Start - Audio Description of 'Surface Tension' a video-installation by Chris Keenan, with soundtrack by Chris Ankin:
(music in background - fast paced staccato percussion)
_blurred colours ... suddenly become clear ... they move ... move ... there are three ... rectangles on the left ... three on the middle ... three on the right ... lime green ... shifts up ... paving stones with a red line painted ... moves to the left ... a green blur ... diagonal down ... bright shooting across the middle ... they shift ... they dance ... diagonal ... straight moving across ... bright green leaves ... black and white stripes ... back come paving stones
with the red line ... mosaic ... paving stones ... marble ... lime green ... moves into bright green leaves ... gravel ... high speed in the middle ... green blur ... shoots up ... shooting across marble ... blur ... black_
Joe: Hello. My name is Joe McConnell from Disability Arts Online and this our first podcast is produced in collaboration with Interaction Milton Keynes and focuses on the Ways of Seeing Exhibition and Conference which were held in September 2007.
Blind and partially sighted people and their access to the retail environment. An issue sadly neglected by generations of architects and town planners. Even less in evidence is any creative engagement to look beyond access, as yet another problematic box to be ticked, towards a respect for the equal right of blind and partially sighted people to actually enjoy using retail spaces.
Interaction Milton Keynes, in collaboration with Buckinghamshire Association for Blind and Partially Sighted People (BAB), Milton Keynes Gallery and the Midsummer Place Shopping Mall commissioned a group of five artists to work with a group of blind and partially sighted people to explore issues around access to and enjoyment of shopping spaces. The Ways of Seeing Project culminated in an exhibition at the Midsummer Place Shopping Mall, Milton Keynes in September 2007. This exhibition ran alongside the Ways of Seeing Conference which aimed to widen the debate around equality and inclusivity.
The five artists were Sara Heitlinger, Alison Jones, Paul McCann, James O Hanlon and Chris Keenan. Each commission depended on a close partnership between the artists and participants from Interaction and BAB. One of these participants is musician and sound artist, Chris Ankin, who devised and produced the soundtrack for the 3 video pieces developed by video artist, Chris Keenan...
Ways of Seeing
Conference and Exhibition 2007
The Ways of Seeing project explored creative ways of widening the access of visually impaired people to retail environments. dao presents a podcast report from the Ways of Seeing exhibition and conference of September 2007. This is accompanied by a review of the event by Liz Porter.
The Ways of Seeing Project commissioned a group of five artists to work with a group of blind and partially sighted people to explore issues around access to and enjoyment of shopping spaces. The project was originally conceived by Zoe Partington-Sollinger and was a collaboration between Diabolo Arts, Inter-Action Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire Association for Blind and Partially Sighted People (BAB), Milton Keynes Gallery and culminated in an exhibition at the Midsummer Place Shopping Mall, Milton Keynes in September 2007. This exhibition ran alongside the Ways of Seeing Conference which aimed to widen the debate around equality and inclusivity.
The five artists were Sara Heitlinger, Alison Jones, Paul McCann, James O Hanlon and Chris Keenan. Each commission depended on a close partnership between the artists and participants from Interaction and BAB.
There have been a number of projects and conferences (such as Sensual Clues in 2005) in recent years which have explored creative ways of enhancing the experience of visually impaired people in museums and galleries. Ways of Seeing is the first major project to shift the focus towards the world of shopping.
The conference could be criticised for trying to fit too much into one day and the accessibility of the exhibition could be questioned. But the project is definitely a bold step in a new direction and as visual artist Lynn Cox says in our podcast of the event : "[the conference was] a really interesting launch pad [which] raised far more questions than it answered." Artists Liz Porter and Caroline Cardus agree that future projects in this vein would benefit greatly from including more input from visually impaired artists.
The project had other positive outcomes as summarised by Zoe Partington-Sollinger:
The thing that is really important about what has happened during the process of Ways of Seeing is that a lot of thinking and practice of the people involved has changed. The way that members of the BAB group engage with art and artists and the way they think about how they might approach a project has moved on dramatically from where they were one and half years ago.
A lot of the people from the project have shifted their mindset and have started to look at things in very different ways. So, for example, some of them who were very interested in landscape painting traditionally are now thinking about how do I now interpret my environment; what messages do I want to get across; how far do I want to take my idea of how I want to access art. A lot of the group are starting to dig deeper and ask more questions about the gallery spaces they access.
The project was about creating an opportunity for visual impaired people to engage and establish themselves as artists. Chris Ankin in particular now sees himself as an artist and is involved with networks of other artists.
Chris Ankin is currently working with Chris Keenan to produce a collaborative VJ and audio event to take place at Inter-Action MK on 8 December 2008.
The project was also about developing a toolkit aiemd at moving things to another level. The toolkit will document the outcomes of the project and suggest practical applictions for some of the ideas that evolved. The BAB group hope to present the tool kit to retail and culltural sector networks early in 2008.
The following section begins with a link which lets you listen to DAO's podcast report of the conference and exhibition, this is followed by a transcript of the podcast, and a review by Liz Porter.
Disability Arts Online would like to thank the invaluable contribution of artists Rachel Gadsden, Lynn Cox and Liz Porter in the making of the podcast. And also sound artist Joe Young who produced it.
Podcast: The Artists
Chris Ankin: We were trying to come up with a way of presenting our case as in the difficulty of access to shopping centres and retail environments and in a way that wasn't so obvious. We could have just gone with the straightforward documentary-type approach but I've done videos and things like that before and was keen to avoid that ... and when we was commissioning the artists, Chris Keenan's CV really stood out because he's done video clips and music. We wanted to present things in a less obvious way using metaphors and things like that. One of the video pieces is called Surface Tension and when we started walking around the shopping centre, I was pointing out to Chris the different problems with glare coming off of the floors with the sunlight coming through high windows and the rooftops.
Joe: It is intensely bright here during the day...
Chris A: It is. Depending on the sort of visual impairment you've got. I've got Retinitis Pigmentosa and part of that condition is that you do suffer from glare quite badly. And it's a very ambient shopping centre in terms of sound. So that presents a kind of audio cacophony in terms of trying to negotiate. It was that type of thing. We came up with the idea in the end - because of the confusion - with the idea of a puzzle
- the video-cube type thing sort of based on one of those childhood slide puzzles when you've got nine or so squares ...
Joe: Like the Rubik cube?
Chris A: More like the number puzzles which had letters on which you would slide around. And Chris came up with the idea of putting these different surfaces, moving video footage on to each of these squares and then kind of sliding them around. As a music composer and sound artist, I came up with a quirky drum-type pattern. I didn't want to come up with something that was very melodic so people would go away whistling the tune. I didn't want to impose on the video in that sense. I think the drum patterns worked really well.
Joe: It really grabbed me. When I first came to the Shopping Mall, I was lost and then bumped into you ... [the soundtrack] was a contrast with the kind of muzak you here in shopping malls. I hope I'm not maligning Milton Keynes, but many shopping centres have very soporific music and yours certainly contrasts with that.
Chris A: Yeah it's punchy, dynamic and quirky and goes well with those moving video clips. We have two other films which we are just finishing off.
The other film is called 'A Blind Man's Fog'. That came about when I was having my guide stick training a few years ago, the trainer said to me that wind was like a blind man's fog. Because when you are visually impaired you rely so much upon your hearing. If you're trying to cross a road and it's a really windy day and you have gusts of wind blowing in your ears that can really impede on your perception of approaching traffic. This theory can be expanded not just for crossing roads but even in this shopping centre like when you come here on a busy Saturday you have music coming out of the clothing stores, you could have a raffle going on with music playing ... there's always lots of music and sound going on ... footsteps and conversation ... for a visually impaired person to navigate through all that sound it can be very confusing.
That's how Blind Man's Fog came about. It's a really spectacular video. Chris came in after hours, and did some filming. He's got some really eerie shots of the place completely empty. We then rendered in some fog effects so it's come out like a Victorian London atmosphere juxtaposed on a modern shopping centre.
Then there's a third film called The Loadstone. A loadstone is an ancient navigation device. One of our participants came up with the name. The idea was to create a utopian device that would be for blind and visually impaired people for getting around. It's based on technologies that are already in existence but no one has put them together because its cost intensive and not many people would want it. But using satellite navigation, barcode reading and mobile phones ... bringing all those modern technologies into one device which would actually help a blind person navigate and get around. It's all tongue and cheek as obviously it's a non-existent device. We've been busy all afternoon doing shots for that.
Joe: [I'm now talking to] Alison Jones who's soundtrack we're listening to as we speak. Could you tell us more about what we're listening to?
Alison: It's a series of interviews. We were asked to work with a group of visually impaired participants and ask their opinions on the Midsummer Place Shopping Centre and how accessible it is and whether there were any issues about orienting yourself around the place. So we all met here and we did a big grand tour which took us an hour and a half as it's absolutely massive. I asked the participants to think about a multisensory journey around the shopping centre so we were asking the participants to be aware of the sounds, the smells, the textures under their feet. And then after we'd visited the Shopping Centre we met up and did a series of interview asking how the participants had found the place: if it was accessible or not, what things stood out in their minds. So we got a whole series of interviews and then we came and did some recordings of ambient sounds, environmental sounds. And then we interspersed the interviews with the background sounds which is basically what you're hearing. There were birds inside the shopping centre ... which we thought was quite interesting.
Joe: I can hear them now. It's cool it sounds great.
Alison: This was out tribute to Hitchcock. We thought: 'Let's get the birds in there!'
What was interesting is that the participants said that they were quite aware of peoples' footsteps passing them. So we got the footsteps and slowed them right down and made a feature of them. And there's a really brilliant fountain outside as well so we got some sounds of the quite calming water effects and put that in as well. We intercut these sounds with the interviews. I called it Maladjusted [laughs] because it was sort of adjusting the shopping mall by playing around with the sounds and talking to the participants about how accessible it was and wasn't, and what the ideal shopping centre would be. So it was all things around those issues - we tried to put them all together in a sound piece idea.
Joe: Sound artist Sara Heitlinger talking to Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online.
Sara: Firstly, visitors will come and collect a portable CD player and when they press 'play' they will get directed through the shopping centre and to an outside bus stop by listening to the soundtrack. And then at the bus stop, they will listen to a soundtrack of different journeys that the participants have taken on public transport and the difficulties they encounter on public transport and then they'll press 'STOP' and bring the CD player back ... and then in the same place, there will be an installation consisting of posters and CD players ... and each poster and CD player is a utopian model for public transport that the group have invented in the workshops
... so one of them is a gadget that helps you navigate and communicate with public transport ...
Colin: The travel buddy?
Sara: The travel buddy - exactly .. and the second one is talking buses and talking bus stops that let you know when the bus is coming and where you need to get off and which bus stop you're at. And then the third one is level access and textured bus stops - bus shelters and ground so that you can identify which bus stop you're at so that you can get on the bus easily. So that's what it is ...
Joe: I'm talking to visual artist and Sculptor, James O Hanlon
James: About 5 or 6 years I really started concentrating on 2-d visual work and then through a series of exhibitions ended up kind of specialising in really really big images and looking at the context in which they are exhibited in shopping centres, billboards on the side of buildings ... that sort of thing. So I was brought into this project. they wanted some striking images to go into that boulevard area and there were a lot of technical problems. It was a site-specific piece of artwork so there would be a restriction on the size of the pieces. We called them banners, simply because they were long rectangles but they were images. So the project evolved into this idea that instead of the participants actively painting images, we looked at the brief which was about making a piece of artwork based on access issues in the retail environment. We ended up looking at colour definition, and then I thought the most appropriate, the most interesting thing to look at was colour swatches and wall charts and the whole nomenclature of naming colours. You see these colours in Dulux wall charts like 'bongo jazz' and stuff like that. So we looked at the idea of what colours worked really well with good colour definition and what colours were really lousy. It's not about there being a good colour or bad colour, it's the relationship between the two. I was surprised because the oldest member of the group was 82 and I think that perhaps they had a tradition that as avant-garde as they got was maybe a watercolour painting of flowers. There's nothing wrong with that it's just a different culture. But they - we've ended up producing contemporary conceptual art. The artwork doesn't actually exist. There's no actual physical artwork. But they got into the idea that the art existed in the digital form and it had to be sent to a company in Portsmouth. And with good support from Interaction we were able to go down to Portsmouth and pick them up and see the machines they were printed on. So they weren't dislocated from the process. It was very much understanding how everything worked. You know that the work wad produced on a Mac with Adobe Illustrator. But it was all from loads of discussion and experimentation. with this project, some of the participants who actually made the work might not be able to access it. But we decided that the message was to be communicated to a wide range of people therefore they were using the context of advertising and promotion and that's what it became. You can't touch it if you do have poor sight, you can't see it because it's hung up in a particular place. But the bulk of the public using that area will have full access to that. And it's using the language we all understand which is this visual thing of colour charts. SO it's something that hits the broadest range of people. Yet it's contemporary conceptual art done by quite elderly people with visual impairments.
Joe: Colin Hambrook talks with some of the participants.
Female Participant: I've really enjoyed this project. Although we are all used to using other senses and we have other strategies for getting around and getting by, to actually have an open mind thinking and come up with some utopian ideals not just for us but hopefully for everyone. The freedom of doing that and showing that it is not difficult and that, in a short time, a few people can come up with really constructive thoughts both in our group and other groups as well doesn't cost a fortune to come up with the ideas. I know that putting into practice is another thing. That's what we have to strive for. it's been a really good project and I've really enjoyed working with Sara.
Sara: I didn't know anything about disability, access and problems. I think differently now. And because I'm interested in physical space and buildings and the way we interact with our environment, for me it's really interesting to think about the different ways in which people interact with their environment. You've talked so many times about things like tactile surfaces and colours of floors ... things like that I've never thought about before. For me it's really interesting to start being aware of things like that. And also the way you are really sensitive to light and to draft and noise. To me it's really useful as someone who works with environments.
Joe: Now over to the Ways of Seeing Conference
Podcast: The Conference
Zoe: My name is Zoe Partington. And today is really about people feeding back about the issues which the whole conference and all the artworks have been developed for. And it's about how visually impaired people - blind and partially sighted people - access visual information. That could be in art galleries, museums but also in retail environments.
Ways of Seeing - the title is obviously from John Berger's book. Because I, as a student, was very interested in that book. And it's something I was given and a lot of his books. And at the time when I was studying History of Art, Design and Architecture, my sight deteriorated quite rapidly so my idea of and access to art changed very very suddenly. And suddenly I was in an environment where discussions with my art lecturers who believed that visual information and paintings and that that medium was the most important thing in the world. And I said well actually not necessarily if you don't have sight, you need other stimuli, you need other information, you need other things. So I began to question the book Ways of Seeing and the information given to people about messages through visual media.
It's about driving change forward and that's always quite a difficult thing - quite a challenge, because people get stuck into traditional methods and traditional ways of doing things. We need to start changing how those things happen. I want to talk about driving things forward and I think there are four things to that. One of them is taking responsibility and that's about all of us taking responsibility. I think that blind and partially sighted people are consistently asking for change in different ways and in different formats and I think probably not a lot has changed. Things have started to change like now we have the Disability Discrimination Act and that there are a lot more visually impaired people asking for things to change. Particularly when you go shopping now that a lot more people have a lot more money to spend so all sorts of issues are coming up. People are needing to address these things.
We wanted this art project to drive ideas forward to have a campaign of initiatives through the artwork. It wasn't talking and moaning yet again about something not being accessible. It's about the artwork grabbing you and taking you forward and looking at different issues within the artwork. One of the other things is about seeking out good practice. I'm a visually impaired person and I thought I knew a lot about accessing art and the different initiatives. But over these last two years, initially I did an internet search found all sorts of organisations that are experimenting, driving things forward and trying new ways to push art and make it more accessible to visually impaired people. And one of these organisations is Blindart and I was very interested in the sort of collections that Sheri Khayami, the director, has put together and worked with a big team to develop a whole touring show around accessible artworks some of those are by visually impaired people some by sighted people. But it's about each one of those artworks having a different element : so some of them are tactile, some of them are very brightly contrasted, some are audio sound files. You can go to the website and find out more about them.
In many ways, change is the responsibility of all of us. If just disabled people are asking for change, it's going to take a lot longer to change things. It's about the positive messages. Change and making things accessible can be incredibly positive. It can be very creative. It's about identifying solutions. it's about planning. It's about consulting with visually impaired people who face these issues on a day to day basis. It's about being honest and open and putting these issues forward. Together, in collaborations with artists and other people, to try to find the best way to develop links and ideas. It's all about finding creative solutions to access and trying new things.
The opportunity we've had with these artists - obviously we'd have liked 20 more artists and to develop other things as well - it's been really great for all the groups involved.
Podcast: Tate Modern
Joe: Disability Arts Online commissioned artists Rachel Gadsden, Liz Porter and Lyn Cox. Here Lyn gives us a hands-on visual tour of sculptural pieces created for the conference by Ruth and Adrian Spaak.
Lynn: I suspect that this may be Ruth's work as I've seen her work in the past. But I don't know - someone will have to tell me in a minute. It's made of a plastic lino kind of stuff that's got different designs and different patterns on it. Some of them have got circles on them, others have got more dotty type circles. Are most of them circles? Let's see. No - some of them are multi-sided by the looks of it. But they're loops - loops and hoops. It reminds me of a kind of carpet-weave but it's not at all that. Very organic, very much like foliage in a way and hoops which are all twisted in and out, creating this multi-layered design. I'm looking at the one end and as, an artist myself, I'm always looking at how things are made which is really bad of me. It's quite intriguing how this is made, and it's made up of lots of different elements ... these are like hoops and bows and the one next to it is similar but then when I go across, there is another section to this artwork which is made of the long strips of this lino-type material which is also textured. These are slightly thinner strips. I can imagine these hung up rather than on the floor as they all seem to have a hoop of very strong wire at the end of them. And this one just hangs down and it's probably about three foot long, in places, although the strips which would normally be hanging down (but are going across the floor) are of different lengths and some of them are as short as a foot. And you can imagine if that was free-flowing, hanging up from the ceiling, rather than lying on the floor, it would look very different. It almost looks like a ... I don't know ... a reposing snake or something. It's very textured and very beautiful. But the other shapes work better on the floor because there's a real 3-dimensionality about them whereas the other one is kind of flattened off. These other ones are hooped up and have a real vibrancy and the elements of the lino stick up into the air and they haven't lost their 3-dimensionality ...
Lynn: Lynn Cox here and I'm doing a quick interview with Marcus Dickey Horley from Tate .. and your official position is ... Marcus?
Marcus: I'm Tate Modern's Curator of Access Projects.
Lyn: We've just had a talk from Marcus about what the Tate series of galleries, and the Tate Modern in particular, is doing to increase their accessibility to people. I wondered, Marcus, if you could tell me how you feel that some of the things you learn as a gallery may impact - as part of the Ways of Seeing Conference is looking what galleries may be doing and the good access in galleries - how that can be taken into retail situations.
Marcus: I think that when we look at access at Tate Modern, it's a whole series of issues
It's issues around: people actually getting to Tate Modern and accessing the building physically; how people know where we are in London; how they manage the journey to Tate and, once they're through the doors, how do they use the building. That is a situation that needs to be addressed by everybody hoping for large visitor numbers - not just museums and galleries - but also shops and shopping centres. Certainly, any shopping centre built in the 21st century should not have anything in it like, for example, unavoidable steps, trip hazards, bad contrast, confusing noise and lighting. These are features that have been built into Tate Modern and the fact that we've avoided these problematic areas
Then there is staff awareness and staff training. Are the members of staff on the front line, which the public meet and interact with, disability aware? And then there's the offer of services to people with disabilities or visual impairments, sensory disabilities for example. At Tate Modern we have a regular programme of events and translating that into a commercial or a retail environment - I think it would be very interesting to see large department stores making an offer of events for people with sensory disability. I'm perhaps talking outside the area of my expertise here, but drawing on the experience of Tate Modern, we provide touch tours for visually impaired people. Now how would a department store for example replicate that or how would they train their staff to provide touch tours of their objects. There is also a big area around commerce and finance. At Tate, we are not doing things for profit. At Tate, it matters not to me if people spend money when they come through the door. Whereas in shops and in a retail environment this is potentially an issue they would be concerned with.
Something I'm particularly interested in is people who perhaps don't self-define as having a disability but who nevertheless benefit from accessible services. For example, I'm thinking of disabilities linked to ageing. I would imagine that many older people, who would benefit from nice clear print, large fonts, legibility and so on, would never define themselves as hearing-impaired or visually-impaired, but nevertheless are benefiting from that service. A good example of this is when Tate Modern designs its fonts, its typefaces, for the information printed on the walls. We never print information on the wall which is less than 16-point size. And that's not just so that we are providing a service to visually impaired people. We are providing that service to everybody. I'm thinking particularly of busy times of the day, when we might have 25,000 people visiting Tate Modern in one day and huge groups of people clustered around wall captions. It's just good visitor care to provide a legible font and a typeface which is in a large scale which as many people as possible can actually see.
Now some museums have taken this further. For example, at the Victoria and Albert Museum they are lending out hand-held scanners so visitors can scan text on the walls and have it read out. We don't have this at Tate Modern. It will be interesting for me to learn from the Victoria and Albert experience whether of not this is a useful service..
Lynn: One of the things I've heard that Tate Modern is providing now are the visual guides that people can take around with them to look round the exhibitions. I know this potentially is a problematic area for visually impaired people as they can't read the screens, though it may help some partially sighted people. Those of us who can't read print at all will be limited more by that. Have Tate come up with any solutions or any ways around that difficulty at the moment?
Marcus: I think that technically most museums and galleries are taking the decision to move from the acoustiguide wand which is entirely button-based to a palm pilot. And in order to use a Palm Pilot - you're absolutely right Lynn - you have to be able not just to
identify a number on a wall next to an art work, but then you have to be able to type that number on to the touch screen of the palm pilot. And for visually impaired people making independent visits it is perhaps not helping. So what we do at Tate Modern is that we can potentially offer someone to give assistance to a visitor. We trained 25 members of front line staff to provide touch tours and be aware of visual impairments. So I think that if somebody who was so visually impaired that they could not use a touch screen was to come to the information desk for assistance, it is highly likely that a trained member of staff could accompany them on their tour of the exhibition. This raises the whole issue of entitlement and rights to independence. As a visually impaired person, I think you should have the right to spontaneously get up in the morning and think I want to go to Tate Modern and turn up at the gallery and expect a range of accessible services and not necessarily have a sighted companion with you. My hope is that as technology improves, so access to services will improve. But I think you're right to highlight the fact that this move from acoustiguide wand to handheld Palm Pilot is perhaps more suited to people with some degree of sight who are able to use a touch screen.
Joe: I'm here with Rachel Gadsen. Lynn Cox and Liz Porter at the Ways of Seeing Conference and we're going to talk about the workshops that these different artists have attended. Can you tell us about the workshop you attended?
Lynn; I went to a workshop on binaural recordings, which are recordings you do with a microphone in each ear. Similar to stereo, but you get the sound almost that you would get normally through your own ears, through your own skull, through your own brain ... I particularly enjoyed this workshop. Sara gave a very basic introduction to binaural, but she made it very clear to everybody who might not have been familiar with those kind of concepts and how it worked. And she illustrated very well with some recordings and just by moving around somebody wearing the microphones. It brought it to life so clearly and then we went around and did some recordings in the local vicinity and took them back and listened to them.
Rachel: With the workshop I attended, I think it was very clever to enable individuals very quickly to make something. So the actual process of making was achieved without any doubt. But I think what I was disappointed about as someone who uses a lot of found objects and tactile objects within my artwork, there wasn't that additional layer which can develop an intellectual dialogue between the maker and the person who is going to view, or hear, feel or touch the artwork. I would have liked less of the making process, but possibly show the possibilities of how tactile or found objects can add to the dimension of experience.
Liz: I went to James O'Halloran's Colourwise workshop which explored colour and how colour can be used effectively with colour contrasting which, as a partially sighted person I was quite interested in. And it was quite difficult because the restructuring of the day gave us a very short time, so he had to do a lot of thinking on his feet to rejig what he had originally planned. What we did was to have the opportunity to mix colour from a range of colours he had selected. We could use our palettes to mix and then paint squares which he then laid out in a long line in the corridor for people to look at colours and how they might contrast. I didn't get a lot out of this artistically, but I can see why they chose to look at colour in the way that they did for the art pieces we are going to see later on. Getting people to think about colour contrasting and how that would work. And we talked a lot about how colours are often named obscure names which you don't necessarily identify with what that colour is going to be. He got the group to rename things. I think I could get the point of it but it didn't do a lot for me artistically.
Rachel: I would certainly have liked to have seen a more creative exploration of audio-description layered into films that was touched on by various questions earlier this morning. It would have been interesting to have had a film and to play around with how you could make a poetic description for it and how that might have been backed by the rhythm of the music. I would certainly like to have seen that and have much more time for discussion. It's great to hear about different practices and it's certainly relevant to hear from the different people involved in this project creating things, but there's never a lot of time to exchange artistic ideas about how you might take it further forward.
Lynn: Mentally I find it difficult to make the links between retail and the links between the art and how that's related on the day and actually how we take some of these practices through to the retail experience. I found from interviewing Marcus Horley, he knows a lot about his own sector and Tate have their own way of working, But then relating it back to the exhibition that's on currently and the artwork produced - the overall theme didn't seem so coherent to me. The other thing I found was that I would have preferred this to be almost a 2-day conference and, like Liz has said, I would like to have discovered more about some of the issues raised by doing these projects and how we can put some of these ideas into practice with visually impaired people and potential retailers and exhibitions if that's the route you want to go down..
Liz: I think it's a little frustrating There was a very good variety of creative sessions that people could experience this afternoon. And I think that's a good thing. But I would like to have known much more in advance than I did know that those sessions were on offer. And if this conference is to run again I would like a much longer creative session, information in advance so you could choose one or two options. Its good having creative sessions and time for discussion but it feels like it's almost trying to cram too much into one day.
Rachel (walking alone) : I've just come out of a workshop run by Ruth Spaak, a very able, capable artist who makes tactile work. I joined the workshop, because I put a lot of found objects into my own paintings and I wanted to see what was on offer and how the tactile process could influence how you might decide to work. I actually made a small piece which I threaded together beads and various strands of plastic and came up with a rather decorative thing that looked like an accessorised necklace.
I feel very strange because I had a peculiar sensation this morning. One, the reality of finding myself now unable to see in the way I used to see and also feeling frustrated that often, at events like this, people tend to concentrate on the accessibility of the art rather than in the intellectual and artistic dimensions of the work and I feel very frustrated at the moment. I'm walking along this boulevard where buses are going past where there really isn't anybody - I hardly see anybody. The buildings all take on a mirage-type form because of the way my sight distorts any surface that my eyes happen to move across. And I felt like that this morning - a type of fog : the fog of wondering what I was doing at the conference, what contribution I could make. I feel disappointed because I know that the conference was highly thought out, very very carefully co-ordinated and put together, but that I myself, as an artistic practitioner with sight problems, should feel so frustrated attending a conference like this. I wonder who the exhibition is geared towards, whether it had too many ambitions, making it accessible to everyone: people who aren't artistic, people who implement art into their organisations, to gallery leaders. gallery organisers.
As you can hear from the way I'm speaking, I'm feeling very confused. And I feel very strange just walking along this boulevard. I think it's called 'Boulevard Something', or it might not be, but it feels like that walking past sterile buildings with reflective surfaces. I keep hearing noises of buses. It's a strange thing being here. It would be interesting to see how successful the artists have been in making artwork that is accessible. Workshops took place to generate the artwork, so the process has been a collaborative process with people from Bucks Blind Association and other participants working with the professional artists. I believe that there are four different kinds of artwork that we'll actually see when we get to the shopping centre.
This morning we had a gentleman who came from the Tate Gallery and how they make artwork accessible for people with visual impairments. Although I think a lot of what they do is extremely admirable, I still came away feeling extremely frustrated. Frustrated, because I think that the galleries tend to operate at a level where people are only asked to think on one dimension, on one level. My own work is so multi-layered, and tries to capture or grasp the whole entity of the human condition. I still feel that in 2007, we're offering so little to people who have any form of disability and I find that incredibly frustrating.
One would be led to believe that I think I have the answers and I certainly don't. Accessibility is a starting point - it's where artists and viewers of the artwork should begin - it's a starting point to be able to see great artwork in the way it should be seen rather than the accessibility issue being the subject matter.
Joe (to Lynn): Can you give me an overview of the panel discussion.
Lynn: Mainly an awful lot of the points were to do with access, rather than creative answers to access and how the arts can be incorporated into that. So there are some pretty inaccessible concrete spheres apparently in Bletchley and it sounds like they are there now for good. So I suppose part of the solution is that if they are there for good, how do we make them creative, how do we make them visible, how do we make them part of the landscape so they don't become an issue for access and they become something more attractive and useable. So I felt that an awful lot of it was on the practical side rather than the artist's side. But there were discussions about producing DVDs of the art and some of the points it's raised as far as access is concerned for visually impaired and disabled people. And there was also a huge emphasis put on Interaction, and the people who work with Interaction and the participants from BAB for them to show this work, show it creatively to the councillors and actually look at how changes can be made to the environment and actually making some of these things more of a reality. And actually getting a positive outcome from the day, so the day becomes a launch pad for the next stage of art/access in a really creative vibrant way. I think that's a lot easier said then done in reality.
Joe: It's a huge remit as well isn't it? This day itself seemed to cram in quite a lot.
Lynn: I do feel that today would have been better done over two days. A lot more focus within sections might have worked as well for people. And clearer areas, as far as I'm concerned, with business for the arts. And the lapovers - because there are potentially quite distinct lapovers - but I felt as if that was just coming together at the end of the day when everybody felt zonked, rather then being the start of the second day after we'd thought about some of the issues and actually thought about some of the things that were raised by doing the creative workshops today.
I think that would have worked a lot nicer. Obviously a lot of this is due to money and time restrictions and you can see why it was done as a one-dayer. But it's a really interesting launch pad. It's raised far more questions than it has answered.
(Fade out : Excerpt from soundtrack of Surface Tension by Chris Ankin. Music only without voiceover.)
Joe: Love them or hate them, large retail spaces, such as the Midsummer Place in Milton Keynes, can provide accessible meeting places for disabled people. The Ways of Seeing project highlighted the critical role art has to play in breathing life into an environment which would otherwise be nothing more than a space for hollow consumerism
This podcast was produced in collaboration with sound artist Joseph Young
(Fade out ends)
Review of Ways of Seeing
Storyteller Liz Porter gives a review of the exhibiton and conference
Ways of Seeing was organised by Diablo Arts in partnership with Inter-Action MK.
The day set out to engage arts practitioners and providers with ideas and ways to explore making visual arts practice accessible to visually impaired people, both as creators and audiences.
This community arts project sought to explore the relationship between arts/access and the retail environment. A series of artworks were displayed in the Midsummer Place Shopping Centre as a result of this work. The conference provided an opportunity for the artists involved to talk about the process. Certainly I think the project succeeded in giving a few visually impaired people an opportunity to participate in a high profile project event working alongside professional visual and multi arts practitioners. However, I believe the conference was trying to be something else by looking at access in Art Galleries Museums too (involving Tate Modern). It was also unclear who this conference was meant to be for.
Had the conference stuck to examining what had happened in the last few months and been promoted as an opportunity to hear from Artists involved in the project and explore the role for visually impaired people in the arts at both community and professional level with a slant on access in retail environments, I think the day would have had more focus and enabled a more open debate which could have included the participants in the discussions.
It was good to hear from all the artists involved and see/hear examples of their work. However, although there was an audio describer present, she had only gained access to the work that day and had been given very little time to prepare any descriptions, and therefore was ‘winging’ it, responding to what she saw in the films as they happened. She did extremely well. I was disappointed that the visual pieces of work had not included creative audio description during the process of making the work. There was a missed opportunity particularly within the film work. Strong music tracks evoked great atmosphere to which a creative rap or poem could have been overlaid, words, sentences would have given greater depth and more interesting layers to the work. I can only imagine that the groups ran out of time, but I got the impression that little thought had been given to this aspect, partly because only one of the main artists was in fact visually impaired (Alison Jones) and although I got a strong sense that visually impaired participants had contributed enormously to the work and visually impaired culture does come through, this was not the case with all pieces.
There was almost too much to fit into the morning and not enough time to enable fruitful discussions and certainly not enough involvement from the participants themselves. There were several well-established visual artists in the audience and many experienced Disability Arts providers. Here would have been a fantastic opportunity for a ‘free for all’ dialogue about creative potential for the development of creative access and creative work by visually impaired people and all artists and also to think through the relevance of the pieces of work in a Disability Arts context. I think we missed a great opportunity to think through how visually impaired people’s culture can be and is being reflected interpreted within the multi media arts world. Also to explore the role of community arts in today’s creative industries.
What really worked for me were pieces where anecdotal narrative flowed into imagination, where sound evoked experience.
Hearing from Tate Modern didn’t do it for me although I was extremely pleased when Sarah Pickthall from the Arts Council asked why Disabled creators weren’t involved more at commission level. I couldn’t help feeling that we missed another opportunity for a great discussion around interpretation of work in more detail. Also if the Tate know they need two years to commission big pieces, then commission some Disability work now. Involve Disabled creatives in the education work and creative projects that spark off the exhibitions, use the bigger pieces of work to inspire and create new work. Be bold. For me it’s no good saying ‘well it takes 2 years'. It's a missed opportunity. It was interesting that one of the participants asked Marcus Horley why Tate Modern was building an extension in London, when, for her, transport and many other factors meant she couldn’t get to many of the big galleries. I think the point here is the need for more lateral thinking and outreach projects that extend and reach out beyond London
Ways of Seeing Exhibition
In the afternoon, I had the opportunity to visit the Mall and experience the art in situation.
I particularly enjoyed Alison Jones and Paul McCann's sound installation which had been made in collaboration with Prunella Barker and Kathy Martin. The piece was a cacophony of different sounds that might be heard swirling around a large retail outlet or shopping mall. Seen from a visually impaired perspective, participants were interviewed on their experiences of Midsummer Place and given freedom to express their ideas. These were mixed with everyday ambient sounds from the environment, and the finished piece did give a sense of the confusion loud sounds can have when trying to orientate yourself around such spaces. Alison Jones is an established visually impaired artist and this came through in the piece that felt very connected to visually impaired culture in getting around a space. As a partially sighted person, I certainly could get into this one. I liked the way the piece was on a constant loop interrupting the everyday sounds of the Mall every 4 minutes. This reflected what it can be like for a visually impaired person in an unfamiliar environment when you don’t know what sounds and experiences are round the corner.
Sarah Heitlinger in collaboration with Prunella Barker, Padma Cherlyan Rachel Day Veronica Dry and Robin Patching
The group explored the problems and potential solutions to public transport and visual impairment. Through a series of soundscapes, a guided tour to the bus stop from Midsummer Place and then an imaginary trip to a time when public transport and access is totally in place. A time with talking bus stops that alert drivers to stop in advance (many buses don’t bother), and a talking device to guide you everywhere you want. I loved the imaginary journeys and think this partly worked. When we eventually found the place in the Mall where you could put on headsets (it was tucked away in a corner) walking through as you were guided to the bus stop was a very good way to heighten visual impairment awareness, but the creative angle was missed a bit. I think we could have been invited to listen to the creative slant of the imaginary journeys that the group had developed.
My background is storytelling and I love personal storytelling and this work had a strong narrative approach and lots of potential for playing around.
Surface Tension, Noise in a Blind Mans Fog and Lodestone were 3 multi-media short films created by Chris Keenan in collaboration with Chris Ankin, Prunella Barker, Merlyn Bay and Bernard Bradnun
Displayed in a cube in the centre of a lighted part of the Mall, you could easily have walked by these pieces, except that the evocative and powerful soundtrack (created by Chris Ankin) that accompanied the work drew you in. However, in the mall without any audio description, all I could see was a series of flashing lights and blobs blurs which didn’t really have any real meaning. In the conference, with the audio description, I had got a really strong sense of connection to visual impairment culture, what it’s like to wonder around an environment with constantly changing surfaces underneath your feet. In Blind Man’s Fog I was interested in the use of fog and changes to lighting, something as a partially sighted person I experience as an everyday life experience, also the feeling of isolation, being alone in an often crowded space. I quite liked the fact that this had been filmed at a time when there were no people, but equally it would have been very interesting to film the mall when it was full of hustle and bustle with crowds. I don’t know I would have preferred this work if it had been filmed by visually impaired people as I think this would have added a different dimension.
This piece didn’t really work in the middle of a lighted mall and although there was a smallish sign nearby many people would have had absolutely no idea what the concept was and why the piece was there.
Equally frustrating and to me pointless in the Mall was the two long banners created by James O’Hanlon in collaboration with Bernard Bradnum, Ellen Davies, Rachel Day, Eileen Puxty and Paula Suchy.
Colourwise, examined the use of colour and colour contrasting.. I thought I understood the concept during James' description at the conference, i.e. that the group discussed colour, the naming of colour, what works, what doessn't and how this related in a retail environment, thinking they’d have explored signage, labels of clothes, creative potential for developing good examples. I can understand why the group wanted to rename colour swatches to be more related to what the colour actually is rather than esoteric weird names that don’t mean anything. I’m pleased they looked at font size, colour contrasting coming up with a postcard that reflected this, but the banners – I was very disappointed, because they did not work at all in the Mall, and were totally boring. If I hadn’t known they were in an exhibition and what the exhibition was about I’d have walked straight past them thinking they were possibly advertising paint (badly), I guess they were deliberately placed under a glass roof the light got in the way it was extremely difficult to see anything. OK if you know that this might have been the point to demonstrate what it’s like for visually impaired customers walking through a mall who can’t read signs, I could buy that, but it would have wonderful to have had a brightly coloured mosaic which really highlighted good practice, imaginative use of colour and design signage, a great vivid sign could have been placed in the entrance of the Mall explaining what the exhibition was all about. Something that celebrated what the BAB members had collaboratively created with the artists. It’s not often that visually impaired communities get the chance to be involved with a project like this on such a scale and despite it’s failings, it’s still a great achievement to have an exhibition in a shopping mall. I think I just felt disappointed that people generally walking through that Mall during the week of the exhibition would not have known what was going on and frankly might have missed the point.
It is ironic that the workshop I chose to attend in the afternoon was Colourwise, and I think I was drawn to the potential of exploring colour and colour contrasting creatively. Sadly the workshop didn’t really get off the ground. Rather than us painting weird and wonderful colours which got laid out in a line on the corridor floor and a quick discussion around colour contrast, I wish James had involved a member of BAB because I think the workshop would have taken on a new dimension. I know that the workshop had been cut down in time and so we didn’t have time to do much but rather than paint oblongs I wished he had prepared a whole load of squares and ask us to mix and match to create a mosaic or design some new shop signs.
More involvement needed from artists with visual impairments
I know from experience that organising a Disability Arts event is extremely challenging. Not only have you got to think about the practicalities of selecting an appropriate venue, transport, catering technical equipment etc, but also endeavouring to ensure that everyone's access needs are met and this is often on limited budgets. Outreach and marketing such events takes an enormous amount of time often drumming up support at the last minute. What you think is going to take one day takes ten! Yet I couldn’t help thinking this conference was trying to be something it didn’t need to be.
Zoe Partington clearly undertook a huge project. It is good that such a project was led by a visually impaired arts practitioner with ambitious vision,. However, I’d have liked to see more visually impaired artists involved in the creation of the work produced or more Disabled Artists, I was pleased that Caroline Cardus made a point of mentioning the importance of including Disabled creatives in projects such as this. There’s a wealth of professional expertise out there that could have been tapped into.
I am disappointed that this is the 2nd conference around visual impairment and access issues that I have attended this year - the later being Envision (Audio Description conference) - in which we as visually impaired arts practitioners did not have the opportunity to really engage with the debate around our own involvement as both creators and participants.
There is much need for well funded opportunities that bring the visually impaired creatives cross artform practice together to share ideas, perhaps an opportunity for us to really explore our own culture within an creative arts industry, dream up, create, and have opportunities to play, research and then deliver. We can do it!
After I left Ways of Seeing I went to see a very small funded research project of EXTANT (a professional theatre company of blind and partially sighted people) in which a cast of 4 blind and partially sighted actresses explored the world of Burlesque from a visually impaired perspective. Created in just 6 days from the group meeting a visually impaired director and assistant and one sighted Burlesque artist, an extraordinary 1-hour highly professional funny evocative piece of work was devised. Performed to a packed invited audience in London, mixed up of visually impaired arts practitioners, general visually impaired people, sighted colleagues and friends from the arts and all sectors of society. We had the most fantastic discussion around the role of AD in dance, Creative audio description, touching of visually impaired culture within the theme explored, it was totally inspiring and reinforced my belief for the need for more visually impaired led projects, but these need to be more realistically funded. Bring it on!!!!!