Venice Architectural Biennale, 2021

Pandemic Birds – a video composite of jackdaws flying over Cork City at sunrise, from my window at home during lockdown.

Some of my work on perceptions of public space features in the exhibition “Autistic Imaginaries of Architectural Space: The World from an Autistic Lens” curated by architect Magda Mostafa, who co-developed the Autism Friendly University Design Guide with Dublin City University.

You can visit a static gallery of my own contribution or visit a virtual tour of “Time Space Existence” at the Palazzon Bembo, created by the European Centre for Culture.

I am more proud of this collection of work than of anything else I have done. This is a good time for me to reflect on my needs as an autistic (city-dwelling) adult, and on the amazing support I have had over the past (more than) decade from Aspect, the support service for autistic adults in Cork & Kerry.

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Life has sometimes been very hard for me, with significant difficulties with anxiety and depression sending me into lengthy psychiatric in- and out-patient care following workplace bullying in the years up to 2001. The failure to identify autism, and my “failure” (as psychiatrists labelled it) to respond to treatment for a variety of alternative (mis)diagnoses, only ended when my psychiatry team recognised that I am autistic in 2009. That was about eight years of wasted lifetime, at great expense to the State. I was referred to the relatively new Aspect outreach service, which provides specialist support and intervention for adults with Asperger syndrome and autism in the Cork and Kerry area. Many autistic people are pushed into psychiatric treatment, into endless training courses and into endless cycles of failure to attain or remain in paid employment, because their own aspirations, strengths, abilities and limitations are not taken into account. Aspect is different in centring the clients’ autonomy, with their well-being, development and ultimate happiness at the core of its working model. Aspect has since grown to serve over 700 autistic adults and has recently come under the umbrella of the Rehab Group. Diagnosis at the age of 45 has transformed my relationship with the environment around me, with a far better understanding of my sensory and social needs.

Some of my latest work, including reflections of lockdown, in an exhibition at the Venice Architectural Biennale starting in May 2021. My work has used video to create composite images of my personal sense of pedestrians in shared public spaces, traffic in the city and rowers on the River Lee. Egyptian architect Magda Mostafa invited me to contribute to a curated selection of perceptual snapshots of the autistic view of the architectural world. Eight autistic voices from Ireland, the United States, Belgium, Egypt and the UK are represented in the Venice exhibition. Magda Mostafa says that “by viewing the world through the autistic lens, we are given a snapshot of the sensory world of our built environment from a position of alternate/innovative and novel perspectives, perspectives that can help inform the production of future worlds that are more broadly inclusive of the voices of neurodiversity”.

Before the pandemic I was creating images of how people and traffic share, or contest, public space. Video composites traced out the desire lines of pedestrians crossing the road and map out the motion intensity where walking routes intersect and diverge. My images throw a light on the inability of sterile urban design to fence in human desire lines, or contain diverse people inside neat boxes. During lockdown I turned my attention toward the birds flying over Cork City Harbour, developing a fascination for the differing wing-beats of different species, and the range of flight patterns they leave as traces in my composite imagery. By coincidence, one of my earlier images depicted tourist motion intensity on the Rialto Bridge, from video recorded from a streaming web camera. Replicating the same image has created a pair of images showing the impact of the pandemic on greatly reduced tourist numbers in Venice. Most fortuitously, the live stream is from a camera run by the Palazzo Bembo, one of the participating venues in the Venice Biennale, and is the location in which Magda Mostafa’s exhibition is hosted.

I am autistic academic, with a specialism in mathematical modelling and an interest in disablement, the process by which society raises barriers that limit the ability of some individuals and some groups to participate fully. Those barriers are nowhere more apparent than in the architecture and urban design of shared public spaces, in classrooms, in hospitals and in other spaces full of noise, light, movement and contested public space. My imagery creates composites and motion intensity maps of the movement through space – whether pedestrians following their desire-lines through a park, buses and cars changing lanes, or birds in flight. The work is an amalgam of photography, mathematical processing and disability awareness.

Images illustrating Magda Mostafa’s ASPECTSS™ of Architecture for Autism, launching the UCC Autism Friendly Campus inititiative, led by Kirsten Hurley.

My connection with Magda Mostafa arose through the launch of the Autism Friendly Campus initiative at University College Cork, when I developed seven images to illustrate the 7 perspectives of Magda Mostafa’s ASPECTSS™ Design Index, used in the development of the initiative. My images were displayed in an exhibition in the Student Centre, University College Cork, in April of 2019, alongside a panel discussion and presentations about inclusive education and environments.

Aspect’s approach to supporting the autonomy, independence and aspirations of their clients is evident from my very first “Individual Action Plan”, co-written with my support worker, Yvonne Scriven, 11 years ago. That very first plan includes the ambitions to “complete a Diploma in Disability Studies”, “write a book” and “improve my ability to describe and communicate my emotions”, which, step-by-step, is exactly what I and Aspect have achieved together in the subsequent decade. The ten years or so of psychiatric treatment leading up to my referral to the service consisted of rehabilitation through occupational therapy, trying (and failing, multiply) to re-establish full-time academic employment, and relapsing into psychiatric in-patient care. Work-related anxiety and depression constantly recurred for me with the stress of trying to avoiding any repeat of my bullying experience. The diagnosis of autism brought me a connection with a similarly-wired community sharing the same label, and the diagnosis was an effective end to the therapy-rinse-repeat cycle of employment failure up to that point. It is impossible to over-state the deflating impact of failing to hold a full-time job, within a system where success is only measured by retaining employment. I have flourished with Aspect’s recognition of my individual aspiration, and their rejection of the clinical pigeon-holes and limitations often imagined to be characteristic of autistic people. I do not have a permanent job and do not earn any income from my work, but despite not being “gainfully occupied” I am busy and productive. I have written two books, contribute to research on autistic healthcare, write lengthy analyses of pedestrian and cycle transport, and contribute to the work of community organisations. I feel, most of the time, that I am a productive and fulfilled member of society.

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