Banner image: courtesy of Victoria Gray. Image description: Screenshot from Victoria's performance film showing the ridge of her spine while bent forward, clothed in a plain linen shirt. Only the top of her back and her shoulders are visible.

Watch Welter now

Late last year, we supported artist Victoria Gray with the premiere of her latest performance artwork, 'Welter.' Richard James Hall experienced this performance through the Shape website and felt a strong reaction. Read on to find out why...

Welter (2021) made by artist Victoria Gray in collaboration with Sam Williams is one of the most important pieces of performance artwork in relation to autistic perception, presentation, and performance that I have seen.

As an autistic performance artist myself, Welter touches on something that I have personally found difficult to convey in any clear form or with any clarity in written text, spoken language, or even performance itself.

Neurodivergent individuals, and indeed collectives, constantly have to process and negotiate with the world around us, regulating ourselves according to how we have learnt or been taught to deal with the various sensory encounters that can overwhelm us. 

Our subsequent behaviours of self-regulation, such as stimming, are often viewed by neurotypical onlookers as ‘quirks,’ strange, or even offensive behaviour, disruptive of the usual and anticipated daily interactions expected of people. We are judged by our behavioural patterns, which can lead to interrogation, mockery, and even physical confrontation.

The very act of behaving in such a manner and encountering its consequences means many neurodivergent people are forced to self-moderate, to mask in order to protect ourselves from harm. By performing in a way that is more likely to be perceived and engaged with well by others, we must mask our real selves with a façade, the labour of which can add to the mental and physical exhaustion of interactions taking place on neurotypical terms.

To attempt to explain what is happening within ourselves as neurodivergent people in these situations through the frames of language – be it written or spoken – is something I have often found challenging. We lack the necessary words to convey succinctly the experience. Without the tools, or the space to develop them, neurodivergent people often find themselves operating within neurotypical parameters, measuring their experiences using a system that was never designed with them in mind.

In contrast to this experience, Victoria Gray has delve straight into the heart of this ambiguity in Welter, allowing the work space to exist without committing to a thorough or convenient explanation of itself, or at least not an explanation that can be understood entirely linguistically. Welter speaks to its audience through more: through movement, sound, embodiment. It speaks in a way more familiar to many neurodivergent people.

Presented as a performance-to-video, Welter frames Victoria in a manner that attempts to make the artist’s own body into a human form that is both definable by some obvious indicators and yet also hides away the elements that make it identifiable as the artist herself. The lack of strong lighting as well as the dull colours of the performance setting provide the viewer with no real distinctions while implying that the content is perhaps something preferably handled in the dark, not brought out into the light of day. 

Though the frame centres Victoria’s upper torso, we do not see her face or her features. Rather, we see the body hunched forward, wearing an uncomfortable looking top of natural fibres, the neck bent forward so as to reveal protruding vertebrae, the head bent so as to allow locks of dark hair to mask the performer’s face throughout the film. Victoria’s downward gaze, away from the eye of the camera, reminds me of my own difficulty maintaining eye contact and of the intensity which neurodivergent people often associate with it.

As the hands and arms reach out, holding position then embracing and flicking occasionally to the side, the body holding onto a state of tension in the hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and back, before its forced to release itself and this excess of energy, coinciding with growing banging sounds, the artist’s body meeting the surface on which it performs.

Throughout Welter, we witness an artist whose tension, movement, and interaction with themselves, their space, and the camera highlights a reality in which some people process the various sensory encounters that we face through self-regulatory behaviour patterns. More than this, though, the work provides embodied understanding of neurodivergent experience. It’s more than insight, it is meaningful re-presentation of an experience that words alone cannot define.

Victoria Gray, with this new work, is helping to further shape the discourse of what it is to be autistic. Not only does Welter contribute a valuable and nuanced performance of experience, but it also opens possibilities for how such encounters are communicated, documented, and preserved in future.

Read our interview with Victoria Gray Find out more about the artist