Founded in 1895, the Venice Biennale is a prestigious international art exhibition and a key date in the calendar for artists and audiences alike. This is where artists’ careers are made and opportunities to exhibit are coveted. The 56th Venice Biennale sees the return of the participatory installation the Venice Vending Machine, which this year unusually features the work of two artists with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD).
Their inclusion has significance for one of two reasons. Firstly, artists with PMLD rarely exhibit even within the context of disability-specific shows, let alone equitably alongside non-disabled artists. And secondly, these artists who lack the capacity to consent are entangled with unique challenges in order to both practice and exhibit their art. In conversation with project facilitator Melaneia Warwick, we consider this innovative practice and discuss the ethical considerations that shaped the journey of this work from studio to Biennale.
The Venice Vending Machine
The Venice Vending Machine is no stranger to the Biennale and this year is its third appearance. After inserting a small fee into the striking yellow machine reminiscent of those scattered down seaside promenades in gaming arcades, you receive a sphere. Each of these spheres contains an original piece of artwork produced by both emerging and established artists. It's clear that the participatory nature of the installation and the chance to bag yourself an impressive souvenir will pull in the crowds year on year.
The brief for all artists was to submit works no larger than 9cm in diameter. Melaneia Warwick, a PhD researcher from The University of Brighton, took this opportunity to facilitate two artists with PMLD - Josh Bartlett and Charlotte Hawkins- to take part. “I have curated two paintings from each artist and put them onto USB sticks, thus creating portable pieces of work” Melaneia explained. However, participating in the Venice Biennale is the result of a long and examined process which included getting access to a Day Centre and training care staff to support people with disabilities to make their art work.
Profound and multiple challenges
The label of “profound and multiple learning disability”, abbreviated to PMLD, describes people who have more than one disability – the most significant of which is a profound learning disability. All people who have PMLD will have great difficulty communicating, and many will have additional sensory or physical disabilities or complex health needs. The group’s varying and complex support needs often means they are particularly isolated and according to a recent study by Mencap remain under represented and hidden from society, even within the context of disability groups and services.
The opportunity for people with PMLD to practice art making is now recognised to combat this isolation, and has also been identified as important in terms of visibility and communication. Discussing the significance of people with PMLD making artwork with Melaneia she describes it as two-fold:
“For this project people with PMLD showed researchers about the best ways in which we could work with them to help their arts practices to develop. In turn the arts sector that works in such settings has benefitted. Kester describes the potential of practices such as these to positively extend discussions and social boundaries and I am interested in how doing this might both helpfully impact on the services people receive and on their opportunities to maintain a creative identity.”
Here, Melaneia is drawing upon the work of Professor Grant Kester who is a leading figure in the critical dialogue around relational art practices. This places the emphasis of art making on how it answers to the inclusion itself in society for which there are many and varied testimonials to the positive benefits. But if the benefits are so seemingly clear, then why do we not see more people with PMLD making art? “These creative practices take time” explains Melaneia, “they are complex and layered, and they involve the buy in of people and institutions outside of the academy and art world including ethical bodies, care workers, family members and councils”. In other words, they are resource intensive.
The artists’ work has been made in the context of a PhD research project and this comes with what might be thought of 'entangled ethics'. Universities require researchers to undergo an ethical approval process in order to support them to engage with the practical, ethical and intellectual challenges inherent in high quality research involving people. Melaneia's research has been through a particularly rigorous NHS approval process and is paving the way for arts-based projects at what is the highest level of ethical approval in the UK.
Crucially for this work, the ethical considerations of conducting research with people with PMLD has subsequently impacted how the artwork is being made and exhibited. Melaneia who is also visual artist, believes that the ethical process has “complicated what might otherwise be a less involved journey towards art making”, but inadvertently has yielded artistic benefits. Melaneia has “begun to think of the ethical concerns as part of the practice” and reframes these ethical challenges as opportunity for deeper planning, reflection and involvement of stakeholders and supporters.
An excellent example of the project’s ability to reframe a complication as an opportunity is evident in the artists statement, or as they are renamed, artist biographies. The 'artist statement' is an exhibition staple and is an artist's written description of their work to give the viewer insight. This flags an obvious challenge. The artists with PMLD are unable to communicate in this traditional way. Instead, the artist biographies focus the processes developed by the artists and the subsequent visual language they employ as observed by Melaneia. For example accompanying Charlotte Hawkins Gestural 1;
“Charlotte mixes her colours on the canvas with fingertips and palm, approaching this task with intense focus. As these works develop across a series of days, marks become layered bringing to mind traditional glazing techniques”.
With the “art speak” phenomena being questioned and even mocked, this method may provide a useful alternative which gets back to what is important; the art making.
As Melaneia enters into the final stages of this research she concludes, “What is compelling me to make work in this way though is the possibility of the humanity of the work. What can this work tell me and the supporters of people with PMLD about perception, opportunity and a social aesthetic?”