16 December 2006
Benedict Philips talks to Colin Hambrook about his performance art and photography exploring the experience of dyslexia.
Benedict Phillips has been making beautiful objects in association with reflective performance pieces for some years. Alongside his public art projects, he has been making work that reflects his outrage at the lack of understanding of dyslexia. He says,
I am fantastic at being dyslexic. I had to either take on board society's vision of myself as a failure, or redefine myself. Benedict's starting point in 1995 was a poetic artwork called The Agenda of the Agresiv Dislecksick - a humorous rant on the status of people with dyslexia within a written language-based culture that insists on words being spelt in a particular way.
if people with dyslexia are able to get to positions of responsibility within society, it is in spite something that just isn't talked about. Even within the family, dyslexia is often not understood. The assumption is that school cures people of being dyslexic. What actually happens is that people are told they are stupid and learn to cover up the disability in every way they can. To all intents and purposes there are no adults with dyslexia. But just because you can't see us, doesn't mean we are not there. The individual dyslexic's experience of living with a condition, which can exclude them in a myriad of ways, simply isn't given any value.
Benedict was interested in exploring some of these attitudes and experiences. In association with Yorkshire ArtSpace, he created a performance art installation he called The Invisible Apartheid of Words. For the performance he reinvented himself as a character he called The DIV (Dyslexic Intelligent Vision). Benedict says,
the slang dictionary definitiondescribes a div as an idiot, a pitiable person, a contemptible person. I deliberately chose the dunce cap as the DIV's costume. My intention was to reclaim its meaning as a sign of empowerment for dyslexics. I wanted to turn the symbol of the dunce cap from one of ridicule into a symbol of power and celebration. It was also about using the dunce cap as a way of creating visibility for dyslexia.
Dressed in a white felt suit and wearing a white conical hat, Benedict invited 70 people to sit a 45 minute exam. On entering the space, people were shown through two doors - the lecksick door, or the dislecksick door. Those who identified as dyslexic were asked to sit an exam called Being dyslexic. Those who identified as lexic were asked to sit an exam called Lexic to Dislexic. The idea of the exams was that everyone was being admonished by the DIV - standing in front of a large blackboard - to spell in interesting ways. The point was that if you were dyslexic you received a 100 per cent pass. Benedict says
It was a nerve-wracking situation, facing people with their own memories of being in a school exam situation. Without wanting to alienate anyone, I wanted to get across some understanding of the dilemma people with dyslexia face going through mainstream schooling.
Over the following weeks Benedict advertised through creative networks for people with dyslexia to come forward and take part in a series of conversations about the experience of having the condition. It was important that the people who took part were confident about being identified as dyslexic. For many of those involved it was a rare opportunity to talk about the life experience of being an adult with dyslexia. After having an invisible conversation, Benedict asked each sitter to make a drawing on a chalkboard, which in some way represented an image of their dyslexia. Some of the drawings were abstract; some representations of memories. The final part of the process was to create a series of photographic portraits using the drawings as a backdrop.
I am mindful that this process is about sharing in experience, rather than exploiting difference. So it is important to me that each individual understands the process and is aware of the outcomes I am looking to achieve. It is part of the artistic process to trace lines left behind by other people, and this is what I am exploring through the photographs.
To date Benedict Phillips has created two series of life-size photographs - one from the Yorkshire ArtSpace residency and another from a residency with the Louisville Visual Arts Association, Kentucky. Managed by the Pyro Gallery. the residency was set up through Pavilion in Leeds, where Benedict is based. Six people came forward for portraits though the residency and the life-size photographs were then exhibited in the gallery. Benedict says,
It is an essential ingredient of the exhibitions that a self-portrait as the DIV is included, so that my involvement with the process is a subjective part of it.
Benedict is looking for further opportunities to develop the series of photographic portraits. His intention to further open up dialogue about dyslexia. One of his aims is to link with organisations in other English speaking countries to find out what, if anything, the process reveals about differing attitudes to dyslexia in different cultures. A large reason for this exploration is to raise an awareness of the condition as a disability. Benedict says,
If you go to any of the charity websites you'll find very little about adults experience of dyslexia. You'll also find most of the people representing dyslexics are not dyslexic themselves. It's typical of a lot of impairments in the way that oppression is internalised, so that people with dyslexia often hold the same prejudicial attitudes as you'll find generally within society.