This review for Satelliser was written by a guest contributor – Caitlin Russell. Caitlin (who is currently studying at Southampton University) is ADHD and has written the piece from a neurodiverse perspective as the performance piece is by a neurodiverse/autistic artist.
We would like to thank Caitlin for her insightful and thoughtful piece.
Satelliser; a dance for the gallery, is an “experimental, interactive performance work realised by an intergenerational group of co-working artists”, devised and led by award-winning artist J Neve Harrington, who describes herself on her webpage as ‘neuroqueer’; she is one of ‘my people’. I am among the wave of women in the UK discovering our neurodiversity in later life, stumbling upon the context to explain our inexplicable lifetimes of being simultaneously too much and not enough, finding peace and liberation in acceptance.
I arrive just after opening at 11 am and stay for around 2 hours. I have not been to this part of Bristol before. Upcycled from its industrial roots, the cobbles, river, boats, galleries, and cafes feel relaxing and welcoming. I would be here a lot if I lived closer, I think. The Arnolfini, Bristol’s International Centre for Contemporary Arts, describes itself as a “pioneering, inspiring public space for arts and learning, offering an innovative, inclusive and engaging experience for all.” The Summer 2023 programme is Threads, an “exhibition featuring twenty-one contemporary international artists and makers, for whom textiles is their chosen medium.”
This seems pertinent to the description I’ve seen of the difference between neurotypical v divergent thought. ‘Typical’ thought is said to be sequential, with logical progress from A to B, like a neat ball of yarn being spun smoothly from raw wool whereas divergent brains spawn multiple threads at each intersection of thought and sensory input, follow each simultaneously, and further diverge exponentially, sometimes weaving together into a beautiful, coherent tapestry liberally dotted with loose threads dangling enticingly.
The piece takes place in a first-floor room of the prominent Grade II listed accessible building on the city’s harbourside. A large cube with high ceilings, there are openings on 3 walls through which gallery visitors drift and flow. The walls and sides contain artworks, tapestries, and figures in mixed materials, all on the theme of Threads.
There are few other visitors at first. When I enter, a conversation between the ‘co-workers’, heard though speakers as they speak unobtrusively into inconspicuous microphones while they methodically dance, is about breathing and breath. They are discussing how little guidance is given on optimal breathing techniques in synchronised swimming training despite the need to swim for extended periods underwater, in contrast to the emphasis on breath found in dance training.
I am shy about making eye contact and look around for a spot to sit in. I spy an empty seat cushion against the back wall and make my way there. There, I allow my attention to be unfocussed to attempt to absorb and see the whole image better… like a magic eye picture from the ‘90’s – remember them?
The light in the room is bright white. It hurts my eyes a little, a sensory burden exacerbated by my tension. I put on sunglasses to lessen the glare and veil my eyes from potentially awkward eye contact. Mourning the recent passing of my beloved father, my emotions are especially close to the surface. I come to this with baggage, experiencing intensity in the conflicting states of internal distress and pleasure found in the gentle drift of dialogue and movement.
In the centre of the room, there is an embroidered tent, evocative of Bedouin with Arabic script and designs, suspended off the floor, so that from my vantage point on the floor by the back wall I can see underneath and know if people are on the other side of the room, otherwise hidden from view by the tent. It takes me a while to calm myself. I feel conspicuous and uncomfortable. I am handed a tapestry stitching hoop by a co-worker with a genuine, welcoming smile which helps, although I must take off the sunglasses to do some stitches. My divergent attention – copiously abundant in contrast to the ridiculous misnomer of my diagnosed ‘condition’ – bounces around the space while I stitch, taking in elements of sensory input; sounds, sights etc, discerning which are part of the wider Threads installation, part of Satelliser, or functional facilities of the building.
The performance consists of an international, intergenerational group of co-working artists, referred to as co-workers, who “subtly alter their spatial configurations in response to the visitors’ movements, they play with the orientation relationships between performance, visitor and space and the kinds of conversations these can support.” The dance is hypnotic, a measured, unhurried, repeating phrase. A visitor asks about it and Harrington replies with a meditative description of each of its parts, musing on the evocations and influences they touch upon and the feelings and functions brought to mind by them. The repetition and tempo, she says, is not particularly exciting, not in and of itself a ‘good’ dance nor is it meant to be. It facilitates the real focus of the piece, which is on the collaborative, free-flowing conversation. The impression is an engaging mix of informal and formal, the dancers, sometimes in sync, and other times not, seem to clock in and out of periods of performance and rest at random, signified by the donning or removal of decorated hi-vis-esque tunics. Sometimes leaving my sight, sometimes taking stitching hoops with them to sit at rest and listen to the ongoing verbal exchanges.
Visitors are drawn in and included in the conversation which weaves around the room, flowing from co-worker to co-worker and between topics and appears natural and unrehearsed. Visitors are invited to join in, both directly at times and indirectly by way of its thoughtfully unhurried pace, contemplative, exploratory, open, and relatable nature. Even in silence, we nod and smile in recognition or agreement.
In musing on the topic of familiar strangers, a co-worker happens to mention the year 1974 and an older woman is inspired to share a moving account of her memories of that year. She speaks of feelings of uncertainty, of nothing being reliable or dependable, of “Chaos. A world upside down. Politically and otherwise” and such trepidation and worry for the future of the world and for her then-young self, tempered by the ‘release’ and freedom brought about by the falling away of old authorities. She ends by saying “So, 1974 was not all bad” and we all smile. My father is in my mind; 1974 was a time of much upheaval and worry for him too. Recalling the earlier exchange, I slow my breathing while the sadness washes over me.
The room becomes progressively busier. By about 12 there are several more co-workers present. One I have not noticed before is signing along with the dialogue. The fluidity of exchange in and out of performance and between topics resonates enjoyably with my own neuroqueer internal experience. The discussion: agreements and disagreements, questions and the plurality of answers they find, pirouetting from the silly to the profound and back again. Even the various sensory inputs and their different effects or strengths of impact on me from one moment to the next, feel like an externalisation of my mind, which vacillates haphazardly between states of rest and stress.
I have run out of my ADHD medication (accessing ADHD support, if even possible, is a privilege which requires the very executive function we lack) and am frequently overwhelmed by emotional dysregulation and poor executive function, my brain a galaxy of tasks, ideas, thoughts and intentions, flitting in and out of range, tangled and compressed into a tiny locked window and airless room like battery hens, or perhaps more like battery mischievous pixies with teleportation powers that snap each thought away as soon as it comes briefly into focus, the prioritising protocol for everything stuck on URGENT! I am transported back to the early ‘90’s, scrawling furiously into multiple concurrent notebooks because I lose track of them so often, each with a slightly different narrative told by the flow from one entry to the next, trying to make sense of the noise and chatter in my head, the storms of emotions, closing in and clearing off with bewildering veracity and velocity… I am struck by just how much it would have meant to me then to be able to invite others – safe, well-intentioned, open-minded others – into my head, the way we have been invited into this room, to share, observe and collaborate in the aimless beguiling fog, companions to dispel my isolation and crushing loneliness. It is a bittersweet reflection.
As if reading my mind, a co-worker muses on the different levels of internal noise in people, counterpointing the chattiness of some minds with the silence and “sort of nothing” in others’. I don’t disbelieve people who say it is their reality, but I can’t imagine that sort of quiet… another says that the work of doing the dance is a way to quiet the chatter in her own mind.
Discussion moves on to empty gestures, referencing Black Lives Matter in online discourse in 2020, lockdown year… when a co-worker asks the room what the word is for something that is a useless addition in speech, tautology is the answer. Examples are sought and there is chuckling at “ricey rice” and “wet river”, until “Deja vu all over again” is offered by a visitor and received widely as a pleasurable, satisfying example. Co-worker, Ngozi Oparah, a poet, shares knowledge of how tautology is conceived in philosophy and emerges as an authority. I wonder if this makes her feel uncomfortable at all, given the anti-hierarchical set-up of the collective. It doesn’t seem to, though when the topic moves on she seems happy to let it do so.
As I make my way through absorbed visitors and out of the room, reluctant to tear myself away now that I feel a part of the group, even though I have said close to nothing, (a neuroqueer trait: if we decide you’re a good egg, you are a friend for life) the same co-worker is speaking of a muted sneeze. Amusingly recounting the experience of an approaching sneeze prompting a mild panic and scramble to find a mute for her microphone, keen to avoid disturbing the whole room. This momentary “huge microclimate…a hyperemotional moment” has taken place inside her body, almost entirely invisible to all those around her. This narrative too encapsulates the neurodivergent experience where time is an unfathomable stranger, consuming melodramas can live within seconds while hours can drag or skip waywardly by and a day may contain a hundred such invisible dramas. I leave with a smile on my face.