Abi Palmer (she/her) is an artist, writer and filmmaker exploring the relationship between linguistic and physical communication. Key work includes Crip Casino—an interactive gambling arcade parodying the wellness industry and institutionalised spaces—shown at Tate Modern, Somerset House and Wellcome Collection (2018-20)—and Sanatorium—a fragmented memoir that jumps between a luxury thermal pool and a blue inflatable bathtub (Penned in the Margins, 2020). Abi can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @abipalmer_bot.
How do you see self-publishing or zine making as part of your practice and politics?
So my practice started in zine making, the first text that I produced was like a really classic ‘zine’ zine called What’s New Pussycat. It was about a man on amazon who was reviewing cat calendars and I was really obsessed with him–
I have that zine!
Omg cool! (Laughs) I don’t need to show you then!
That’s so funny
I forgot that people own it haha… So that was really interesting – I initially did it as part of a performance so there was a live element with a living room on stage and I produced this zine to kind of accompany that. It was proper fun, I really loved this reviewer, it started as a joke and then I got more and more obsessed with him and fell in love with his writing and wanted people to get to see it too.
I’m a very sticky-mess sort of person and in What’s New Pussycat it felt like it was really important to have an embodied form of the language I was shaping and it felt like I had more control over that using a glue stick. That’s kind of bled into all my other work. A good example in a more institutionally recognised piece is my installation ‘Crip Casino.’ It is a working casino with these three fruit machines which I’ve opened up and collaged language onto the reels. You press a button and they give you a physiotherapy instruction, you press it again and it gives you another one, or a medical diagnosis, or a conversation with a doctor or a friend. So it feels like a three dimensional zine. It feels like a self-published piece of communication. And again it feels like my audience are doing some of the work for me, they get to press the button as many times as their coins allow, and it’s spilling out language that they get to piece together. I think that zine culture has kind of bled through into kind of everything really. Even Sanatorium which is a proper ‘book’ book – half way through I went into my studio and made a physical collage to piece it together to make it make sense in my head, and I think that relationship between the hands and zine culture feels important to me, it being collaged and being messy.
So how did Sanatorium start to take form, and how did it go from something you had started to work on to something sitting on the shelves? Could you talk about that quite literally?
I guess there are two questions in there: one being how did it come to have a contract in the first place and then the other is how did I make the book. Both are very interlinked questions and both come with immense privilege. I live in central London and one of my favourite publishers is Penned in the Margins which Sanatorium is published with. I’ve been a big fan of them for many years and had previously submitted proposals for really ambitious projects that could never be realised financially. I faced some rejection but managed to have this really nice dialogue with Tom from Penned in the Margins.
I got some arts council funding – I was given really good advice from Gemma Seltzer who worked for the Arts Council at that time about making an Arts Council project which was just research and development and to make my question very broad. Because she was saying as a disabled person you miss out on things like networking time, make sure you factor in time to go with a coffee with people who you’d like to learn about and ask them questions, and that was the same funding which allowed me to go to a sanatorium in the first place which is where Sanatorium begins. My research question in that project application was ‘how can a disabled person with health fluctuations have a sustainable practice?’, and I kind of framed it around the disabled body on land and in water.
Then, luckily, Tom had jury duty in London Bridge near where I live so I took him to the HMS Belfast Cafe which is on water – and I know he is a real sucker for texts about water – and so I positioned him right by where you could see the Thames so it was kind of in the back of his vision as I told him about this project. I actually thought I was pitching him a completely different project entirely, and then we kept in touch and eventually we met again once I’d actually been to the sanatorium.
While I was there I was keeping video diaries and taking a lot of photos – I didn’t think I was producing a text, I actually didn’t think I had the capacity to write a book at that time because of my hand pain, so I thought I was making something else entirely – and then when I came back all of the diaries were transcribed, I had been writing by hand a little bit as well, and I just sent Tom photocopies of it all. He was very kind enough to say I can see that this is going somewhere, let’s take the leap and I want to take that leap with you.
So I should acknowledge that this was a really unique situation. It was so much luck and privilege, and that makes it incredibly complicated to explain the formula, but what I would say within it is, especially for disabled practitioners, it’s really important to fight to maintain the labour of networking and the labour of making space to let yourself ask questions, rest your body and make sure your bodies needs are met first.
There is also something interesting in what you’ve just described which is more than resilience – it’s the potential within rejection, rejection not really being a failure but just the outcome happening in a way that’s different to what you intended. It’s so interesting to know you pitched them different projects, and even when you started pitching this one it was going to be something else completely different, and then through your relentless pitching not just being like, oh they hate me cause they’ve said no to me once I’m never going to speak to them again…
Yeah! I think it’s really important, a really big part of having a practice, especially as a disabled artist, is making room for failure, whether it’s the failure of your body or your own ambition. I think a lot of what Sanatorium is about is that you are constantly beginning again. And whenever I get to a point where I think I know what I’m doing, it’s always actually when I have to stop and that’s why I jump between mediums so much is because I think I find it actually quite helpful to feel like a beginner.
I think the other important thing about Sanatorium is that when I wrote the proposal, I thought the sections from audio diaries or video diaries were going to be placeholders, and that I would rewrite those bits formally. When I gave Tom a very loose draft they were his favourite bits! And so it felt so much like I’d been making work for myself by wanting to type it out formally with my hands and hurt myself to make the book, but if I let my body lead me it tells the better story. I talk a lot, and what I’ve learnt from that is that it’s actually a great medium for me. I can speak for hours and as long as it’s written down I can work from that. It was more of a job of cutting things out and erasing, going back to zine making methods of cutting things out and circling the best bits and collaging it together.
Really early on in school we get this imposition of Writing with a capital W and you’re either good at it or not good at it and I know that in arts education it’s a real problem. I mean I did well in art at A level and GCSE because I was good at writing essays about the art, not because I was good at visual art.
In terms of the development of Sanatorium through the publishing process, what are some ways that your access requirements shaped what that looked like?
So a really big part of it was I was really, really lucky to have an independent publisher who was happy to have a really loose pitch. It’s really, really unusual, as I understand it, in publishing and it probably won’t happen again in that way. It’s something I am really pushing for and having conversations with publishers about, because there are so many forms of marginalised identities that we don’t have enough representation of in publishing simply because you can’t get funding for a project which doesn’t exist yet and you end up in this circling rabbit hole.
Apart from that, Tom was really great about giving me a really long time to write the book and helping me apply for Arts Council funding for my additional access needs to make sure I could do it almost full time. The financial side was really essential. The Arts Council funding paid for me to have a massage every week because I was in so much pain from writing, and that is something I wish more people knew you could ask for Arts Council funding for!
It was also really useful to have loose windows and to have a really clear up-front understanding of what would be expected of me at each stage of the publication process. So, “here we will want a loose draft”, “here we will want a tighter draft”, “here we will be doing publicity and that will require you to have headshots”, “that will require cover design”, and conversations like that. So I knew what was coming and I could factor it into my diary. So, just really understanding where I have to work really hard and where I can have a bit of a break.
I am interested in thinking about when our access requirements can’t be met. You know, there are so many reasons why that can’t happen sometimes even if people are genuinely doing all that they can. What does it look like to tell someone that you can’t support their access needs but with care?
I think it gets harder the bigger the institution and the bigger the imbalance of power. I think that having conversations where it’s not taken for granted that you do or don’t have access needs is really important with every single person. Asking what do you need and are your needs being met? and what are the obstacles to you producing? Having that conversation regularly, providing as much information about what is expected as soon as possible, and then making sure there is space for that conversation of “what do you need, here is what we are asking you for, what do you need” to begin again.
I think it’s sometimes okay to say “we need this by this deadline, I’m sorry we can’t move that deadline”, but I would want that deadline months in advance, not days, you know? I think it’s fascinating to me when very, very large or well-structured organisations that clearly have schedules already written up don’t think oh, maybe we should share this.
I feel like sometimes people who are starting out as practitioners and maybe are justice oriented thinkers but are at the very beginning of that journey feel sometimes a prohibitive apprehension – which sometimes is good – of not wanting to invite people into a space if you can’t actually take care of them there, and I think that can stop people from doing anything at all.
Yeah, that is a real problem. You know, access needs can often be conflicting – someone might require space to make a lot of unexpected noises and someone might find that really triggering, and I think it comes back to the idea of failure and risk and the fact that everything you put out isn’t the end of the conversation. It should be the beginning of the conversation.
An example of this is that I don’t always put image descriptions on Instagram and sometimes I feel so prohibitively guilty about that, that I don’t put work out there. Remembering that I also have access needs and when I can accommodate other people I will, remembering that you are doing your best, can be really hard. Sometimes I think I know I could be better than this and sometimes it’s all I can do to make a post and then I get into my head like, why do I get to be in the room if I’m not inviting these other people in? The pressure of needing to always get it right and perfectionism isn’t always your friend. I think sometimes it’s about proportionality but also about remembering that everyone’s trying, you know?
It’s such a complicated conversation and there’s no perfect answer but I think what’s really important is that when we remember, for instance, that if you are putting on an event and it’s up stairs, because you can’t afford an accessible venue or there isn’t one available, that it’s still better to tell your audience that is the case. Just presenting the information is already a helpful start and the act of presenting access information can help you to identify gaps that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Unfortunately there are whole communities who aren’t being served, but that is also a state problem. That we are still having to ask permission to enter so many spaces is a much bigger problem then any one person can solve by themselves so if you’re a new practitioner, just starting out, keeping that in perspective whilst thinking about what it is that you can do,focusing on the cans,what’s within your capacity and what you are able to offer. It can sometimes feel like a failure but it’s not always your failure.
Who are you excited about in the publishing world at the moment?
I was talking today about Lola Olufemi, who wrote Feminism Interrupted and Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, and I think she’s a really, really great writer but what I really like is the collective she is a part of called Bare Minimum Collective who are doing such exciting work in so many different mediums. Experiments in Imagining Otherwise is much more experimental and has space for the reader to participate whereas Feminism Interrupted feels like a really nice summary of a lot of the problems we are facing. It also made me think harder about what it means to be an artist in this time where everything feels very apocalyptic and what the role of the artist is in times like this.
I really like what Fitzcarraldo Editions are putting out. I really enjoyed Alice Hattrick’s book Ill Feelings which is a really great piece of crip literature. Actually, Polly Atkins just published a really nice text about Dorothy Wordsworth called Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth – both Alice and Polly address Dorothy Wordsworth as a crip woman who was writing these fascinating diaries yet her brother is so much more famous than she is. She had so much chronic pain and it’s only very recently that the journals where she talks about how much pain she was in have been accessible to the public, because it’s been so skimmed over, and both Alice and Polly touch on that in very interesting ways.