I wanted to write a piece which uses a short film I made as a framework for thinking about my own health challenges as well as wider societal issues. A link to the film is here, best to watch it first:
(Note: I wrote this pre-Coronavirus — and have been formulating it in my head for a couple of years — but decided not to re-write in new context)
I wanted to write up some reflections I have had about this artwork — made in 2012 with my friend Ben. At the time I felt the work was a wry comment about the speed with which society was going, with the ‘busy’ epidemic in full swing; self-care not even factored in — except in ineffectual neo-liberal ‘because you’re worth it’ advertising straplines.
Slow Down. Slow. Down.
Years later — in the midst of immobility due to complex spine and hip issues — I had a revelation. The film was not only about society, it was also about me. It popped into my head during a long and sleepless night (made otherworldly by pain medication and anti-spasmodics) and I realised I was saying in the film, very clearly: “Slow down or you will fall over and you will not be able to get up again”.
As self-fulfilling prophecies in playful artworks go, this one was quite profound.
Thinking back, the film came about via a Skype chat with Ben (back when we did that kind of thing); it was a ‘fuck it, let’s just make something’ conversation. About what, though?… I referred to a feeling of going round in circles in various aspects of my life and, as an aside, mentioned how I had been wanting to hear Strings of Life (a piano and strings House classic by Rhythim is Rhythim from 1989). Finding the song on YouTube, I was confronted with its video — which I‘d never seen before. Ballet dancers pirouetted relentlessly as the music built and built…That was it. That’s how I felt and that’s what I wanted to do in the film. Spin.
Our discussion continued. Spin and spin, yes. But, then what? Well, spin until I fell. It was kind of obvious even though we didn’t know exactly why. We went with it.
The next questions were: what soundtrack, what location, what props? Dolly Parton’s classic feminist office worker anthem 9–5 came immediately to mind but was quickly (and correctly) dismissed by Ben as too obvious. A dig through a box of coverless 7”s, given to me by my mum, turned up a right Northern Soul banger: Slow Down. Soundtrack sorted! And it gave us a good title too.
Next, clothing…Something that would twirl for maximum effect. A local charity shop find did the trick.
Location. Back then I was running a music and arts festival and (through East Street Arts’ Meanwhile Use spaces project) happened to have access to a large warehouse where we stored kit and made decor. It was a bit decrepit; interior walls were battered and… well, maybe it was perfect. We decamped to the warehouse with a camera, a few cobbled together lights and a record deck — part broken but still with its spinning function.
Take one: Camera set up and lights in position; let’s have a go. After an initial skirt swishing, I started to spin. Arms out, Wonder Woman style (a childhood hero of mine). Recalling too some childhood-gleaned advice, I kept my eyes level and tried to focus on specific points as I spun. As a child I had dreamed of being a ballerina (as well as Wonder Woman), now those desires were rekindled. Convinced I was travelling at what must be close to the speed of light, the room blurred around me and I kept spinning. Faster and faster.
Soon — despite my best efforts to channel both Wonder Woman and ballerina — the urge to get on the floor became too great. I didn’t want to fall over on camera, so I set what controls I still had command of, to gradually veer myself out of shot.
Ben contested: ‘I want to see you fall over in shot, so we can see the full loss of your dignity.’ He had a point. Take two…take three…and eventually (beginning to feel somewhat spun out) we had what we wanted. All that remained was some top and tail editing — inserting footage of the record player — and the addition of a glitched audio track. We had our artwork sorted.
Looking back on the film now, I still find it satisfying to watch and it makes me smile. Moreover it has new resonance, in relation to recent life experiences and health setbacks. Is the notion that all art is autobiographical a self-indulgence or a truth?
Making art can be a way to filter our experience and interpretation of the world around us; reflecting likewise our inner landscapes. And ‘Slow Down’ does seem to be a reflection of how I was experiencing and responding to the world at that time. It came about as an urge, a frustration. It’s taken me years to understand what it was trying to tell me; or what I was trying to tell myself. That if I didn’t slow down then falling over would be an inevitability.
I didn’t listen, and I fell.
A falling that took a few years…Back problems, bereavement and a dyspraxia diagnosis.
The fact is, the way I was living was simply not sustainable. The amount of unconscious masking I was doing to cover up difficulties I had as a dyspraxic person and a relentless approach to work was ONLY going to lead to a fall, crash, collapse. I ignored the signs and my body revolted against my unreasonable demands.
Falling has taken a few years. Getting back up is taking a few more. The getting back up is different though. I’m not getting back up to simply spin again and fall (…take two…take three). As a pal put it when I was in the midst of what felt like an endless rehab/relapse process with my physiotherapist: “You’ll find your new normal”. They were right. I am finding my ‘new normal’ and the tricky thing is going at my new RPM in a world that still expects the other speed.
Going slowly can feel like swimming against the tide; involving guilt, self-consciousness or shame (I’m not as good as I was; not fulfilling others’ expectations) — not to mention frustration. The thing about a breakdown though — physical or mental — is that along with it comes a real possibility of break-through. As precarious as my life has been, I have discovered a lot. A clear diagnosis for dyspraxia and a correct approach to treatment and rehabilitation with my back have brought me a great deal of insight and understanding. This slow process of recovery and reflection has funnelled my focus toward what I have always wanted to be — an artist. Now I just need to keep steering my boat in the right direction and with proper maintenance and regular repairs I’ll keep it seaworthy.*
*I’ve shifted here to a marine metaphor. It’s something I’m thinking about in my new work…watch this space!
(Post Script: As I mentioned, I wrote this before Coronavirus swept across much of the globe. It’s astonishing how swiftly people have adapted in order to accommodate new ways of living. We are all currently experiencing restricted or more difficult travel, impact on work or ability to work, home-working experiments as well as uncertainty. We have also been invited or forced to ‘slow down’ — in fact this term has become common — even the Queen mentioned it in her first address. All of these factors are issues that people who live with disabilities experience as part of daily life — although, for many, things have undoubtedly become even more complex.
These recent restrictions resonate so much with my life over the last few years. When health issues became acute in 2017, I was forced to re-evaluate my life. Last year, supported by an Arts Council grant, I began working with practitioners to identify barriers around disability. I developed strategies, protocols and workarounds to overcome these challenges. This process has been life changing, is ongoing and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity. The Social Model of Disability proposes that it is not an individual’s medical condition that make a person disabled, but the attitudes and structures of society. As we are all now learning, through these new ways of living, what our ‘new normal’ is, we are presented with an opportunity to rebuild society and make it more inclusive for everyone. Let’s make it happen.)
Disclaimer: The author recognises that there are many different ways to refer to a group of people with disabilities. The author has chosen to use the phrase ‘those who live with disabilities’ in this text but recognises that each individual will have their own preferences.
Editing support by Amelia Crouch and Cheryl Huntbach. Funded with support from Arts Council England’s Grant for the Arts.
*Dyspraxia is a neurological disorder which affects many aspects of life including physical and mental coordination, time, space, thinking and remembering. It’s commonly attributed as a childhood issue but more adults are being diagnosed with it and it is being realised that, although less females are diagnosed, it’s likely to be a similar amount as males due to their tendency to be more skilled (unconsciously or otherwise) at masking difficulties.