This new direction in my painting was initiated by an experience with an individual and the higher education system that has been going on for over a year and a half but came to a head just before the summer of last year. I made a painting to try and relieve some anger and frustration that I wanted to call ‘The Thief’, which was prompted by a strange, disorientating and very stressful situation involving someone I considered a friend.
Before I go into it I need to address why I need to even write this as all I want to do is put it behind me and never think of it again. I don’t like dwelling on negativity in my life as I believe I am very lucky and privileged to live the life I do, I’m really wary of sharing online as nuance and complexity within arguments can get completely lost but then also I’m very bad at standing up for myself and will let things pass me by for not wanting to make a fuss. I have had many conversations about this situation over the past year, a few I’ve been surprised people had any idea it was happening and others surprised they had no idea what was going on. I’m writing this not for sympathy but more as a way to create closure for myself by opening up about it, to help overcome the stress and anxiety it has caused by communicating with friends about why I personally have a problem with this person. At the moment of writing this it feels like a public secret which friends feel wary of talking to me about because they think I’m sick of talking about it and I don’t want to bring it up with them because I don’t want to bore people with it or force the conversation on to people. I’ll try and keep it brief, if you read it and then still want to talk about it further then I’m more than happy to do so.
At the beginning of this year ____ told me they had been accepted to do a fully funded PhD in ____ Studies at _____ University, his focus was going to be on music and learning disability and he wanted to use some of the work I had undertaken around integrated gigs and tours with the organisation I started, Constant Flux. I had known of his intention to apply for something relating to this for about a year (I found out about this intention through a public tweet he sent someone else) and was always concerned about his distinct lack of any experience in this field up to this point. Him getting the place though made me feel uncomfortable ultimately in a way I couldn’t fully express or justify, when I finally spoke to him in person in March 2017 about my concerns he reassured me he would be respectful and communicative and his intention was to highlight the work that had been done. We then had a very open conversation about the work I had been doing for the past 12 years within music and learning disability arts, revealing a lot of my intentions behind doing things certain ways and a lot of the questions that spurred me on to do more.
During this conversation and as part of this request for good communication I asked ____ to send me the proposal that he was applying with. In May 2018, 14 months after asking, and after several prompts, he finally sent his proposal through and within it I discovered he had taken the work that I was sharing publicly and also the conversation we’d had privately and built it from that. In short, the questions he was asking in the proposal were questions I’d been exploring through founding my organisation and the way it was written appeared like I was unaware of the impact it had and unaware of what I was setting out to achieve with it and why. I responded that night with my disappointment, sadness and frustration at the plagiarism within it and how it appeared he had exploited our friendship for his own professional gain. In his own words, “the questions are too close to the ones shared in your manifesto/the initial questions that drove your work – any continuation would have to take a huge step back from these or, at the very least, make it crystal clear that you were the one who generated these questions.”
What then followed over the next four months was a series of emails with ____, with his PhD supervisor, conversations with academic friends about the PhD process and my options, some conversations with mutual friends about the situation and ____, and a whole lot of stress. I was trying to figure out how this had happened within what I assumed would be a rigid academic process and what the options were in the academic field, which I had little understanding of. I was trying to get to grips with the flattery of him highlighting my work and wanting to dedicate the next three years of his life to it and then my responsibility of allowing someone who I no longer trusted access to the networks I am a part of. As he said himself, “I am aware this leads to questions about why someone who is relatively inexperienced should be doing this in the first place – enthusiasm or excitement regarding a topic isn’t enough to justify someone’s place in the conversation and, in this case, has had quite a damaging effect so far.”
The main problem was this was all taking place after he had already begun the PhD process. He was trying to rectify his wrongdoing, he adjusted the proposal to include my name with reference to the work and questions he was asking. His supervisor, who called him “harmless” and thought he was unselfaware of his actions, was very keen for him to continue and my work to be included in his wider project as that’s what had got ____ his place. I was told that “the main positive was that a vibrant contribution to Disability Arts would at least be chronicled somewhere. You could have cited it as evidence when applying for funding.” I was recommended to ask for co-authorship in lieu of any other compensation for the work I would be putting into the project by other academics, as ____ had asked I read, review, consult and comment on him talking about my work. However, his supervisor said that co-authorship would not be possible. I agonised over the dilemma of feeling trapped by him taking my life's work, research and interests and knowing his lack of knowledge and experience could frame it in the completely wrong way, so I would have to be involved. I was asked what my decision was going to be - to be involved or not? I hadn’t given permission to be a part of it and yet I was now responsible for it going ahead.
In September 2018 I told him and his supervisor I couldn’t be involved with his PhD and I didn't want him to include any reference to any work I had undertaken. I asked him to let me know what direction his research will take, as yet I haven’t heard anything. He did say he wouldn’t carry on his PhD into music and learning disability or “engage with participants who have worked with you and will look towards organisations outside of London/South East, to ensure distance from organisations directly affiliated with you and your work.” Within a month of him sending this email, he started volunteering with an organisation I am connected with in London.
Throughout this whole process I have been filled with so much doubt, even right now as I am writing this and going over everything all again I am questioning the point of it. Am I making more of this than I should? Is this actually a problem? What do I even hope to get out of this? I think this whole thing is nuanced and for me doesn’t just amount to one mistake, yes I can see ____’s side of it and how this has also been stressful for him, our previous friendship massively complicates it, our mutual friendships with others and the private conversations I’ve had around this topic, even further. It has got to the point though where I just need to do something about this specific situation, to write down what I perceived happened, express some of the stress and anxiety caused, especially around sharing work, academia and the social spaces we share, and explain to myself why I no longer trust him and don’t want anything else to do with him.