Kirsty Biff’s practice spans drag, clown, voice, play, performance making, neurodiverse access collaboration and support work. They work in community and professional spaces, creating collaborative experiences with artists, audiences and participants.

As part of the Sensory Collective team, Kirsty is one of six artists creating work with, by and for people who face multiple barriers to accessing mainstream arts. In this Q&A, they discuss their work with the Collective, how varied their practice can be from day-to-day and why projects like this are so beneficial to people with additional support needs.

Can you tell us a little more about you and your practice?

Before the Sensory Collective started, I had worn many hats across multiple contexts with a lot of different people, in day centres, theatre and cabaret, queer performance spaces, community participatory work, neurodivergent and disabled artist access. That hasn’t actually changed, maybe that’s my ADHD!

Some key things that might explain my practice are back when I was 19, I was really lucky to work with an amazing artist called Amanda Noble as her PA, who introduced me to the equally wonderful Janice Parker. We started working together on their extraordinary collaborative work Private Dancer. Being invited into that work over the years changed the way that I thought about what art is for, who makes it and what bodies get to be seen and not seen. Being part of this collaboration was such a huge foundational time and I’m so grateful to have been part of it. This work and the people I met there influence me to this day and I sometimes still get to work with them!

Another part of my practice over the past few years is being part of the queer performance world and exploring drag and gender though clown. I have some personas that tend to be really obnoxious, loud troublemakers, which is the opposite of my personal practice the rest of the time. Or I like to think so, maybe that’s not true!

I’m also really curious and excited by somatic movement, embodiment and tuning into what the body knows and is telling us (I try to do this for myself and I love creating spaces where the people I work with can do that too). I try to bring that to all my work and it helps me think, process and understand the world around me and myself. I think this links a lot to my neurodiversity and the more I understand that the more it supports my artistic practice.

As the years go on, I have realised how much my queerness and neurodiversity shapes my approaches in all contexts and I love to be in places where that’s not usually the norm.

What does your day-to-day work with the Sensory Collective involve?

It’s changed a lot over time. When we started working together, it was unclear how we would do participatory work or what people would want in this pandemic world. Some of us chose to work in communities we are a part of or adjacent to. Disabled people have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, then there are so many intersecting experiences. Acknowledging and being with that complexity and listening and responding to what might be right for the people we‘re working is really complex and continues to involve a great deal of care, thought and sensitivity.

I really appreciated that IAP knew this and made sure we took time to build relationships and understand this – no artists parachuting in thinking that their project is going to change the world overnight!!

I think it was almost a year before we (the collective of artists) were all in a room together. And so we were working digitally at first trying to build and navigate how we would reach people and what we would do.  The Sensory Collective artists all have roots in participatory practice so we knew we were going to do that but there are many complexities and ways of doing this! Then, thinking about what kind of sensory work is right, it’s a super broad term. It could mean co-creating an artistic experience that really tunes into someone’s sensory needs and taking time to understand them. Or it could be an experience that’s completely about exploring sensory artistic experience. Or all of the above! That is a pretty simplistic way of thinking about it and the possibilities are vast. There are six artists working to understand where there is a want and need for experiences like this and find the people that want it and find the right spaces, to build those relationships, and then create something with those people and communities. Everyone in the Sensory Collective is working on different things, it’s all quite varied whilst overlapping and it’s very much participant led.

We sometimes support each other in our projects, or collaborate, or just have conversations and offer one another peer support. And I think we’ve really leaned into peer support as part of our practice together. So we meet fairly regularly to talk about things, and it’s incredibly helpful now we’ve been working together for more than a year, to have knowledge of what each person’s been up to in different community settings – you can get this amazing array of considerations or responses to what might seem like a simple question that’s come up on a project.

It’s been very much about going at the pace of the people that we’re working with and ourselves, finding the right way to engage with them, not rushing when we can, just being and letting it evolve over time.

Do you have any examples of some of the work you’ve done recently with the Sensory Collective that you’ve been particularly proud of?

I’ve recently finished a block of time in a school in Edinburgh, where I was creating playful 1:1 sensory  experiences with young children with complex support needs. I spent a long time getting to know the children and the school before the sessions started, which was an enormous privilege, having that time to slowly get to know them and how they like to be and communicate. And then really tailor the play sessions around them, which has been really, really amazing.

Together we have been working with moving and just being, playing with different curious objects, and lighting, and sounds to create a space that can be shifted to meet their sensory needs and what they are curious about. So the sessions are quite free and not prescribed in terms of what might end up happening. For me it’s really about tuning into the way that that person wants to play and engage with the room and with the objects and maybe with me, if I’m lucky. My background in clown and finding pleasure in being has helped me a great deal with being open and ready for anything!

I’ve also been lucky to chat about this work with Max Alexander, who is an amazing artist and play worker in the SC and I have found that really helpful.

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt from being involved?

I think the thing that feels important is creating an environment that a person can come into and just “be” as they are on that day. And that slower, longer processes really are how I like to work but also how to really build relationships with people. In the past, I “ran” drama workshops where there was very much an expectation that there’ll be a lot of drama, games and activities and star studded performances, which was wonderful (and equally valuable) but this time has let me strip my participatory practice right back, whilst remaining really playful and open to potential. Having enough frameworks and structures or “scores” to work by but too many so there is space for the participants to shape and respond in their own way. Having the time to do that means that it looks maybe quite different to what I imagined it would look like and it might not be something that more conventional, neurotypical participatory arts would value as the outcomes are much harder to measure!

Why is this project so beneficial to people who face multiple barriers to accessing mainstream arts?

I’m neurodivergent and experience barriers all the time, but I don’t experience the same barriers that the people I’ve been working with experience at all. I mean, public arts spaces can be so inaccessible emotionally, physically and sensorily to so many different people. I think it’s quite rare that arts projects are properly funded and able to be so malleable and responsive to peoples needs. We can be led by the communities we are working with and what they already know, do and are.

To have the time (and money) to do that and to value taking time to understand peoples needs – it’s not necessarily believing that this work is going to be a life changing, and deeply inspirational experience for the participants, but that they’re able to access an experience, often in a community space they are already comfortable with, where they can take what they want from it.

I spent a lot of time reading and researching and talking to people who experience barriers and their carers and brilliant people working in this area. We talked about actually what the challenges were when they go to those places and what could and should be different and how we can do this.

Why should arts and creativity based projects be supported and exist when it comes to supporting vulnerable groups?

I guess I would say, why shouldn’t it? Doesn’t everyone have a right to experience art?

We live in a deeply unequal society and Tory austerity in the UK has meant that there’s been a shocking strip back of vital services for disabled people, and I don’t think that art can replace that.

While I don’t think that art is then the answer to austerity, I do think that austerity deeply limits people’s opportunities to engage in the world around them and influence the world. For a society to be humane and function, art and spaces for expression, play, thinking need to be valued. How else can we imagine other worlds and ways of being?

People may experience loneliness, isolation, lack of care and support in their communities and art that really centres peoples experience is important, but not the only piece of the puzzle. People also have complex, vibrant and full internal lives and communities. This way of working knows that and responds to that.

Have you had any feedback from participants which suggests the work has been beneficial?

I am working with a lot of people who are non-speaking and have complex learning disabilities so feedback looks and feels different. We (the SC) spent time in training with Joanna Grace considering how we tune into and understand people communicating in different ways. It’s been important to challenge what assumptions we are we making, because we’re inevitably making some as primary linguistic speakers. In terms of feedback in the moment, it could be a spark of excitement, or curiosity that gets followed. For example, this person is spinning and spinning with this light that they’ve been playing with, and last time we were together they just held the light. Or last time they sat at the other end of the room to me and today they’re sitting next to me for a few minutes.

I’ve been collaborating with SC artists Niroshini Thambar and Joanna Young and a community of people living with dementia in Glasgow in a day centre. A lot of the feedback has been verbal and wonderful. But I think that the in the moment feedback that is in responses and the comfort and joy that’s been established in the sessions and how much the creative exploration has evolved and shifted as this, has slowly built.

What are your hopes for the future of the project?

There are a few threads of projects I’m part of though the SC. I am working with different people in an SEN school, in a day centre with people living with dementia, working with a neurodivergent person to create a sensory poetry film and collaborating on sensory playful experiences for adults too.

All of this is evolving slowly and continuing. It feels really important to actually just give things the time they need and just keep coming back to it with playfulness, structure and regularity which seems to bring the richness and quality of experience that is important. I feel really, really lucky to be working with the people that I’m collaborating with and with the other artists in the Sensory Collective too.