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> > > Edinburgh Festival: Audio-description at the Unlimited Exhibition... Summerhall

11 September 2015

Unlimited’s first exhibition at Summerhall is a series of ambitious mixed media installations by the UK’s leading disabled artists. Chloe Phillips reviews the audio description available with the exhibits on show until 5 October

black and white photo of elderly actor Tim Barlow holding a white mug

Tim Barlow is the subject of Sheila Hill's Unlimited commission 'Him'

In my experience, as a blind actress and theatre-maker who is one of the recipients of this year's Unlimited Impact commissions, Unlimited is unparalleled in terms of access. They've provided me with the utmost support. I was disappointed, therefore, to find the exhibition's audio description lacking in many aspects.

It's incredibly difficult to succeed in providing access that is adequate for everyone - an individual's access requirements are as individual as the person themselves - and my sole intention with this review is to provide some (hopefully useful) constructive feedback, rather than give the impression of negativity towards Unlimited.

The line between being constructive and being negative is very fine, and I've often found when talking about access issues there is a tendency to criticise in a less than helpful way. After all, this is something affecting a lot of us, and we all have varied and strong opinions based on each of our unique perceptions of the world around us.

The problem with audio description is that nobody's ever quite sure with whom the responsibility lies: is it the venue or the artist? In this case, I arrived at the venue and was met by incredibly friendly and helpful staff, but was told that there was no AD for the exhibition. Had I not been there primarily to review it, and expressed this, the accommodating staff wouldn't have found the AD headsets.

This, unfortunately, was the start of a tricky journey through a rather inaccessible exhibition for a visually impaired visitor. Had I taken the staff's word for it I could easily have gone into the exhibition (which wasn't easy to find - we wandered around searching for 10 minutes) without AD access, and I never would have been able to read the statement in small font on the wall that AD was available from the invigilator upon request. 

There was no invigilator there to ask. So far, had I not been with a friend, I would neither have found the exhibits, nor had access to them.

Upon finding the exhibition, the battle with the horribly inaccessible AD devices began. It took both of us a long time to crack the code of tiny icons and incongruous controls: a frustration that we'd have to repeat many times as there was one device per exhibit - some of which had run out of battery, so not all works were described.

The first piece we viewed, Katherine Araniello's darkly comical 'Dinner Party Revisited', is a film that requires the viewer to wear headphones to hear the audio track.  
The AD, of course, uses a headset. There lies the rub - you can't listen to both at once, so which do you prioritise? This juggling of head gear poses quite an issue, as it's the same for at least five other works in the exhibition.  

Another problem with this setup is that the films are on a loop. You have no control over them, so no ability to sync them with the AD. If it were possible for the viewer to control the film, and if the AD was available on the wall next to the exhibit with clear signage and instructions on how to synchronise the two, the experience would be much easier.

However, in some cases the films are short enough that you can get a concise, adequate description at the start, then listen to the piece. The best example of this was Sheila Hill's 'Him', which allowed ample time for description before the film's audio began. The AD itself for this piece was very good: concise but with some colour, it gives a warm insight into Tim Barlow's character.

Ideally, AD should be integrated into the exhibits from the start. An example where this could easily have been achieved is Nicola Canavan's movement piece 'Between Land and Living', which featured a music track that could have had AD laid over it. The description for this piece broke away from the others in that it continued throughout: it became quite relentless, very literally describing the entire piece, but without corresponding to each image as the describer rushed through, and it became so hard to concentrate on I just gave up.  

The war film collection, 'Does It Matter?', was interesting, but as the files for all 4 films were on the same impossible device it was a mission to sync them up with the correct film - you'd need very good eyesight to achieve this.  When we did manage it the audio cut out halfway through or kept skipping, so we never got to the end of any description.

The most memorable and striking piece, for me, was Bekki Perriman's 'Doorways Project'. There's no AD for the photography part of the work (it's in two parts, the second being an audio exhibit). It apparently says somewhere you can ask an invigilator to describe the images and read their accompanying anecdotes, which would be fine had there been an invigilator present.

The audio part is in the courtyard. Again it proved very hard to find - there was a map provided (not in large print) that luckily my friend could read. It was lucky also that the festival was ending as the courtyard was nearly empty. The exhibit features a series of voices depicting their experiences of homelessness. It is beautifully immersive, as we stood awkwardly in various doorways (where the speakers are positioned) to listen, we noted the multi-faceted purpose in their positioning.

The exhibition, overall, is very worth visiting. However, it's a huge disappointment that a visually impaired person would struggle to access it independently, whether that's due to lack of staff at the venue or a well intended, but slightly misguided, AD design.

I do believe the former of these two issues did contribute most heavily to my experience of the showcase, but I also think it could have been made much easier with some of the adaptations I mentioned above.

I'm aware of the reasons behind decisions taken by Unlimited not to integrate the AD into the work, and I totally understand this reasoning, but I do believe there is a call to start thinking in a different and more creative way about AD and its integration.

Happily, this is exactly what Unlimited have commissioned me to do: explore ways in which we can develop audio description as a creative tool, and in so doing we're forging the way forward, changing what has traditionally been thought of as purely an access tool into something more immersive, inclusive and much more interesting.

I know that Unlimited, being the forward-thinking organisation it is, will welcome this feedback, and if you make it to the exhibition please feel free to share your thoughts with them too. 

Unlimited at Summerhall is on show until October 5th. Please click on this link to read Colin Hambrook's review of the exhibition itself.

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