Insulated auditoriums: the struggle to be heard
First published here on Disability Arts Online, also with audio recording for visually impaired audiences.
How many of us have had the experience of speaking and yet not being heard? Despite having the tools and means to communicate – whether that is music, dance, voice or any other method of expression – barriers divide what is being said from a listening audience or partner-in-conversation.
Repurposing confectionary packaging to create a series of miniature concert halls, the first two sculptures in this series house a means of creative expression (in this case, a grand piano a little more than 1cm in diameter). On the outside is a layer of insulation that resembles acoustic sound-proofing foam. In one work, the audience seats are made from lolly-sticks and the layers of a chocolate box provide the basic architectural structure of a tiered theatre space.
Using discarded materials to build with is a key theme running through the Art Extraordinary collection, but so too is a historic undervaluing of artworks made within spaces of confinement (the collector and art therapist Joyce Laing worked tirelessly to address this in her preservation of these artworks). So many artists who have created pioneering works from within hospitals, prisons and so on are omitted from art history books, their creative outputs reaching a miniature audience.
One interpretation of these sculptures might be that the foam covering them is preventing the creative expression taking place within from being heard – a struggle that many Outsider artists experience. From another perspective, perhaps the spiky outer shells provide protection and comfort to the artist within. Spaces in which we can express ourselves freely also need to feel safe, and sometimes that arises in spaces of privacy, spaces in which no audience is granted access. A deterrent set up to protect the sensitivity and vulnerability that arises from creative expression.
Whilst on the Stepping Up course with Outside In and Glasgow Museums, I focused on the work made by Austrian artist Antonia Jabloner (1908-2002). I was drawn in by her sketchbook titled ‘Plans for Another World’ containing several detailed designs for what appeared to be spaces of creative expression, many of these featuring rooms with grand pianos. She created these sketches most likely around the 1970s whilst either in Aberdeen Royal Cornhill Hospital or Seafield House in Ayr, imagining vast spaces far beyond the walls of her confinement.
It is thought that Jabloner may have been aware of the Austrian architect Rudolf Steiner, not least for the similarities between her sketches and the intersecting dome-like features of his First Goetheanum, a space designed for hosting artistic expression in the name of spiritual enlightenment. One of the cornerstones of his thinking was the relationship between built environments and communication, stating ‘buildings will begin to speak’ and that ‘architectural thought becomes the thought of speech’.
Here, designing architecture becomes a radical, potentially liberatory act: if built environments are bound to the acts of communication and expression that happen within them, does that not also include who gets to speak in these spaces and, indeed, who is silenced?
I could have been a space to be heard in
Continuing to explore the synergies between architecture, music and hierarchies of who is listened to, I created a larger work to stand alongside the miniatures in the summer exhibitions. This time I brought together a smashed-up guitar that I found on the street and multiple tracings of Antonia’s architectural sketches; both emblematic of the latent potential of discarded materials and the ideas and expressions that are side-lined as a result.
As far as we know, Jabloner’s building designs only ever remained in 2D form. They were plans for creative spaces that never materialised and remained confined to the pages of a notebook marked within the walls of a psychiatric institution. This was one of the starting points for my creative process – how could I begin to lift these designs off the page and open up new avenues for understanding? Jabloner never left any detail as to how tall her buildings might be, how the external façade might appear, what materials they may be constructed with, or an overall sense of scale; the designs are only ever shown from above. A circular space could be an indication of a dome, or it could be a tall column with a flat roof, such are the ambiguities of the birds-eye perspective.
Hanging tracings of her work across strings that are stretched across a towering cardboard frame, the sculpture itself alludes to a building that is both an architectural space and a musical instrument. Here, both buildings and instruments are shown to be resonant spaces in which expressions are heard in AND with. Flowing from the broken guitar neck is the words
‘I could have been a space to be heard in
Although a smashed instrument found on the street could be read to indicate a disregard for creative expression, it could also speak volumes about the rejection of traditional music tuition and its rules and regulation. I’m reminded of Nam June Paik’s destruction of instruments in the 1960s against the background of his classical music training. This move has since been interpreted as anti-establishment, a challenge to the elitism associated with this training and ideals of ‘beauty’ and perfectionism, a stance that also resonates with Outsider Art.
In any case, the links between space and freedom of expression, of music and architecture, and of tools and apparatus are pushed to the foreground. It is not enough to have the means of creative expression – whether that is a musical instrument or Jabloner’s clear skill in producing visionary architectural designs – when the apparatus is working to marginalise, ignore or silence the voices made with those tools.
For Outsider Artists like Jabloner to be heard, the apparatus needs dismantling so that art produced by artists who happen to be in psychiatric institutions is not under-valued, discarded, or regarded as unimportant. But it is these lingering associations and prejudices against art made in such contexts, by artists not currently in art academies and esteemed schools, that means so much of it is still overlooked.
The final piece I made in this series looked at the creative potential of architectural sketches as existing in an imaginary beyond the limits of actual possibility and materialisation. Before taking part in the project, I had been reading about Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor’s Monuments of Impossible Architecture so this became another strand of influence that recognised the creative potential of the architectural sketch or design itself in priority over any actual materialisation. In Kantor’s work he proposed magnified versions of domestic objects for specific locations – a gigantic lightbulb, a humongous clothes hanger – and wrote about the value of theoretical musings over final concrete forms.
My sketch marks out a vision for a structure to be built on the site of Eton College, an institution that highlights class privilege and wealth disparity as wrought throughout the UK’s education system. Twenty (out of fifty-five) of Britain’s prime ministers have been former pupils of this one school, a statistic that speaks volumes about family income and power. It illustrates how unlikely it is for those from households that can’t afford the £48,000 yearly tuition fees to reach such powerful positions.
Figure 1: felt-tip pen and colouring pencil on tracing paper
When I was researching Jabloner’s architectural sketches, it was unclear how she decided on the complex outer shapes of her designs but if she was influenced by Steiner, perhaps it was through organic forms and how these might suggest individual and/or societal change. It is thought that Steiner’s first Goetheanum was based on the general shape of the human brain, the intersecting domes representing the frontal and parietal lobes (Perotti in Kiuntsli et al, 2020). If so, this would have been in keeping with his vision of architecture as being intricately connected with psychology and consciousness. Interestingly, the rear lobe is understood to play a crucial role in proprioception: spatial awareness and how we are able to perceive the location of our body in relation to other things. Jabloner’s sketches appear as if she was designing spaces for music-making with her inclusion of pianos. If she was influenced by Steiner’s method, I wondered how her spatial arrangements and curved walls might relate to the behaviour and creative expression she was hoping to cultivate within.
Thinking about how architectural design might reflect behaviour and actions to happen within its perimeter and how these might relate to location, I based the outline of my proposed building on an image of collective behaviour – of protest against class privilege in access to education. This initial image became iconic in representing the 2010 student protests in London, showing the moment when activists broke through police lines to enter Millbank Tower in Westminster.
Not bound by the limits of brick, mortar and traditional building materials, this structure is to be constructed with heterotrophic matter (i.e. fungi) initiating a process of decomposition, absorbing and breaking down an institution of social inequality and disproportionate wealth. In hindsight, perhaps this is a literal internalisation of the ‘eat the rich’ slogan.