I used to think that the only skill I had was drawing. It was only much later that I realised that it was simply the only skill that I had experienced difficulty in acquiring and yet had not given up on. It was also my only physical skill.
Under most of the circumstances I encountered I had struggled to effectively present myself as one who had fluency and it was only through drawing that I eventually learnt that I could thrive in the breach when fluency breaks down. Drawing has been, for me a succession of failures over time that eventually amounted to a way of maintaining coherence with the world. It was the way I got familiar with the specifics of my own brain, learned my limits and how to push them. In learning to draw I learned how to learn with my body.
It’s taken me a long time to articulate how much I needed this before. It’s not so much that I needed fluency but more that I needed a word for what I had in its place that wasn’t lack. Art teacher and academic Claire Penketh has written:
Dyspraxia is a term used to define ‘difficulties’ with the development of physical coordination related to sensory processing. Definitions are problematic, because of the range of ‘impairments’ that may be experienced and also because of the ways these are defined by a range of agencies. Dyspraxia is identified as a condition that not only affects the coordination and execution of movements but also the planning of movements prior to carrying them out and is independent of an individual’s level of intelligence.
Perhaps surprisingly – considering how much some ideas about drawing depend on a harmonious relation between the world and our perception and experience of it – a web search for dyspraxia and drawing points at the existence of very few references to critical literature relating to both subjects. Of what can be found, by far the most useful, for my purposes, was the research that Penketh, has outlined in her book, A Clumsy Encounter: Dyspraxia and Drawing, and in Sketchbooks, A Space for Uncertainty, her article in TRACEY, a journal for contemporary drawing. Using observational drawing in formal art education as a specific example, Penketh shows how institutional systems of control can be interrogated by examining how they interact with what she terms the ‘dyspraxic ideal’.
Penketh is critical, as I am, of how social and political factors are ignored in the medical pathologisation of dyspraxic individuals. She suggests that, rather than considering dyspraxia to be a deficit in an individual’s capabilities, we should instead be learning to recognise how some systems function as oppressive by listening to the experiences of those who have been, in various ways, marked as dyspraxic within them. Penketh writes:
It is not insignificant that the majority of research currently being undertaken in this area is of a clinical or medical nature and that there are far fewer studies that seek to explore social and educational context. The prevalence of this clinically based work, with an emphasis on identification of deficit and subsequent remediation, may offer a parallel with the medicalisation of education where epistemological perspectives are drawn from the need to identify pupils’ problems and provide a form of remediation for their ‘difficulty’. The focus on clinical literature serves to reinforce the already established concept of ‘pupil (child) as problem’ that may mask more challenging questions related to concepts of pedagogy and educational research.
Penketh’s analysis of dyspraxia in relation to drawing centres on the experience of ‘narrative breach’ by the dyspraxic subject:
I have attempted to reflect this narrative feature by creating a hypothesis based on the ‘dyspraxic ideal’ and drawing from observation as an ‘ideal’ in art education. The personal narratives of the four participants offer plot lines through which breach and exception from these ideals can be identified. The distance between the real and the ideal identified through these breaches creates a space for interpretation and meaning making.
Borrowing this approach from Penketh I have sought to apply it to my own experience of drawing on and being in the world. I want to resist the erasure of struggle and the exclusion of valuable experiences and processes that find themselves out of time with dominant flows.
When failure is stigmatised, it creates its own frustrating effect in the fear of such failure.
I read Penketh through and with Paul Klee and the translator of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. Klee is the historical drawing teacher whom I have spent the most time with. Hailed as a modernist master, Klee was also a teacher at the Bauhaus and a dedicated violinist. Klee’s understanding of visual composition and its relation to music was the first way in which I was ever even able to start to make sense of abstraction. I want here to draw out something that I found to be implicit in Klee’s theories of drawing and image making: that is, the role played by risk or the idea of failure, in being and making in the world.
The tension between action and failure, praxis and dys-praxis is apparent in Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s reading of Klee in her introduction to his Pedagogical Sketchbook, the concise publication of Klee’s primer in pictorial thinking written for the students he taught at the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy singles out what she describes as Klee’s “greatest wisdom”, the axiom: “TO STAND DESPITE ALL POSSIBILITIES TO FALL!” In Klee’s cosmology the necessity of some kind of negative principle is structurally incorporated. The third section of Klee’s pedagogical sketchbook is devoted to the effects of gravity, to the fact of the existence of laws of nature by which we are bound regardless of ambition. Conversely it is this ambition that allows us to find a way to stand, despite – which is another word for with – gravity. It is this always-already-thwarted and yet still transformative ambition that creates, in Klee’s fourth section, the motivation to imagine and search for other realms to which these rules may apply in different ways. One such realm is that of the spiritual.
Spirit has been another word for genius.
In the process of becoming-learning-marking-carrying on in the world one cannot avoid the experience of breach or failure. But when failure is stigmatised, the experience of that stigma creates its own frustrating effect in the fear of such failure. Like the man on the high wire that Klee draws, I don’t look down because I know what happens when I do. I must aspire to act in spite of error, not without it. Perfect symmetry is static and has little to do with movement in time. In Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s interpretation of the second section of Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook she provides an instructive explanation of how balance can be achieved as a result of difference and, in so doing, can provide clues as to how a less stigmatising understanding of ‘correction’ might be possible:
Man, precariously balanced on two unstable legs, uses optical illusion as a safety device. Horizon as concrete fact, and horizon as an imaginary safety belt that has to be believed in, are exemplified on the graceful example of the tightrope walker and his bamboo pole. The purely material balance of the scale finds its counter-part in the purely psychological balance of light and dark, weightless and heavy colours. The key word to this section reads: ‘non-symmetrical balance’. It asserts that ‘the bilateral conformity of two parts’ which is the old definition of symmetry, has been superseded by ‘the equalization of unequal but equivalent parts’. Dimension is in itself nothing but an arbitrary expansion of form into height, width, depth and time. It is the balancing and proportioning power of eye and brain that regulate this expansion of the object toward equilibrium and harmony.
What might be the relation between Claire Penketh’s moments of ‘narrative breach’ between ideal and reality – that allow invisible functions and power dynamics to be revealed and examined – and Klee’s construction of processes from which emerges formal harmony?
It could be said that the dyspraxic subject is identified specifically as being more likely to experience a breach between their cognisance of the world and the material reality of it. Might their experience of difficulty become a means of transforming the world, were we to allow it?
By demonstrating the value of dys-praxis, can the oppressive tendencies of the structures of art-making and learning practices be better understood?
Penketh, through Bourdieu, describes what becomes of difficulty when the experience of struggle is valued as a badge of honour rather than for the experience in itself:
The concept of individual difficulty, not inherently problematic, becomes problematised within the normalising structures of formal education that prioritises the finding of answers above the posing of questions. With Bourdieu’s (1984) exploration of ‘disgust at the facile’, difficulty is viewed as desirable since it renders certain activities as less accessible to the majority, thus preserving the privileged position of the few. The predominance of difficulty within a discipline can contribute to the preservation of an elite group and offers a rationale for the rejection of moves towards inclusion as a ‘diluting’ and democratising principle.
When we speak of skill or rhythm as the outcome of learning, we need to be clear about the degree of skill of which we speak. To be skilled enough is what we must learn in order to live in the world. To do this subjects must remain un-shamed by their own experiences of breach. To be exceptionally skilled is what we are taught to aim for and in this exceptionalism we cut ourselves off from the world in a praxis defined paradoxically by both safety and by unacceptable risk and sacrifice. The subject who wishes to achieve mastery must deny their experience of struggle and abandon all pursuits that might result in a less than perfect outcome. The type of flows that result from such a practice are unitary, isolated, and render collaboration an expensive risk.
Without trust, neither rhythm nor harmony is possible.
Outside of formal education, in the contexts available to me – of experimental art and writing and of home education – it is my hope that the systems constituting these fields might be interrogated using a similar juxtaposition to that employed by Claire Penketh. By demonstrating the value of dys-praxis, can the oppressive tendencies of the structures of art-making and learning practices be better understood? Is it possible to facilitate any pedagogy or continuity of meaning that is not exclusionary?
The text that follows is structured after the four chapters of Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook and accompanied by my own drawings. It is an account of coming to terms with feeling and being out of step with dominant flows of efficiency and productivity, of thinking through ways in which these experiences have a role in the production of meaning and knowledge. I am attempting to evade a positivist definition of practice predicated on ideas of mastery and success and which remains commonly embedded in quantified concepts of skill, flow, coherence and control. I hope that the story I have to tell relating to my own experience might contribute to greater recognition of the possibilities offered by difference, breach, obstruction and frustration in both learning and living.
The line has to begin. A point.
It begins (whether it likes it or not). Movement is life. The line follows itself, so the story goes. Each line is already a crowd of subjects in motion.
To learn (to draw) / to tell yourself how / to find the way is a mystery.
For there to be a mystery there has to be a failure of coherence.
The choice between image and text is one I never wanted to have to make. Aged eighteen, I chose to go to art school because I had fallen hard for drawing and because I was looking for a way out of linguistic representation. I did not realise that such a choice is always a false one, that words and images cannot really be separated.
At that time I associated images with what I understood as the subjugated creative right hemisphere of the brain and I was trying, clumsily to resist that subjugation. Left/right brain lateralisation and the concomitant idea of verbal dominance over visuo-spatial thought is the story on which were built the stories on which rests my entire understanding of how human brains are physically supposed to work. This despite the fact, which I had yet to recognise, then, before digital reproduction had really began to metastasise, that pictorial representation and visibility in general can, just as easily as language, function as a trap.
In the last fifteen years the rise of brain imaging technologies and the consequent territorial pissings of neurology and cognitive science have perhaps only highlighted our relative lack of understanding about what is actually going on when we learn or know or make things. To attempt to make generalisations about what part of the brain does what is certainly – I now know – beyond the scope of my expertise and any attempt to do so would surely only de-legitimise this text further. Suffice to say that, when conceptualising what we learn, most of us are creating narratives: telling stories in whatever way we can.
I grew up speaking, reading and writing so fluently I barely noticed learning how to do so and so I suppose I mistook those processes for simple ones. Blinded by intellectual ease, I had no real sense at eighteen of what language itself was. I only knew that it seemed like the easy way out.
All of these phenomena are just symptoms; the root cause is everything.
My grades were consistently lower in art than in any other subject and self-directed study often induced near nervous collapses in me. I had consistently excellent grades in all other subjects, even despite a general ineptitude for presentation and handwriting that was rendered illegible by the speed at which I produced it. I explained my inability to achieve anything above a B in art as a consequence of the performance anxiety that was evident in everything I did (apart from reading or talking); a cautiousness verging on inaction and a generalised fear of everything. I was shaky, and therefore out of step and sync; not just with others, but with myself and particularly with the high expectations raised by my verbal proficiency.
I was intimately familiar with certain types of fear: fear of the consequences of actions, fear that action leads to derision and exclusion and wounding, usually with words. Then consequently: fear of visibility.
I had known for some time that I ‘have anxiety’. Or should that be rather that I ‘am anxious’? When I was very little I knew that I was considered ‘a worrier’. I didn’t know Generalised Anxiety Disorder was a thing until a prescription needed justifying. The idea of this known/unknown as genetic – an a priori condition – has never helped. I think of my anxiety/self as a system that I’m inside of, that shifts and changes constantly as weather does.
There isn’t a word for an anxious person anymore; since we took down ‘hysteric’ and ‘neurotic’ and discovered SSRIs, it has become unspeakable. If you’re anxious you will be told to calm down, chill out and be rational. You want these things to be possible so you try but now you’re just in denial of your own interiority and eating away at whatever self-belief you have left, literal wounds that never heal for months because you pick at them. All of these phenomena are just symptoms; the root cause is everything. They take time and energy and resources away from other mental and physical and emotional processes. Eventually you / I seek comfort in the idea that there’s a physical cycle out of whack. Sugar or cortisol or adrenaline waves or something, like, my system is just so sensitive.
I looked for reasons and kept mental lists of the most unexplained attacks. Music exams in which my fingers and breath failed me, refused regularity or consistency or control; a total of nine failed driving tests; the sight of my own leg animated without my own will – I am excused from completing that test because I am ‘not well’. Further back, being examined for ‘cycling proficiency’ aged ten on a second-hand bike, shaking and stuttering around a course to the sound of laughter and being too scared to eat the apple in rehearsals to play Snow White when I was four years old, fear of water, fear of dogs. The day in 1989 I saw a news item about global warming and cried all night.
Yesterday, reaching for a pencil, I swept the entire contents of a small table onto the floor: glass of water, box of coloured pencils, drawings I had made the day before. Sometimes, like this, everything is swimming up hill.
Symptoms, stains, scars: the marks of shaky verbs. Rhythm is the division of time and space into intervals.
When you can’t kid yourself that you’re in control you have to make sense of everything.
After a lifetime of imagining every possible worst-case scenario I have found it possible to develop this weird bravado, where, as all possible paths can be assumed difficult, I stop avoiding difficulty.
Consciousness is a fine balance: space is an illusion built on the limits of perception. The horizon shifts with perspective.
I knocked out a front tooth on the toilet seat aged two, abandoned ballet lessons, swimming lessons and the piano.
‘I just can’t form habits,’ I had liked to tell people. I had become used to avoiding activities that involve complex muscle memory, hand-eye coordination or gross motor skills.
But in both line and in narrative I found consolation. It might be that the limitations imposed by the abstraction of eye – hand – line – paper provided the possibility of at least temporary control over possibility. It might be that I could see my mistakes and return to them the way one can’t in performance situations where one must progress with linearity from start to finish. I draw hard to counteract the shaking of my hand. Because of my clumsiness I can see myself learning.
I make do with what I have.
Any line drawn across a sheet of paper can work as a horizon.
At art school I pursue formal study specifically in drawing at first and then I follow that line through text, textile, code, cybernetics, gesture, and performance. I learn that perspective is a made-up system, as are language and identity, and that made-up things can be real and that art has always functioned at least in part to constitute systems of control. The word ‘cybernetics’ was coined in the 1940s from the Greek word kybernetes or ‘steersman’.
I try to consciously play toward my own discomfort, confronting performance anxiety over and over and over again, not seeking mastery so much as to prove to myself that sufficient learning is possible. I feel a kinship with clowns, witches and the peripatetic.
There’s an amazing GIF of Charlie Chaplin on a tightrope with a balancing pole, monkeys on his shoulders, biting his nose, their tails in his mouth and his trousers round his ankles. It’s from the movie Circus, made in 1928. The scene shows him doing a fake tightrope act, which inadvertently becomes real in the story when the harness fails. It doesn’t matter whether the performance is or is not really real. Chaplin’s grace was legendary but it’s his open acknowledgement of fear and failure within the content and form of his performances, which gives that grace its power. ~
We try to find ways to learn how to learn and we experience a thousand tiny setbacks.
I play but I am not competitive. Either I don’t know what I want or what I want isn’t what is generally understood as success. It will not surprise the reader to learn that I have not yet become an art star although I do continue, when I can, to make art. I tell myself I am playing the long game.
I find paid work outside the art world, back in my comfort zone as a straight-A student. I don’t want to teach in school because I hate the curriculum so I work one on one with young people at home supporting their academic progress. I figure this way I am helping them deal with the curriculum rather than being implicated in imposing it on them. Many, though by no means all, of these students have been identified as having what are termed here in the UK, Specific Learning Difficulties; that is to say, dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism or ADHD. I learn to recognise the symptoms described and scored in educational psychologist reports and I can interpret them to my students in order to render these assessments as useful as possible. But my role,is to treat each student on an individual basis, not to worry too much about specific diagnoses, and to make use of the time to work with the student on their specific needs. Weirdly, art school tutorials prove an excellent preparation for such work.
Over time I start to pattern match across a wide range of symptoms. Talking with and observing students, I am constantly required to draw on my own experiences of education. That narrative now joins with theirs as I learn to help them learn. In discussing their apparent failures I draw on my own. Together we try to find ways to speak about difficulties with making sense and meaning. We try to find ways to learn how to learn and in order to do so we experience a thousand tiny setbacks. We do the work of ‘nothing seems to work’ and it is very often difficult and frustrating for the students, their parents and myself. My job is sometimes simply to witness the struggles of my employers and their children. I try to reassure them that the experiences of breach that they regard as their failures are part of the processes of learning and to do so without trivialising the pain and discomfort they feel.
The demographic that is able to pay for this type of assistance often struggles with the idea that struggle itself has a value in learning.
It’s not my ideal job but it’s the only thing funding my practice and I refuse to ignore either the problems or opportunities it presents.
Having learnt to recognise the traits clustered by educational psychologists as symptoms of learning difficulty I begin to have a sense of the ways in which I myself could be considered dyspraxic.
Error occurs at the threshold between the world and my imagination as they collide. Is my failure of rhythm a consequence of my anxiety or is my anxiety a consequence of my being out of step?
This feeling of holding on to too many things, arms full and unable to put anything down. The sting of stress chemicals in the back of the throat and blushing in anticipation of failure.
That feeling of nothing where familiarity should be, of watching limbs move uncontrolled and independent of will, a lack where will should be.
It’s a truism though, everyone quotes Beckett all the time (‘Try again. Fail again.’ etc) but good luck trying to actually work today as Beckett did. The only thing that grants you the ‘right’ to make mistakes is a willingness to face consequences and be changed by them. Those of us who do it anyway, who commit to our own faltering, we’re playing the clown lottery: our faithfulness to failure can far more easily rain down destruction on us than praise. Can I really be claiming my ineptitude as redemption? You know Charlie Chaplin was only pretending to be clumsy, right? Loser prestige is not the same as actually losing. I don’t want to exceptionalise my dys-praxis; I want to destroy our definition of mastery.
This essay was meant to be about rhythm, something I don’t feel like I have, but it was always also about harmony, that which they call the vertical principal of music, by which I mean it’s about movement in the world together (of which rhythm is only a part) and what that is also about is trust and risk and forgiveness. I didn’t understand this when I started.
I don’t want to exceptionalise my dys-praxis; I want to destroy our definition of mastery.
The possibility of failure isn’t equally available to everyone. For me to ‘be able’ to want to destroy mastery, that’s also a privilege. As it is for me to write ‘our definition of mastery’. When I say ‘dys-praxis’ what I mean is not the status gained from the performance of not caring about power (something only possible for those secure in having it) but what can actually be learned from the experience of error or powerlessness.
In the fall, the grace?
To imagine the possible you must experience limitation. To fall is to be reminded of gravity. This vulnerability is the greatest power.
Who was it who told me that if things keep breaking or falling or you find yourself knocking into things that it’s the universe reminding you to take the time to open up to it? Dys-praxis is the recognition that not all is known, that there are difficulties and discontinuities we must be receptive to. Dys-praxis is a kind of animism, a being-in-spirit-together: it’s transformative to be with these forces and materials. Tim Ingold calls it ‘the weather world’.
I can’t do away with bodies completely, can’t resist falling or can’t help it. And yet still also their lines of flight. The world happens to me.
My mother, a doctor, taught me that to be alive is to be always being hurt and healing. She has always encouraged me to draw. She taught me that my pain and wounds could be my lessons. I came to associate art with that kind of learning to live.
Against mastery: receptivity.
Fear can be a teacher if we do not fear failure itself, if we allow difficulty to be acknowledged and its role in learning to be honoured.
Intuition is the way through.
The best advice I was ever given about drawing is that sometimes it’s the part of a work that you are most pleased with that needs to be destroyed in order for the piece as a whole to work. ‘Kill your darlings,’ as they say. The man who told me this wore a badge every day, bearing the legend ‘give up art’. It was he who praised me for my drawings, for the way I had to fight for them, with them, to make them work; he who reached over my shoulder to point out abstract lines in the margins of my notes and told me that was where the good stuff was, though I didn’t have the courage then to use them or to ask for them to be recognised as my work. It was those whom I was hired to help with their maths homework, who would eventually allow me to do that.
How to shift from the past to the infinitive?
Occasionally, while a student is working, I draw or read to occupy myself, limiting the effect of my nervous energy so as not to disturb their concentration. These drawings are abstract, meditative and can be picked up and worked on without plan or goal in mind. They are neither illustrative nor representational. When I am drawing I don’t lose auditory awareness as I do when I am reading so I can maintain a wider peripheral attention and notice if the student needs help. If my hand shakes or I make a mark I feel to be in error I have to balance it with the rest of the composition, even if this means total transformation.
Students ask me about my drawings and I make a pact with myself to try to explain them honestly.
‘What are you drawing?’ they always ask eventually.
The only answer that ever makes sense is: ‘This.’
Subject becomes object becomes subject becomes object.
Experience of irregularity and quality cannot be quantified: the differential in the relationships between frequency and wavelength cause the movement of the eye around the edge of the colour-wheel. This is the final phase of Paul Klee’s teaching cycle, the desire to escape form and dimension, the fugitive function of colour.
The top spins, along its trajectory.
Defiance of gravity: vibration and the colour that results.
Astonishment is the force that makes you reel/real, to forget which way is up. To spin is to defy gravity. To disregard the stigma of falling is to abandon ego. Colour is the consequence of infinite movement.
Language and all forms of representation are and always will be insufficient for our needs and yet we use them both to classify and to escape classification.
The naming of colours is an inherently subjective process. There’s no way one can know for sure when reading or listening that the colour described is the same as that which is imagined in response. It’s not scientifically, philosophically or empirically possible to be sure. This is how, in English, the word pink was able to shift its meaning over time from the way a pigment is carried by a medium to the colour known previously as rose. To name a colour is not to fix it but to temporarily apprehend a certain quality. I recognise colour but it fades and fluctuates and it is affected by ambient light, surface texture, language, culture and emotion. Many colour names are drawn from materials, objects or places that they are associated with; others, like red, are abstractions.
Klee taught that colour, like all irreducible qualities, such as flavour or feeling, can only be learnt or mastered by experience. We have to become intimate with it, submit to it as substance, as process, as surface – to know it. Even digital colour technology requires an intuitive human eye to manage it: it can be quantified but it’s hard to automate. The colour management algorithm for the camera on my phone turns the red orange of firelight an alien blue but a red t-shirt under daylight remains unchanged.
I’m using the word ‘dyspraxia’ like this: my brain and the way it functions existed before I knew the term, the way the sky still existed for the ancient Greeks who had no word for blue. It doesn’t identify me any more than the word ‘anxiety’ does but it might allow me to be in the world with myself and with others more intimately, to discuss my relations with them. To do so is difficult but without that difficulty it would not be possible.
Language and all forms of representation are and always will be insufficient for our needs and yet we use them both to classify and to escape classification; they limit us and in so doing render the possible. We have to constantly destroy them and ourselves in order to construct the real. To describe this process in purely positive terms, to insist on describing things in terms of their quantifiable successes, is to render invisible the discontinuous, ruptured experience that comprises the world and its teachings. In having tried here to recognise dys-praxis, it has been my intention to honour that teaching.