Bournemouth Library, 10 March 2009
Ju Gosling aka ju90 in conversation with Jim Hunter, chaired by Theresa Veith, Director of Holton Lee
Theresa Veith: I am going to hand over to Professor Jim Hunter, the Deputy Principal of the Arts Institute Bournemouth, who has some questions he would like to direct to Ju, both in her role in the Abnormal Exhibition here, and also I think in a wider context in relation to the NDACA project where she is artist-in-residence.
Jim Hunter: Thanks Theresa. It is an interesting idea having a public conversation with an artist, and there is no danger that either Ju or myself would run out of things to say! But in a public context it is always safer to pre-prepare a number of questions, which I've done as a prompt to this conversation and have obviously shared with Ju prior to this evening. In formulating those prompts, I’ve both presumed that some of us here may be coming to Ju’s work new - that all you will have seen of her work is in the exhibition outside - but also I've recognised that some of you, of course, may be very familiar with the work, and have looked at and read and considered her work via her website.
And it's also curious having a conversation about exhibited work, when of course the work's there [outside the room where the conversation took place] and we are here, so neither of us can actually point to it and say ‘In this one..’ So it'll be a bit of a test of memory in places where I make a reference to a particular piece of work, and you might once we have finished have to go outside afterwards and look at it and think ‘Oh yes, that one’. We will go through our prompted questions, and then we'll stop and open it up and hopefully we'll have a larger conversation - do join in and we will see where it takes us. Hopefully, we will be fairly organic as we move around the various ideas.
Firstly, as I said, there is a chance that some of us in the audience will have referred to Ju's website, and you will know that in around about 1995 Ju adopted the cyborg identity of ju90, so I wanted to start with this idea of identity. I quite like the idea that well, we all adopt different identities, don’t we, depending on what we do? But you say of your virtual embodiment that it renders socially constructed identities meaningless, but that at the same time the effects of such labels contribute towards your identity. So what about this issue of labels which you have experienced as a person, as an artist? Who are you?
Ju Gosling aka ju90: Well, that is always the hardest quesion to answer, isn’t it!? Just to talk about the ju90 piece of work, it was a piece of online artwork that, like you say, I started in 1995, and I think it was before the internet became so ubiquitous; it was all very new and almost a bit like CB radio - everybody had got their 'handle', so everybody went online with a very distinct user name. And there was a lot of discourse around: ‘Well, of course when you are online it doesn’t matter whether you are male, female, Black, white, disabled, non-disabled, gay or straight.'
And I thought, 'Really that's rubbish, because all of those things inform who you are, and you can’t leave all of those things behind when you go online.' So what I wanted to do was to come up with a user name that didn’t appear to say anything about me, but at the same time I would always put the website address at the bottom of my emails, so if you chose to find out more, then you could go to the website and read this piece ‘Who is ju90?’, and realise that within that name, within that text piece, there were all these things around gender, race and sexuality and so on and so forth.
At the same time in terms of who I am, I adopted this sig file - 'strap line', if you like - at the bottom of my emails saying 'Webmaster/site slave and Multimedia Storyteller'. Again, websites were new at the time, and I very quickly realised that it is all very well calling yourself a Webmaster, but actually you are a slave to the site, because you are constantly having to maintain it. Also, the one thing I could see that ran through all of my work was that in some way it tells a story. It might be a very simple story, and it might be a very complex story, and sometimes it might not be obvious that it tells a story, but Multimedia Storyteller was the best I could do at attempting to say, in a professional sense at least, who I am.
Jim: I quite like the name ju90 and the references you made with it, as of course you remember Joe 90 and the various associations with that?
Ju: A friend had made a joke about it to start with, and I picked it up and ran with it. Very sadly she died last year of MRSA - which I think is always a reminder about the limitations of science - at quite a young age, leaving a young son. When I was trying to think about my memories of her to write down for her son, I suddenly thought: ‘Oh my goodness, it was her who christened me.’ So from a very personal point of view it has taken on an extra layer of meaning for me now. But yes, I was doing digital video editing, which was terribly new, and I presume being very geeky about it, and she laughed hysterically and went ‘Oh, Joe 90, no, no, ju90!’
Jim: On your website there's a text called Travelling, and I am just going to quote from it. You write: ‘Being clear that I have several identities, all of which are important and none of which define me.’ I was just wondering, is that exploration of identity, is it helpful for us as a way of understanding your practice ?
Ju: I hadn’t thought of it like that until I looked at your questions, and then I thought that, as so often, people see things in your work that you don’t necessarily realise about it yourself, but which are absolutely true. I think one of the things that I always try and do in my work is, if you like, problematise certainties. People like to talk about black and white, and I like to look at the interesting shades of grey.
I think one of the issues around identity politics that everybody finds very limiting is that you are supposed to identify as one thing or the other, but actually we've all got loads and loads of different identities. I once ran a workshop around an exhibition about identity, and one of the most interesting pieces that came out of it was a piece called ‘Nobody knows I'm a redhead’, which was produced by a group of people who were redheaded when they were little, but who had gone blonde or grey in later life, and who still felt that being a redhead was really critical to their identity.
So what I am interested in is saying, ‘Yes, identity is a really important construct, but it is actually both more fluid and more complex then people give it credit for.' Also, when people talk about multiple discrimination, which is a very big thing in politics, you think are we talking about multiple discrimination? Is somebody discriminating over here because I am disabled, and over here because I am gay? And isn't it all about identity as something positive, and not discrimination? You don’t simply define yourself by the way you are treated, important though that is to the formation of identity.
Jim: Let's talk about Abnormal 2, one of the works which is displayed outside. The letters read like an identikit description or a classified ad - for example GSOH, which I think I'm right in saying is a 'good sense of humour' - and these labels of gender, sexuality, disability. It's about more than that, isn't it? Is it about pointing to our genetic make-up? Am I reading that correctly?
Ju: Well yes it is, but actually, when you picked up on the identikit theme, one of the starting points for that piece was my model card, because I very occasionally model professionally. I'm registered with an agency called Ugly, which was the first agency in the country to specialise in what they call 'character' models. And of course as a model you have a 'composite', just like an eighteen-year-old supermodel, where you've got a selection of photographs plus all these things about your height, your weight, your hair colour, your eye colour, your shoe size, and something about your hobbies - like anybody cares, but for some reason it is traditional to stick it in - so yes, that was one of the starting points.
I do a lot of self-portraiture, and in some ways Abnormal 2 is a self-portrait. But one of the recurring themes in the exhibition is genetic testing and foetal testing, and the limitations of that versus the beliefs we have about how wonderful and all powerful it is. But something I thought about, probably in about 1995 when I was developing the ju90 persona, was well, if parents really could design babies, would they want clever children, or would they like them to be a little less clever so they fit in better? They might want this but they don’t want that, but actually it's all part of the package.
Also, of course, it's a nonsense, we' re not defined by our genes. You’ve only got to be friends, as I’ve always been, with identical twins to know just how much they have in common, but also just how very much more they don’t, and that can include very fundamental health issues. Certainly things like do you enjoy water sports, or do you have a good sense of humour, maybe there is a genetic component, but something I’ve learnt through working with scientists is that it's all much, much more complicated than that.
Jim: I was going to ask you if you can talk about Pride, because you have written about Pride, and I thought this is interesting, I think it's largely what the work is about. You wrote: ‘The process of developing Pride therefore is not merely one of personal affirmation but of political revolution.’
Ju: Yes, I looked at that on your email and I thought ‘My goodness, when did I write that?!' Obviously something I was thinking about at the time (1997), but again I think you are absolutely right - Pride is not something that I had necessarily thought about being critical to this show, but I think it probably is. Again, it's that whole concept that all of us for whatever reason are made to feel abnormal, but actually all of us are normal, and I think again it links to that. I think one of the things that I look at in the essay on Pride is that actually the vast majority of the population are not white, and straight, and male, and non-disabled, and it is perfectly normal to be all these other things.
We were talking earlier about defining as a disabled artist, and something that I always say is that it's very easy for a disabled man, if you like, to say: ‘I’m just an artist.' But I think if you look at the position of women in the art world - Tracey Emin did a very interesting film last year, where she was coming to feminism very late, it has to be said, but she started looking at, for example, the prices of her work and Cornelia Parker’s work and other women YBAs compared to the men, and it was actually quite frightening: they literally sell for 10% of what the men sell for. I think it's very difficult to say ‘I’m just an artist’, when as a women you are already categorised as being a women artist, and therefore being categorised as a disabled artist follows on from there. Being just 'an artist' is not how everyone else sees you, and it's not how the art world sees you. I think it's much better to embrace that and engage with it then really just be in denial.
Jim: Because you can’t deny it? It is a fact about how you work and how your work is received.
Ju: And I think when you develop Pride - and that is the concept of Pride - you don’t want to deny it, you want to celebrate it.
Jim: In relation to how the media representations of disabled people distort them, you have written about that, that they distort disabled people as objects of pity or as 'super-crips' and so on. You say you wanted therefore to control your own image. Can you share with us how at times you have gone about creating and controlling your own image?
Ju: I was at the Tate Modern on Saturday, and as I rolled past this very tiny child she said: ‘Why’s that lady in a wheelchair, Mummy?’ And I thought, isn’t this interesting, her question is not about ‘Why do people use wheelchairs?' It was all about me as an individual. It’s this idea of being a public body - anyone who uses a walking stick is aware that everybody feels they can just come up and say ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and expect an answer; complete strangers will approach you in the street all the time. I thought, I am really, really happy to talk to any child about the fact that is perfectly normal that some people use wheelchairs, but the idea that at 3 you have already identified that somebody is seen as being on public display whenever they go out with any visible signifier of disability means that, if you like, you have to think about image; there isn’t a public interaction you can have that hasn’t got that weight to it.
I suppose the first time I did that consciously in an artistic sense was with the Cyborg piece in 1997, when I was prescribed a spinal brace to wear for six months. This was when I was finishing my PhD and teaching down at Falmouth College of Art, and I realised that I had always covered my body up as an adult. I had moved from training as a dancer to developing a spinal curvature, and from then on I constantly wore very baggy clothes. But once I got the brace my clothes still weren’t baggy enough to go over it, and you could either go around wearing a tent, or you could go, ‘Well actually, what I am going to do is reveal my body, wear very tight clothes and wear the brace over the top’.
But not only are spinal braces exceptionally ugly, they are also exceptionally pink, and I don’t have very pink skin. So I worked with a costume designer down in Falmouth and we decorated it, and I used that experience to explore ideas about disability by doing it as performance art. I created a series of self-portraits to accompany the work, because I knew that other people would want to photograph me in the brace. Again, I think it's one of the reasons why I do self-portraits; it is really important to be able to produce your own images of who you are and not continually be defined by other people.
Jim: I am going to go off the prepared questions here. I watched the video of ‘Wheels on Fire’, and I was really quite taken by that idea you talked about: ‘I hadn’t realised that when I became disabled I was also becoming invisible, you get an invisibility ticket.’ I have been thinking about that in relation to how you said that: ‘No, I will assert my image and my identity.’
Ju: I think that is one of the interesting contradictions around being a public body: on the one hand, everybody can look at you; but on the other hand, nobody sees you. I think one of the things I say on the Cyborg site is I felt very much as soon as I started using a walking stick - and that was all it took - that people look at you to classify you, but then they look away.
And certainly with using the wheelchair, for everybody who says,‘What’s wrong with her?’, there are other people who actually make it very difficult, because if you pretend you can’t see somebody, it can get to the ludicrous point where I literally can’t move. Because people won’t move to let you pass, because they are pretending that they can’t see you - or maybe they really can’t see you?
So 'the look' is something I have explored a lot in my work. And one of the things that is new for the exhibition at Bournemouth are the little mirrors - which are by the door - that say ‘NORMAL’. One of the ideas is that when you look in the mirror you see a normal person, whatever you look like, but it was also about saying, well, ‘the look’ is a very important theme in my work, so it was a way of reflecting it back.
And certainly within the self-portraits that I did for the Cyborg work, where I photographed myself between two mirrors - the idea of reflection, and only finding your own images, not seeing images of yourself elsewhere; again, mirrors have been quite important.
And I don’t know whether you saw a film of mine called ‘Fight’, which I made in 2001? I wear a back brace decorated by sculptor Andrew Logan, and he uses a lot of mirror mosaics in his work. So the brace is covered with mirrors, and there are pieces in the film when we are reflected in those mirrors, so again mirrors have been quite a theme over the last 10 - 12 years.
Jim: In those pieces you literally put yourself in the centre of the work, and you use your own life, your own history as the stuff of the work, the meaning and the material of the work. How do you feel about that, do you ever feel rather self-conscious?
Ju: Well I do, and I was looking at this question in advance and I think, well, 'uncomfortable' would be one answer to the way that I can feel, and 'empowered' would be another answer. I think that because you are, as a disabled person, always having to tell these stories to doctors, social workers, benefits people and so on - and you really have got to be very rich before you can avoid doing that - you are constantly having to tell your story, but also it is then being written down in a way that doesn’t compute with what you have just told them at all, and judgements are being made about it and about you. And I think being able to take charge of that in a creative process certainly is empowering.
But I think there are several things going on. Obviously the ‘self’ has become, in terms of contemporary art, very much a place to make work. But I started my career as a social affairs journalist, and at the time I found it a real ethical minefield that you would interview people who would really be suffering - appalling poverty, appalling housing conditions, mortgage arrears, things that people feel very ashamed and embarrassed of - and then you were making money out of writing about it and taking photographs. And you know, yes, fortunately, people usually used to say, ‘You have said it exactly the way I wanted it said’ and nobody ever had any serious complaints, but it still is an ethical minefield. And one of the things that I felt was if you are prepared to use other people's lives in your work, then you ought to be prepared to use your own. I don’t really approve of saying ‘I am quite happy to make material out of everybody else...'
Jim: ‘...but I am very private’.
Ju: Exactly, I am a complete sacred cow! Of course, given all the access barriers that exist, it is also much easier to find yourself, it is much easier to photograph yourself, than it is to find a model. A lot of disabled artists have said to me that, given the level of isolation and the barriers they experience, actually having your own body available is a way to make work, and having your life to make work is a way of getting material really very easily.
Jim: You become - I was quite pleased by this little phrase as I wrote it - you become the subject and the object. I like the subject and object idea.
Ju: Again, it is that fluidity that I think is really interesting to explore, and really interesting to be part of. And I think that with any level of autobiographical work, you're always aware there are boundaries - and I always say this to young artists and young writers, you have to be very, very clear about what you are exposing and what you’re not, and you always expose more than you mean to. There will always be people who say, ‘I looked at the work and I was so interested that you were saying this’, and I think, ‘I didn’t know I was saying that, but of course you are absolutely right’. And some pieces of work I live with for quite a long time before I publish them, because I need to have that comfort zone.
But also, with autobiographical work, if it doesn’t speak beyond the individual, nobody cares. It's the difference between a diary or one of those family newsletters that people send around Christmas and a piece of work that on some level resonates with people. If it is really just about you, nobody is really interested if they don’t know you. And somebody might be in a very different situation to yourself, but I think if there is something in the work that really resonates, then it may look autobiographical, but hopefully it’s going way beyond that.
Jim: So - resonates with the audience; do you think about the audience when you are making works which are about yourself and have this element of self-exposure?
Ju: Is it dreadful if I say no? [Audience laughs] No, I don't - I do tend to think about the audience in terms of access when presenting pieces.
When I did the Cyborg piece, initially - again, partly because the internet was so new, but I was teaching students how to build websites, and I thought I could do a website which would explain why I am walking around looking the way I am looking, and also it would be an example to them about how to build a simple website. And really within days I started getting emails from all over the world, and that was actually quite a shock; I mean, I wasn’t expecting that, shall we say.
I think it was the first time when I really realised what a great place the internet is to show your work, because wherever somebody was coming at it from, that’s what they saw, and I think it is one of those things that make you realise that meaning isn't necessarily fixed. Disabled people thought it was about disability and thought it was empowering; artists thought it was about the body; the medical professionals, of course, thought it was about them; and orthopaedic fetishists - who I didn’t really know existed up till that point, but I do know about now! - thought it was very sexy and erotic.
I think that it was also helpful, because that was the point where I thought: ‘This brace has no meaning, however it makes me feel.' And I think one of the reasons I did the work as well is because, mostly, people who wear braces are teenagers. And adolescence is horrible, you know, and you really don’t need to be wearing a pink plastic back brace as well. I wanted to share that not only are there different ways of doing it, but yes, you can be proud, you can show it off - because it is very hot and uncomfortable if you cover it up, but also it doesn’t have this intrinsic meaning of being unattractive, and hampered, and immobile.
Overall I like showing work on the internet, and you have that constant presence there as well. Somebody from The Echo was asking would I be here as part of the exhibition for the whole time?, which was an interesting idea. I had to say 'No!', but I did point them at the website. I have always put email links on everything I do, so I can always have a dialogue with my audience, and quite often do.
Jim: Yes, that dialogue, yes, constant dialogue, and it comes, as you say, more quickly than you might have anticipated and you get feedback. Moving on to the exhibition, as a project it originated with a grant application to the Wellcome Trust to explore the idea of a Scientific Model of Disability, and I think it started with the piece which is just outside this room: ‘Helping the Handicapped’?
Ju: Yes, or at least that was the base starting point. 'Helping the Handicapped' was a commission for the City of Graz when they were European Capital of Culture in 2003. But it was also European Year of Disabled people in 2003, and I knew a lot of disability rights activists who would say: ‘The trouble with Europeans is they don’t understand the Social Model of Disability.’ And I said: ‘Well, why should they, given that it is an American concept that's been more latterly adopted and adapted in the UK, why would you necessarily understand that in Germany?’ But I could certainly see the argument for sharing it. So I tried to come up with a piece which just boils down to tableaux of dolls for each theoretical model of disability, with simple text which can be really easily translated.
But later, as I became involved in the Art / Science movement, I was invited to do a week's course at Guy’s Medical School for artists that had been developed in Australia. And then I begun to realise that we think that medical research is controlled by doctors, but actually doctors don’t do medical research, research scientists do. And they don’t have any medical qualifications at all, and they never see a patient, and what we think of as doctors doing research is really doctors doing field trials for the pharmaceutical companies - clearly surgery is different to that, but when you take surgeons out of the equation, it is true of the rest of them.
I looked at the tableau that I had done for the Medical of Disability, and thought, 'This is actually much more about science, but it still works for the Medical Model'. And that is the point when I thought, ‘Well, within these theoretical models of disability, is there a Scientific Model that is hiding behind the Medical Model?’, and I really wanted to explore that idea further. I had quite a few preliminary meetings at the National Institute of Medical Research and people were surprisingly keen, really surprisingly keen - particularly as they had never had a disabled person there before, which considering that many of them were working on cures for disability was kind of surprising!
Jim: They were very keen to open up to this, to be asked the questions and to ask themselves the questions?
Ju: Yes, one of the things I realised is that, when we talk about a Medical Model of Disability, we are looking at how society uses medicine to see disability as an individual’s medical problem. And when I talk about a Scientific Model of Disability, I’m looking at how we use science to look at disabled people; I am not talking about how scientists view us. I think scientists generally tend to be much more open-minded, even though they might not agree with you: they might agree, they might disagree. But generally I was very surprised: for example, I did a lunch-time session about ‘How do you think you view disability differently to doctors?’ and it was absolutely packed. We weren’t sure we would get anybody at all, but they really wanted to engage with it.
Jim: In the lecture you gave at the Graz festival, I was quite interested in this, that you talked about one of the ways of looking at disability is our own denial of mortality and a belief that: 'Unlike everyone else, I’ll never die, I’ll never even become disabled, it’s not going to happen to us.’ How much is that part of your work? How much are you quite intrigued by that ?
Ju: I actually think that that is quite fundamental to a lot of what I do. In terms of the Scientific Model of Disability, what I decided one might look like - and I don’t think I have the definitive answers, and I don’t think we make up theory on your own, but only as part of a movement - but certainly, what I think is fundamental to the Scientific Model of Disability is believing that scientists very soon - today the answer is stem cells - very soon we are going to be able to cure everything, very soon we are going to be able to extend life so we will live to be a thousand.
And these documentaries come up with extraordinary frequency. I saw one only two weeks ago, where it claimed that everybody alive today could live to be a thousand, and I think it has a massive knock-on impact in terms of creating the barriers that we describe as the Social Model of Disability. Because if science is going to cure disabled people and stop people becoming old, then we might pay token attention to the fact that the law says we need to make all buildings accessible, but we can’t really take it that seriously. Because actually, they are going to need to be accessible for only another ten or twenty years, and then nobody will need the lifts and the ramps. So that classic line, ‘We ran out of money so we cut back on the access’ when creating new buildings is because people don’t think: ‘Well, I am really going to need that access when I’m older'; they think, 'This is only a temporary thing that we need anyway'.
It is like the media, the media likes to present the society of tomorrow. Well, if the society of tomorrow doesn’t have any disabled people in it, why stick disabled people on the TV today?
And I think, critically, people say, 'Why make lifestyle choices that we know will extend your life if you don’t need to?' Because as any of us who have given up smoking knows, you don’t really want to do it, you don’t really want to cut down on drinking, you don’t really want to exercise more - if science is going to offer you a pill instead, I think it's obvious which choice we’d all make.
Even yesterday, it was on the news that guys in their fifties, if they have never exercised but take it up now, would still live on average for an extra two years. That’s the kind of thing that science tells us, in the same way that science told us smoking kills when everybody thought it was terribly healthy and particularly good for asthma! But that is unfortunately when it comes down to us to change our behaviour, and I think that is when it goes full circle and back to the Social Model.
Jim: There is a piece just as we come in up the stairs, Raison d’Etre, which I think is an interesting piece. It's about the commonalities between science and art, but we were talking outside about ‘How big is the cage?’
Ju: That piece is about several different things, but certainly the idea that scientists and artists have a surprising amount in common is something I started realising when I was doing the course at Guy’s Medical School. At school I wanted to do Biology A Level along with Arts subjects - I'd forgotten that until I started doing SciArt, and then I remembered, 'I used to enjoy this, I used to find it interesting'. But of course, you weren’t allowed to do a combination of subjects, because you were either an artist or a scientist.
And yet we do have these very fundamental things in common, and the most fundamental of all is that we are all trying to look at the meaning of life, and to understand more about life. But also science in its way is just as imaginative as art, because in science you have to imagine something and then make it real, or you follow the process and see what happens, and those of course are the two fundamental ways of making art. And you both have to be committed to a goal for quite a long time, you have to be prepared to do a lot of repetitive things that may or may not work, you have to be open to what happens at the end and not be absolutely clear what is it going to look like, but at the same point pursue an idea quite doggedly. I think in that way and in all sorts of other ways there is an awful lot in common.
But in fact with Men in White Coats, the work here that I originally made for a Graz festival last Autumn, the lecture that I gave alongside that was very much around the fact that white coats signify something very important, and the artist’s apron doesn’t. Art is seen as being about emotion, and science is about being more rational, and artists are seen to be emotional types while scientists are seen as very clinical and considered. Certainly, I know that when I first went to the Institute, the idea that an artist could have a PhD was completely shocking to some of the older guys - art isn’t seen as a serious subject that you can do research in.
Going back to Raison d’Etre, one of the ideas behind that was looking at the spectre of animal research; that you see it but you don’t see it. I was very aware of the fact that as part of this Guy's Medical School course we had a 'complete' tour of the National Institute of Medical Research, but we never saw an animal lab, although you knew absolutely that they must exist, and in fact all the time I did my residency there I never saw one. So, in one sense, with the rattling of cage bars, there is a reminder there that there are other things going on.
But as a disabled person, I am much more concerned about humans being experimented on. Particularly over the last few decades, many disabled children have grown up in institutions where they have quite frankly been experimented on, and artists like Mat Fraser have made work around that. Today, in the developing world, the only way that a lot of people can get access to medical treatment is by taking experimental therapies: it is that or nothing. There’s those kind of issues in the work too.
But the idea that scientists and artists both rattle cages, that we both problematise certainties, is also an over-arching theme of the work. And when I thought of it I was on a train going up to Glasgow to the National Review of Live Art, and I had been having some interesting correspondence with the Arts Council about their cuts to Disability Arts, and I thought, ‘I've rattled your cage!’ And then the idea for the piece came to me. So the Arts Council's diversity department played its own role as well!
Jim: You say that both artists and scientists problematise certainties, artists and scientists never accept that there are any given truths, everything is there to be tested and everything is there to be challenged. I think the piece with the white coats is interesting: the white coat is a powerful symbol, metaphor, actuality - and we were talking outside about the padlocks which have been added to them.
Ju: Yes, very much you can’t put them on unless you are allowed to!
One of things that I found very interesting on the medical school course (where I was the only disabled artist) was that we had a presentation from the guys running it who said right at the beginning:‘You are not here to do PR for the science industry, you are not here to educate people about science, you are here to critique science.’ And the artists agreed, ‘Oh yes, we are here to critique it.’ Then they put their white coats on and went 'Ooh!', and it was like ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, the cameras just didn’t stop for a week. I do a lot more documentation than most artists, but really there wasn’t much to photograph, because if you’re pictured with a microscope and someone doesn't know what you're doing with it, it is not a meaningful image, and if a DNA sample is the size of a tip of the biro, you are not really going to pick it up with a digital camera.
I realised from that point that people were so over-awed thinking: ‘Here’s me in a white coat!’ that they couldn't possibly offer a meaningful critique of science. We all got presented with a group photograph at the end with us all together in our white coats, and with a Disability Arts movement perspective I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh dear, where do I start with this level of engagement?’.
So I started exploring what white coats symbolise, and how artists can work with scientists when there is this massive weight of ‘here’s the white coat as a wonderful symbol’ on the one hand and ‘here’s the artist’s apron’ on the other. How do you have an equal working relationship? Unless you at least have the advantage of being part of the Disability Arts movement, which I think gives you a certain amount of cynicism and a reality check.
I think what is so interesting about the white coats is how purely symbolic they are. In America in the 1990s they introduced this medical school ceremony - which now appears to be this incredibly old, well-established ceremony, but isn’t - where the medical students have a ‘white coat’ ceremony the day before they start term. And they are all ceremonially presented with their white coats and they put them on.
But in the UK, last month, white coats were banned from hospitals because, apparently, they have been spreading disease for years because of the sleeves picking up germs. So to prevent MRSA, if doctors wear a white coat at all now it has to finish at the elbow. So that really underlined to me that these coats are just totally symbolic. They were first adopted, I discovered, at the end of the 19th century, because doctors wanted to say: ‘Our profession is scientific, we’re not like the osteopaths, homeopaths, healers, herbalists, we’re scientifically based, and therefore we will take the white coats from scientists and put them on as doctors.'
Some of the texts that I put on the coats exhibited here - such as ‘God’, ‘Egghead’, ‘Expert’ - we’re very familiar with them symbolising, but I think the more sinister eugenics side, if you like - ‘Jailer’, ‘Executioner’ - is less familiar to non-disabled people. But I think a lot of disabled people see men in white coats as people who can cart them off and lock them up against their will and jail them.
If you look at what happened in the first half of the twentieth century, and not just in Germany, but in America too - I was amazed to find out that the first gas chambers, although they weren’t used, the first gas chambers that were licensed to kill disabled people were actually in Virginia in the 1930s. When I first started reading about the history of eugenics it is extraordinary how much the Nazis had taken from the Americans, and that is something that is really quite shocking and unknown and interesting.
So there is that very much more sinister side to white coats, and it isn’t simply about worshipping the wearers as being terribly clever, there is also the fact that we need to be scared of them, because they lock us up in extreme cases, and certainly can pronounce judgement over us.
And disabled people can be very concerned when they go into hospital that a doctor may decide that they are not worth resuscitating, because a judgement is made about their life as a disabled person that it is not worth living. Certainly, there are very eminent people in the disability movement who say: ‘I went into hospital and I didn’t sleep for three days, because I looked at what they had put on my records and I was horrified.’ So it's not just about the 1930s or the 1940s either, there are all these sort of issues now.
Jim: OK, one final point from me and then we will open it up. Do you think now that the Scientific Model which you propose, is it entering the debate and discourse around disability and Disability Arts?
Ju: I think it is entering the debate, but I think it is only at its beginning. I was at Science Oxford in January talking about them taking this exhibition, and they were saying that they had planned to have a two-month festival in the autumn working with Disability Arts organisations in the city. But because the key local organisation has now lost its Arts Council grant, that whole festival has collapsed, and whether anything like that ever takes its place is difficult to know right now.
Arts Catalyst, which is the Arts / Science organisation, is working with Shape as a Disability Arts organisation to hold a conference in London next January around science and disability. And there is certainly interest with linking up things with the Olympics, but it is at its beginning and I think the cuts to Disability Arts organisations do make it more difficult. I’ve been trying to tour this show around in partnership with Disability Arts organisations, but in fact more and more it is becoming about other partnerships, and I have been really pleased to be able to work with the Arts Development Team in Bournemouth.
Ju: I think we should quickly open it up.
Jim: Yes, absolutely. Comments? Contributions?
Audience member 1: You talk about society not noticing you. I had a severe brain injury in February 2005, and even the disability authorities have done very little to help me. I have frontal lobe damage in both hemispheres of the brain which leads to terrible dis-inhibition, and I’ve been detained on numerous occasions by the police because of that. On one occasion they considered me to be drunk and disorderly - actually, I was completely sober. Now the police are legally obliged to get you to take a breathalyser test under certain circumstances, for example, if they consider you’ve been drink-driving, or if they consider you to be an underage drinker. However, if you request a breathalyser test before they slam you in the cell for the night that' s not a legal obligation, they are not required to do so. That’s what they did, they put me in a cell for the night and released me the next morning, and actually we even went to court and there was no apology forthcoming, the judge and jury just said ‘Unproven, you can go’. That is probably one of the most complex forms of disability I can think of, even if I say it myself, and it is the most unrecognised.
Ju: Well, I think there are several issues there. One that you touch on about the disability authorities not recognisng you is something that we call the Administrative Model of Disability. I think a lot of disabled people really struggle with the fact that the system refuses to recognise them as disabled, even though they quite clearly meet the system’s own definition.
I think the way that disabled people are treated in the criminal justice system is quite appalling, and there are a whole number of conditions where people have been arrested - like you say, most commonly when they have been mistaken for being drunk. On occasions people have died, they've been in diabetic comas where nobody has recognised that they need sugar or insulin, they haven’t been put into hospital; they have been put into cells and died.
I can’t help thinking there's a connection between that and the fact that currently we, although we have the right not to be discriminated against - which I have discovered is entirely down to us to enforce, there is no actual legal aid for you to be able to enforce that - and we have the right to expect public bodies to promote disability equality, we don’t have full human rights. Although there is a UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People that has been ratified by enough countries to bring it into force - including Paraguay, not normally considered to be at the forefront of human rights - the British Government still haven’t recognised it. I think they announced last week that they will only ratify it with four or six reservations, which I really find quite frightening.
I think until such time we are actually recognised as being fully human - which again is where the cyborg identity comes in - and given, well, certainly the same rights as people in Paraguay, I think, unfortunately, these sort of things will continue, and I think that is quite appalling and very shocking. So many people experience these really horrific things that would never happen to them if they weren’t disabled and others lacked awareness.
Audience member 1: First of all, I have a problem with the term ‘Human Rights’, because there is no such thing. That's just something we have conjured up over the last few years; it’s a concept and it’s a concept that a lot of people still have difficulty absorbing. It is still at a conceptual level, and it might be decades, perhaps centuries, before this comes into force. You look at it with a very political perspective. I don’t involve myself much with politics too much, because it just causes more problems. What I would like to see happen is a level of education, a minimum level of education in the police force and public services generally, but especially the police force.
Audience member 2: A little ray of hope on the local situation here is that the local police trainees are now spending at least a week individually in day centres with people with learning disabilities.
Audience member 1: I am aware of that, I am aware of that, but they are not integrated - it is like having a security guard there, as you do in a pub.
Audience member 2: They are learning, they are learning.
Audience member 1: OK, that is good, they’ve been told to do so.
Audience member 2: I think the education process is in addition to the individuals going into the centres, I think some instruction and education is now going into the training centre as basic training because people’s eyes are just being opened.
Audience member 1: What I am talking about is an 'A' Level in Psychology at the very minimum, not a week in a day centre.
Audience member 2: It is the change in perception that one has to try and get.
Theresa: Do you not think that some of these problems with perception might reduce in the coming years with greater integration in, for example, adult learning? We don’t have special schools to the same extent as we had in the past, where disabled children were kept separate and out of the way. Disabled people are much more - not enough, perhaps - ‘mainstreamed’ now, to use a fairly crap expression.
Ju: I certainly think that inclusive education is a massive step forward. Funnily enough I did an interview with Trisha Godard when the exhibition was in Liverpool, and we ended up having a long conversation about inclusive education, which was not what either of us had intended to talk about at all. I think it's sad that one of the Government’s reservations on the UN Convention is to keep segregation in education, that is one of the things that the British Government won’t move on. The UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People talks about moving towards full inclusion and the Government won’t ratify that, but I do think it is absolutely critical.
I do think it's a chicken and egg situation, though. If you look at the fact that most employers won’t employ somebody with mental health problems, it is hard to see how an uncomplicated way forward is to have people mainstreamed, because actually those employers have already said that if they know they have a mental health problem they won’t employ them. You can do something like make education inclusive in a sense very easily, but I think it's very much more difficult to achieve mainstreaming without positive political action, and hopefully one of those ways is raising awareness on all different levels.
I would certainly hope that the young people coming out of inclusive education have got a different perspective. What I find worrying is that I have been asked to do quite a lot of talks for the National Union of Students over the last few years, and I was talking to an inclusive student society in Manchester at the end of last year and somebody was saying - I think the sad conclusion that we came to was that it's all very well being included up to the age of 21, but what then happens? And one student was saying, ‘Well actually, the support service I have means I have to go to bed at 10 o’clock every night, so actually I can never go out to the pub and stay out late, because that’s it, I have to go to bed and then they leave me in bed until the next morning’.
And while other young people go into flat-shares after college or university, a frightening number of disabled young people either return home, or they are literally going into old people’s homes. And there is an appalling number of young disabled people who come out of a fully inclusive education system and then go into an old people’s home for five or six years while they wait for suitable housing. I meet young people on committees who are living in residential care, and you look at them and you think 'Why'? It really is about housing, poverty, public budgets and education.
Something that I find very sad within art schools and higher education generally is that institutions are only partially inclusive, and this is worsened by the fact that they have only recently been covered by discrimination legislation. Certainly when I have been doing careers advice for disabled artists, a lot of people say of their time at college: ‘I had a sign language interpreter for the lectures, but not for the bar, not for the networking, not for the group work.' Or, 'I had an accessible studio, but nobody else’s studio was accessible to me.’ Normally after graduation from art school you have a group of friends going off doing the usual thing, finding a building, setting up a studio space - which later becomes funded - or putting on their own exhibitions etc. But because they've not been able to be fully included in terms of socialising and networking, disabled artists who have been theoretically included up to that point have already started getting left behind.
So we have long way to go, but I think it is important to recognise those disadvantages. I have no idea what the situation is at Arts Institute Bournemouth, but everybody is covered by funding restrictions, everybody is affected by the fact that, for example, there are not enough sign language interpreters to go around. So until we move to a positon where everybody actually knows how to include people and expects to include people, and people start to think, ‘Why does so-and-so keep disappearing at 9.30pm every night when the rest of us are at the bar until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning?' and, 'If so-and-so can’t come into our studios, maybe we should have all the meetings in theirs’, we will continue to make slow progress.
I'm hoping I'm just raising the questions and aren't trying to provide the answers in my work.
Jim: It is trying to apply an individual approach, the approach to the individual, rather than treating people as a group as a whole, because it is probably easier to fund assistance for a group of people, but as you say, what is needed is funding or support for individuals, no matter what the disability or situation.
Ju: Certainly, having some level of personal assistance available is seen as being absolutely key by the Independent Living movement in this country. I have done quite a lot of work in Switzerland, where they don’t have personal assistants - 90% of disabled people are in institutions in 90% of central Europe; many of the people here would be institutionalised if we lived in Switzerland. Disability rights campaigners there certainly see personal assistance as the key to change, so certainly the idea of assistance that's appropriate and adequate and under our own control, then yes, I think that's fundamental, but I think like everything it's affected by budgets, and that’s where it comes down to politics.
Theresa: Are there are any more questions?
Audience member 2: I found some of your pieces really funny, I just wondered what part you saw humour playing a role in this inclusive debate?
Ju: I think a good sense of humour is pretty important for surviving anything, and certainly playfulness, you know, I like to be playful in my work, I like to have humour in my work, and in the dim and distant past I have written cartoons with an artist partner. I think if I did a show that didn’t have anything playful in it - and everybody finds different things funny - but certainly if I lost the humour I would be really concerned. ‘Wheels on Fire’ was supposed to be a serious piece, but it was also supposed to have a lot of comedy in it, so yes, absolutely, humour is important in my work.
Thanks to: Jim Hunter for his detailed research and questioning; Theresa Veith for Chairing; Bournemouth Arts Development team for organising the event; Julie Newman for documenting it; Emily Chew for transcribing the recording; and everyone who gave up their time to attend.
© Ju Gosling aka ju90 2009
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