'Opening Up Creative Culture' - Colin Hambrook discusses audio-description and the work of the RNIB Cultural Inclusion department
I have long objected to the idea - encouraged in art school - that visual artworks, should by definition, only be able to 'speak for themselves' - and that any written or spoken text interpreting a painting or a photograph simply 'got in the way' of the viewer's imagination. Words, when used creatively, and in an accessible way add layers enhancing the viewer's experience of the artwork, rather than telling people what to see.
Yesterday, Zoe Partington, Cultural and Inclusion Arts Development Officer at the RNIB, presented the end of a three year programme of work looking at what galleries and museums can do to encourage access for blind and partially sighted visitors. She presented 'Opening Up Creative Culture' - a series of films about sharing learning about audio-description, which confirmed my thoughts on the potential of the medium to enhance collections, archives and heritage, both ensuring access to culture for blind and partially people, but also for giving anyone, another way in, to appreciate the arts.
The series of twelve short films - available on youtube - contain various perspectives. Gavin Griffiths talks about the importance of having access to culture and the nuts and bolts of what information he wants to hear when accessing art as a blind person. Audio-describer Louise Fryer gives an articulate and animated overview of what excites her about audio-description and the subtleties that make it an engaging experience.
The films come alive when interrogating the specific. In one of the films we get an in-depth look at what words you might use to interpret the smile of the Mona Lisa. In another Paul Fordham from Punch Records talks about how his perceptions of creating a contextual language changed during a project, working with RNIB and spoken word artist Evoke to produce audio-description for 'By the Rivers of Birminam' - an exhibition of work by photographer Vanley Burke, held at the mac Birmingham, last year.
From a position of not understanding why you would want to audio-describe an exhibition, Paul goes on to talk about how he came to realise many more layers of meaning in the photographs, and how listening to the result felt like he was discussing the work with a friend, as he walked through the exhibition.
At the Tate Modern event we got live pieces from Louise Fryer and from Evoke responding to a photograph from the exhibition, of a young black boy in his Sunday best, taken somewhere in the dusty back streets of Birmingham in the late 1960s. Louise gave us a functional description, which was nonetheless creative through her carefully considered choice of words, giving us precise and subtle details of all aspects of the image.
Through poetry Evoke was able to give us an emotional connection to the image and to add layers of meaning which took it from the specific to a universal appreciation of a young lad on the brink of a life to come. By keying into his posture and facial expressions you got to know the photograph itself, but also got an understanding of the cultural context. Through his words Evoke was able to convey something of the time and place, of the life expectations and of the value of telling stories through pictures as well as words. You can hear examples of these descriptions on Punch Records website
Lastly Zoe Partington introduced us to a CultureLink publication she has been working on at the RNIB. Shifting Perspectives is a well produced, glossy guide to opening up museums and galleries for blind and partially sighted people. The book identifies approaches to key aspects of service delivery which can help improve access to museums and galleries venues, collections and archives. Shifting Perspectives gives an overview of strategies for overcoming barriers of access to museums and galleries - both intellectual and physical - for blind and partially sighted people. It discusses the work done with seven different cultural organisations in working with blind and partially sighted people to produce a range of accessible environments.
Unfortunately the Cultural Inclusion Team at RNIB is to be closed due to RNIB focusing on strategic priorities in the new business plan and reduced resources. Zoe has worked in this field for over 20 years and will continue to develop creative solutions to museums and galleries across the sector. She said "the films are a fantastic resource via modern digital networks to take this forward and reach modern audiences and utilise the funding given by Arts Council England to the best economic and cultural value possible in light of recent cuts in the arts."
To contact Zoe for further support, advice or information on 07803607008 or email email@example.com
'Shifting Perspectives' second edition is available to buy through the RNIB online Shop or by phoning the helpline on 0303 123 9999.
The Disability, Arts & Diversity Symposium: 'From the Personal to the Universal' at Salisbury Arts Centre last week, promised to be "an in depth look at Disability Arts and activism from the viewpoints of artists, producers, presenters and policy makers."
There are myriad implications for Disability Arts and its activist role in the wider social context, but to my mind the Symposium itself did little to address the issues. I wonder if somewhere along the way, the glory of Unlimited has gone to our heads? Many of those commissions address discrimination through talking about marginalisation, through telling personal stories and creating social engagement - through for example asking a wider public about their attitudes to the wheelchair - and all in all, like most art on public display, through entertainment.
But to my mind none of those works are actively challenging the status quo. All of the work comes from a middle-class elitist response to the barriers placed in front of disabled people. If it wasn't would it find a home in the Southbank Centre, or Salisbury Arts Centre?
In his address at the symposium Hassan Mahamdallie (Senior Strategy Officer, Arts Council England) talked about Standpoint Theory - based on the idea that those who are marginalised have more to give because we have to understand the centre as well as our own position in the scheme of things, whilst those at the centre don't have to understand anything beyond their own viewpoint.
We are seeing this now with the clash of class consciousness over the decision to spend £10 million on Thatcher's funeral - as if the whole country has a duty to mourn this one person. For those in the ruling classes there is no consideration of the worth of the millions whose lives were destroyed in one way or another through policies that directly demeaned and challenged our very existence.
Mahamdallie went on to talk about work that makes a virtue of being an outsider. Yes, I would say the work of Outside In, the work shown in the People Like You exhibition does that. But does it have an activist role? Who is art as activism for? We have the Disability Movement to thank for galvanising us to find artistic ways to protest through organisations like the London Disability Arts Forum in the 80s and 90s. The clarion call of disabled artists like Johnny Crescendo and Ian Stanton were a lynchpin for activism. Where and who do we have to turn to, now?
Liz Crow's 'Bedding In' to my mind, took an activist stance in giving a voice to those disabled people who are not seen and not heard. But where was the context in looking at how we develop approaches to giving a platform for the dispossessed? I would have cited the cartoons of Crippen or the visual poetry of Vince Laws in taking an agit-prop look at what's going on in the real world. I would have talked about the work of the Atos Stories Collective who are attempting to challenge the media and by writing plays about individuals experiences and getting the monologues out there.
Who would you cite?
You would expect that a symposium on Disability Art as Activism will centre around the role that the arts play in addressing political issues. There is still time to get involved in disabled artist Liz Crow's live marathon public sleepover taking place in Salisbury Arts Centre.
Liz takes centre stage in a large bed. Her purpose is to talk about what bed-life means for us as disabled people. She highlights the contradiction between the demands of the Benefits Agencies in making you present yourself as the worst you can be in order to qualify for benefits and the demands of being an artist to be the best you can be in order to win commissions, apply for funding etc.
The most striking comment Liz made during the symposium was a reference to her daughter's observation that there is a strong parallel between how disabled people are being treated and how witches were treated in the 17th century. If when you were ducked in water you drowned it meant you weren't a witch. If somehow you survived being held under water, you were a witch and were killed anyway.
This is so similar to the situation for far too many disabled people, literally fighting for life in a situation where making demands for allowances to be made for impairments means being told that because you are capable you don't need support. If you don't make demands for support you will die anyway. An average of 32 people per week are dying. At the same time the media report that 75 per cent of disabled people are 'faking it' and the DWP report that the instance of fraud is 0.3 per cent. Given these figures it's no wonder that instances of disability hate crime are on the rise.
As an artistic icon, bed-life is so often associated with either sex or death, with little middle ground. To my knowledge bed-life has been used only once before as a political statement in the peace protests of John and Yoko.
It's a somewhat spooky phenomenon to put yourself on display in bed in a large converted church. But that is exactly what Liz is doing. She's taking her bed to work in order to have conversations about disempowerment and isolation. The live performance is being streamed at www.roaring-girl.co.uk/
You can join the conversations now taking place via twitter using the hashtags #beddingout #truefacts #truestories and @RGPLizCrow
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