All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule, who will lead, who will define, refine, confine, design, who will dominate.
Octavia E. Butler
Some struggles are invisible simply because a single word is missing from public discussion. I find that this is particularly the case with words that carry life-giving concepts and that challenge social hierarchies. Their absence can give clues to who might be excluded and what is considered of less value within a given society. One such word is ‘neurodiversity’, and it is missing from exhibition records within some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s leading public art galleries.
Neurodiversity or ‘ND’ refers to the understanding that cognitive variation is a natural part of being human and specifically values minds that exist somewhere on a continuum between ‘disability’ and ‘neurotypical’. Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term in 1998 to add a new social movement and analytical category alongside class, disability, gender, race and sexuality and to augment the social model of disability to be inclusive of all neurotypes irrespective of classifications of severity or access to diagnosis. Similar to the social model the concept of ND proposes that societal and pathological definitions of neurological conditions, impairments and disabilities have historically fixated on deficits in relation to a ‘normal’ state of human cognition. In comparison, ND emphasises abilities over deficits and that differences of cognition are inherent within the human species—an idea that also draws influence from the study of biodiversity.
Notwithstanding debate, ND is a powerful concept that can be life affirming and life changing for those who experience being discriminated against for their neurodivergence. Experiences could include anything from educational neglect to unemployment and from an increased chance of being incarcerated through to poor health, harmful interventions and social exclusion. Aside from external discrimination, the need for societal acceptance can lead to ‘masking’ and internalising stigma that is associated with feeling that one must deny who they are to participate in society. In the face of such challenges, the concept of ND can equip neurodivergent people with a perspective that values their way of thinking and moving through the world. Embracing an inclusive concept such as ND also enables a range of neurominorities to form collective solidarity and to lobby for change.
In the UK it has been estimated that fifteen to twenty per cent of the population may be neurodivergent. Of this percentage, it is a reasonable expectation that a significant proportion will be working in the arts given that core neurodivergent strengths align with those associated with creative practice. If this applies in Aotearoa, then the absence of the word ‘neurodiverse’ within exhibition records might reflect a lack of awareness or unaddressed stigma within the country’s art system. It is therefore possible that a significant proportion of Aotearoa’s art practitioners could be masking or experiencing a lack of general support.
At least this is my hypothesis after repeatedly encountering the phrase ‘0 search results found’ while conducting a survey of exhibition records from eighteen of Aotearoa’s leading publicly funded contemporary art organisations. Out of an estimated sample size of 4,728 exhibition records this survey found no art exhibitions between 1970 and May 2021 that used the term ‘neurodiverse’ and none that described similar theories or concepts. It is a tally of zeros that I have contributed to, having worked as a curator within two of the galleries surveyed. My excuse, which others might share, is that the word was missing from my vocabulary, despite having my own lived experience of being neurodivergent.
Despite this, there has been some emphasis of ND and related topics within Aotearoa’s art system. Arts Access Aotearoa in Wellington has been working hard to increase awareness of the social model of disability and importance of improving accessibility within art organisations. The long-standing work of art organisations such as Studio2 / Margaret Freeman Gallery and Vincents Art Workshop, that run galleries and studios for artists with various support needs are valuable, and there have been some community-run exhibitions raising awareness of ND through an intergenerational mix of autistic artists.
More recently, disabled and queer identifying artist Bailee Lobb explored aspects of ND by emphasising sensory experiences through her exhibition/installation In Bathing, Bask (2021), at Toi Pōneke Arts Centre, a small council-run gallery and studio space in Wellington. Lobb’s series of inflatable and transparent textile works appear to soften the unforgiving brutalist-style concrete gallery space and create a calming environment of diffused light and colour. It is feasible that other ND focused art exhibitions and initiatives have occurred in grass-roots arts organisations, however, the subject has yet to be addressed within the country’s leading contemporary art spaces.
While ND is mostly overlooked in Aotearoa, the topic alongside crip theory, mental health, self-care and sickness themed exhibitions are increasing internationally. Notable exhibitions touching on such concerns include Frankfurt’s MMK (Museum für Moderne Kunst) exhibition Crip Time in 2021–2022, curated by Susanne Pfeffer and Anna Sailer. While not mentioning ND specifically, the exhibition’s premise was to address ‘normative conceptions of the body’ which holds relevance to ND via the inclusivity afforded within crip theory. Sharing a similar title was London’s Serpentine Galleries 2021 program, HOLDING SPACE ACROSS CRIP TIME, a series of articles, interviews and online talks led by artist Leah Clements which explored topics of self-care and the intersectionality of ND, disability, race and gender.
In the UK, collectives have led the discussion of ND such as 2021 Turner Prize nominees Project Art Works (PAW), a collective of neurodivergent artists based in Hastings (England) that ‘collaborates with people with complex support needs’ and are currently showing in Documenta 15, Kassel. Also in 2021, the London collective Feel Good Designers, exhibited a large-scale installation at South London Gallery, as well as undertaking an online residency run by the critical platform, The White Pube. Other groups were established during the early COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 such as Neuk Collective which formed with the purpose of increasing the visibility of neurodivergent artists in Scotland. ‘Neuk’ is a Scots word for nook or quiet space, chosen by the collective to reflect the need of some neurodivergent people to seek out calm spaces with minimal sensory distractions—a provision Neuk provided within their first group exhibition in 2021. Providing low stimulated art experiences was also a focus of London’s Battersea Art Centre claiming in 2020 to be the ‘world’s first relaxed venue’. On cue with this paradigm shift, Documenta 15 references ND through by providing quiet spaces.
Another Scotland-based collaborative project developed during 2020 was Not Going Back to Normal, initiated by artists Harry Josephine Giles and Sasha Saben Callaghan with contributions by twenty-one artists, supported by a consortium of public galleries and funded by Creative Scotland. While focusing on the broader topic of disability within Scotland, Not Going Back to Normal also responded to ND, in works such as Simon Yuill’s Recovery Time is Labour Time (2020).
Originally a digital flyer, Recovery Time is Labour Time was later developed into a large text work installed as a looping phrase on the central column of a historic observatory at Collective in Edinburgh for Acts of Observation—an exhibition concerning institutional constraints and representations of disability. Yuill’s accompanying poster included a ‘polemic statement’ that discussed the lack of equity for disabled and neurodivergent people in regard to time allocated for work, expectations on performance and recovery time needed to sustain ‘regular’ employment. ‘When you think you are paying us the same you pay us less’, writes Yuill to a presumed neurotypical and able-bodied audience (and imagined employer).
Having to conform to a neurotypical world can require additional emotional labour for neurodivergent people, feeling the need to mask behaviours and ways of thinking or being that might reveal their neurodivergence. This issue of behaviour regulation has been addressed by Australian artist Prue Stevenson and others. ‘I found myself at a crossroad’ Stevenson remarked during a talk at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA): ‘do I disclose my autism or pretend to pass as a neurotypical?’ Disclosing her autism led Stevenson to develop a series of works embracing positive self-regulatory behaviours such as stimming and accepting the occurrence of meltdowns. Like Yuill’s work, impactful statements appear in Stevenson’s works such as ‘don’t fear the meltdown’, ‘process this in your own time’, ‘I need personal space’. In other works, such as Extend (2018) performed on the MCA rooftop, stimming is embraced to create an action painting. Stevenson’s repetitive axe-kicks that stamped black painted footprints onto a large scroll of white canvas, went beyond the act of mark-making to celebrate the freedom to be loud and physical in a public space without fear of judgement or being considered a threat.
The absence of equivalent exhibitions and projects within Aotearoa is to some degree understandable. It is possibly due to dominant beliefs, attitudes and behaviours influenced by the country’s historical and current social environment. In their 2020 article “A Brief History of Disability in Aotearoa New Zealand”, Martin Sullivan and Hilary Stace unpack this history and suggest that discrimination against disabled and neurodivergent people is likely to be a European introduction, and not originally part of Māori society which they claim largely accepted such differences as ‘part of human and whānau [family] diversity’. In tracing language and practices of nineteenth century policies and institutions, the authors further discuss how ideologies of British colonisation and imperialism were influential in establishing the insidious understanding that disabled and neurodivergent people were mentally ‘unfit’ and a threat to the hereditary of white society. Such white supremacist beliefs, later developed through eugenicist hierarchies of human intelligence, became ideologically embedded within the nation’s social attitudes, policies and institutions, in particular those controlling education, employment, health and immigration.
While these eugenics influenced institutions were largely reformed in the 1980s and 1990s, the discrimination against neurodivergent people has continued in various guises. For instance, it was not until 2007 that the country’s Ministry of Education officially recognised the term ‘dyslexia’ and permitted its use in schools, giving overdue validation to a neurominority likely to encompass one in five New Zealanders including approximately 71 per cent of the prison population. There is also a convincing argument that discrimination against neurodivergent people in Aotearoa (and elsewhere) has continued through the use of IQ assessments in health and educational settings as well as aptitude/psychometric tests, personality questionnaires and job interview practices in employment contexts. Such procedures continue to reinforce the problematic idea that a person’s ability to present neurotypical cognitive characteristics within an examination scenario is an objective measure of their ‘intelligence’ (or other desired quality).
As part of this furtive legacy in defining intelligence is how other hierarchical concepts are determined in relation to art such as beauty, excellence, expertise and quality. As observed by feminist curator and art historian Maura Reilly, such categories are often biased toward cis-hetero-white-males. And as David G. Embrick et al. have argued, exclusionary Eurocentric aesthetic judgements are observable not just in artist/artwork selections, but also in exhibition-making practices and in the social experience of an exhibition. It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that a bias favouring neuronormativity is also bound within notions of artistic excellence, thereby influencing who and what is valued and exhibited.
More complicated is the ‘contemporary’ as a term used to designate value to art and artists. If used uncritically, Paul O’Neill and others argue that the term ‘contemporary’ risks becoming synonymous with what is ‘new and novel’ as determined by the artworld driven by globalisation. That said, the ever-shifting designation of contemporaneity within the artworld at least embraces the idea of diversity, but it’s an interest sustained only while the diverse group holds cultural capital and/or currency. Terms which have come under scrutiny such as ‘outsider art’, ‘art brut’ and ‘self-taught artist’ might apply here, and have relevance to ND given some neurodivergent people are excluded from conventional educational and exhibiting institutions. Aotearoa has celebrated neurodivergent self-taught artists who have, by default, earned contemporary status by being exhibited in major public galleries. However, to include or categorise artists for their ‘otherness’ can lead to a type of exoticisation—a form of fetishising—which overlooks the systemic problem that there are neurodivergent practitioners ‘inside’ the system ‘masking’ as neurotypical.
The word ‘neurodiverse’ carries a consequential idea that has the potential to radically reshape our society and improve lives, and is therefore worthy of attention at all levels of the art system. As the acclaimed and openly dyslexic novelist Octavia E. Butler reminds us ‘[a]ll struggles are essentially power struggles’, and the power to define words and concepts that empower neurominorities is critical to valuing what they offer the world.
- ^ Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower, 2019 ed (London: Headline Publishing Group, 1993), 89__
- ^ I acknowledge the influence of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man especially the opening paragraph which reads ‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’ See: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (London: Penguin Classics, 1952)__
- ^ ND is inclusive of, but not limited, to: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s syndrome and acquired cognitive conditions. See: Judy Singer, NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea, Kindle Edition (Lexington: Judy Singer, 2017), 109, 179, 223, 383, 395, 458;__
- ^ Baumer and Frueh, “What Is Neurodiversity?”; Singer, NeuroDiversity, 304, 383, 402__
- ^ Traits could include lateral thinking, problem solving, hyper focus, visual-spatial reasoning, storytelling and pattern recognition among others. See: Nancy Doyle, “Neurodiversity at Work: A Biopsychosocial Model and the Impact on Working Adults”, British Medical Bulletin 135, no. 1 (14 October 2020): 108–25, https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa021. Accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ These organisations included: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki; Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi; Artspace Aotearoa; Blue Oyster Art Project Space; Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū; City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi; COCA, Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki; Dunedin Public Art Gallery; Enjoy Contemporary Art Space; Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Len Lye Centre; Gus Fisher Gallery; RM Gallery & Project Space; ST PAUL St Gallery; Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; Te Tuhi Contemporary Art; Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery; The Dowse Art Museum; The Physics Room__
- ^ This survey did find 15 art exhibition records that contained the terms/phrases: ableism, Acquired Attention Deficiency, disabled/ity/ities, handicapped, impairment, intellectual disabilities, mental states and different mental states. However, the focus of these exhibitions do not come close to addressing ND__
- ^ Neuk Collective, “About – NEUK”, Neuk Collective, https://neukcollective.co.uk/about/. Accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Battersea Arts Centre, “Relaxed Venue”, Battersea Arts Centre, 2020, https://bac.org.uk/relaxed-venue/. Accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Organisations included: Arika, Artlink Edinburgh and the Lothians, Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow (CCA), Collective, Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), Glasgow School of Art Exhibitions, Project Ability and the Scottish Sculpture Workshop__
- ^ Yuill__
- ^ Prue Stevenson, “Handkerchiefs”, Prue Stevenson, 2022, https://www.pruestevenson.com/handkerchiefs. Accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Martin Sullivan and Hilary Stace, “A Brief History of Disability in Aotearoa New Zealand”, Office for Disability Issues, 2020, https://www.odi.govt.nz/guidance-and-resources/a-brief-history-of-disability-in-aotearoa-new-zealand/. Accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Laura Walters, “Thousands of Students with Special Needs, but No Data”, Newsroom (blog), 1 November 2018, https://www.newsroom.co.nz/page/no-data-on-dyslexia-as-many-as-80000-kids-affected. Accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Maura Reilly, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, 1 edition (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2018)__
- ^ Silvia Dómínguez, David G. Embrick, and Simón Weffer, “White Sanctuaries: Race and Place in Art Museums”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 39, no. 11/12 (2019): 995–1009__
- ^ Simon Sheikh, “Morbid Symptoms: Curating in Times of Uncertainty and de-Globalization. An Introduction”, in Curating After the Global: Roadmaps for the Present, ed. Paul O’Neill et al. (Feldmeilen, Switzerland and Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: MIT Press, 2019), 27.
Bruce E. Phillips (Pākehā/NZ European) is an Edinburgh-based writer and curator from Aotearoa New Zealand and a PhD candidate at Massey University, Wellington. Phillips is currently working with Te Tuhi gallery in Auckland towards a 2023 exhibition confronting definitions of ‘intelligence’ in relation to neurodiversity and biodiversity. He has curated many exhibitions featuring artists such as Tania Bruguera, Tehching Hsieh, William Pope.L, Santiago Sierra, and The Otolith Group.