As part of Lisette Auton’s Guest Editorship, emerging North East blogger, photographer and creative activist Steph Robson interviews paper cutter, drag king, performer and practitioner Lady Kitt about their creative activism, with advice for other Northern disabled artists trying to find their way as a practitioner.
When directing the anger and frustration that my disability presents daily through my photographic exhibition You’re Just Little, I was unaware that I was about to embark on a journey that would not only see my work engage and give a voice to the Dwarf community but also catapulted me into the world of creative activism that this lass from the North East didn’t know existed.
As an emerging artist and creative activist, it feels like there is a whole new world to learn about and engage with. So when the opportunity to interview Newcastle-based Lady Kitt landed in my inbox, I was intrigued and delighted to learn more about the person whose work is influenced by an intersection of feminism, disability and queer identities.
Lady Kitt is known as a paper cutter, drag king, and as a performer and practitioner who advocates “mess making as social glue as a creative and social tool.” What is this? How, as an emerging artist, can this concept be used to influence our practice?
Lady Kitt says:
“I came up with “mess making as social glue” – the idea that making a mess can be this fantastic creative and social tool. It’s been a long process to develop the idea.
To me social glue means the things people do that bind us together, make us cooperate, develop understanding, help us create supportive projects and structures. It can be eating and cooking together, making art together, making decisions together, creating, and importantly, clearing up mess together.
The power of mess as a way of bringing people together and encouraging cooperation, slowly dawned on me. Initially mess (physical, emotional, conceptual, social) was something I found very complicated and compromising.
I was worried about mess in my projects. I was concerned that it was undesirable, a distraction, a failure even. Lots of things fed into me changing my approach. I guess most notably working with an amazing artist and campaigner Aly Smith, who taught me loads of brilliant stuff, but especially that embracing things not going to plan (and things being messy) can be a beautiful, creative, galvanising act. I think I can safely say I’ve been a hardcore mess enthusiast for about three years.
I think most artists do use it to some extent although maybe don’t call it social glue. I feel that a lot of what art is best at incorporates this idea of social glue, so I guess the first bit of using it is… acknowledging it when it happens. Then trying to understand the role it plays in a practice or setting, or individual artwork.”
Social art is rewarding and impactful, though Lady Kitt is honest about the negative aspects of the work and is developing the Social Practice 1st Aid Kitt that came about from a very difficult experience on a social art project where they didn’t have much support. The experience nearly led to a complete emotional and physical breakdown and questioning their continued involvement in social arts. From speaking to many other practitioners who have also had similar experiences, Lady Kitt coined the phrase the ‘Mess Fatigue’:
“Mess Fatigue” (MessF) is a phrase I use to describe tiredness, sometimes sadness, often frustration, nearly always a seemingly overwhelming amount of physical organising and emotional processing, which a socially engaged project can generate.”
Lady Kitt hopes the framework will support practitioners primarily but also, commissioners, funders and participants to create and be involved in projects, which are built on a deeper understanding of what social art practice is and can be:
“…the joys, the wonders and the complexities. Projects that have support, flexibility and time for reflection built into them from the start and have aims, which reflect and celebrate the mess!”
Aptly, one of the words that I keep hearing as an emerging artist from the North, is the need to build resilience. Lady Kitt agrees:
“I think developing resilience is vital for activists (and artists – everyone really!). Activism is one of the most exciting, energising things I’ve been involved in. When stuff is going well, the sense of community and sense of achievement is wonderful – it can feel like involvement provides it’s own perfect endless-symbiotic-energy-exchange-ecosystem. But it’s not always like that”
So what advice would Lady Kitt give to those of us at the beginning of our creative activist journeys? While knowing your goals and finding your tribe are an obvious a must, it’s Kitt’s wisdom of knowing when to take a break, giving yourself “wriggle room” and to “…also take time to develop your creativity in ways that are not directly / explicitly related to your activism,” that are particularly helpful.
I also wondered how, as practitioners, can we be a catalyst for people to accept and acknowledge their identities and of those around them:
“I feel like this is probably less to do with individual creative output and more to do with being an active, visible part of support networks and venues/ events where people can just be their own authentic, awesome selves.
I think the most important thing everyone can do, is work towards having less assumptions about other peoples experiences and abilities. Creative practitioners can reflect this by developing work that engages with a variety of perspectives and keeps checking that work/ events/ opportunities are accessible to a wide variety of people.”
Over the last two years, Lady Kitt has been working on a project called WORTH which is about celebrating pioneering women and non-binary people. Personally, it’s using the experience of having Alopecia and turning it into art with the Plenty Up Top Gallery where I can see parallels with my own practice of using disability to challenge social attitudes and negative behaviour. How would Lady Kitt like to see or encourage other disabled people to do this:
“Well really in any way people feel they want to! Encouraging people to understand/ challenge their own behaviour is a very complex social, emotional undertaking. I would like to see creative activists sharing their ideas and experiences of working in this way.
I like humour, a bit of mischief, enthusiasm, visually absurd or unexpected things, so for me, anything that includes some of that is always attractive. In my work I like to confound people to some extent, I think there’s something verging on magical about creating a situation that simultaneously confuses and beguiles someone. I find very beautiful, useful things can come from that combination.
For anyone wanting to explore these ways of working, the main things I would say are:
– Be safe (talk to other artist and activists about how to look after your own physical and emotional well-being when making challenging work.)
– Listen to people whose behaviours/ attitudes you find challenging.
– Be authentic. Being open and honest about who you are and how you feel is transformative and inspiring.
I think avoiding self-caricature is essential. It’s hard, it’s really bloody hard – showing a multi-faceted version of yourself is exhausting and complex and exposing. But condensing people to a simple narrative is such a potent, dreadful aspect of ‘othering’. A simple outline is easy for people to digest, but I think it’s counterproductive.”
And what’s their one last piece of advice for us emerging artists in the North East …
“Be kind. Be interested in and supportive of other people. Work hard. Find your tribe – locally, nationally, internationally. Love the absolute fuck out of yourself – I don’t mean be an egotistical so and so, that’s not going to help anyone. But know and respect yourself, know the stuff that you struggle with, embrace it, find people who can help. Know your worth. Don’t forget to rest and to have fun.”
Learning about Lady Kitt’s work has enabled me to realise that intersecting identities can inform work and practice. It’s not an either/ or. That mess making is an essential part of social art. And, on top of all this amazing wisdom shared – to have fun! Mostly it shows that there are relatable role models in the North East paving the way in creative activism.