Aliens, Autism, and Napping on the Floor

Katie Walters’ Nest Residency reflections:

For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with space! Although not so much in the way that you might expect from an autistic person; I have very little interest in the science of it all. I don’t know much about nebulae (I had to google for the plural), or space travel, or the names of any stars beyond our own. But my artist’s brain has always loved the *idea* of space. I like how big it is. The incredible potential of infinite planets! The possibility of aliens! And how very small and insignificant that makes our Earth.

When I was 15, my interest in space was thrown into starker clarity when I received a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The diagnosis itself was unsurprising. I’d always moved through the world in my own strange way, and by the time I was referred for diagnostic assessment, I was thoroughly alienated from my peer group. I already knew that I was different, and, more problematically, all the other kids knew too. But what did surprise me was how my diagnosis made me feel. Suddenly I was able to understand myself. It was like someone had turned on the lights. When I looked back over my life, for the first time, everything made sense. One of the many things I came to learn about myself was why I was so obsessed with the idea of other worlds. I wanted to believe in a world where I could make myself understood.

This is where Planet Alex came from. Planet Alex is a terrible novel that I wrote as a teenager in the aftermath of my diagnosis. And, thanks to my Nest Residency, it’s now a (hopefully less terrible) play!

Mainstream stories about autistic people usually have a few things in common: they’re about boys or men, they’re written by people who are not autistic themselves, and they address autism as a problem to be overcome. That’s a problem, because autism is not a monolith – the autistic community is vibrant, diverse, and thriving. I wanted to tell a story that was true to my experience of autism, which is strange and difficult, but ultimately very positive. As I grew older and moved on to other projects, I never stopped believing in the idea at the core of my terrible novel. I kept trying to find the right way to tell Alex’s story. My Nest Residency was the perfect opportunity to bring her to life.

I found out about Nest Residencies through a digital flyer on twitter, and knew right away that I wanted to apply. There was no pressure to produce anything, and the time was intended for experimentation. I didn’t need to worry about getting things wrong, so I was free to write something strange and new, and the opportunity was intended for disabled artists, so I knew that my access needs would be met.

As well as autism, I have a chronic illness called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). It’s a complicated condition, and how it impacts me can vary day to day. Because it’s so variable, it’s very important for me to be able to work flexibly, take regular breaks, and take time off if I need to. Talking Birds provided me with a private space to work in, where I was able to set up a makeshift bed so I could work lying down if I needed to, or even take a nap! They were also very understanding of my strange work hours, which I keep because my ME seriously disrupts my sleep and makes it very difficult for me to maintain a regular sleep pattern.

Because of the support that my Nest Residency offered, I was able to make a really solid start to Planet Alex as a play, and I have a great foundation to build on moving forward with the project. I’m really excited to find out what’s next for Alex and her alien friend, and I hope that I’m able to bring her story to as many people as possible.

If you are interested in applying for a Nest Residency, you can find more details here.

(re)valuing the labour it takes to breath, be, perform together

Melissandre Varin reflects on her Work From Home Nest Residency:

This text and selected moving and still images are an autoethnographic account of my first art residency with Eole, 16 months old. I would not have the pretention to speak for Eole, thus I wish to highlight that articulations are mine.

I discovered about home-based Nest Residencies offered by Talking Birds during the first F13 Zoom meeting following COVID-19 lockdown. I was immersed in the image of feeling/being underwater at that time. I was partly feeling this way because I thought that I will be incapable of managing my multiple roles. I was not wrong.

Making nearby Eole
(melissandre varin and Eole Varin Vincent April- May 2020)

I self-define as a Black queer artist-researcher PhD student doing Practice As Research while mothering 16 months old Eole. There is no strict order nor hierarchies to my roles, except that I am always other than a mother while caring 24/7 for Eole. COVID-19 lockdown forced me/us to act upon burning issues from the inside.

I re(-)member how it felt growing up both as a witness and a recipient of domestic violence – behind closed doors. Being/Feeling under the water I had to work around traumatic memories challenging the reasons why I would spend money I do not have in day care to maintain a distance between Eole and I or as I used to disguise it “to make sure that they have social interactions with other little ones”. I had to unpack the limitations of Eole’s and I’s mothering relationship, we played, with it during our residency. I ended up having a significant transformation of what I consider work, and how I perform, and I value it.

The experience of making nearby Eole was intense for the least. Eole and I were, in our own ways, challenging and articulating counter-hegemonic ways of holding conversations in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s terms (2012). In doing so we were also (re)valuing the labour it takes to breath, be, perform, together, as I distanced myself from reading (except children’s stories) and writing (ethnograffiti-interruption) – weaving embodied dialogues instead.


In this experimental approach to making nearby Eole, I facilitated ways for us to archive our work beyond our embodied memories. I took still and moving images alternatively with a smartphone or an old home digital camera as they were both sitting there, part of our home.

image3-34Jarring (melissandre varin and Eole Varin Vincent, 2020 + LaRi witnessing)

Early afternoon with Eole or late at night with Jb, my partner, we collected the remaining of our everyday performances at home gathered in ritualistic balayage (sweeping) followed by a jarring-process. We used a broom, a stainless dustpan and empty jars that were part of our home. This process brought me back to a master’s dissertation I wrote using a vibrant materialist approach when I was being trained in Environment and Sustainable Development. I have never undertaken paid work in this field but always felt that this baggage followed me in many ways. Here is another manifestation of it as Eole was leading the way in allowing me to lay down and critically observe the details of our living space and by extension of our relationships in/to the space.

Home was not the ultimate location of domesticity. I reduced its potential, as I (ab)used of this space attempting to domesticate it in order to construct a place where I finally belong. Divides between being with Eole in private and working in public were the heritage of a colonial/ capitalist/ white/ heteronormative/ patriarchal delimitations of my (im)possibilities. One of the roots of my complicity in partaking in this divide was my attempt to escape from what happened behind closed door during my childhood and still reproduce itself when I close my eyes.

My biggest challenge has been to have proper time to read and write. However, the fact that Eole have repeatedly negated me time to read academic books and articles gave us the opportunity to be attentive and focus on senses that I had underestimated in my artistic research. We sat together apparently doing nothing as we deepened our listening practice, listening to birds as spring unveiled, and we looked at each other. It can be framed as a political intervention into my PhD research journey as Jane Bacon write about her sitting practice (2010).

I noted that we share stories some of which have not yet been told but make us the different beings that we are. After Jenny Odell’s How to do nothing (2019), another book which I did not manage to read during the residency, but an online audio-visual presentation that Eole and I listened to, my practice is not so much embedded in a modernist idea of making but of finding. During this precious time, making nearby Eole, I found ways to take time and make space for us to be.

“I collect words from others’ mouth, fingers, and bodily performances. I re-call my present from observing my body and contemplating the most beautiful creation of mine/theirs be their own assemblages of us/them/its. I lay my body down and occupy space that I have had the privilege to imagine, to walk in, and I interrogate those who created them against marginalised others/us I ask – what if life did not have to be so complicated – for us too?

I thank you Eole for reminding me that there is more to life than throwing ‘garbage’ away by picking up, being amazed, paying your respect to the smallest, putting ‘dirt’ into your mouth, and protesting in front of me. What if I/They was/were wrong to forbid you/us to be, what if I had to learn from you to reconnect to our story, to the environment?” (nap time autoethnographic note, time: 11.23 date: 16/04/2020 location: CV56GQ)

Closely collaborating with Eole we worked around practice/notions of maintenance after performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, in-betweenness both from Homi Bhabha and from Fleur Summers, and Angela Clark (2015) and deviant (Charles Esche 2011) mothering. My practice has been politically strengthened, gradually gained in gentleness and cracked into fluidity. Eole and I have started to pave routes for us to challenge gender norms as I walked/ran shirtless as a local urban intervention inside and outside during our daily physical exercises. We have contested monolithic discourse around figures of mother and on children inspired by Haircuts by children by Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex. I have devised performances making visible gendered-racialised labours to which Eole added an extra layer of complexity

We have immersed ourselves in flour and earth, queering conventional use of these materials to interrogate what life happening within four walls is ultimately about, drawing on racial, gendered, classist charges for a Black femme mothering a mixed-race being.

image4-36image5-38Documentation of “Of flour and Earth” (melissandre varin and Eole Varin Vincent, 2020)

We have performed for smartphone and cameras and for one another impatient to open the doors of this space to others when it is safe to do so. Eole and I spent a certain amount of time singing/screaming, laughing/crying, being as never before, and it seems appropriate to add that none of us have been hurt in the process.

I am extremely grateful for Talking Birds for supporting this deepening in my/our practice at the fictious interstices of public/private divides. Eole and I lived fully every moment of our first collaborative art-residency.

Sharing the love (chronologically):

Spivak, G. 2012, “Who Claims Alterity”, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 57.

Bacon, J . (2010) Sitting/Walking/Practice: Reflections on a Woman’s creative process, Gender forum, an internet journal for gender studies, Gender and performance. Theatre/ Dance/ Technology, Edited by Prof. Dr. Beate Neumeier

Jenny Odell. 2019. How to do nothing: resisting the attention economy
2017. How to do nothing, online talk (57.29min) :

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York and London: Routledge.
Summers, Fleur and Angela Clarke. 2015. “In-Betweenness: Being Mother, Academic and Artist.” Journal of Family Studies 21(3):235–47.

Esche, C. 2011, “The Deviant Art Institution”, in C. Esche et al. (eds), Performing The Institution, vol. 1, Kunsthalle Lissabon, ATLAS Projectos, Lisbon.

Mammalian Diving Reflex


If you are interested in applying for a Work From Home Nest Residency, you can find more details here.

“There are many ways of communicating…”

Emily Woodruff reflects on her Work From Home Nest Residency:

My artistic practice had always been somewhat loosely defined, dabbling in acting, performance art, spoken word and music. After receiving an ASD diagnosis in my late-20s I found new ways of working. I developed a better understanding of how I process information, allowing me to start the transition from bedroom-headspace-artist, brimming with ideas but lacking the navigation system to see any through to completion, to an early career artist with an active practice.

When I saw Talking Bird’s Nest Residency programme it seemed like the perfect first step into a more professional practice. The knowledge that the Talking Birds team regularly work with and offer mentorship to disabled artists gave me a sense of freedom and confidence in approaching them. Not only would it give me the opportunity to work alongside a team well versed in the arts sector and local arts community, but I would be given the space and time to develop ideas in an environment where I knew I’d be able to communicate any additional needs I might have.

By the time the residency rolled around the world was operating in a significantly different landscape. I was given the option to postpone my residency or continue as planned on a work-from-home basis. I decided to focus on an alternative project I had been developing in order to allow me to get the most out of my time with Talking Birds, whilst working at a distance and in the smaller space of my spare room, and pushed on.

I’ve always been intrigued by biology and how our anatomy plays a role in how people see their own role in the world. This has developed into bigger and more cohesive ideas about the dance between corporeal reality and our inner narratives. How do our bodies inform our sense of self and shape our identity? With neurodivergence salient in my mind I began to think about how experiencing the world through a ‘different’ neurotype might also hold its own geography for how an individual experiences their identity and how the world reacts to their bodily (neurological) configuration. It had become increasingly clear to me that there was a phenomenon to be further explored in relation to receiving a late-in-life diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders and shifts in an individual’s identity. I wanted to explore people’s experiences of this and identify key patterns or changes that seemed consistent throughout these experiences. In doing so I hoped to gather the qualitative and emotional data required to produce an artistic response.

The mentorship I received was invaluable. The advice encouraged me to approach my time management with a view for longevity. This is something I’ve often struggled with, so to have someone to check in with now and then really helped me to stay on course. I started to think about how to incorporate a dialogue that extends beyond the final display of a piece of artwork into the development phase of a project.

With this in mind (and having found that questionnaires often don’t translate well for neurodiverse individuals), I started to have conversations! I put out a call online and directed it towards the neurodivergent community. Fortunately I already had a few contacts who were happy to have a discussion with me and explore their own experiences of late-diagnosis of autism. I dipped into artist Rees Finlay’s book ‘Reaffirmation: Coming to terms with an autism diagnosis’, (title says it all really) and had a great extensive call with Rees to really dig into these experiences. I also discovered the video performance by artist Kimberly Gerry-Tucker (with credit to her son Silas for filming and producing the work), Mime Project: Masking. The piece deals with autistic masking and finding acceptance, and one line really stood out to me, a thread that runs through many of the conversations I’ve been having; “I paint the squelch of Broken Sounds and TRIBE, upon my face”.

TRIBE! A word that kept seeming to float to the top of these conversations, along with a sense of transformation in finally ‘finding your tribe’. I started to further explore these patterns.

I found L.A Paul’s book ‘Transformative Experience’ and started to delve into the nature of significant shifts in identity, or, transformation. In one passage Paul discusses how some members of the Deaf community do not support the use of cochlear implants in young children. Some feel the implants alter the sensory landscape that the child was born with and prevent the child from truly experiencing the world as a Deaf individual, a unique way of being in the world that allows shared knowledge and experience as a member of the Deaf community. I considered how this distinct sensory configuration for perceiving the world, and the value that is found in knowing others have this experience too, is akin to being neurodiverse. Just as “a deaf child constructs her world in a different way, perhaps radically so”, so do ASD individuals. Therefore, just as “participating in this unique and valuable community and culture gives a deaf person a unique and intrinsically valuable experience and fosters a community that provides support for a historically oppressed segment of society”, being able to access the knowledge that you are neurodiverse may provide similar experiences to such individuals. TRIBE!

After reading of published works that deal with the subject matter and some rich conversations about first-hand experiences I began to see several phrases/key concepts arising: tribe, grief, transformation, self-acceptance, revelatory experience and vindication.

I knew I wanted to capture these ideas in a visual way – neurodiverse individuals are often very visual thinkers and communicators, sometimes better able to capture emotionally complex responses in swashes of colour than structured sentences. I also wanted my depictions of these key concepts to both connect to the real-life human experiences I’d been exploring, whilst being relatively ‘faceless’. These are almost archetypal journeys that can be accessed through a wide array of human experiences, and I wanted a wide array of experiences to be able to be brought to the table by the viewer.

As such I started to experiment with abstract portraiture, capturing gesture and emotion, not ‘pinning down’ too many distinct facial features:


I also spent some time researching colour psychology. I drew inspiration from scientific data on the effects different wavelengths can have on the brain, historical artistic uses and regional/cultural associations to play with colour to create different sensations. For example, an overabundance of yellow can give a sense of sparseness, isolation and distance from society; it’s often been used to depict outcast figures. Green is often


considered to imbue a sense of peace and a higher preference for it is seen in ASD boys compared to ‘typically developing’ boys, it’s speculated for its calming wavelength.


With my mentor’s advice about thinking ahead ringing in my ears I put together a preliminary plan as to how I could produce the response, including potential funding sources and how the work might eventually be displayed.

After playing with some quotes I’d selected from my research by adding breaks in the sentence to create alternative or multiple interpretations, I produced a ‘sample’ that incorporated the abstract portraiture and colour techniques I’d been developing.


I spent a lot of time during my residency contemplating my own artistic practice, how I operate, what works well and what changes could benefit me. I had time and ‘space’ to explore and play with techniques I may otherwise have struggled to carve out the time for. Through this reflection and my mentor’s guidance I am also taking away a very clear understanding. Dialogue with the world and potential viewer is an inherent part of the making process, not a final event.

However, I’m also taking away a sense that there is still a hegemonic narrative, a script, for how these conversations should be conducted. These scripts won’t work for everyone. Some may deal with cognitive overload in face-to-face coffee mornings that doesn’t allow for authentic expression to take place. Some may be non-verbal. Some may not be able to physically access the designated space. There are many ways of communicating that are as rich and ‘on par’ as a spoken engagement that may not be accurately translated into language. When thinking about the experience of distinct neurological configurations, L.A Paul suggests it may “…give them a unique and untranslatable, hypervisual cognitive style…”

As access to the ‘art world’ is changing, we need to reconsider alternative modes of being, processing information and constructing dialogues to provide that access.

I’d like to thank Talking Birds for the opportunity and support, and my mentor for crucial and enlightening conversations!

Rees Finlay’s ‘Reaffirmation: Coming to terms with an autism diagnosis’:

Kimberly & Silas Gerry-Tucker’s ‘Mime Project: Masking’:

L.A Paul’s Transformative Experience