Shape speaks to artist Jason Wilsher-Mills about his involvement in our second Tate Exchange programme Ghosts in the Machine, at Tate Modern from 1 to 4 March, where he’ll be leading two free digital drawing workshops and where you’ll also find his interactive sculpture Brave Boy Billy on display.

Welcome Jason! We are very pleased to have you on board as an artist-facilitator for our second Tate Exchange programme Ghosts in the Machine, taking place at Tate Modern from 1 to 4 March. What have you been working on recently?

Thank you. I am very excited about this ‘adventure’ at Tate Modern. Recently I have completed Artlink Hull’s Square Peg programme where I took part in an eight month residency, as part of Hull City of Culture 2017. I worked with the diversity and disability community in Hull and I was able to apply my ‘manifesto’ in terms of my artistic practice and vision, with me being able to give a voice to those in the community who do not have one; making art which tells their stories. 

The residency, in which I was able to make art influenced by these stories, resulted in an exhibition which runs until Friday 6 April at Artlink Hull.

I have also just commenced my most ambitious project to date, with the Arts Council England funded ‘Corby Totems’ project, in which I am working with learning disabled adults throughout Northamptonshire. The project will see me create 2 fully interactive sculptures, which will utilise traditional sculpture making techniques with augmented reality technology, so the sculptures will not only be beautiful to look at, but they will interact with the viewer in a completely new way. I am also making a documentary film about this project, which will be premiered in Corby, and commissioning new music, so the sculptures will be able to sing.

Your interactive sculpture Brave Boy Billy will be on display at Ghosts in the Machine. What’s Brave Boy Billy’s story, and how will visitors be able to participate and engage with it?

‘Brave Boy Billy’ was commissioned by the Global Disability Innovation Hub Summit, and was created in conjunction with young disabled people in East London. Again the piece of art was designed to tell the hidden stories and give a voice to disabled people. The viewer can access Billy's augmented reality animations, artwork and audio, through 5 triggers which are placed on the surface of Billy’s body, which look like badges. The viewer can either download the Jason Wilsher-Mills app, or use one of the Samsung tablets supplied, so they can fully interact with the artwork. This is a fully immersive experience and the viewer will see chromosomal butterflies, wheelchair rugby players, horses galloping around, along with the powerful testimonies of the young people who work with me on this sculpture.

In 2015, you created a powerful 15ft iPad painting banner – now held in Shape’s art collection – entitled 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which will also be on display. Those who find themselves inspired by the banner and interested in the technology behind it will be able to attend your digital drawing workshops on 3 March and learn the skills to create their own digital drawings and paintings. What exactly will you be teaching attendees and what can they expect?

I will be providing the participants with the same tools which I employ in my own artistic practice. Every participant will be able to use an iPad, along with an app that I employed to create the banner with. This will enable them to make their own particular piece of art, which will reflect their own biographical narratives, much as I have done with the Disability Discrimination Act banner. The workshops will be a lively exchange of ideas, with the participants being able to create art very quickly. By the end of the session they will be amazed by what they have produced. That’s a promise!

Can you tell us what, for you, is the significance of Shape’s Ghosts in the Machine programme as a whole, and its aims of challenging and exploring assumptions about the role of disabled people in art?

I am incredibly honoured and excited to be invited to take part in this event. I see it as a culmination of a long-standing relationship with Shape Arts, who have supported me since I made the first tentative steps as a disabled artist, nearly ten years ago. Without Shape, I would not have been able to realise many of my ambitions as an artist.

The Ghosts in the Machine idea is something I subscribe to in my own practice, in that I try to give a voice to those who do not have one, to tell the hidden stories of the disabled communities, whilst also unlocking new narratives in my own biography. I am incredibly excited to be involved, as is Billy!

Lastly, what sort of impact are you keen to see Ghosts in the Machine’s presence at Tate Modern having on the wider cultural landscape and the approaches of other arts organisations and institutions?

I believe very strongly that disabled artists should be shown at ‘mainstream’ and ‘high profile’ galleries, such as Tate; only through doing this can we, as disabled artists, challenge the many misconceptions about disabled artists and the art that they make. It should not be perceived as a ‘brave move’ to show the work of disabled artists at Tate, but rather a natural progression, which is only the start of further opportunities.

I often say that I know things have changed when I describe myself as an artist, and not having to use the prefix of disabled. I am proud to be disabled, but my wish is to be judged by the quality of the art I make.

Thank you Jason!  

Ghosts in the Machine will take place from 1 to 4 March at Tate Modern, from 12 to 6pm daily. It is free to attend, suitable for all ages, and is fully wheelchair accessible and BSL interpreted.

Jason Wilsher-Mills’ digital drawing workshops at Ghosts in the Machine will take place on Saturday 3 March from 12.30 to 2pm and from 2.30 to 4pm; booking is not necessary, however places will be allocated on the day on a first-come, first-served basis.

Brave Boy Billy will be on display on each day of the event.

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Banner image: Commissioned piece by Jason Wilsher-Mills for the Ilham exhibition in Qatar