On 21st July, the BBC screened a cutting edge documentary about neurodiversity in the arts entitled, Touretteshero: Me, My Mouth and I (BBC, 2018).
Touretteshero: Me, My Mouth and I (BBC, 2018) broadly explores the relationships between the arts, accessibility and disability through artist Jess Thom’s recent development and performance of the Samuel Beckett play, Not I.
Thom’s performance of Beckett’s character Mouth is radical in its asking of exciting and novel questions about the location of disability in the arts and the exclusion of disabled people as cultural and creative producers. Thom’s performance of Beckett’s work has become wildly popular — a Guardian review recently commented, ‘…it takes away the reverence that surrounds Beckett’s work and makes it accessible to everyone, at the same time raising questions about cultural curation, particularly of classic texts, and about who has access to the theatre and who can perform it’ (Gardner, 2017).
Jess Thom and Matthew Pountney are founders of the organisation, Touretteshero. Established in 2010, Touretteshero raises awareness of the challenges people with Tourette’s face, but embraces humour and creativity in its approach in order to take ownership of the laughter typically associated with the condition. Since then Touretteshero have performed at Glastonbury, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, DaDaFest in Liverpool and the Unlimited Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. Touretteshero’s critically acclaimed show, Backstage in Biscuit Land, has been on an extensive UK tour as well as to Europe, North America and Australia.
Neurodiversity and accessibility
As a Research Fellow in the School of Education and the Institute for the Study of the Human (iHuman), I am collaborating with Touretteshero as part of its Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship — you can read about this here. As part of last year’s ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, we celebrated our collaboration in Bring on the Biscuits: Celebrating the Diversity of the Human Mind, an evening that brought neurodiversity and accessibility to the forefront and asked critical questions of the power and place of disability and difference in the arts. Together, Touretteshero and I are exploring the intersections, politics and histories of access, academia, and the arts — seeing where and how these come together to theorise and politicise neurodiversity and disability in contexts of austerity and ableism.
In the documentary, Thom shares her lived experiences of the often-sharp intersections of Tourette’s and ableism. Ableism is a typically unknown oppression but one that underpins our cultural assumptions about what it means to be both human and ‘able’. Scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell defines ableism as ‘a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human’. Thom artfully explores this ‘network’ in the context of the art making, denoting disability as both an object of exclusion and that which has the potential to revise the arts as an exclusionary and elitist cultural sphere. For Thom, the arts offer vital contributions to amplifying the voices and talents of disabled people at the same time as acknowledging disability as a dynamic and creative way of being in its own right.
As a woman who lives with Tourettes, in her performance Thom situates Mouth as a disabled character “…because she experiences barriers because of how her body and mind work”. Mouth routinely draws upon the extent to which others stare at her — embodying the spectacle — a common experience for many disabled people, particularly those with visible impairments. In the documentary, we see Thom seeking answers to her questions about Mouth, her identity and lived experiences — travelling to Dublin to explore women’s voices in everyday culture, and meeting rappers, academics and artists to discuss the play, her performance and representations of disability and difference more broadly.
Thom is clear that intimately knowing Mouth is pertinent to doing Beckett’s play justice — to represent disabled women’s lives in full colour and to sketch out the intersections of disability, race, class, age, sexuality and gender in novel and unexpected ways. Elsewhere I have commented on the rarity of seeing disabled women as protagonists on screen, regardless of genre: ‘We so rarely get to see disabled women as thinking, feeling, and acting subjects’.
Moreover, Touretteshero: Me, My Mouth and I unashamedly centres both disability and access as vital to its creation and communication, challenging the established rubrics of documentary film–making. For one, it doesn’t assume the embodiments or capabilities of its audience. People featured on screen give a description of themselves, which subtly but powerfully challenges the assumptions of an ocularcentric culture (the privileging of vision over the other senses), and through humour and parody the documentary challenges the typical (and tired) representations of people with Tourette’s in documentary film.
Thom invites us to critique the stereotypical scenes within such films — for example, the mundane use of scenes featuring the person with Tourette’s in a supermarket or a library. Scenes that routinely reinforce ableist assumptions of the supposed problematics and inappropriateness of Tourette’s in everyday life; not to mention its assumed disturbance of and disruption to the behavioural politics of public space and social order. In another scene, Thom has a conversation with artist Liz Carr as they both sit in oversized bins. As well as a reference Beckett’s play End Game, this scene, Thom explains, was in order to recognise the lack of accessibility for disabled artists entering cultural institutions and the stark realities of segregation and exclusion. Quite literally, physical access is typically so poor that many disabled artists habitually enter arts spaces through back doors, kitchens, or via rubbish and refuse spaces: “we’re often not thought about”, Thom argues.
‘Diversity is beautiful’
I want to end with Thom’s words — because they reach the very heart of disability justice and its place in the arts: “Diversity is beautiful, and we are not the problem. We don’t need to change ourselves or be fixed. For me, success is catalysing new ways of thinking or new connections for our audience, so it’s not about me doing the perfect performance. Success is about doing Mouth justice and people connecting with her story and what that means now”.