Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Leah Clements: I grew up in East London, and have only moved as far as crossing the river! I studied BA Fine Art at Goldsmiths and have been making and showing work since I graduated in 2013. I work mostly in film and performance but also other forms of practice, like organising long-term meeting groups to discuss a particular subject in-depth and over time.
I identify as crip – a term reappropriated from the derogatory ‘cripple’, that describes a necessarily political position on illness and disability. Crip theory owes much to queer theory, taking its basis of flowyness and applying it to identities forged in sickness and unhealth. This includes disability, chronic illness, mental illness, and more. Cripness mostly subscribes to the social model of disability, which states that ‘disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people.’ So for example humans invented stairs for non-wheelchair users, so the wheelchair user is disabled by the system of stairs because it wasn’t built for them, not by the fact they can’t walk. I say ‘mostly’ because some crips feel that the social model doesn’t completely allow for the fact that a lot of disabled people experience impairment that isn’t always related to access barriers, such as chronic pain, for example. In my experience though the social model is generally considered as at least a very good place to start.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
LC: In the last few years I’ve connected with an international crip community which has been hugely influential for me. Crip artists and writers like Carolyn Lazard and Em Joseph in the US, Johanna Hedva (LA & Berlin based), Romily Alice Walden and others in the Sickness Affinity Group in Berlin, as well as people like Lizzy Rose, Alice Hattrick, Bella Milroy and so many more in the UK have supported and challenged the way I think and feel about my illness and how that relates to my practice. That’s affected both the content of my work and the structures of it too, thinking about crip/sick/disabled subjectivity, and the accessibility of the work itself.
The artist Susan Hiller, who sadly died earlier this year has definitely had an influence on my work. Her approach towards looking at supernatural sensations without judgement, and with these really alluring spooky aesthetics is still quite exciting.
Grupa Spomenik, translated from Serbian as ‘Memorial Group’ has had a big impact too. It was set up by artists and academics from the countries that made up Yugoslavia when they responded to a call from the city of Belgrade for a memorial to the Yugoslav Wars. They stated that rather than creating an object, they would be the memorial themselves by meeting regularly to discuss genocide, because a statue would too easily satisfy a need to placate a sense of national guilt, and that it would end the conversation. Their proposal was of course rejected but they did it anyway, knowing that genocide can never be understood but that doesn’t mean an understanding shouldn’t be attempted. That way of acknowledging, thinking, conversing and exploring a question without answering it is something that has followed through my work since I first discovered them when I was studying my undergrad.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
LC: It’s a lot of things, but I think the core of what I’m interested in is hard-to-articulate physical and psychological experiences, and how these individually can be brought together to form a whole. ‘Collapse’ for example is a film where I interviewed seven people who fall asleep in times of distress, and brought their individual voices together to sit beside one another in the whole that is the film. This was something that most of them hadn’t really spoken to anyone about before, and most of them didn’t know there was anyone else who shared that experience, let alone so many. I think this is often the case in my work, that I’ll focus on these things that exist under the surface, things that when raised and addressed most of us can relate to, or that seem to name something cultural or innate but have for whatever reason been buried and unnamed.
RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘ON EDGE: LIVING IN AN AGE OF ANXIETY ’, with a work To Not Follow Under. Can you say something about this work?
LC: I wanted to think about the limits of care and empathy in this film, and the point at which a person has to prioritise their own wellbeing in order to continue to care for another. The title comes from an interview Dr. Antony Clare did with R. D. Laing, where he asks when talking about treating patients in distress: ‘That in a sort of way you could be overwhelmed by that which you were there to try, in some detached sense, to cope with?’ and Laing replies ‘I’ve never been personally tempted to follow someone over the edge.’. I wanted to think about where the cut-off point is in order to not follow someone ‘over the edge’, or ‘under’.
I spoke to three people in positions of care or supervision: Dr. Guy Leschziner – a sleep neurologist, an anonymous psychotherapist, and Victoria Brown – a commercial diver who among other things supervises dives and carries out rescues. Their voices form three separate scenes in the film, with separately shot footage. Guy talks about patients having dissociative seizures in response to anxiety, which can look like epileptic fits or like sudden episodes of sleep. I’m really interested in sleep as a coping mechanism, and have explored this in other works. I was also interested in the experience of a doctor who treats sleep disorders, where you’re trying to understand the subjective experience of a patient who is in this other, separate state that you can’t follow them into. The psychotherapist talks about learning to not take all his patients with him in his head outside of work, and of the responsibility of not being so empathetic that you identify with the patient so much that you find yourself in the same emotional position as them, because at that point you can no longer help them. Victoria talks about the difference between ‘active panic’ and ‘passive panic’ in divers – the first being when someone who is (usually) floating loses their sense of control and kicks and screams, and will often grab onto other people to try to get out of the water, so she talks about methods of making sure they’re safe whilst avoiding being drowned by them. The second kind of panic is when someone mentally shuts down and goes blank, often underwater, at which point she would bring them up to the surface.
The footage is shot in a swimming pool where we see a figure moving beneath the water, a hyperbaric chamber (which compresses oxygen to treat illnesses like the bends) where we see two people sat opposite one another, communicating only by subtle body language, and Guy’s Hospital Sleep Disorders Centre which is just behind Science Gallery, where we see someone standing on one of the clinic beds with her eyes closed, tensley focusing on something unknown. The sleep clinic is where Guy Leschziner works, and I was also an outpatient there for a few years until I was discharged about a week after we filmed that scene.
RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?
LC: The show’s theme is ‘Anxiety’, and in this work I was interested in how we might cope with anxiety and other forms of distress. I turned to people who are in positions of helping those in these states of distress to talk about it. The ‘Under’ in ‘To Not Follow Under’ exists as this alternative space, so sleep as another place where you might go when you can’t cope with the current reality, or death as another way out, as suicide is mentioned in the conversation with the psychotherapist, and we end on the literal depths of the ocean as the final ‘Under’ in the film when Victoria the rescue diver is talking about her job. I wanted to know how these people support others who are on the brink of going under, and how they stop themselves from being pulled down with them. The film has a lot to do with interrelatedness, the fact that we all need other people, but also the difficulty in fully understanding someone else’s subjective experience, and the boundaries within intimacy and support. I’d like to think it produces some amount of affect for the viewer in relation to its subject matter – when Guy is talking about dissociation and sleep for example, we see this person below the water and we don’t ever see them come up. A few people have mentioned that they noticed themselves holding their breath whilst watching that scene.
RB: Can you say something about your work Protection (2018)?
LC: Protection is a video portrait of a woman named Elena who falls asleep in stressful situations as a coping mechanism. The audio is a looped clip from a 1993 documentary ‘Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories’ where a woman named Gretchen has developed these other identities to deal with her abuse, which she herself does not remember. When asked by her therapist to confront the trauma, Gretchen disappears and another identity comes forward. To counter this defence, her therapist films one of the other identities recounting the abuse, then asks Gretchen to watch the footage with him. With her normal coping strategy removed, Gretchen repeatedly loses consciousness, and her therapist tells her to ‘stay connected here.’ This audio clip is looped over the footage of Elena in ‘Protection’. The film seeks to ask questions about what forms of coping, self-defence, and self-protection are considered acceptable, by whom, and for whom.
It’s been shown at the ICA, London, Jerwood Space, London, the National Gallery of Art, Vilnius, and Wellcome Collection, London, and I think most people find it a bit difficult to watch! The repetition is lulling but also frustrating, and I think its affective quality of repeatedly signalling sleep to wake, conscious to unconscious – especially when viewed in a dark room as a projection, so the when the screen goes dark the room goes dark – is a bit of a trial. I’m not necessarily interested in comfortable viewing though (not to be confused with accessible viewing, which I am very interested in).
RB: Your work Sick Bed (2018) is a VR game that situates the viewer as stuck in bed with an unnamed illness. Can you say more about this?
LC: I developed Sick Bed whilst on the Art + Tech residency at Space, London, with help from digital producers Black Shuck. I’d noticed that VR was being used as a kind of tool for empathy in ways that I found quite problematic, and started doing some research into that. Part of the research was a workshop I held at Space called ‘Interfacing Empathy’, where I invited lecturer in VR at Goldsmiths Dr. Sylvia Xueni Pan and gal-dem and Guardian journalist Charlie Brinkhurst Cuff to co-lead a discussion and exploration of two examples of VR ‘empathy experiences’.
One was ‘Clouds Over Sidra’ which uses 360° filmed footage of a refugee camp in Jordan to follow a young girl who has fled Syria. It was developed by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk, the latter of whom is an entrepreneur who put forward the idea of VR as an ‘empathy machine’. The other was a scripted and acted VR film called ‘Hard World for Small Things’, directed by Janicza Bravo, in which we experience ourselves as part of a small friendship group that has violence enacted upon them. We talked a lot about the ethics of recreating an experience that you haven’t had yourself as opposed to one you have (Arora and Milk have never been refugees, but Bravo has had direct experience of losing a family member to racially motivated violence), and whether VR can actually work better than a film or book or any other medium to make you feel part of the experience at hand.
My research resulted in the VR game Sick Bed, which is based on my own experience of being ill with M.E. It’s a complicated thing in that I attempted to make it as effective as possible at communicating that experience, whilst remaining skeptical that that’s actually achievable. I think most immersive experiences that claim to put you in the position of someone else, usually someone with a marginalised identity like being disabled, are always temporary and always fun, which is the total opposite of actually living that subjectivity. I made this game as frustrating as possible – every time you try to do something it just says ‘You’re too tired to move’, and the only progress you can make is by staying in it for a long time – the progress bar down the side of the interface moves up very slowly and after a week it’s complete, at which point the game starts again. Of course, no-one will play it for that long, but I wanted to negate that temporary & fun criteria and be more realistic.
RB: Can you say something about Access Docs for Artists?
LC: Access Docs for Artists in an online resource that I made in collaboration with artist Lizzy Rose and writer Alice Hattrick. We launched it in March this year and over the course of the year leading up to it we’d been discussing our shared experiences of working as practicing artists & writers with disabilities with each other and other disabled art workers. During a three week residency with Wysing Arts Centre we spoke to a lot of amazing and different crip art practitioners like Johanna Hedva, Carolyn Lazard, Abi Palmer, and Lou Coleman, and learned that some of them used access documents to facilitate working relationships in the art world. We began thinking about our shared experiences and how we might help create practical changes in the art world to better conditions for disabled artists, and came up with Access Docs for Artists.
The website provides practical information on making an access document as well as input from institutions like Wysing Arts Centre, the ICA and Arika, on when best to use an access doc and what kind of information would be helpful to include, and accounts from artists who have access docs about their experience of making and using them.
We’d learnt so much about our own positions in a critical and practical sense during our research and residency period, and we’d been able to connect and support each other in ways that feel really important. We wanted to do something that could share that support, and we came to this idea of helping other sick/crip/disabled artists articulate their needs for themselves, and to then be able to communicate that to galleries, institutions, or organisations, through creating access docs. Doing that for ourselves felt like one of the most helpful things we’d learnt, and we wanted to pass that on. We also hope our work with institutions has primed the ground a little for better reception and accommodation of disabled artists’ needs.
RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?
LC: I think it depends on the practice – for some people there won’t be a direct connection at all, except perhaps if we include the invention of materials by scientific development, like paints or tools. For me it’s a question of research. In a very basic sense they’re both practices of finding stuff out, of looking at things closely and coming to see things in a new way. Where they differ is that probably most scientific methodology is about things being true or untrue, or correct or incorrect, and art is often more about blurring those lines and not needing answers to questions. My feeling though is that both are sort of a study of everything.
RB: What other projects are you currently working on?
LC: I’m working on a performance that looks much more closely at the hyperbaric chamber that features in To Not Follow Under, which will be at Somerset House Studios in the New Year. The chamber I was visiting, London Hyperbaric, has enough room to seat eight patients, one supervisor, and one Doctor. It’s an enclosed tank that pressurises air to treat decompression sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other illnesses that benefit from concentrated oxygen absorption. Patients are often there for daily sessions over many weeks, often with the same fellow patients in this small enclosed environment. I’m taking the hyperbaric chamber as a basis to develop the performance by working with people who have spent time living in a confined environment with other people for medical reasons, to think about care and consent, unchosen community, and the environments in which these are sited.
I also recently received an Arts Council England grant to travel to New York, Philadelphia and Berlin to connect with crip artists there and start work on a new project on sleep paralysis.
All images copyright and courtesy of Leah Clements
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