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Artist Esther Fox © Christopher Lanaway Photography

Meet Esther Fox: a very real VR artist

On Friday 20 March, Esther Fox will be one of the keynote speakers at The Platform – the launch event of the AltPitch arts and technology festival. Whilst all the contributors to the festival programme have national (and international) reputations, Esther Fox is unique in being the only one born and bred in Hastings. HOT’s Erica Smith visits her old friend and finds out how her art practice has developed over two decades.

I met Esther in 2002 – very soon after I moved to Hastings. At the time she was volunteering at St Mary in the Castle and I bought some tickets for a performance from her. I will never forget the sight of this extraordinary woman with the coolest hair cut and thinking “I want her to be my friend”. Soon after, I set up the Hastings Creatives network and put out an appeal for someone to share my studio space. Esther sent an email saying that she was interested in the studio and hoped it was on the ground floor because she was a wheelchair user.

Kapow. I got a great studio mate, a wonderful friend with a brilliant mind and, additionally, I learned what it is like to negotiate the world if you have a physical disability. Esther was born with a condition called SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) which means she uses a wheelchair.

Esther graduated from Winchester in 1999. Her art practice at the time was informed by textiles and genetics. In many ways it was fairly traditional – abstract, wall-hung paintings. But even then she was using digital technology to scan in images of flaws in woven textiles, combining them with photomicroscopy of ‘faulty’ chromosomes and getting the images printed out on large-format canvases which she embellished with carefully painted bar codes.

Code Break © Esther Fox

Code Break © Esther Fox

At the time, as well as her art practice, Esther was volunteering at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery and St Mary in the Castle. Initially she was reluctant to be labelled as a ‘disabled artist’ but tentatively began to work with a disability arts group called DaDa. She came to realise that it was disingenuous to deny her life experience as someone with a disability. In 2009 she was appointed as a director of Accentuate South East – an organisation set up in advance of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. For five years she worked exclusively for Accentuate, and it was only in 2014 that she returned to her art practice, often working in collaboration with scientists and always exploring her obsession with genetics.

Esther is very aware that contemporary technology can enable people with disabilities to thrive, yet at the same time genetic screening could also lead to the extinction of all people with inherited illnesses. She is suspicious of eugenics and wonders if women are genuinely being given informed choices about giving birth to children with genetically inherited conditions like Down’s Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, Haemophilia or SMA. “All human bodies are vulnerable. Genetic screening to avoid disabilities means that my identity is under threat – yet there will always be people with disabilities as the result of accidents or war or age.”

Galton's Laboratory reconstructed by Esther Fox and Simon Wilkinson of Bright Black

Galton’s Laboratory reconstructed by Esther Fox and Simon Wilkinson of Bright Black

Esther’s presentation at The Platform will focus on the huge potential of VR. “My first experience of VR was life-changing. It was about four years ago – a group of artists had worked with VR developers to create a gallery space. I felt a profound sense of immersion – both physical and emotional. As a wheelchair user it’s not always easy to navigate around a gallery and it was wonderful to move so freely within a space.”

She is currently working on the ‘Robot Double’ project with Bristol Robotics – this has enabled her to attend events from her home by controlling a mobile screen to move around a meeting space, enabling her to have conversations with people at the events via a Skype connection.

During the AltPitch Festival you will also be able to experience Evolution – a VR world which includes a fantasy collection of specimens from the library of Francis Galton – a Victorian eugenicist and cousin of Darwin. Esther has been developing this installation with Simon Wilkinson from Bright Black.

The Platform is a one-day interface for digital and creative businesses and arts practitioners. It runs from 10am to 5pm on Friday 20 March at East Sussex College,Hastings in Station Plaza. The event costs £35 including lunch. Booking in advance is recommended.
Twenty five free places are offered at The Platform for young people under 25 – again, reserving these spaces early is recommended.

Evolution will be open from noon to 5pm on Thursday 26 March and 10am to 5pm on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 March at Hastings Library. No admission fee.

The AltPitch Festival also includes three events at St Mary in the Castle over the weekend of 26–28 March.

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Posted 11:10 Sunday, Jan 19, 2020 In: Festivals

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