Interactive Art piece (cd-rom) from 2001-2002 about growing up on the Autism Spectrum and struggling with Gender Identity.
(Flash plug-in required.)
From April 12th 2001 through April 12th 2002, I conceived a digital memory documenting the year spanning my 20s. The artistic challenge was to document daily life, even in its dullest moments, and to find meaning in the passage of time. I captured the essence of being human: emotions, feelings, thoughts. Incidentally, I documented my experience growing up on the Autism Spectrum and some of its adverse aspects: boredom, depression, anxiety, loneliness.
This artistic exercise was a personal quest for identity and meaning. Although I created it when I was 20, I felt like a teenager, always feeling socially and emotionally "slow". At the time, I didn't know I was on the Autism Spectrum as, like many, I only got my diagnosis in adulthood at 32.
This piece is also a direct result my dropping out of high school from years of being bullied. I wanted to find my own path and start something meaningful. In the end, this digital memory was as much a therapy than a rehabilitation exercise.
In retrospect, this piece is about the struggles of growing up on the Autism Spectrum, the difficulties of having a social and familial life, the desire to reach out but lacking the means to connect, and life with Gender Dysphoria.
Why Relaunch 17 Years Later?
Even though it has been shown at museums and galleries, the full piece (1.60 Gb of Flash files, containing more than 60 000 pictures) has never been available online due to the web hosting limitations at the time. Only 30 days were ever published online.
This relaunch is meant to bring awareness to Autism, as there are not many films, documentaries, or art pieces about Autism that are being told or created by an Autistic person.
This piece’s purpose was to reach out, much like a message bottle thrown in the dark virtual sea. I was hoping for connections and threw all my energy into it. I did manage to reach some people at the time. But I hope I’ll be able to reach even more now, may that be people on the Autism Spectrum, victims of bullying, or people struggling with Gender Identity.
It was meant as a personal lifeline, but I hope, now, it can be a lifeline for someone else.
At the time I thought of this project as a human translation device that would allow me to be able to connect with people and be understood. I was not much of a verbal person then, being borderline mute, and I thought pictures would be a better medium to truly express my raw feeling and emotions.
I thought Art was the perfect way to go about it. Being an artist was the only role I could play that allowed me to fit into society, as by definition, artists are people who feel too much. The artist’s whole life and work is about expressing themselves, struggling with norms and commenting on their contemporary society.
Unknowingly growing up on the Autism Spectrum, I had that feeling of constant weirdness, of being a perpetual outsider. I would often end up camouflaging myself, which was emotionally taxing, in order to “function” properly in society, the real world outside my mind.
This piece was a sort of virtual intimacy, with myself and anyone willing to pay attention. I didn’t camouflage myself then, instead, I tried to be as true as I could be. Not embellishing anything, not pretending, not becoming a fiction either.
It was a place where I could discharge all my raw human emotions, look at my reflected self, and perhaps see a real offered hand breaking through the virtual portal, at the end.
Stranger in a Strange Land
I always felt out of place, not belonging, like an Alien or Android, as they are often portrayed as being weird and lacking "humanity", but only because they experience life differently and can't properly engage with regular human beings or operate well in society. I’ve felt that I was a human fraud, not feeling properly, not acting properly... not "being" properly.
But of course, Autistic people do not lack humanity nor empathy. We actually feel too much, and it's truly painful. We cannot control our empathic responses well and have to deal with a constant sensory overload that takes all our processing power and energy. We notice patterns and details that seem to go unnoticed by others, and we obsess over making sense out of everything. We are also harshly judged by society, labeled as less than human and categorized as simply “functioning”.
We are not broken humans. If anything, we are actually closer to the popular depiction of Super Heroes. Many of popular culture’s favorite heroes suffer hyper senses, and they similarly have a hard time fitting in society without camouflaging themselves and their powers. They also experience difficulties having relationships and their narratives revolve around their struggle living a “normal” life.
Back in the 2000 era, I was very much obsessed with cinema, especially the works of Kubrick and Lynch; their influence is perhaps quite visible in the diary itself. I also viewed this project as a sort of living cinematic piece, with a non-linear narration (as the viewer can choose to explore pages at random, no linear viewing is imposed).
One occurrence of Autism is called scripting, when a person communicates through reciting lines from movies, songs, or even commercials, in an attempt to deliver a response that we consider appropriate given a certain context, or simply using those lines as a mask to express ourselves with. I did quite a bit of visual scripting in the diary, by taking pictures of certain subtitles, in French, and trying to pierce through them.
I used to ponder that life may just be a fiction — nowadays, I would say it might be a simulation — and that one could write their own life-fiction and take control over the strangeness of life itself.
When I finally got my diagnosis in 2013 (at 32) while living in the USA, it was like opening a box that revealed all the secrets of life. Everything, at last, made sense! From my weird behaviors, high painful senses, strange interests, gender confusion, to the emotional and social drain. Everything clicked into place.
I was not a “difficult person” just quite misunderstood and mislabeled by regular people who would never offer an inclusive space for people like me.
This was a life-changing event as I understood that I was not such a lone freak after all; I slowly stopped hating and judging myself so harshly and finally allowed myself to be who I I am, not trying anymore to desperately fit in a society that would always exclude me, despite my good efforts.
My diagnosis gave me the freedom and strength to be myself and finally be happy. I felt less pressured to fit within the norms of society.
I’m now a successful artist and entrepreneur, mainly thanks to my past Kickstarter projects. The support of my backers lead me to create a company with partners who believe in me and my ideas. And I’ve been able to move to Japan in 2017, a long-time dream of mine.
95% of people in my life never believed I would ever accomplish any of my ambitions: being an artist, getting signed by a gallery, moving to the USA, getting an Artist VISA, becoming fluent in English, getting my first KS project funded, creating my own company, moving to Japan.
But once Autistic people set their mind to do something, it’s not mere daydreaming; they will eventually make it happen. Because if we formulate a desire, that means we spent an immense amount of time thinking it over and how to make it happen. What we often lack is self-esteem and the means to navigate society. Most of us have been excluded and bullied for most of our lives, so it’s time for a more inclusive society, one that embraces different minds instead of rejecting them. We don’t need to be told what to do. We need acceptance. Encouragement.
If we were emotionally supported and fully included in society, there is no limit to what an Autistic mind might accomplish.
Gender Dysphoria & Gender Identity
This piece also illustrates the Gender Dysphoria I experienced since I was a kid, which is related to my Autism, as we tend to not adhere to the binary concept of gender.
I grew up a tomboy, with "male" interests. I liked car toys, trains, and any sort of machinery really. I liked taking things apart and trying to understand how everything worked. I liked technology, computers, and video games. In retrospect, those were all pretty common Autistic traits, but at the time, it was just being a tomboy. And of course, girls are expected to grow out of this “phase”...
My personal interests, demeanor, and fashion as well as short hair, meant that I would be labeled as a boy by strangers and by all the girls at my elementary school. I was confused by the two gender labels I was given at home and at school, the gender roles in general, and my biology. It all very puzzling, as I didn’t seem to fit properly in any gender. And those were very binary in the 80s.
Girls actually prohibited me access to the bathroom as they did not consider me to share the same gender (or genitals?) as them. I had to wait for the end of recess to sneak in or otherwise brave the stares, comments, and occasional shoving. My school was aware of this personal bathroom ban and did nothing to resolve it. I was told there was no real issue, no-one actually prohibited me anything and if I was too shy to use the bathroom, I should just wait until I returned home, which added to my exclusion and personal confusion.
Growing up and having to accept the biology of a female body was extremely difficult for me. But the discomfort came from the gazes of others rather than my own. The constant reminder of my biology by others became painful, and it meant I could only do certain things and act certain ways.
In the diary, I included a lot of shots of my female body as an attempt to accept this body of mine. In this pre-social media era, I know many have interpreted those shots as exhibitionism or narcissism, but in reality, I only tried to illustrate my painful struggle to accept my female body. As I would take pictures of my face in an attempt to capture my inner turmoil and reflect my true self, I would also take pictures of my physical form to learn to inhabit it and perhaps even love it.
At that time, I was still thinking of the possibility of transitioning, and it’s documented in the diary, in subtle ways. But I never wanted to be male any more than I wanted to be female. I only ever identified as a boy when I was a kid because the majority put me there. My discomfort was more about the visible female attributes that people would use to categorize me and reduce me to.
I fantasized for decades of getting a breast reduction operation so I'd be more Androgynous, to never be openly sexualized again and become someone beyond genders.
"Artist Without Sexual Identity"
During this project and after a meaningful meeting with a photographer who would pass on a few months later, my first artistic persona came into existence.
I really didn't understand how my biological attributes could matter in the Art field, as I had that silly notion that it was supposed to be a more open and accepting world. I was merely a human being trying to create and express the human condition. So, I came up with the artist name of Jimmy Owenns and the tagline "artist without sexual identity".
This, of course, was often misunderstood as people would assume it meant I was gay. I could not fathom how people would still try to put a label on me when I was so explicitly refusing any.
Even journalists — often men — would be baffled by my choice of a "male" artistic name and would not respect my choice. They would make a point to clarify that I was female and promptly divulge my legal name, which frankly, is an affront on so many levels. I do not believe they would ever do that to a male artist.
I did not want to be male nor did I want to be female, but my legal first and middle names are quite feminine and I could never identify with them. So my choice of a "male" sounding name was more a way to balance it all and somehow rebel against my legal female identity.
Does Not Compute
This piece was really made from a raw desire to communicate and find some fulfillment in (daily) life. I created it in hopes to reach out, may that be strangers from the web or the people I knew IRL. It was always a statement of life, in the way that I felt a need to prove myself that I was real, even if I felt strange and out of place.
The internet was a life-changing tool for me and I believe many Autistic people from my generation might feel the same. It opened the communication channel that I was missing in my life. And in a world that would often not make much sense, computers always did.
As I mentioned before, I was not very verbal and had a hard time communicating in French, my native language. During this project, I started expressing myself in English, and even though my English was very broken, it felt more adequate, probably because of my personal heroes, and it seemed to be the official language of this new virtual world.
But the main tool of communication was always the pictures, the short sequences of them like silent movies. I felt like the correct way to translate my “self” and compute my human experience through the machine and into the real world.
Version 2.0 VS 3.7
I've always had this notion of the "self" being an organic software of sorts, each year bringing a new iteration, hopefully an improved one that would address previous bugs and increase any successful routines.
When I experience the diary, 17 years later, I cannot help but feel a kinship to the Androids from “WestWorld”. This piece is the journey to my own maze, to find meaning. This outdated version of myself is like a confused AI looking for a sense of self, for an identity, questioning itself, its feelings, purpose and life itself.
The accumulation of data and the creation of a digital memory database, became the path towards finding an identity and reaching self-awareness. Collecting visual input and organizing data in order to make sense of life and time, asking simple yet fundamental questions: Am I alive? Do I exist? Am I real?
I’ve always identified with AI and Androids in SF works because they seemed closer to someone on the Autism Spectrum. To the core, we share the same notions and terminology: sensory input, being more or less “functional”, process, sensory/information overload, routines, pattern recognition, shut downs, scripting, misreading cues or situations, high focus, and intense drive for knowledge and comprehension.
Without my Autism diagnosis, I'm afraid I would still feel much like I felt in 2001, stuck and lost, within the constructs of society, its human/norm standards, and even within my own body. Perhaps like an AI stuck in its own virtual construct, a mammal Android struggling within an organic simulation.