Missability and Sound

To understand how my fascination with sound is informed by disability, we must travel back in time to 2003 when I was 24 and studying for my BA in Art, in Dublin. A series of depressing relationships had left me feeling rubbish. I was working 3 days a week in an Internet cafe and studying for 5 days a week, (Mondays included work and study.) I used a bicycle to get everywhere because I couldn’t afford to take the bus every day, and I hadn’t yet learned to drive. I was on the maximum dose of two different, opiate-based industrial-strength painkillers, plus an escalating quantity of steroids in order to try and field off the ever-advancing destructive forces of my psoriatic arthritis. I was living on coffee, working on ambitious college projects, crying a lot, wearing out the patience of everyone around me, and becoming increasingly depressed at my swollen moon-face and burgeoning size, (courtesy of the steroids.) I hadn’t heard of access, independant living, assistive technology, disability rights, support for disabled students or any such things of joy which might have made my life easier, and I was literally going crazy from the frustration and difficulty of my everyday life. Tasks such as cooking meals or dressing myself were difficult for my giant, curmudgeonly paws, and my energy levels fluctuated wildly between steroid highs and codeine lows.

Then – and I’m not sure exactly of the sequence of events – I had a kind of wake-up call which I titled ‘The Soul Emergency.’ I got a sketchpad, covered it in plasters and bandages and wrote a quote from Alice Walker inside the cover, which read:

What is the point
of being artists
if we cannot save our life?
That is the cry
that wakes us
in our sleep.
Being happy is not the only

– Alice Walker, Horses make a landscape look more beautiful

I felt I was sinking and I began organising help for myself in all directions. I organised to see the University counsellor and I got some extra financial help from my parents, which enabled me to take Sundays off work. I also moved to Killiney to rent a room with a skylight that was a 30 minute limp to the beach for me, and a 20-minute bike ride away from college. I started using my sketchpad as a place for cheering myself up, and began filling it with images of clowns and stars and animals.

At some point in all of this I met Isolde, who is the amazing woman who features in the Pimp My Guide feature of The Missability Radio Show.

Because there is so much shared experience discussed here, I ran this post by Iz before publishing it here, and she provided some thoughtful insights and experiences which I have added into the post where appropriate.

We bonded firstly over our shared sadness at our mutual friend moving to Devon, and then over a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and our fascination with the now sadly demolished CLASSIC cinema of Rathmines. Somewhere in between rehearsing for the Cabaret Society production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and organising my disastrous LIVE ART performance outside the CLASSIC, we found ourselves talking about our respective circumstances. We talked about Isolde’s visual impairment and my difficulties with psoriatic arthritis. Isolde put it to me that I might be disabled, and that I might – as such – be entitled to some support.

Isolde and me in 2007.

To my amazement the disability support team at my University were indeed able to supply me with a trolley to help me get my books around the school, and a lightweight laptop on which to complete assignments. Additionally, the free University counselling was also very helpful in terms of helping me to come to terms with my own situation, and I was able to negotiate deadline extensions and other assistance from the incredibly supportive and kind staff who taught on my programme.

In terms of sound, very exciting things started happening in my friendship with Isolde. We listened to audio books at her house all the time, argued about musical arrangements of songs we were working on, and philosophised late into the night on relationships, disability, and power. Our friendship crystalised over Dory Previn’s albums, Wendy Cope’s poems, cups of earl grey tea with soya-milk, loooooooooong feminist talks, the 2am haze of opiates for me, the 2am haze of insomnia for Iz, and endless recorded repeats on her tape-player of ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue’ to help us drift off to sleep. We hung out all the time in her college apartments, having made the space comfortable by putting cushions and duvets all over the floor for me, and having dimmed the lights sufficiently for her. We told each other stories, read poems, listened to music and ate KOKA noodles and the other cheap fare of students and Quasi (the Guide Dog who stars in Pimp My Guide) fussed diligently over both of us. What our times together began to remind me of, was the world that you create in your mind when you read a book and imagine all the scenes inside your head; a kind of inner-envisioning, which fed massively into the poems and songs that we were writing around that time. We coined the phrase ‘Living Room time’ during this era, as a description of the productive and comforting conditions we were able to create in a domestic space, together. Isolde adds to these observations with this:

“Living Room Time”, was also for me (and perhaps for you), a journey of learning to celebrate domesticity as an aesthetic project.  I realise that the emphasis of this piece is about your journey into sound as an artistic medium, but I think intimate domestic space is entangled in that too. – Isolde Carmody

And this is a helpful insight. Certainly at the start of my PhD research, I wrote a lot privately about how I had spent years mostly indoors as part of my experience of disability, and how this was partly the reason for my specific interest in The Domestic Soundscape. What had especially interested me when I hung out with Isolde, was how dynamic and inspiring the home environment could be to creative processes.

As my levels of mobility have improved, I have increasingly begun to focus on external soundscapes – as evidenced in the post I wrote a few days ago – since I spend more time in such spaces now. For me, the attachment to my own domestic environments grew out of the physical pain induced by incorrect chairs, the horror of crowds who might not realise the pain their bashing into me would induce, and a permanent need for a bed, in case I required a nap or to lie on my back during the day. In attending art galleries and exhibitions together, I became aware of the descrepancy between the rich, permissive, multisensory, imaginative space enjoyed whilst hanging out with Iz, and the contrasting paucity of many “Art” experiences, which focussed largely on visual communications, which were held in over-lit and stark white spaces, and which were often physically uncomfortable to ‘view,’ assuming the full health and mobility, and perfect-sightedness of potential audiences. I also became aware of a mean-spiritedness inherent in general attitudes towards disability. I recall, for instance, going to an Opera where the subtitles were illegible to Iz. I carefully whispered them to her in sequence, only to be aggressively reprimanded by a (fully sighted) lady in front of us who insisted that ‘it ought to be enough to listen to the music and feel the story.’ Similarly, when we made a special journey to the TATE Modern to see Frida Kahlo’s exhibition, there were railings all around the paintings which meant that Isolde couldn’t get close enough to examine the work of this artist with her usable sight. Both Isolde and I received scathing comments relating to the support that we received in order to continue our studies; one student sarcastically remarked to me that ‘I guess sometimes it works out really well to have a disability, then’ upon seeing my loaned trolley and laptop, and Isolde was scolded like a naughty child for requesting a braille printer in order to be able to continue her studies in early Irish language and literature. The means by which we tried to gain access to information, buildings and resources, were frequently viewed by others as ‘priveliges,’ and not as entitlements granted by European, disability-equality law. The effects of people’s throwaway comments on one’s self-esteem is not to be underestimated and Iz and I increasingly fostered an air of conspiratorial rebellion against those we dubbed ‘the haters’ in order to cope with the unwanted hostility we received from others.

As I gradually began to more comfortably and acceptingly inhabit my disabled status, and to view my life in the context of being disabled, I increasingly sought refuge in the enabling, permissive, multisensory, hilarious world of my friendship with Iz and through the love and warmth of that friendship, I began to cultivate a new self-image within which awarenesses of disability, comfort and sound became integral components.

Since the time I am writing about, Isolde has developed a debilitating chronic-pain condition and she adds this to what I wrote about comfort:

I’ve certainly found that the experience of pain has awakened me massively to the experience of comfort, and the creation of a comforting yet dynamic home-space is an ongoing project that each of us is engaged in. – Isolde Carmody

As well as comfort, humour became progressively more essential to my emotional survival, and I began to respond to the steroids situation by becoming deliberately more clownish and outlandish in my dress.

The need to make myself laugh became a more pressing imperative than the need to ‘be beautiful’ in a conventional sense, and my laughter became an increasingly empowering personal resource. In a highly recommended essay by Marina Warner about Bobby Baker’s work, entitled ‘The Rebel at the heart of the joker,’ Warner quotes from an essay Freud wrote. I am not normally a fan of this phalocentric founder of psychiatry but I agree with his ideas concerning humour;

The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows in fact that such traumas are are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure … Humour is not resigned, it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of real circumstances.

– Freud

Me, Isolde and Caro took instruments, sunshades, Bodie, (small, characterful black dog) and Quasi, the Guide Dog, on a day trip to the park. Quasi drove Isolde nuts that day and on many others, because her doggie instincts caused her to wait for me (as one of the pack) all the time instead of guiding Isolde at her pace, through the streets!

We couldn’t resist putting the shades on Bodie.

To me, laughter was not a form of bravery ‘in the face of adversity,’ (as is often the interpretation) as much as an essential coping mechanism, motivated by the need to find pleasure in my days, to take delight in my existence and to thereby – in answer to Walker’s question above – literally save my own life. There was nothing worthy or amazing about the way I satirised my own appearance with clothes and other ways during the steroid days; it was a way of finding power when I felt powerless over my own circumstances and over the forces at play in my body.

From this hot-bed of necessary comedy, talking books, storytelling, poetry-writing, musical-play and a newfound sense of self-esteem and personal power, little stories began to emerge. I started finding a quietly assured and subversive voice, and fictionalising all aspects of my existence in imaginative ways. I think the first sound piece that I made directly out of experiences relating to disability was Lioness. In real life, I had paid to get my hair permed as a self-esteem boost. It had been set into gorgeous little blond curls which lasted for about 3 weeks before going the way of all perms. The perm had been a fragile bandaid to my self-conscious feelings concerning my growing size and the unrecognisable nature of my swollen face. When the perm dissolved into a ragged, blond mess I cut it all off with scissors in a rage. There was something furious and self-immolating about this gesture, but there was also a great vitality to that anger and a deliberate desire to eschew the normal criteria for prettiness, and to be moved by a deeper, more primal imperative within myself. Thus in Lioness, the Southern-belle with the beautiful hair turns out to be a Lion, rewriting the conventional narratives of beauty and pity that I had been unwittingly adhering to before. Whale also explored body-image issues, investing the new, large size of me with a sort of rebellious triumph, and I began to think about my family in stories such as Thumper, which is about my youngest brother and his stuffed toy rabbit. One of Isolde’s observations about all these animals is especially insightful and I shall share it here:

I have always thought of the whole of Audicle as being very much about the body, and the use of animal imagery and personae is a way of touching the more visceral, instinctual embodied soul. A personal with a physical or sensory disability is never allowed to forget their physical nature, and the animal stories, domestic spaces and sonic environments celebrate that physicality. – Isolde Carmody

A rich, inner world populated with playful imagery and creatures such as the sweet little monkey in The Monkey Song, (Monkl turned out to be the very embodiment of this monkey when I found him in a gift shop, months later!) and the mythical Beelloon (an animal that is a cross between a kazzoo and a balloon) began to grow out of my daily experiences and the richness of my musical collaborations with Isolde. Isolde coached me, helping me to apply the right tones and expressions to all the creatures in my semi-fictional, sonic world, and Geoffrey Perrin helped me to master the levels across all my tracks. Meanwhile, I wrote and recorded music to accompany the stories, and I worked on how each one was told, and how the music related to the content. Thumper involved a bassy dance-track approach, while Whale employed sounds made by blowing over bottles, recordings made of me in the bath, gurgling noises and a meandering piano motif. I felt that in building this mischievious, playful collection of subversive and ambiguous soundworks, I was really finding my own imaginative language and using it to refute and rewrite the all-encompassing narratives of tragedy and sadness that are universally (and unhelpfully) applied in instances of disability. Killiney Beach became my favourite place to go to for reflecting on life and formulating amazing plans for future survival, and it was here that Starfish was made – a sound piece exploring ideas of vulnerability and protection, and the power of everyday gestures (like putting the starfish back into the sea, so the sun won’t dry them out.)

Isolde and I spent a long time discussing how this work should be made available to the public, and how it could be turned into a comfortable listening experience for an audience. I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea of creating a dimly-lit, enclosed environment for playing the stories in; a space that would somehow reflect the late-night storytelling sessions from which the narratives had ultimately grown. Thus, The Little Songbox was born; an 8 foot square cubical space, insulated with sheeps’ wool for soundproofing, and carpentered (is that a word?) by the inestimably brilliant Leddy boys (Fearghal and Ned) in time for my assessments and exhibition of works at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology BA Graduate showcase.

The Littlesongbox

A large, green cushion was created inside the space, and the inside of the box was painted a deep green colour, and low-lit using tiny yellow lightbulbs. I hoped these elements would conjure an inviting, intimate listening environment, but I did regret using the sheeps’ wool in the end, as it made the space far too hot for people to be happy to linger in it in the middle of June! There were many other formal failures in the work; the smell of paint never really left the box – also making it feel less comforting than I had intended – and the total lack of visual cues was difficult for audiences to understand or navigate when they entered the box and encountered its whimsical, sonic contents.

The means of transmitting the rich world of stories in Audicle was therefore not really resolved, but I knew that this medium – this ethereal, sonic method of transmitting imagery to the sensitive membrane of the ear – was a format that I wanted to continue working with. Isolde observes:

I also feel, through reading your piece, that the intimacy of sound as a medium, and the way it engages other bodily senses is a step away from the external viewing experience of visual art, which is safely “outside” the body and often intellectually over-informed; and a step toward the intrinsically subjective and often isolating experience of physical pain. – Isolde Carmody

The whole experience of creating Audicle (the stories collection) and The Little Songbox, (the installation space in which I presented Audicle) inspired in me a new way of envisioning the world; a sonic way of transmitting meaning. I love the intimacy of soundwaves, and the physical way that they resonate within the body. I love the idea of primarily working with inner-imagery or an internalised, felt or described sense of the world. And I love the richness of creating experiences which speak on multisensory and participatory levels, engaging the imagination in varied ways rather than narrowly, through sight alone.

There was a fundamental, imaginative shift that happened throughout that era, where I found myself being less and less interested in how the world looked, and more and more interested in how it felt. In terms of my own self-image and disability, this retreat away from an exclusively visual focus was, I suppose, a way of rejecting the idea that I ought to appear a certain way… an idea to be explored in a future post on Missability and shoes.

The relationship between sound and disability is one that has obviously gone on to inform my entire career. Being disabled forced me to reenvisage my identity and my image of my body; to change my sense of self, and to accept, effectively, a new face, a new body, new hands, new feet, a new back, a new vocabulary of movement, a new set of Felix-gestures, and a revised understanding of my relationships and my needs.

Me, aged 19 or 20, complete with handspun (drop-spindled in the grease, no less!) hair extensions, posing in front of Three Rock Mountain.

Me, aged 25, with steroid-face and assembled comforts, in my parents’ home.

In a world where our collective, visual language is dominated by endlessly reproduced images of ‘the perfect body,’ it felt easier when I was younger to form an authentic picture of myself outside of that language. This was obviously a decision I reversed in The Missability Radio Show, which was all about addressing visual language, representation, and disability, but even then, sound (and in this case the sonic language of The Radio Show) remained an essential and empowering tool for communicating about disabled experience from inside of it. As I wrote on the covernotes for Audicle:

To position oneself at the centre of experiences, it is sometimes necessary to shift away from a visually-based preoccupation with how a situation looks, to an auditory mode of perception that is instead concerned with how it feels.

My focus on sound has obviously developed in other directions since making Audicle and The Missability Radio Show, but my conviction in the importance of listening to the world and priveliging what we hear as well as what we see has only grown since that first project, and so that is how being disabled led me to become a sound artist.

Link: Women Independently Living in Leitrim (WILL) a project Isolde is currently involved in, in County Leitrim, Eire.

5 Responses to Missability and Sound

  1. Pingback: KNITSONIK 09 – The Wonders of Electricity » KNITSONIK

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