Who decides what 'being social' requires anyway?


'Everyone has something to say', (2022)

I thought I was ready to return to the 'art world', I was mistaken. In some ways it feels even further away than it did before I chose to immerse myself in it 8 years ago. I have skills, knowledge and experience that should ensure that the doors to access it remain open, yet I find myself needing to take a longer, more circuitous path. A pathway with so many diversions, sharp bends, hills and tall towering trees, I am forced to stop often. I've been struggling with the post-stroke fatigue which has overtaken the chronic fatigue that I've lived with from childhood. I do not tell you this to garner your sympathy, only to ask you to find empathy as your read through this text. If you are in privileged position within the arts, I invite you to 'listen' and consider where your particular organisation sits with regard to access to events, residencies, exhibitions; how are the structures set up to provide support, connect, and provide opportunities for artists and audiences?

I touched on the issue of 'being social' in my blog 'Untethered and Open for Business' in July and today I wish to expand on that. The subject of sociability has become an issue that I think about, pretty much on a daily basis at the moment. I've been thinking about how, so often, to be seen to be, or to benefit from 'being social', requires ones presence in a physical space. The arts appears to perpetuate a need for presence in physical spaces; whether that be as artists or audiences. I'm not sure I can adequately verbalise how care, collectivity and connectivity are wrapped up in the word 'social', but they are. These carefully considered observations also link to what we think of as 'socially engaged arts practice'. Of course, they do, isn't everything rhizomatic when you look deep enough? I am not going to distract from my main purpose for this text by involving 'socially engaged arts practice' though. I had the opportunity to write for the Social Art Library on my own push and pull with that genre of the arts, so if you'd like to read that you can find 'Whose Story Is It?' here.


"I am not particularly sociable, I prefer my own company and find being with groups of people exhausting..."

It might surprise people who have met or worked with me to hear that I avoid 'social' interaction in the public and private sphere as much as possible. However, in truth it is not an avoidance of being social, or a lack of desire to connect with others. It is a need to protect myself by not being with other people in physical spaces. The need is even more essential to me now. It isn't because I am shy or lacking in confidence (although that has taken a beating). I won't go into all the why's, all I shall say is that for me and many others, the presence of other physical bodies, different spaces, unfamiliar voices and noises, is draining to the point of incapacity and sometimes actually painful. Before April this year, it was just the exhaustion that followed the attendance at events, talks, university, that wiped me out. Where ever possible I would try and limit how often I needed to physically be somewhere. Since April my limits are more pronounced, no longer planned around a few in a week, but now a couple of hours every few months or so.


Why am I blathering on about all of this, you may ask? I refer back to a rather clunky few sentences in my August blog, '(All) Sort(s) of Different Though'.


"How quickly ‘we’ have returned to the ‘old normal’. How rapidly the switch back to irl (in real life) events, etc. How loud was that door that just slammed back [in] the faces of artists who were/are always isolated, or facing other barriers to accessing the [required] route into the industry [] to develop[ing] their art practice."




I still scroll through opportunities and every now and again one will catch my eye. I open it with an element of anticipation and expectation. but the exhaustion hits me before I've reached the end of the description, requirements and 'how to applies'. I keep hoping to see an online or remote residency, 'Always on the Edges', (2022)

or networking event. Maybe a succinct and non

laborious application process to enter an exhibition opportunity. Or even a wide choice of online exhibitions to sit and view.


I've reactivated my Axis web profile and I've joined Eastside Projects EOP. It's the first steps to getting myself back 'in the game'. I've signed up to attend an Axis web online event on the 24th November. It will be the first arts event I've attended since April. Outside of my arts practice I continue to facilitate the online Tenants' Action Group on Facebook (its pretty much self moderating now so requires very little from me); I am also a member of various online arts groups and the online FB groups, Bipolar Support Group UK and Stroke Recovery UK. It is now that I'm really getting to the crux of what 'being social' is all about from a neurotypical and ableist construct. It has also been the recent Twitter takeover at a point when I have decided to re-enter the Twittersphere that has me thinking about what my life and my practice might look like if social media platforms and the internet did not exist.


Here is not the time nor place to broach the discussion on the negative -v- positive of social media or the wider internet. In this moment I want to share why, for me, without them my life, and career would look very different. It is why when I wrote, "I remember sharing my fear and my doubt that anything would change for long..." I should have emphasised that word FEAR.


Most of my social interaction either takes place online, or with my immediate family in person (but not all at once!). I stay connected with a few people who I've met through my arts career, but I am disconnected from many more. It can feel a bit like you've disappeared and, worse, that you are no longer relevant. Ok, those feelings are just as much about my relationship with my own identity as they are about those who were once regular contacts. Please do not see this as a personal attack on anyone of them. It is instead perhaps, an observation of one of the missing elements in the arts. As arts organisations and individual artists we strive to connect, to belong, to include, and to have a voice, but there is no infrastructure there really for after care or continuity of care and care is, or at least should be at the centre of 'being social'. If we look at companies, in general, there is a requirement to support staff. There are procedures for supporting members of staff on long term leave, and adjustments to be met for their return. We (artists) exist as freelancers in network bubbles, there is nobody other than ourselves with real responsibility for our health. So what happens when an artist can no longer work in the ways they used to?


It will be no surprise that I ask you to cast your mind back to the pandemic days of everything moving online. Again, I am not going into detail here as I've already talked about it in other blogs. Yes, I know moving online came with various challenges such as money, learning new technologies, extra preparation, online safety, but we've learned how to deal with those challenges now! As far as money goes, maybe it's just about rethinking where our spending priorities lie. I went to an online event during the pandemic that addressed the 'money' word in relation to accessibility. I'm not sure if I've written about this elsewhere and unfortunately I cannot remember the speaker who posed the suggestion that, (and I paraphrase), perhaps organisers, instead of allocating their budget for access after everything else, such as the number of artworks, artists, etc, should instead allocate their access budget first. I ask, how many of you would consider doing that? I realise it is not as simple as that, I'm sure some of you may possibly be thinking, but then there won't be any money left to give the event substance. I'd argue that this is just an excuse.


When I was running Speedy Crits during the pandemic there were some who, although appreciative of its existence, felt it was no substitute for viewing art or meeting other artists in real life, they craved being able to be within touching distance of others and artworks again. I get it, I do. There are artworks that don't translate as well on screen as they do in person. For some the energy of being with others, feeds them, uplifts them even. Yet, as the months pass by I am seeing less and less online opportunities, so it would seem the needs of those, like me, for whom 'being social' requires a different approach are not being given the same acceptance.


Way back in the early 2000's I was in the grips of a bipolar downward spiral. I barely left the house and was in the grips of a severe depression. I came across a bipolar support group online, it was founded in America. It became the place that helped me make the journey away from that depression. I felt a part of a community. I felt safe in a space with people who could understand what I was experiencing. It was a space where I could just vent or ask for advice. There were basic rules around respect, no medical advice, and the site was moderated. We were all anonymous. I made a few friends there, I am still close friends, over 20 years later with one of them. It was over a 3 year period that I learned how to cope with the diagnosis I'd been trying to avoid and how I could live with it.


It was the internet that I turned to again during another relapse a few years later. This time I found the groups on FB, I am still a member of them now. It was off the back of one of those groups that I created a page for members to share their artwork and support one another in their creativity. There were so many artists in those groups, some at the beginning of an artistic journey, some quite far along. All of them felt like outsiders on the fringes of the art world. Many friendships grew from these groups and again, I remain good friends with a few of them still.


2018 was the year that again the internet, in particular social media, provided a space to connect and share experiences. It was the year I founded the S-o-A Tenants' Action Group. We met a few times in physical spaces, but most of the interactions and support took place online. Four years later the group still exists and has 462 members from across South Warwickshire. The online space gave accessibility to more people than a static room could, that may be a couple of miles to over 50 miles away for a group of people spread across such a large geographic area.








It is within the digital space of another FB group that I have exchanged the experience of having a stroke with fellow stroke warriors. I have learned so much and felt less alone with the challenges I've been facing. There is a local stroke support group near me, but at this moment I cannot face being 'with' others in a community hall 10 miles away, drinking stewed tea, with multiple conversations going on around me, the heating on too high and the risk of a metal chair leg scraping across the floor. I don't have the energy to engage in face to face conversation with a stranger. At least online, I can reply in my own time, engage as much or as little as I want or am able, drink my own coffee, sat on my own sofa in my own safe space.


Perhaps it is too soon for me to be expecting to get back in the game, or perhaps there just aren't enough options for me to tentatively try. I honestly don't have the answer to that. I do know though, that right now there is very little out there for me and others facing similar challenges unless I travel to it, the same as it's always been, with the exception of that couple of years of stuff happening online when there was no other choice.


'Being social' is not some binary thing, it can mean something different to how you may think of it. Being connected and having the opportunity to connect are crucial to being able to be social, and that can be achieved in various spaces or even blended spaces. I feel so out of the loop in just a matter of 7 months, of not accessing people and spaces that were a constant presence in my life prior to my stroke. It was with excitement and gratitude then that my work was selected for a touring exhibition with Outside In. The application was straightforward, the details clear and succinct. I hope I am able to attend the start of the tour at Sotheby's but I know that even if I can't I should be able to view the exhibition on line. It will be the second time I have had work selected through Outside In, and the first one was a virtual exhibition due to galleries being closed, with an 'opening night' online also.


I know it is nothing new for organisation boards and advisory groups to be asking 'who is missing and why'. I strongly feel that it is up to the organisations in large towns and cities to think about those smaller towns and villages around them. When you think about them, which I hope you will now, if not already, remember to consider, the costs of travel to you, (environmentally and financially), access to transport. To consider whether your opportunities, whatever they maybe are, socially caring with access for those with a different way of 'being social', connecting and developing. Please think of all these and other considerations alongside one another and not in isolation.


Thank you for reading. As always if anything in this text has resonated you are welcome to get in touch.







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