Shape Artist Jon Adams considers himself to be an outsider artist. Influenced by both his Asperger’s Syndrome and his synaesthesia, his work explores sense and sensitivity, and questions what the term ‘normal’ really means.

Over the years Jon has experimented with a wide variety of artistic mediums including photography, video, sound recording, visual imagery, 3D installations, sculpture and illustration. He has recently begun to experiment in performance art, introducing his piece ‘Games with the Waterhorse’ at the Venice Agendas earlier this month. He tells Shape about his latest work, touching sounds, and seeing the world in a whole other light.

Your latest piece is called ‘Games with the Waterhorse’, why such an abstract title?

Waterhorses are elements of myth, known by other names such as Kelpie or Hippocampus. They are creatures that come out of the water in a guise and then lure you in and drown you. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the region of the brain where the PTSD is located is called the hippocampus. I interweaved these two concepts to attempt to explain what PTSD feels like; something coming to get you and drown you.

Another reason is because autistic people are naturally drawn to turbulent water and drowning is the number one killer of autistic children in the United States. Water holds very deep attraction for us, but is also very dangerous. So there are a few reasons for this title.
Jon Adams during 'Games with the Waterhorse'

How does your synaesthesia inform your work?

Because it’s something I’ve had since birth it runs alongside my Asperger’s, and both effect my cognition and how I see the world. I see it very differently to everyone else. It influences the way I work, but it also influences me as a person. It’s a very intimate part of me.

How did it advise your performance in Venice?

My synaesthesia informed my Venice Agendas performance in many ways. Firstly, I knew as soon as I walked in the room where I was going to put the stuff; it’s like a sixth sense. I can taste the room, I can touch the room, I know where I’d like to be. I wanted to sandwich myself in the v of a wall, so it would appear I was backed into a corner, as this feeling is another aspect of PTSD. Another way my synaethesia influences me is that I’m a savant with time. Anything to do with time is really natural for me and this performance was about reading minutes. I condensed days into 60 minutes, and those days might be multiple days and happening across different time periods.

Do you believe your synaesthesia makes you more creative?

Yes, definitely. Because I can touch sound I can make music in the same way sculptors make art. I have been able to do a few good things because of my condition. Last year I worked with Sir Peter Brook on the ‘Valley of Astonishment’ purely because synathesia gives me an innate memory ability and the play was about exploring the connection between synaesthesia and memory. Working with Peter Brook was one of the birthing points of writing ‘Games with the Waterhorse’, as he encouraged me to do it. 

Do the audience enjoy seeing the world through your eyes?

To me it’s boring. It’s my normality and I can’t see why anybody else would be interested in it. It was only recently I realised that it’s not normal to go into the Tate Modern and hear seagulls like I do. This is why when I made my piece of work there I played the sound of seagulls, so other people would experience what I do.
Installation of hanging minutes used in 'Games with the Waterhorse'

Are you as interested in ‘normal’ people as they are in you?

In some ways I am. Until you discover you have synaesthesia and it’s described to you, you assume everyone sees things the way you do. Just like you can’t imagine my world where I can touch time and feel it, I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to do that. On very rare occasions I wish I didn’t have synaesthesia, and that’s when it interacts with my PTSD. But 99% of me would never want to lose it, which could actually happen as the condition changes throughout a person’s lifetime.

Tell us about your Venice performance in more detail.

The performance happens in 2 parts. In the first half I read the minutes, and the minutes are from 2 o’clock onwards. I ask people in the audience to pay special attention to any particular time they would like to hear more about, and then in the second half I describe the selected moments in more depth. The whole thing is a memory journey. Because of my dyslexia I can’t remember streams of words, but I can tell it as a story. I hope to develop this concept further.

How does performance fit in with the rest of your practice so far?

It’s quite different and was commissioned under the theme of Crossing Boundaries. I’m an outsider artist, I’ve never been taught, and I’ve branched into all sorts of work. For me the Venice Agendas was another step on a journey in expanding my portfolio. Reading the performance was difficult because of my dyslexia, so I was challenging myself to cross a boundary. And I’m a visual artist moving into performance, so that's another boundary crossed. It’s about challenging myself to go outside my comfort zone, so this performance fits into my artistic journey rather than with my practice as a whole. 

What areas would you like to explore in the future?

I don’t know really. I’ve done writing, I’ve done poetry, I’ve done graphic art, I do video, drawing, street art, public art. Performance was one last river crossing. Now it’s time to weave the whole lot together into different opportunities.

For more information about Jon and his work click here. Or follow him on Twitter @@soundcube.

To learn more about Democracy Street, Jon's interactive project for the anniversary of the Magna Carta, click here.

Banner Image: 'Games with the Waterhorse' by Jon Adams
Other images in body text: Also 'Games with the Waterhorse' by Jon Adams