Shape spoke to Nina Thomas and Anahita Harding to explore their artistic involvement in our second Tate Exchange programme Ghosts in the Machine with their interactive performance-installation titled We interrupt our disappearance at Tate Modern from 1 – 4 March.

Shape: Welcome Anahita and Nina! We are very pleased to have you both on board as artist-facilitators for our second Tate Exchange programme ‘Ghosts in the Machine’, taking place at Tate Modern from 1 to 4 March. Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and how your collaboration came about?

Nina: Hello… Well Anahita and I met while working on Shape’s disability heritage project NDACA. I was working on an idea for this project and Anahita had just returned to the UK. We always have great conversations about art, disability and politics and I felt a collaboration would further develop those conversations. I was really excited to see what would come out of working together so I asked Anahita if she would be interested in collaborating and thankfully she said yes.

Anahita: Nina was working on something already and kindly asked if I wanted to collaborate. Our practices are quite different in some ways, Nina is interested in installation and self-publishing, and I have a background in collage and performance, and like to work with fairly cheap materials. However we like to explore and research similar themes surrounding disability rights, and share an open-mindedness to adapting ideas and methods as we work.

What exactly can visitors to your interactive installation ‘We interrupt our disappearance’ expect and how will they be able to participate?

Nina: There will be different levels of participation. I have been developing an artist publication which viewers can interact with. This is inspired by the history of Martha’s Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts, where a high incidence of hereditary deafness on the island led to both hearing and deaf people using sign language to communicate with each other. This is the beginning of me making sense of my own deafness and my thoughts on that. We are both interested in collage and layering so we are also inviting people to get involved in the production of new collage work.

Anahita: There will be a variety of ways for visitors to interact with our installation – we’ll have a film, a publication, objects, and nine photo albums on display, where people will be able to touch objects when accompanied by a volunteer or member of staff, and can look through the albums on the tables. The publication is also there for visitors to look through. Attendees can watch and/or listen to the film, which has headphones provided, and there will also be a collage activity provided them to create work in response to the installation.

What was it about Ghosts in the Machine’s exploration of disability, inclusion, (in)visibility and contribution that led you to create We interrupt our disappearance, and what is the meaning behind the title?

Regarding the title - I was imagining that two people had disappeared and the impossibility of interrupting that process. You can’t disappear and also interrupt, can you? The strange and weird tension created between the ‘disappearing’ and the ‘interruption’ was fascinating to me. It also seemed to capture something of what is happening socio-politically, disabled people are very much here but are still not being seen or are overlooked. I was so outraged that some high-profile people were able to say some very offensive things recently about disabled people and for it to not really given the attention that I felt it deserved (outside the disabled community), particularly when contrasted with the strong reaction to other problematic and offensive comments made. What does that say about our society, that we can overlook this treatment of disabled people?

Anahita: To me the meaning of the title addresses our acknowledgement of the disappearance of disabled voices - this may be a literal disappearance, when speaking of topics such as eugenics, or may address topics such as the lack of disabled actors playing “disabled” roles in films for example.

Has your work with NDACA shaped an interest in shining a light on hidden stories, both in this project and further down the line?

Nina: It’s interesting that you use the word ‘hidden’. I have a particular interest in what is hidden, forgotten or overlooked. My deafness itself is hidden (you can’t see the loss), it's still very much there though and I find that sort of presence and absence, particularly in my own body, fascinating. With this project and with the NDACA archives, I am interested in how it is also often the case that museum archives have overlooked the contributions and experiences of disabled people, their voices are often hidden or suppressed. I find this very concerning but I also wonder if it's possible to have a response to our hiddenness that incorporates it in some way; that recognises we aren't always the loudest voice in the room but we are definitely here. That sort of work can only really happen though if barriers are removed and institutions welcome disabled people. These issues are incredibly complex and there is still so much work to be done.

Anahita: Before I worked with NDACA my knowledge of disabled artists from the UK was fairly limited. Through my involvement with Disabled People’s Organisations such as Transport for All, Sisters of Frida, and through my own personal experiences, I am all too aware of the invisible presence disabled people have in society. This may be through schooling (segregation between disabled and non-disabled children), events not being accessible, public transport not being accessible, and shops and work places not meeting the access requirements of disabled people. This inaccessibility can lead to division and misconceptions about disabled people which aren’t true.

So I thought about disabled artists not only being relatively invisible in the “mainstream” art world, but disabled people in general being mostly invisible in the world on a wider scale.

NDACA made me question the category of “disabled artist”, and what it meant (and means) to be a disabled artist.

Lastly, what would you say is the value of arts institutions working to consciously amplify marginalised voices and give a platform to culture and heritage that would otherwise be hidden and buried?

Nina: I was recently involved in the History of Place project about St. Saviours Deaf Church in Acton which is now part of an exhibition at the V&A. The church was designed for deaf people and so was intended to be accessible and welcoming. The isolation and exclusion I experience as deaf person on a daily basis makes these stories of inclusion and belonging important to me. I worry in a way that I am nostalgic for something that eludes me now, which is to say that I rarely feel welcome in most cultural and heritage events and space in the way I did before I lost my hearing, due to lack of access such as captioning, loop systems etc.

The stories of places and worlds like St Saviours and Martha’s Vineyard, where barriers are removed, and people can just get on with being themselves, without feeling disabled or excluded needs more attention because those stories remind us what we can achieve.

Anahita: I think there is a great value in this, and that it should be happening even more. Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition (2017) is a good example of consciously amplifying marginalised voices, and future exhibitions for other marginalised voices would be extremely valuable I think. However I don’t think that this should be the end result – to have special exhibitions for marginalised voices – but it is a good stepping stone for “marginalised” artists to become equally respected by viewers, curators, collectors etc. as much as “mainstream” artists.

Many thanks to you both!

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.

We interrupt our disappearance at Ghosts in the Machine is open to the public every day from 1 to 4 March – drop in any time from 12 to 6pm.

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