Simon Baron-Cohen and Jon Adams first met on a panel curated by The Arts Catalyst for the Cheltenham Science Festival event with Shape (disability arts). They found they each confirmed much about the other’s understanding and experience of Asperger’s, and decided to collaborate. This led to Konfirm – an artist’s residency at the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge curated by The Arts Catalyst and supported by Wellcome Trust.
Jon Adams’ artwork explores sense and sensitivity through the ‘hidden’ and plays with perceptions of normal and the inaccessible. A geologist by training, Adams’ seeking of the hidden in his art often reveals his naturally systematic thinking: his inclination and ability to uncover systems within everyday interactions and landscapes. He blogs about his process on his site – Konfirmation systemizing: Revaluing Autistic Thinking.
“High-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome need not just lead to disability, but can also lead to talent.”
Simon Baron-Cohen sees autism as being on a continuum in the general population rather than a specific pathology. He proposes that certain features of autistic people – ‘obsessions’ and repetitive behaviour – previously regarded as purposeless, are conversely highly purposive, intelligent (hyper-systemising), and a sign of a different way of thinking. He argues that high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome need not just lead to disability, but can also lead to talent.
In this residency and research project, Jon Adams set out on a personal, artistic and scientific investigation of his own Asperger’s Syndrome, through a series of conversations, observations and experiments, working in collaboration with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.
AXNS Collective interviewed them both for our exhibition, Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience in March 2013.
Rachel Stratton: How did you and Professor Baron-Cohen meet?
JA I first met Simon on the stage at Cheltenham Science Festival, where we both gave talks. I’m privileged because I’m able to describe and talk about what I experience. I put a very positive view on having Asperger’s and I’ve been very lucky in some respects because what I do fits the Asperger’s greatly. Afterwards The Wellcome Trust came up to us and said why don’t you do a collaboration, so I talked to Simon and that was it. And that was two years ago.
RS: Simon, can you tell me a bit about the differences between Autism and Asperger syndrome?
Simon Baron-Cohen There are differences in the structure, function, and development of the autistic brain. Developmentally, there appears to be a period of early overgrowth – the brain volume is larger than average – although by later in childhood this may have ‘normalized’. Regarding its structure, some key regions are different in size, for example the amygdala (involved in emotional learning, social interaction, fear conditioning, and memory). Sometimes the amygdala is larger than average in people with autism, sometimes smaller, both indications that it is not develop- ing in the typical way. In terms of function, the amygdala in the autistic brain also shows atypical activity levels in response to social stimuli, such as looking at facial emotions and expressions. These differences confirm that autism and Asperger syndrome are neurodevelopmental. Other key differences involve perception, suggesting a greater involvement of visual processing, and a greater response to sensory stimulation.
RS: Jon, can you tell us about your piece, 228?
JA 228 is part of my project for the Cultural Olympiad. For two years I’ve written a map of everything I’ve done each day, and collected objects, photographs and sounds snatches. I was sitting in the print room at the University and there were a load of bits of print waste on the floor so I took some close-up photographs. I also found some interesting rust patterns on the deck of a ship so I took photographs of those too. 228 is a mix of both. It’s like, if you go to a geological locality, you not only measure what is there, you also take samples away to cut up, polish down and put under a microscope. That’s what I do. Then I run my find- ings through some software to produce the graphs.
RS: So Simon, can it benefit your research to look at Jon’s art and the art of others with autism?
SBC This is still an open question. I am impressed by the number of people with autism who are not only artistic, but whose art shows remarkable attention to detail. The art of people with autism is consistent with the results of cognitive research which frequently finds superior attention to detail, sensory hyper-sensi- tivity, a preference for local over global processing, and a strong interest in finding repeating patterns in the environment (systemis- ing). I’m still getting my head around the way that Jon uses these maps in his notebook to understand, for example, the history of the London Olympics. Jon has taken a way of thinking from one domain and translated it to another one. It may be that that will actually give us a new way of looking at things but I’m still a few steps behind Jon.
RS: Jon, would you mind telling us a little more about ‘systematising’ and how that is reflected in your work?
JA I relate to systems. I like testing things, altering something slightly, testing it again, and repeating. I enjoy the experiment. I also live by rules. One of the rules I’ve learnt recently is that rules can change and rules might be random. But it is very difficult. There are certain things that happen and I’ll have certain responses and it can only be that way. It can be complicated.
RS: And does it ever tilt into the obsessive-compulsive?
JA Oh absolutely! If I’m interested in something it will be 110%, if I’m not interested in something, it will be -10%. I had to put the brakes on my collecting for the Olympics. I still got about 14 boxes of material with 7,000 items over the 2 years though. Sometimes I realise I’m getting obsessed and fortunately I can do something about it. Some people can’t.
RS: Would you say that your Asperger’s syndrome has made you a better artist?
JA It made me a better scientist and a better artist. I’ve been an artist since age 6 but I didn’t go to University to study art because of bullying at school. So I had my other love. At 6 I could read the landscape but not read about it. I love nature, I love the systems within it, so I went and did Geology. Then I was a book illustrator for 25 years. Everybody said I must have a lot of patience, because what I did was very detailed and very obsessive. Someone would say, we want a picture of Rome at a certain date, so I would do all the research and look up exactly what was there and what wasn’t. That sort of obsessive- ness for doing it right was very useful for a book illustrator and so I got lots of work.
RS: I want to return to what you said about deciding to be an artist at 6. That is young. What drives that desire?
JA It’s an underlying bedrock feeling. When I was 6 I was having my portrait drawn. It wasn’t because I was having my portrait drawn that I said it, it just felt solid. I could taste it, I could touch it. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘I’m going to be an artist.’ So even though I’ve done other things like Geology, the Geology is really layers of rock over the top. It is important to me though. At the age of 6 I was picking up stones and asking why it became like that. It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve taken the concepts of Geology and applied them more as a conceptual Geologist. If you peel everything back, there is the artist at the core.
RS: You are also synaesthetic. How has this affected your art?
JA I got an opportunity, along some other artists, to do a piece for the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. Every time I go in there I hear seagulls so I played the sound of seagulls on the hour for 15 minutes every hour. It’s only now looking back, that I can see I was using the synaesthesia in a very unconscious way.
RS: You say that you didn’t go to art school, so you are technically an ‘outsider artist’. How do you feel about that term?
JA I’m fine with it although I’m not overly keen on labels. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘disabled artist’, which other people have tried to box me into. I’ve kind of woven a thin line between the disability arts and mainstream so I have had flak from both for not aligning myself.
RS: Do you find your art cathartic or is it frustrating?
JA A bit of everything. I don’t make my artwork to make me feel better. I would never do that. I just make it because I know it needs to be made. It can be frustrating but if I made something that I liked and it wasn’t a challenge I suspect it wouldn’t be very good. If it cheers me up it cheers me up, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. I make it because it needs to be made.