VAN September/October 2012: In Sync

MAEVE MULRENNAN DESCRIBES THE CURATORIAL STRATEGIES INVOLVED IN DEVELOPING THE EXHIBITION ‘SYNC’, WHICH OPENS AT THE GALWAY ARTS CENTRE IN OCTOBER 2012, AND IS AIMED AT CREATING A BENEFICIAL GALLERY EXPERIENCE FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISTIC SPECTRUM DISORDER.

Left: Sarah O Brien, ‘Abalta’ (Sync work in progress 2012). Right: Elmarie Collins, ‘Blue Installation’, 2012

In October 2012, The Galway Arts Centre (GAC) will host an exhibition entitled ‘Sync’ as part of the Baboró International Festival for Children. My co-curator, John J Twomey, and I are currently researching methods and mediation techniques for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in a visual art context that will inform this exhibition. GAC has been mentored by Ábalta ABA School for Children with Autism and I have also interviewed Carolyn Chin in the V&A Museum Childhood in London, who runs a mediation programme designed specifically for children and young people with ASD.2 ‘Sync’ aims to link together different sources and research, providing a support network to the invited artists. Our research has raised several questions: How can contemporary visual art contribute to the life of a child with autism? What happens to an artist’s practice when they are asked to make work for an audience that may have difficulty with perception?

The ways in which ASD manifests itself are extremely individual. However, the common link is perception. Film director Henry Corra, who made a film with his autistic son George, describes autism thus:

“[Autustic children] have very splintered intelligence, so that they can deal with facts really well, and they can process concrete information really well, but when it comes to the idea of making connections, or empathy, it’s a severe social impairment.”3

A child’s perception of contemporary art is often critical and engaging. However, if a child has ASD, a contemporary art gallery could be a site of confusion. The Baboró International Festival for Children is world renowned for providing arts experiences for babies up until the age of 12 but it remains difficult for parents and schools to avail this formative cultural experience for children with ASD.

Our curatorial aim is to provide a platform for artists to examine their practice from the perspective of an audience with ASD, thinking about how they can engage these children and young people. John and I have encouraged the ‘Sync’ artists to look at how the children and young people in Ábalta, and those who engage with the V&A, deal with the world and their day-to-day lives. We know that we cannot address the needs, interests and compulsions of every potential visitor, but through qualitative engagement with participants who are open and trusting, we can make an exhibition that takes into consideration differing audience perceptions. The title, ‘Sync’ works on a basic level – it’s a word that is easy to pronounce and remember. It also suggests a realignment of artists’ practices towards engagement with an audience who possesses alternative perceptions and occupy a world that can seem random and chaotic.

After further ASD research it became obvious that expertise was needed if Galway Arts Centre was to make an exhibition of any significance. People with autism can be challenged by a society that has been created without their needs in mind. The ticking of a clock, a certain colour or an unfamiliar person can trigger nothing in one person but drive another to become scared, angry or shut off completely from the world. Therefore, curating an exhibition for an audience we did not know or understand could turn out to be a complete failure.

Left: Daniel Greancy, ‘The Look of Love’, 2012. Right: Elmarie Collins, The Giant, 2012

Ábalta Special School in Galway City became our mentor. A day of observation and dialogue with the faculty showed John and I how much we didn’t know and helped us devise a curatorial structure. We witnessed methods of communication and structures to encourage development that was catered to each individual. The teachers know everything about their pupils. Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) focus on one child at a time and work without distraction on making the world seem less chaotic. Every behaviour, success and change is noted with precision. The point of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is not to force a child or young person into a socially acceptable model of what they should be, but to enable them to perceive the world and understand themselves.

Three artists were selected, reflecting the three very different classes in the school. Daniel Greaney, Elmarie Collins and Sarah O’Brien were invited to participate based on two differing yet interconnecting elements. We started by looking at the artists’ practices and existing works. Through conversation and research, we knew that they would be wiling to work hard and take a risk with us.

The initial invitation extended to the artists promised that we would support them in developing an artwork that was still relevant to their practice but also considered the audience in a new way. Process, materials and transparent methodologies became paramount. Narratives needed to be accessible and not so subtle as to give mixed or opaque ideas to the audience. Every element needed to be considered. On a practical level, a lot can be understood by physically handling objects, materials and textures. This goes against the concept of a ‘precious art object’. It was noted at our observation in Ábalta that all of the pupils found common ground in digital media: videos on computers and things that required activation by the viewer. A child that cannot control a compulsive behaviour for longer than five minutes can search for a specific video on YouTube, adjust the image and sound and sit down and watch it for its duration. It was also noted that certain music, namely from Icelandic band Sigur Ros encouraged calm and serenity in most children. The artists were encouraged by both Galway Arts Centre and Ábalta to visit the school as soon as possible. Daniel Greaney is currently based in London so alternative arrangements are being made with the V&A.

Sarah O’Brien was chosen as we felt that her paintings and painting interventions would be engaging for our audience. Seeing colour is a basic formative experience for most children and is also an important access point into understanding a painting. Sarah also has a lot of experience working in education and with autistic children. She spent two days Ábalta, which assisted in her understanding of how to integrate her practice with her audience – a new methodology for her. This observational research was of fundamental importance to the conceptualising of her work to be made for ‘Sync’. Materials, colours and spatial dynamism were high on the list of ideas and directed her planning and approach, as was basic physical engagement and how the audience would encounter the work.

Daniel Greaney also approached ‘Sync’ by making more predetermined choices when considering the target audience for the exhibition. This included making deliberate decisions in terms of how he processed and edited the work being created in the studio, considering both the context of ‘Sync’ and the physical exhibition space at GAC. Rather than developing something that distorted and compromised his work, Daniel felt that this process allowed him to combine different strands of his practice when making this work, that he would formerly have kept separate. This provided him with the opportunity to develop ideas and methodologies concurrently whilst being conscious of the potential scope and possibilities for future works and projects. John, Daniel and I hoped that “anyone visiting ‘Sync’ [would] view the completed work as visually engaging and also as a presentation of ideas, techniques and materials, not only at the disposal of visual artists but for everyone”. (From an email conversation between John J Twomey and Daniel Greaney, July 2012)

Before embarking on this project, Elmarie Collins’s practice was about inviting the viewer into an imaginary, otherworldly place. Participation in ‘Sync’ led her to think about the imagination and sensory perception of others. The work will edge away from the idea of art as object – a precious and sometimes ephemeral creation – and instead be a ‘sensory adventure’ to interact with on a real level. Elmarie has researched the action of pressure on skin or a ‘hugging machine’ as a way to calm and soothe some people with autism, invented by Temple Grandin in 1965. Following this theory she has created an installation that will calm and soothe the senses. Elmarie wants to explore what happens when the space between audience and installation collapses and becomes a genuinely immersive experience.

John is generating a lot of mediation material in order to prepare our audience for their visit to ‘Sync’. We will provide pre-engagement packs with images, sounds and textures from the exhibition, as well as gallery-specific PEC (Picture Exchange Communication) cards for the audience that act as tools for communication. This is something that the artists will also be involved in, as we need to sort through each artwork and consider what elements need to be highlighted. While we are being very specific, we are also listening to the advice of our mentors on this challenging project.

‘Sync’ will open on October. Workshops for children and young people will be devised and facilitated by Áine Kavanagh and John J Twomey.

Maeve Mulrennan is the Visual Arts Officer in Galway Arts Centre. She also lectures in Visual Arts Policy in Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. She is a founding member of Live @ 8 and Chairperson of Tulca Festival of Visual Art in Galway.

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