Guest Post: Helen Duff

I’m on my way to deliver a series of workshops for the Attenborough Arts Centre as
their first family inclusion associate artist. I’m energised by the training I’ve done as
part of Jo Grace’s Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling workshop and excited by the chance to make artist Aaron Williamson’s retrospective at the AAC even more accessible. Conducting the workshop in the main gallery space with children who
have complex needs, PMLD and / or are on the autism spectrum, will be a learning
experience for all of us!

Deliberately confrontational and controversial, Williamson uses a range of mediums –
from photography to performance, video and live interventions – to explore, exploit
and “confuse the normative world’s secure notions of what disabled people represent”. It’s a show full of humour, self awareness and invention, and as a professional clown, I immediately recognised Williamson as a kindred spirit.

At her best, the clown creates an empathetic connection with the audience, looking
them straight in the eye and honestly admitting her humanity, whilst highlighting the
inherent, absurd humour in everyday acts. Play is the clown’s most important
principle. Everything can be a game, and approaching even the most serious issues
with a playful touch, we learn more about ourselves and each other than might be
possible in the heavy, worthy world of “The Arts”.

Williamson assumes the stance of cheeky outsider with idiosyncratic relish. In the
short film Beatles Mania, he and a group of deaf artists stand on stage, dressed in
immediately recognisable 60s suits. Paul McCartney wigs on the wonk, they scream
their hearts out at a silent audience; upending the expectation that the screaming of
a crowd should only go one way. Starry Walker and The Stall of warm Handshakes sees Williamson shaking hands with a variety of strangers on the street, the photographs
using CGI technology to merge the artist’s face with the people he encounters. It calls to mind a clown, peering out into the vast audience of a big top, mirroring the astonished faces he finds looking back, quickly switching to someone else as soon as his victim clocks they’re being copied. In a black and white video, Williamson cuts a classic, Heathcliff figure, standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating the rugged landscape, his long, dark cloak flapping in the wind. Slowly, with great gravitas (the clown knows the power of a good entrance) Williamson turns to camera. A close up reveals he’s foaming at the mouth. Watching my participants fascination with this video, their attention captivated by the mix of majesty, surprise, and something inexpressible, spoke volumes.

In his introduction to the exhibition, Williamson states “there are so many more
seams to unearth in language. The words themselves, the modes of saying, are as
significant as meaning. I am looking for a more physical currency of accord”. During
my workshop I will spend time waking up the participants’ bodies – with dancing and
mime to spark the skin and fire up the imagination – waking the participants up to the expressive potential of their physical form. Getting care givers, parents and siblings in on this act is key; as Williamson shows throughout his exhibition, an audience must recognise your status as a maker of meaning, before your voice can be heard. Artists cannot exist in a vacuum, and I hope that the game of making an entrance, breaking through a grand curtain, will help the children to perceive themselves as artists, a world of different ways they might express their imaginations unfurling onto the stage.

The sensory story I will tell at the end of the workshop, inspired by the figure of Parachute Suzan, a paraplegic explorer featured in Williamson’s inspiration archive,
will combine classic narrative techniques with smells, textures, spiralling “jet engines”
and waves of explosive foam. I’ve really enjoyed piecing together my plunder from a scrap store in South West London, creating a narrative that will activate and engage the senses to which each participant is most attuned. This story can be shared with families and care givers so that they might tell it again; all the materials are recycled household items and the repetition of the tale will only enhance its sensory impact, especially for participants who find surprises jarring. In this way, I hope the legacy of Williamson’s exhibition will live on in the children’s minds, as well as the physical memory of our session, and the positive feelings induced by some Very Important Play.