Melissa Gronlund, Helena Vilalta
What we realise, when the voice is missing, is that the organ persists, and its modulated sounds prove that the quivering vocal chords are actually still there.
But we also realise something else — that in the place of the instrument deserted by usage, another one emerges, which, curiously, is not destined to take over from the one no longer in use.
Now, with this instrument, which we are unable to play, we can ask ourselves if it is not the existence of this instrument itself that prevented the — autistic — individual from having a voice; so much so that the autistic being wouldn’t be the one lacking something; he would be equipped with something, rather, more. [...]
They will say that it’s a shame if I rely on the fate of those who are strangers — but stranger to whom? To us? Rather, strangers to language, which then becomes the homeland of mankind.
— Fernand Deligny1
Having taught at a psychiatric hospital in Armentières in northern France before the outbreak of World War II, and later advocating for the ‘free’, non-institutional care of troubled youth, at the end of the 1960s the poet and pedagogue Fernand Deligny set up a network of temporary homes for autistic children in the Cévennes, a mountainous region in the south. The initiative emerged from the ashes of La Grande Cordée, the innovative, nationwide effort to re-educate so-called difficult teenagers; through that organisation, Deligny questioned both psychiatric and moral approaches to those on the periphery of society, and specifically, as he put it, the ‘youth that had fled to “the margins” and which society wished to bring back to normal life’.2 As modest in scale as it was ambitious in scope, the experiment in the Cévennes went a step further by creating a living environment modelled after the autistic child’s way of being in the world, notably his or her withdrawal from language and social interaction more generally. In this network of farmhouses, therapists were replaced by untrained social workers and psychiatric confinement by life out in the open. Verbal communication was dispensed with and visual tools such as maps, photographs and films were used to interpret the children’s gestures and wanderings. At stake in this experience of communal living was not the attempt to educate the children or integrate them into ‘normal’ life, but, rather, to facilitate the conditions for a form of personal existence that refuses to adjust to what are, to a non-autistic sensibility, standard modes of perceiving, acting or communicating. Crucially, Deligny’s writings and films show how the de-pathologisation of autism within the network involved a broadening
of the spectrum of subjective life — a sea change in the attitude towards neurodiversity
that today resonates strongly in the autism rights movement.3
If we bring up Deligny’s experiment here, it is not only because many of the artistic practices convened in this issue query the borders between sanity and madness, normality and marginality. More importantly, the way in which Deligny’s work with so-called marginal children called into question our very understanding of human subjectivity parallels how the practices discussed in these pages contest the geographical and conceptual map of the art system from its outside, as it were. His acute and unprejudiced observation of the children’s inner life brings to mind Andrea Büttner’s historically laden photographs of boys with mental disabilities appreciating art — themselves awkward to see or judge by aesthetic criteria — while his critique of the misrepresentation of difference as a lack with regards to autism resonates with Enquête sure le/notre dehors (Enquiry on the/our outside). Initiated by Alejandra Riera in 2007, this ongoing project explores what constitutes the borders of our society — what we relegate, for example, to the peripheries of city centres or outside of sanity. Like the farmhouse network in the Cévennes, it is motivated by an attempt to live together: to produce the conditions for a shared experience, sometimes recorded via ‘film-documents’, ‘partial views’ and written accounts that defy a sense of totality or closure. Riera’s consistent refusal of authorship over these collective experiences, and her resistance to formatting them according to the customary categories and modes of presentation of artistic practice, rubs time and again against the conventions of the art world (including the structure by which we organise the contents of this journal, according to which this project has been included under the ‘Artists’ rubric). In their discussion of the actual experience of living and working in the art world, Zachary Cahill and Philip von Zweck address how artists — whom they dub ‘double agents’ — live between structures. Already occupying a comfortable position in contemporary art history, Panamarenko defied the parameters within which the art world operates when he decided to retire from art-making in 2005. As Hans Theys reminds us, working mostly in the solitude of his studio in Antwerp, Panamarenko has relied on another sense of lived experience: the systematic querying of authoritative forms of knowledge through the building of impossible machines.
This issue also pays particular attention to artists’ collectives that have used their geographical remove from centres of art to question not only what kind of art to make but also the codes by which to disseminate it. The Radical Painters and Sculptors Association was formed in the late 1980s out of the dislocation that a group of young artists felt when they moved, as students, from the southern, left-leaning state of Kerala to the north of India, its locus of power. Refusing to represent Kerala or their Indian identity, these artists banded together to intertwine art-making and politics. In her personal account of the activities of the Dakar-based collectives Laboratoire AGIT’art and Tenq during the 1990s, Clémentine Deliss observes the former’s ‘vigilance towards potential appropriation from the outside’ when offered opportunities to show internationally; their example undermines common assumptions about the distribution of cultural capital and knowledge between perceived centres and peripheries, and about who seeks and who grants visibility in artistic arenas.
Issues of identity and representation are picked up in the recent practice of Nilbar Güres, a Turkish artist who studied in Vienna and whose works look at identity from a viewpoint between locations — in ‘transit’, as Mihnea Mircan puts it. Likewise contesting the terms of political representation, the Suffragettes of the early 1900s literally attacked works of art, deliberately pushing against the bienséance of polite society in order to garner attention for their cause. That this iconoclastic gesture has been recuperated in an artwork — Carla Zaccagnini’s artist’s book Elements of Beauty (2012), which, as Emma Hedditch details, refuses traditional forms of art-world exhibition for the dissemination of publishing — highlights the fact that within all the projects surveyed in this journal the move to shift norms brings with it a fraught relationship to publicity and historicisation. How to tell a story free from myth-making, as Anita Dube and Shanay Jhaveri ask in the case of the Radical Group’s relation to its famed member, K.P. Krishnakumar, or divulge the story of a collective whose methodology was imbued with secrecy and whose members have since walked different paths, as Deliss explores in her subjective history of Laboratoire AGIT’art?
Such questions regarding the ethics and politics of dissemination can also be asked of the work of Afterall as a publishing platform that seeks to contest binaries such as centre and periphery but whose own production and distribution are rooted along a North American-European axis. If we want to avoid fixing the borders of our own outside — or, as Deligny would have it, declaring what is beyond the ‘homeland’ of art — we must ask how the journal can remain attentive not only to the diversity of the artistic practices that it covers but also to the plurality of languages it features, and to what publics they speak.
Fernand Deligny, ‘La voix manquée’ (1982), L’Arachnéen et autres textes, Paris: L’Arachnéen, 2008, available at http://www.editions-arachneen.fr/voix_manquee.html (last accessed on 12 May 2014). Translation the authors’. ↑
F. Deligny, ‘La Grande Cordée’, Enfance, vol.2, no.1–2, 1949, p.72, available at http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/enfan_0013-7545_1949_num_2_1_2173 (last accessed on 12 May 2014). Translation the authors’. ↑
Changes in the understanding of autism and their impact upon definitions of human subjectivity more broadly have also been reflected in a number of recent artworks. Deligny’s legacy is the subject of artist Imogen Stidworthy’s proposed work for the 31st Bienal de São Paulo (2014), while autism rights activist Amanda Baggs’s YouTube video In My Language (2007) has been quoted in artist Wu Tsang’s video The Shape of a Right Statement (2008). ↑