Barbara Dean is a painter and performance artist living and working in London. Her work has been presented both nationally and internationally for events, exhibitions and festivals, working with a wide range of audiences: museums, galleries and public arenas. In this interview Barbara explores her recent ADHD diagnosis and the importance of the act of walking within her practice.
“Whilst visiting family in San Francisco during 2014, I used my smartphone to document a series of pavement marks I’d noticed whilst out walking in the Castro neighbourhood. They reminded me of a body that was unable to control itself, the impulsiveness of the marks, suggested the inescapable act of something that could no longer be contained, seeping out. The marks clearly resembled an outpouring of bodily fluids, and I got the sense of a narrative about someone being dragged down a street there they didn’t want to go.”
How would you describe your artistic practice?
I am a live and visual artist, working between paint and performance. I’ve just returned from San Francisco where I was on a short residency facilitating paint and performance workshops with the not for profit arts organisation Creativity Explored; I also teach basic painting and drawing skills for Mind-In-Enfield.
I’ve worked with Mind since 2008, and in that time I’ve become fascinated with how the art making process becomes therapeutic without being art therapy. Students at Mind, regularly comment on their embodied experience of the art materials as being therapeutic, I’m sure this embodied experience is synonymous with all art disciplines, the question I am always thinking about is; why do artists make art?
I love paint, and I think I work between paint and performance because one is timeout from the other. When I am thinking about making a piece of live work, I can become quite hyper-focused, it is all about control, you strategise for every detail, including the anomalies of audience engagement; these are the risks that accompany making a live work; it’s all about logistics. The margin for errors in socially engaged work often becomes an unknown, and its one’s openness to problem solving that makes something new happen. Painting also requires a deep sense of focus but this happens more quickly, because it is a physical action, it’s not about imagining what will or may happen, you actually apply the paint, it happens and becomes a body, and then the paint tells you.
Could you explain a little about ADHD (for those that aren’t aware of it) and how it affects you?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; I heard a friend recently describe ADHD as being neurologically diverse, and she said that she hated the term disorder, which I agree with, because the word ‘disorder’, suggests a negative, and that maybe the person with attention difference and hyperactivity, is the instigator of trouble or baaaad behaviour, I don’t like the ‘disorder’ label. I think differently to the neuro-typical way of thinking. Apparently ADHD relates to the lack of chemical uptakes in the brain, our thoughts and ideas queue and queue to take the neurological leaps into executive functioning, but they don’t quite make it across the chemical divide. All my life I have had a sense of running on a spot and never arriving. I saw a performance once in the Live Art platform VAIN in Oxford, where two young men presented a work that involved them both running on the same spot for the duration of the entire evening as other programmed performances continued to be presented. By the end of the night they both looked like they had run a marathon, even though they had actually gone nowhere.
I realise now that having attention difference and hyperactivity is what has led to me becoming hyper-focused on occasions within my work, which means that I can think about the same concepts and issues for very long periods of time, and not knowing can be highly seductive. Artists need to be able to justify their practice, after all why do we make art, why do we become artists? What are we trying to say? For most of the time I have been practicing I could not wholeheartedly say that I was making work about a particular issue. I’ve just been putting one foot in front of the other, often from a place of not knowing, just feeling that it was the right thing to do. To say it was about being a female and being an artist; or that it was a feminist issue I feel strongly about, seems to me to lack integrity. I have been struggling with the activity of thinking, and the feelings that arise; yes my body is female but what about this stuff inside my head? I become so overwhelmed by feelings; how can I ignore that as an artist? I haven’t felt able to move onto the question, how does my work relate to my identity as a female yet, but I suppose I better hurry up at 58 and a half. For me the first question was always what are these feelings? That’s how the ADHD has affected me.
At what age were you diagnosed with ADHD and what impact has that had on you?
So in March this year at the age of 57, and after 6 years of waiting for a diagnostic test within my London Borough, I finally got the full Monty of a diagnosis, which took me through some challenging mental anguish. To begin with it felt tough getting a diagnosis so late in life, as I reflected on my arts practice, I suddenly felt like I had been lying about who I was, but I also felt a relief, people do put you in a pigeon-hole, they think they know what your work is about.
The diagnostic test involved me re-visiting a very traumatic childhood experience, to prove that my ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity and inattentiveness, affecting memory function and organisational skills, with bouts of depression, were not related to Post Traumatic Stress disorder, but were actually stand alone symptoms. The test was concentrated, hard mental endurance, but I was determined to get to grips with longstanding issues that not only affected my relationships with friends and family, but also my work as an artist.
Receiving the diagnosis was like a giant light bulb switch going on in my head. With so many years under my belt of trying to fit in, of trying not to annoy others, it suddenly felt like it’s okay, I can be impulsive, that’s who I am, I can get it wrong, I can ‘not know’, I can say, ‘I don’t know’. Maybe people reading this will think, well what’s the big deal? But, when you’ve had years of not being able to say the right thing; I can’t tell you about the amount of issues of bullying, I’ve experienced in the workplace, of trying to reach out to people, and just not being able to say the right thing. You reach a point where you think, I don’t want to be this person who puts their foot in it by upsetting people all the time. Getting this diagnosis is just liberating!
To celebrate my new identity, and after spotting an artist callout for open mic presentations, I proposed a piece of work that performed the activity of thinking and walking in my arts practice. The event was called Walking Women, and it was produced by the artists Amy Sharrocks and Clare Qualmann for the UTOPIA 2016 festival. I performed a live reading of the 18 questions that feature in the ADHD Adult self report scale, it was entitled ‘Walking as Reading and Memory’. The questions were interspersed with texts on walking and thinking, from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Wanderlust’. There were also other contributions from other artist and the secret facebook page, ADHD Women with Loud Voices. I presented the open mic against a backdrop of screen projected photographs taken whilst out walking alone, and with groups.
What is it about walking that becomes therapeutic and a key part of your practice?
I’ve always used walking as an activity for thinking, to take my mind somewhere else. I love the way that I can just put one foot in front of the other and change my location and my environment; I can just go; the older I get the more thankful I am for having the ability to do this. I tell people I walk like a maniac; the hyper-focus is not a good place for me to be, and walking somehow seems to dissipate this, because it forces me to look outside my over-thinking. I often visualise the hyper-focus as a concertina of ideas building up and building up into a massive structure of folds. The activity of walking seems to be like a soothing action that rolls over all the folds, smoothing out my thoughts.
During the last three years walking has become such a key element in my arts practice, it feels like this third space where thoughts and actions become synthesised. It has nothing to do with seeing the geographical landscape or even the sounds; it’s neither of these things. I have 3 or 4 main routes I use for walking, and I choose a route depending on how I am feeling. I regularly walk these same routes, and they have become like another body, I’m sure I could walk them with my eyes shut; maybe I will. In Rebecca Solnit’s book on the philosophy of walking, she talks about how walking the same route again can be to think the same thoughts again, and how walking is reading, even when it is imagined, and she describes the landscape of the memory as a text, fixed, in the same way that the labyrinth or the stations of the cross are.
How does your photography tie into the act of walking?
I’m not really a photographer; I like to think of myself as a closet photographer. The smart phone is so easy to use, and it becomes a part of my body, as it slips in and out of pockets whilst walking, it’s not heavy and it’s quite hidden; it feels like a sketchbook. During the Paint & Performance workshops however, when I am sharing the activity of walking with others, I need to be fully present, and that’s when I value having a photographer. I have been very fortunate to receive the generosity of other artists who are photographers. Mel Hardwick of the Free Space Gallery in Kentish Town, and artist and painter James Randall, both have produced some fantastic photographs of the Paint & Performance workshop, images I could not hoped to have captured whilst being fully focused on gathering and enabling participant engagement.
When I am out on solitary walks I don’t go with the aim of capturing an image, usually things present themselves. Whilst visiting family in San Francisco during 2014, I used my smartphone to document a series of pavement marks I’d noticed whilst out walking in the Castro neighbourhood. They reminded me of a body that was unable to control itself, the impulsiveness of the marks, suggested the inescapable act of something that could no longer be contained, seeping out. The marks clearly resembled an outpouring of bodily fluids, and I got the sense of a narrative about someone being dragged down a street there they didn’t want to go. When look at these photographs now, I feel like I was seeing something that I needed to know, and I think the art making process does this. For me it is that moment before explicit knowledge, where visual information is becoming tacit, and whether it’s photography, painting, performance, digital gaming, the art making process becomes a vehicle between the mind and body; as if the body knows something that the mind needs to know, before it actually becomes known.
To sum it up I think photography has the speed and capacity to capture what it is to be in full observation mode as thoughts and ideas present themselves whilst I am walking; in a way that a sketchbook never could.