Thom and Angelmouse are a pair of artists who, among other things, make work about trains and towers personified as people. Thom Roberts is the country link train and the Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai. ‘I am the tallest building on this planet,’ says Thom, as we sit down to chat around the kitchen table at Studio A, a working studio space in Sydney that provides professional support for artists with intellectual disability.
‘But soon to be taken over by me!’ Hysterical laughter follows this interjection by Angelmouse, otherwise known as Harriet Body, who is the yet-to-be-completed Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia and the red rattler train. We look out over Crows Nest’s mini cityscape of medium-rise towers and begin to piece together the story of the fast friendship and fantastic collaboration that these two have shared over the past four years.
Thom and Angelmouse clearly have a ball together. They are constantly joking and laughing. They vibe off each other, following oblique tangents and reminiscing about the good times they have had. Angelmouse does play the role of gatekeeper and facilitator. In the first instance, she explains to Thom why I’m there and makes sure he is OK with that. Occasionally she rephrases a question or poses new ones that might make it easier for Thom to participate. She does the majority of the talking, but Thom is an active presence – making jokes, interjecting with affirmations or new directions, touching the crown of our heads with the palm of his hand, drawing over multiple photocopied images of a face that are on the table in front of us, showing me pictures and directing us to particular works they have made together.
Their latest digital collage, Best Friends Going Through a Tunnel (2018), seems the natural place to start. They made this work for a show Angelmouse is curating called Paired, inspired by her relationship with Thom, which will feature eight collaborations between artists with different cognitive abilities. It’s a fitting visualisation of their friendship in a show about the different kinds of relationships that artists with and without disabilities have formed through the process of art making. It features a patchwork of references to their relationship.
There’s Bert and Ernie – ‘Thom’s Bert and I’m Ernie.’ There’s them as small children – not actually their pictures, but imagining that they have been best friends since they were babies. And there’s their faces as trains hurtling down tunnels, becoming further and further away with every repeated photocopy – a technique that builds upon Thom’s love of the photocopier, and Angelmouse’s skills with a camera; ‘sitting there just in the groove of printing and photographing and printing and photographing …’
Part of the magic of these artists’ work lies in the process of just being together in the studio, having a chat, telling some stories, eating spaghetti bolognese for lunch. In fact, it seems Angelmouse’s spag bol is so fantastic that it inspires Thom to perform an impromptu spoken word poem about it, beginning with ‘Number One: Bang the spag bol in front of you,’ all the way to ‘Seven: Wrap it around your fork and finally, slurp it in your mouth.’ Thom is clearly a great storyteller, and Angelmouse is finely attuned to Thom’s language, to the things he does and doesn’t say. As she explains, ‘our work is kind of about us accessing each other’s worlds. Or at least me accessing Thom’s world …’
In that sense, it seems as though Angelmouse sees herself primarily in the role of facilitator or producer within their collaboration. For instance, one of the first things Angelmouse tells me is that ‘we create work mostly in Thom’s vision’. This involves exploring Thom’s world by his side and with him, uncovering new ways of expressing these experiences through their work. Yet the exchange goes deeper than that. As an observer, of both their relationship and their work together, I feel like I am glimpsing two people try to make sense of each other in an ongoing sharing of ideas, stories and ways of making.
The installation they made together for The Big Anxiety Festival in 2017, Rush Hour at Cloud Heaven, is a great example of how the process of making the work involved a lot of sharing from both sides. The multimedia installation brings Thom’s vision of trains as people and people as trains together with a more tangible account of Thom travelling around on Sydney trains on a day that was particularly important in his life. In the process of making the work, Angelmouse remembers, ‘we did a lot of riding on the trains together, and I told Thom how I get anxious on the trains – I hate crowded trains! He was really interested in that. We were sharing our anxieties, and stories about trains …’
Thom began to tell his story about travelling back and forth across Sydney to avoid going to a job that he didn’t enjoy. Eventually, he was fired from his job for arriving late. ‘That was a blessing in disguise,’ says Angelmouse. If he hadn’t been fired, he might not have ended up joining Studio Artes, where he was able to pursue his creative practice in full force.
The pair experimented with different ways of telling that story, incorporating some of the methods they had used in previous work together. For instance, as in many of their video animations, text-to-speech and subtitles were used in a way that turned ‘accessibility’ into part of the art form. Thom’s drawings of faces expressing different emotions were also integrated throughout the work. Angelmouse was really interested in the part of Thom’s individual practice that involves drawing these different faces on the backs of photocopies of pictures of the same human head, which he would then cello-tape or scrunch up into balls. Building off discussions about this, Thom and Angelmouse have played around a lot with representing emotional states, including photographing themselves making all kinds of facial expressions. These appear throughout their collaborations.
Perhaps, Angelmouse suggests as we talk about this part of their work together, Thom’s fascination with facial expressions is related to being shown emotion flashcards at school, a practice linked to the controversial theory that people with autism are ‘mind-blind’ or lack a Theory of Mind; in other words, that trouble attributing mental states to other people contributes to some of the behavioural and interpersonal difficulties that autistic people experience. However, this isn’t something that Thom has explicitly mentioned. Which raises an important issue: as Angelmouse and I talk on, Thom becomes less and less interested in our conversation, more and more drawn back to his own work. We intellectualise, ponder the various implications of their work together, in a way that might not ring true for Thom himself. Angelmouse puts it well: ‘You and I are having this conversation, and making so many assumptions about Thom’s role in that … And even when I’m working with him I have so many ideas, I’m like I’m going to curate an exhibition about this. But where is Thom’s voice in that? And what does that mean for our collaboration?’
Collaborations are difficult beasts to navigate at the best of times. When collaborators are coming from very different worlds, from very different ways of experiencing and understanding and making, the dynamic becomes all that more complicated, and all that more compelling. Of course, all kinds of meaningful relationships exist between people with and without disabilities, from family members to support workers. Some work out well for people with intellectual disability, while others probably tip the balance of power against them. Indeed, each collaboration within Angelmouse’s Paired exhibition features a unique negotiation between individuals with differing types of connection, whether familial or professional. ‘There’s always this responsibility of care, of the person without the disability,’ reflects Angelmouse. ‘There’s always this sense of assisting and caring and making sure he’s OK. But when we’re in that really raw state of creating … all that stuff kind of falls away.’
As our conversation winds up, Thom suggests that he and Angelmouse continue to make the exquisite corpses that they had been playing around with during their studio time the previous Saturday. It’s a technique for collaboration, used extensively by the surrealists, where a piece of paper is folded over into three sections and each person draws something without knowing what the other person will make. Thom is adamant that neither I nor Angelmouse can look as he draws his sections. In one of them, Thom puts two sets of feet at either end of the paper. In the other, he draws two heads. We all crack up. But thinking back on it, I can’t help but read a bit of symbolism into his choice and remember one of the last comments I record before I head off: ‘The work that Thom and Angelmouse make wouldn’t be possible without my specific brain and his specific brain.’ These two brains have had a lot of fun together and made a lot of interesting, evocative work in the process. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Lead image: crop from Best Friends Going Through a Tunnel (2018)