'Opening Up Creative Culture' - Colin Hambrook discusses audio-description and the work of the RNIB Cultural Inclusion department / 25 April 2013
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
'Shifting Perspectives' second edition is available to buy through the RNIB online Shop or by phoning the helpline on 0303 123 9999.