Affecting Perception at O3 Gallery Oxford

Affecting Perception was a month long, generously funded exhibition, project and seminar programme, which passed through Oxford in March 2013. As I understand it, the guiding notion was to further discussion about the neuroscience that may underpin creativity in a wide ranging number of ‘atypical conditions’ caused either by injury or disease, such as alzheimer or a mugging leading to brain damage. Artists whose perspectives are autistic were also represented, most notably the extraordinarily beautiful and powerful works of Jon Adams.

The show at the O3 Gallery has received great reviews, deservedly so as an impressive array of works including some by Mervyn Peake & William Uttermohlen were on display. I attended two seminars and one poetry reading, all of which were excellent events with top people in their field giving of their knowledge generously and memorably.

So what could be wrong? Nothing that participants can be blamed for. At first glance, neither would you want to fault the curators except perhaps for a touch of over optimism in hoping to group together so many diverse neurological ‘conditions’ without controversy. Yet the moment I entered the O3 Gallery my question was always going to be, why bring autism into it?

Listening to the testimony of autistic adult self-advocates you begin to understand that we have been hi-jacked in a collective imperative to ‘fix the lost and broken ones’. Yet they tell us they are not broken. They have shown us that autism is just a difference. Central to this narrative of ‘rescue’ is the disease model, when what is needed is acceptance and accommodation.

So I felt uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of work by artists suffering disease and injury (even though some assaults to the brain resulted in new creative impulse and mastery) with those on the autism spectrum. Autism is a recognised disability you might say, and I agree it is disabling when not accommodated and accepted. So the job we have to do is create acceptance and accommodations for those who are differently wired. At best, the audience for such a show could be enlightened enough to get this, at worst, the notion of the fascinatingly broken autistic brain would be perpetuated.

It is here, in my opinion, that this coming together of art and science fell short. Perhaps in it’s overreaching ambition to cover so much ground it failed to reach the subtle social parts that a more human perspective can and must do.

For example, decision to place the work of a local autistic artist apart from the other works made no visual sense and was ultimately excluding. The rational given was that these were the only works for sale in a non-selling show, but the effect was to isolate him from the group and raise hopes of a sale in a non-sales context. A more sensitive and nuanced approach would have been to think through inclusion more responsibly and show his work within one of the two major groupings divided between floors of the gallery. The social isolation at the core of the autistic experience for so many, renders this a significant curatorial blunder.

Affecting perception though is an important concept, and I congratulate this young curatorial team AXNS Collective in creating an engrossing and worthy programme.

My great hope is that future ventures will acknowledge the context in which the autistic perspectives are shown and desist from the temptation to pathologise difference. Thus, affecting perception as an explorative theme could be more usefully applied to work on public perceptions of autism as quite simply another way of being.