing) abstractly to a solitary drum – the less said about them, the better.

That aside, Poetry and Sign attracted a full house, and for three perfectly good reasons – Kendall, St Clair and Barlow – I’d say, “More please!”

Review: So Beautiful, by Chris Fonseca

image

Chris Fonseca’s debut dance video was created with the lyrics to ‘So Beautiful’ by Musiq SoulChild in mind. Melissa Mostyn asks what makes this piece of romantic choreography unique?

Originally published in Disability Arts Online, 18 March 2014

So Beautiful is exactly as the title describes. An aesthetically pleasing, easy-on-the-eye choreographed piece, for the first two-and-a-half minutes you do not realise the dancer is deaf – that is, until he turns his head in close-up and pauses. Other than that, it’s just some guy who could be chilling out on a Sunday, texting a loved one in bed surrounded by a collection of vintage watches and washing his face before he gets into his moves.

And what moves they are. Minimal, yet precise and idiosyncratic, they could not belong to anyone but Chris Fonseca, who performs them. This is not a video targeted specifically at Deaf audiences. You need to be a member of the Deaf Community to know who Semhar Beyene, the female co-dancer who appears at Chris’ front door three minutes in, is.

Why is this important? Can Deaf people not dance? Of course they can – Beyene is one of a number of accomplished Deaf dancers who can adapt well to whatever pop-music routines they’re asked to deliver.

But this is where So Beautiful deviates from the Deaf Community norm. Within ghettoised communities, it is not unusual for members to emulate mainstream pop stars – Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake – in their performances, and in that respect, the Deaf Community is no different. Groups like Def Motion and X-Factor-alike sign-karaoke contests are devised for the exact purpose of entertaining their Deaf audiences, who enthusiastically lap up every second (and long may that continue).

Rare, however, is the opportunity to watch a well-crafted routine like Chris Fonseca’s, and feel that it came from him alone.

Of course, skilful film direction and editing plays a vital role in the presentation of So Beautiful, and the discovery that the work was done by none other than Bim Ajadi, a consummate Deaf film director, made me smile.

Although he is credited at the end, downplaying Ajadi’s involvement is a clever strategy that reinforces the sense that So Beautiful is a dance video that has moved out of the ghetto; the twist being, it gives Ajadi scope for more creative freedom too. This is not intended as a slight on his more Deaf-orientated work. Rather, he should be allowed to work outside the ghetto if he so chooses.

It’s been pointed out by Dao’s editor that as an art form, dance allows more room for manoeuvre in terms of presentation of identity – often making it hard to tell if the work is coming out of the experience of marginalization, unless it’s encoded within the artist’s practice.

I’d say that especially applies to the Deaf Community. Precious little deaf access to professional dance training, coupled with a proliferation of pop-music videos and DVDs since the 1980s, ensures that those within the Deaf Community seek out easier ways to learn to dance, but sometimes incline towards sheer mimicry due to the challenges of practising moving in tune. This often results in them emulating well-known routines with a degree of quiet, intense concentration that you don’t get with hearing dancers, who ironically tend to show more facial expression in the duration.

In contrast, the ease with which Chris Fonseca shifts and twists his body in So Beautiful is as if he’s slipped on his own dancing shoes without realising it. If he removed his CI processor before the film began, how would I know he was deaf?