Live review: Distorted Constellations @ Caustic Coastal

Between 17th and 26th January, performance artist/musician Nwando Ebizie presented a series of events in and around her Distorted Constellations exhibition, at Caustic Coastal in Salford. Co-commissioned by Eclipse and HOME (as part of the 2019 Push Festival), the event series ranged from dance and ASMR storytelling, to scientific lectures and an electronic music workshop. I was able to catch the Opening Ceremony on the 17th, as well as Dr Edward Bracey’s talk ‘Are our Brains Broken? Cognitive Bias and the Neurodiverse Spectrum’ and Ebizie’s dance piece 20 Minutes of Action on the 19th. Distorted Constellations was an unruly manifestation of Ebizie’s own dense constellation of interests and obsessions, forcing these to rub against each other, cross-pollinate and generate strange, paradoxical progeny.

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The title of Distorted Constellations is among other things a reference to the neurological disorder ‘visual snow’, which causes a person’s vision to be overlaid by a swarm of moving dots like TV static, along with auras, glowing lines and other phenomena. The artist realised she was affected by this disorder in 2014 (presumably having previously assumed this was the way everyone perceived the world). Visual snow is a very new diagnostic concept, still in the process of being established and differentiated from other disorders such as migraine aura. The medical distillation of visual snow as a specific set of perceptual distortions of ‘normal perception’ was thus almost coterminous with Ebizie’s own separation of her ‘augmented reality’ into its generic elements (which are, presumably, shared with the majority of people) and specific ‘augmentations’ (which are, presumably, shared with those other people who identify as having visual snow).

The heart of the exhibition is a mixed-media installation or ‘immersive sensory environment’ designed to represent or reproduce Ebizie’s own perception. Several layers of transparent gauze enclose a central space around which a white shadow dances. The space is full of barely visible surfaces that catch the figure as it moves, suggesting the afterimages that are a common symptom of visual snow. While the projected shadow dancer slices through every side of the space, the centre of the installation feels conspicuously vacant. As a result, there is no single focus to the piece, and the spectator feels encouraged to walk around and through the construction, to watch the shadow from different angles, through different surfaces and textures, and to search out surprising or satisfying perspectives. At the same time, the projection dances over the faces of fellow audience members, and shines in our eyes (glare, ‘starburst’ and photosensitivity being other symptoms of visual snow).

Ebizie writes about the installation in terms of a ‘symbolic representation’ of her ‘inner and outer states’: her brain and her perception. Thus, we are encouraged to experience it as an externalisation of the artist’s brain — an invitation into her ‘perceptual environment’. At the same time though, this process of externalisation is also necessarily one of subtraction or distillation, in a similar manner to the classification of ‘visual snow’ as a specific disorder to be diagnosed. Despite its being a fundamental dimension of some people’s perception (and a neurological rather than an ophthalmological phenomenon), visual snow is most compellingly described and represented as a ‘surface’ that lies on top of reality: its materiality is that of a lens or a screen. Thus, the ‘brain’ we enter in Distorted Constellations — the representation of this surface — is a frame waiting to be filled, or a space waiting to be occupied. We see the silhouette of an occupant, but no body. If there is a presence at the heart of the construction, it is the music that fills the space: music which effectively short-circuits the need for corporeal presence. Nevertheless, there is a provocation in inviting spectators to ‘perceive perception’ — to go cross-eyed in an attempt to see their own sight — which resonates with the theme of neurodiversity that is explored throughout the various events.

In describing the exhibition, the artist talks about ‘the brain as a ritual space’ — as is often the case in Ebizie’s work, we are presented with two degrees of representation: physical space as brain as ritual space. For me, the paradoxes implicit in this formulation get to the heart of the work’s provocation. Firstly, I would tend to understand ritual as existing in the sphere of the socio-cultural — beyond the subjective and the individual — and carrying meaning and efficacy only within and between groups. If this were the case, what would it mean for the individual brain to be the site of ritual? Similarly, ritual (as opposed to theatre) is a process that has a real effect in the world; it is capable of transforming the status of its participants for a certain length of time, in some cases permanently. What would it mean for the site of ritual to be a ‘brain’ that is simultaneously represented as manifesting its own unique, subjective reality, within a broader critique of the very possibility of a shared reality? (‘Your Reality is Broken’ was the declarative title of Ebizie’s 2017 festival with MAS Productions.)

These ambiguities were explored in the live events that occupied the installation: the ‘rituals’ that were performed in the ‘space’ constructed to contain and facilitate them. 20 Minutes of Action was a solo dance piece performed by Ebizie, which ultimately reinserted her dancing body into the centre of the installation, completing it. The implications of this are significant: we are standing inside an externalisation of the artist’s brain, perceiving her perceive, but it is the artist herself that appears as the subject of this perception. We perceive her self-perception. At the same time, the choreography suggests a further process of externalisation, whereby the artist reconstitutes herself as a ‘mythopoetic’ persona, through an obsessive self-deconstruction into a catalogue of mythic archetypes, dance traditions, and gestures/movements isolated and extracted from her own embodied phenomenology.

This whole process could, in some senses, be regarded as a performative response to the idea of depersonalisation: another disorder linked to visual snow. Depersonalisation describes an experience of detachment, of feeling ‘unreal’ and disconnected from one’s own body and emotions. Ebizie’s artistic practice of self-externalisation could be seen as a strategy that reappropriates these tendencies, thus reinstating an element of control. Consequently, both 20 Minutes of Action and the Opening Ceremony — a sequence of idiosyncratic actions performed in the guise of Ebizie’s alter-ego Lady Vendredi, in place of the traditional vernissage — can be viewed as a kind of ritual ‘re-personalisation’, reinscribing marks of culture and history on the body, by staging the body within a formalised ritual framework. Certainly, this is a reminder that the individual is also a socio-cultural entity, and that personal or private rituals can draw their power and validity from broader socio-cultural contexts, even if they only require a single person to be enacted.

For me, this concept of a ritual re-personalisation spoke to the urgent political dimension present within the concept of neurodiversity, which was somewhat downplayed by the scientific register of the lecture I attended as part of the exhibition programme. In tension within this discussion were two seemingly distinct models of neurodiversity:

First, there is perception as distributed according to a normal distribution or centre–periphery model; in the lecture, this was referred to as a ‘neurodiverse spectrum’. This suggests that there is a clear (and implicitly ‘normal’) average or centre, with ‘outliers’ or ‘extremes’ (people who are ‘neurodivergent’). Both Ebizie and the neuroscientist Dr Bracey argue that by ‘embracing the spectrum’, and attempting to empathise with these outliers, we can critique our own prejudices, learn to see things from a broader range of perspectives, and thus help the world to become more open and inclusive.

Second, there is the idea — as illustrated by certain optical and aural illusions — that we all perceive things differently, and that our ‘reality’ is to a large degree created by our own brains. Beneath this idea is the troubling possibility that we can never really experience the world according to another’s perspective and that we are all doomed to exist in our own subjective realities. In this sense, neurodivergence is an absolute and universal quality: there can be no strict way to measure ‘relative’ neurodivergence across a normal distribution, because this would require access to a perfect metaperception, which would be impossible according to this logic. (Hence, a neurodiverse spectrum would have to remain entirely theoretical, as there would be no way to authoritatively ascertain where the centre and the outliers were.)

Instead of some kind of objective ‘normal’ or ‘basic’ reality which is distorted or augmented in extreme cases, what we are left with is a political struggle over the ‘apparent’, the ‘self-evident’ and the ‘obvious’, which is produced through discourse: through claiming authority and exercising rhetoric in combination with demonstrations of evidence, etc. This has huge social ramifications, because our entire society — and the public spheres through which it represents itself — requires a fiction of universality in order to produce the consensus which is the basis for all legal and political institutions. We need to pretend that we live in a shared reality, otherwise democracy cannot function. At the same time, because this shared reality is a fiction that we reproduce collectively, it will necessary reflect the power disparities that exist within the wider world, benefitting some at the expense of others.

The soft-pedalling of this aspect in the scientific lecture was hardly surprising in that science cannot really represent these implications while remaining ‘scientific’. Indeed, science is the most important discourse through which this shared reality is produced and valorised. It is the discourse that has the greatest claim to ‘objectivity’ — a discourse that remains founded on and constituted by the invention of objectivity — and which is therefore the most imperilled by the prospect of absolute neurodiversity. At the same time, art too is highly culpable in this process, through the production of supposedly universal categories like beauty, as well as historical canons and master narratives of collective transformations in aesthetic experience.

Such relativist arguments are, of course, the inheritance of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and have since been recognised as dead ends (admittedly on the basis of another master narrative). In order to function in the world, to maintain some kind of autonomy and participate in political life, we have to subscribe to certain universals, however contingent.

Personally, I know what it’s like to begin to question one’s own perception. A few years ago, I had a few episodes of misty vision and rainbow halos — I was initially convinced that there’d been a fire nearby and that the streets were filled with smoke — and after seeing various specialists over nine months, I was told that there was nothing wrong with my eyes or my brain. During that period, I familiarised myself with all the possible diagnoses through obsessive online searches, including visual snow — incurable and undetectable aside from self-described symptoms — which I became convinced that I was developing. I began to recognise the symptoms that I’d read about: I’d look at a white wall and see swarming points of light, I’d look at the sky and count the floating dents and smudges, I’d look into the dark and see TV static, I convinced myself that I needed sunglasses to go out at night because of the car headlights.

In short, I began to see myself seeing: to see the world as reflected photons, rather than as a solid three-dimensional landscape of colour and shape. Luckily, I found that the ‘objective’ discourse of science and its voices of medical authority were enough to win over my impressionable senses. After my retinas, corneas and brain tissue had all been thoroughly examined, I stopped interrogating my own vision at every opportunity and lapsed back into thoughtless trust.

My experience of doubting my own perceptions was brief and relatively mild, even though it occupied my thoughts a great deal at the time. At its most severe, visual snow can be totally debilitating, leading to depersonalisation, derealisation, anxiety and depression. In Distorted Constellations, Ebizie demonstrates the fragility of one’s own reality, but she also enacts a strategy for its self-conscious reproduction and affirmation. Central to this is her ongoing attempt to reconcile science and art. Such attempts at rapprochement often come across as superficial gestures whereby one discipline condescends to the other in an attempt to explain, represent or illustrate it. Ebizie sidesteps all of this by bringing these warring discourses together within a broader decolonised, ‘Afrofuturist’ terrain that is somewhat external to both. This allows both science and art to become legible as quasi-religious traditions, with their own cosmologies, doctrines and dogmas.

In this sense, the artist’s mission is one of reconstruction: modelling the possibility and necessity of a belief in the universal and absolute (of interpersonal communication and empathy) in the poststructuralist wreckage of untranslatable, unknowable difference. If the brain is all there is, then it must become a socio-cultural space, in which ritual can have real, interpersonal meaning. Ebizie constructs a hypothetical space in which the Other can be included within a subjective world, to enact personal rituals as if they were generalisable, to deconstruct herself to the level of mythic archetype, and thereby to imagine a universality/the possibility of interpersonal communion and understanding, on the terrain of the specific and the personal.

To a certain extent, these rituals (like all performance art) can be viewed as a kind of martyrdom (recalling the title of a previous show, The Passion of Lady Vendredi): the artist’s own uniqueness is abstracted into a kind of heterotopian space in which difference is materialised in general. While anybody can occupy this space and thus be present together in the same absolute difference, Ebizie herself plays the role of a generic body, with her particularities extracted, reified and turned into costumes for her to wear. Thus, instead of merely waving and gesticulating from some peripheral position on the fringes of the neurodiversity bell curve, the artist lays claim to the centre ground — to the position of the generic and the universal — by abstracting and aestheticizing all her distortions as generic distortions. To a degree, visual snow serves as a metaphor here, as an aestheticization (and pathologisation) of meta-perception. Indeed, it is sort of the inverse of Deleuze and Guattari’s use of schizophrenia as a metaphor. Those postmodern theorists saw schizophrenia as accessing a deeper reality, in the form of pure chaotic flows that are despotically (but necessarily) ‘territorialised’ through the illusion of stasis, closure and objecthood. Visual snow could be seen here as standing in for the aggregate of discrepancy across all human experience, beneath which the belief in some inaccessible, hypothetical ‘reality’ can be maintained, as the discursive basis for communal life.

It is a heroic yet ultimately chimerical mission, and perhaps it is the mission of all art: this positing of the particular as universal. Everyone is at the centre of their own perceptual environment — the ‘real’, hypothetical core of their own immersive installation — and one personal universe is as good as any other. It is not enough to listen to, include or represent the ‘divergent’: we must recognise that ‘our’ distortions are as total and absolute as ‘theirs’, the difference being that ours may correspond with the hegemonic construction of reality in a way that allows us to exercise a more authoritative command of the rhetoric of the self-evident and thus a more convincing claim to power. This is what we share — differences that are so absolute and untranslatable as to be functionally arbitrary and interchangeable, and beneath all that, the idea of universality which sustains the possibility of community, communion and ritual efficacy. To lay claim to the generic and the universal, even though such claims cannot be valorised: this is the only way to exist in the world with full self-possession and autonomy.

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