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Saturday, 11 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery 2

As part of some scoping work for my new research project on creative and collaborative audio description, I have been experiencing AD in various settings. Last week I went to a high-profile (and expensive) exhibition at an internationally renowned university museum whose AD provision was rather limited. Yesterday I went to a small exhibition at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester (Kent) who have adopted a much more inclusive, and impressive, approach.


This photograph shows a poster advertising 'The Value of Touch'

'The Value of Touch' is an exhibition of work by members of the Kent Association for the Blind Medway Art Group curated and facilitated by artist Wendy Daws, whose new touchable art works also feature in the exhibition. Yesterday's tour was particularly remarkable for the layers of interconnected and collaborative audio and tactile experience it revealed and encouraged. At the beginning of the project, in July 2016, the artists were given an audio and tactile tour of objects in the Guildhall Museum's collections by the collections manager Steve Nye. They then worked with Wendy to create tactile art works inspired by the museum's artifacts. Not only was art created in response to tactile and audio experience, it also had tactility embedded within it. This meant that yesterday's audio described tour, delivered by Lonny Evans from VocalEyes, could easily incorporate a tactile element because all the art works were designed to be touched as well as looked at. In addition, Wendy added her own touchable art works to the show.

This photograph shows Wendy's artistic responses to the artists' work. Lonny's audio description says: "'Low Relief Tactile Representations' captures in tactile form the key artworks from the exhibition. A significant motif from each of the artists' work has been selected and rendered in 11 separate crystacal plaster plaques moulded from carved clay. The raised plaques are creamy white and about the size of a large side plate. They are embedded in two rows into a purpose built grey table." What Lonny doesn't say is that beneath the artworks is a sign, in print and braille, which says 'Please touch gently'.
These artistic responses to the artists' responses to the museum's objects create a third layer of tactile experience which visitors can explore alongside the artworks. Lonny's description adds an audio layer. When experienced together these four elements represent both an artistic response and a tactile-audio translation; a brilliant example of how access can be literally built into art and how art can be inspired by access as well as being mediated through it.

After describing the general layout of the exhibition spaces, Lonny gave us an audio account of a selection of the artworks on display before letting us touch both the artworks themselves and some of the artifacts which inspired them. Lonny also included quotations from the artists and those artists who were present also spoke about their own works. The result was an immersive, collaborate and inclusive audio and tactile experience which enabled visitors to experience art in a multi-sensory way.

As well as writing and delivering the AD script, Lonny has agreed to make it available online so that anyone can use it as part of their gallery experience. This means that blind (and sighted!) people can get a sense of the exhibition before, during or after their visit. The museum has also produced large print and braille guides to accompany the exhibition.

When I asked the Ashmolean why they had not produced large print, braille or audio guides for their Degas to Picasso exhibition, they said that it is generally not worth producing such materials for a temporary exhibition. But yesterday's audio tour at the Guildhall Museum''s temporary exhibition gave 20 blind and partially blind people an unforgettable and immersive experience. It is also now available to anyone who wants it. This exhibition is a model of best practice which other museums and galleries should be encouraged to emulate. This is because access is celebrated here for its creative and collaborative potential. It is positioned at the centre of this exhibition, not added (or more often than not omitted) as a costly and cumbersome afterthought.



Thursday, 2 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery



This image is a screenshot from the Ashmolean website. It is made up of three panels. The left-hand panel gives the title of the exhibition, in the middle is a picture of a mother and child which looks like a Picasso (but in fact isn't), and on the right is a panel with further information. 

In the February issue of their Museums Journal, the Museums Association included an article with the somewhat 'no-brainer' title 'Museums need to do more to welcome disabled visitors'. According to the article, whilst museums are keen to point out that their galleries are accessible to wheelchair riders, and that guide dogs are welcome, they do not always make the actual collections accessible to partially blind visitors. This is particularly true of temporary exhibitions and the Ashmolean Museum's current blockbuster show, 'From Degas to Picasso' seemed to be no exception. The show's website reproduces the frustratingly familiar misunderstanding of access evoked in the article. To the Frequently Asked Question: 'Is the exhibition accessible?' they provide the chirpy but misleading response:
Yes. Access to the exhibition is via lift and the entire exhibition is wheelchair accessible with handheld labels available.
Undeterred, I phoned up to ask about availability of audio description headsets, large-print labels or a Braille catalogue, I was not surprised to be told that none of the above existed. But I was delighted to be offered a 1-to-1 audio described tour of the exhibition from a knowledgeable expert-guide.

When I got to the museum, my guide Lynne was waiting for me exactly where I was expecting her to be. She introduced herself, led me up to the exhibition and gave me an overview of the history of the collection and its contents before we went into the three-room show. She then provided me with descriptions of a selection of the pictures, coupled with the kind of information that brings art and its history to life. My friends and family have been describing pictures to me for years, but none of them (apart from my Dad) know enough about art history to combine the kind of objective description used by audio describers with an insight into artistic techniques, context and the painting's place in the collection more generally. As Lynne adapted her descriptions to my interest, sight levels and knowledge of nineteenth-century French art, the tour became a collaborative response to the pictures. Indeed, at one point another gallery-goer chipped in with her interpretation of a detail in one of the exhibits.

The tour had other unexpected consequences. Lynne encouraged me to break the unspoken rule of gallery going and get as close to the paintings as I could. With my nose pressed up against the glass, and her fingers guiding my eyes, I could see globs of paint, brush strokes and chalk marks that I would never have dared to discover otherwise. I also noticed that as we moved from the nineteenth-century realism of David, Ingres and Millais, to the cubist work of Picasso and Braque, Lynne's descriptions reflected the visual difficulty of the pictures. As we together deciphered Albert Gleize's cubist portrait of Stravinsky, for example, our inability to find the language to describe the disjointed shapes on the canvas reflected the picture's own challenge to normative ways of both painting and seeing. I like to think that the cubists' challenge to conventional representation was being echoed in our unconventional approach to the guided tour. Part tour, part audio description, our collaborative exploration of a selection of the exhibition's works felt like a wonderfully immersive way of sharing different ways of seeing and talking about art.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to benefit from Lynne's time and expertise. But I am sure there are lots of partially blind people who will never access this art. Some will be put off by the website's failure to mention audio described tours. Those who are persistent enough to find the right number to call (FYI at the Ashmolean, access is handled by the education department), may not be free on the same days and times as Lynne. (As is so often the case tours are not usually offered on weekends or in the evening). Or they might be put off by the 1-to-1 format. This is wonderful art that everyone should be able to experience. Surely it can't be that difficult or expensive to record or transcribe Lynne's words and make them available in audio, large-print and braille versions for anyone who wants them.






Sunday, 29 January 2017

Crowdfunding Appeal: Please Support Cull by Tanvir Bush

Making a crowdfunding pledge is always a bit of a gamble. You are agreeing to back something that you like the sound of, but unless others do the same, there is no guarantee that your support will make a difference. I made my first foray into crowdfunding four years ago when I backed indie documentary 'Best and Most Beautiful Things'. When I received my copy of the film earlier this year I was delighted that my gamble had paid off. You can read more about this wonderful film here.

I backed 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' because it promised to depict blindness in creative and unsentimental ways. Too many representations of blindness in film and fiction trot out tired stereotypes which do nothing to change the largely negative ways that society sees blind people. If we want these attitudes to change, it is essential that positive images of blindness become more prevalent. This is a crucial means of ending discrimination against disabled people. The new satirical novel Cull by partially-blind writer and film-maker Tanvir Bush has the potential to do just that. Not only does it feature a partially-blind heroine but it is billed as 'a fabulous, funny, sharp, outrageous satire about the deadly dark side of discrimination'. And it is endorsed by Fay Weldon. What's not to like?  In addition, the synopsis sounds very promising indeed:
Alex has a problem. Categorized as one of the disabled, dole-scrounging underclass, she is finding it hard to make ends meet. Now, in her part time placement at the local newspaper, she’s stumbled onto a troubling link between the disappearance of several homeless people, the new government Care and Protect Bill and the sinister extension of the Grassybanks residential home for the disabled, elderly and vulnerable. Can she afford the potential risk to herself and her wonderful guide dog Chris of further investigation?
 And the excerpt is definitely worth a read. Having enjoyed Bush's first novel Witch Girl, I know she can write and I'm convinced that this is a novel that needs to be published. I've made my pledge. Will you? Click here to support Cull.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Audio Books and Disability Gain

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful book. And it is a powerful example of the value added to a book by its audio version. It is the story of a family - a father, a mother and four daughters - who move from America to the Congo in the early 1960s. The father, a Baptist missionary, wants to bring the word of Jesus to the people of the village. The women just want to survive. The novel is full of rich descriptions of the plants, animals, food and inhabitants which the family encounter in their new home on the edge of the Congolese jungle. Especially when listened to, it is an immersive and sensual account of place.

The story is told by five alternating voices as the mother and her daughters take turns to speak directly to the reader. All the women have distinctive ways of speaking and they all relate to language in intriguingly different ways. These differences are brilliantly reflected in the audio as the narrator – listed as Robertson Dean (although I have my doubts about this: see * below) – uses different intonation and rhythm for each character. The distinctions made by the audio voice are so strong that when I skip between sections of the book, I can tell which of the five characters is speaking without referring back to the chapter heading introducing them.

But here we come to a problem, one which I blithely skipped over in my previous post about audio books. What should I call the person, in this case, (apparently) Robertson Dean, whose voice I hear in my headphones as I listen to the story? S/he is a reader, but not in the same sense as me, or in the sense of the notion of 'reader' used by literary critics when discussing a text's impact. S/he is also a narrator, but again not in the sense that literary critics use the term: unlike Kingsolver’s five narrative voices, the audio narrator is external to the story, yet also part of it through the voices s/he creates and his or her presence in my head. (We might call this collapsing of outside and inside the audio equivalent of free indirect style). The audio narrator is also a storyteller, in that s/he tells me the story, but as both Kingsolver and her five fictional narrators are also all story tellers, we need a way of distinguishing between them. So what word can I use to describe the work and function of the audio narrator? From now on, and to avoid the kinds of confusion alluded to above, I will use the French word conteur (male) or conteuse (female) – a word meaning variously teller of tales, oral storyteller, out-loud narrator - to refer to the person who has recorded the audio version of a book.

Back to The Poisonwood Bible: the text is particularly suited to being listened to because of its poetry. Adah in particular speaks in rhythmic prose poetry, frequently reversing lines of text or creating long poetic palindromes. Kingsolver plays too with the resonances of the three languages which the family encounter. Their native English becomes increasingly mixed with the French of the Belgian colonizers and the Kituba or Kikongo spoken by the village’s inhabitants. One of the most astonishing benefits of listening to a text rather than reading it is the way its patterns and sounds surround and bewitch you: for days during and after listening to The Poisonwood Bible I have had new words, like maniop, kakakaka, bangala and mongosi scattered through my thoughts and dreams.  I cannot write with the poetry of Kingsolver but I can urge my readers to aurally immerse themselves in this powerfully evocative world.

As well as being an epic story of the effects of colonization, the battles for race and gender equality, the dangers of military rule and the difficulties of democracy, The Poisonwood Bible is also a powerful celebration of disability through the story of Adah.

Despite her final, silent ‘h’, Adah is proud of her palindromic status (indeed I did not know about her ‘h’ until I read about the novel on Wikipedia). She calls herself Ada. Like me Ada is a palindrome, and like me, she is asymmetrical. She was born ‘crooked’ (she has hemiplegia), she walks with a limp and she does not speak until adulthood. Indeed, her palindromic status makes her a poet: she reads front-to-back and back-to-front and her world is full of a magic that she loses when she is later ‘cured’. Most people judge Ada by her physical appearance and treat her as a slow and backward child. She is often forgotten or left behind, most notably on the terrible night of the ant invasion. But her voice - which only the reader hears for much of the narrative - is full of wisdom and wit. As an adult, Ada is cured of her limp and begins to walk ‘normally’. Whilst her family and colleagues are delighted by her new able-bodiedness, Ada herself feels like she has become a different, and less interesting person. Her response to her ‘cure’ resonates strongly with my own feelings about disability gain, exemplified for me by the power of the audio book:

I am still Ada but you would hardly know me now without my slant. I walk without any noticeable limp. Oddly enough, it has taken me years to accept my new position. I find I no longer have Ada, the mystery of coming and going. Along with my split body drag I lost my ability to read in the old way. When I open a book the words sort themselves into narrow minded single file on the page. The mirror image poems erase themselves half-formed in my mind. I miss those poems. Sometimes at night in secret I still limp purposefully around my apartment like Mr Hyde, trying to recover my old ways of seeing and thinking. Like Jekyll I crave that particular darkness curled up within me. Sometimes it almost comes. The books on the shelf rise up in solid lines of singing colour. The world drops out and its hidden shapes snap forward to meet my eyes. But it never lasts. By morning light the books are all hunched together again with their spines turned out, fossilized, inanimate. No one else misses Ada. Not even Mother. She seems thoroughly pleased to see the crumpled bird she delivered finally straighten out and fly right. ‘But I liked how I was’, I tell her. ‘Oh, Adah, I loved you too, I never thought less of you, but I wanted better for you’. Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western civilization. Expect perfection and revile the missed mark. Adah the poor thing. Hemiplegious, egregious, beseigious. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault. But one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance offstage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray! All better now! Hooray! If you are whole, you will argue, why wouldn’t they rejoice? Don’t the poor miserable buggers all want to be like me? Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you or get the Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be alright. How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? (The Poisonwood Bible chapter 13)

* Robertson Dean is credited with the narration of the audio book but I spent the whole novel convinced I was listening to a female conteuse. Having listened to samples of Dean’s other work on the audible website, I am struggling to believe that he is the conteur of Kingsolver’s work. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Best and Most Beautiful Things


This image is the cover of the DVD: it is a shot of Michelle's legs waiting at a pedestrian crossing in the dark. Her white cane is also shown. She is wearing bright pink ballet pumps and mismatched knee-high socks.

In 2013 I was contacted about a crowd sourcing project to fund a documentary about a legally blind student graduating from Perkins School for the Blind. I was pleased to make a donation and a few days ago I received my Kickstarter reward: a free download of Best and Most Beautiful Things. The film, which was released to much critical acclaim, aired on PBS yesterday and is now available to buy as an iTunes download or a DVD with Audio Description. 

Before I watched the film, I was worried that it would be yet another sentimental, 'triumph over tragedy' story about a blind girl overcoming adversity. But knowing that it won 'Best in Fest' at the 2016 International Disability Film Festival 'Superfest' reassured me that I was about to watch a creative and critical depiction of blindness.

'Best and Most Beautiful Things' is indeed a thought-provoking film about blindness. But rather than trying to teach its audience about life with blindness, the film simply shows Michelle going about her daily life. This is a hugely effective way of sharing Michelle's experience without depicting her as victim, object or other. We see her magnifying text on her computer, holding print close to her face and using her white cane. We also see her roller-skating, singing, shopping, getting dressed and skyping. Blindness is part of Michelle's normal. So as we watch the film it becomes part of ours. The film's cinematography helps us share Michelle's way of seeing. Extreme close-ups replicate Michelle's proximity with everything she sees whilst out-of-focus, decentred or jumpy shots echo the world beyond Michelle's field of vision. There are also moments which remind us of the disadvantages and advantages of blindness. I have often experienced Michelle's tearful frustration when fruitlessly searching for a lost object. But on the other hand, her karaoke singing is made more beautiful and more fluent because she is obliged to memorise the lyrics of every song she sings.

This still from the film shows Michelle colouring in a large home-made poster which says 'Unlearning Normal!' in rainbow letters.

In 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' Michelle urges us to 'unlearn normal'. The film shows Michelle's refusal to conform to any of the stereotypes her parents, teachers and acquaintances might have once associated with blindness. Her provocative re-appropriation of the myth of the infantile blind girl is particularly interesting. She challenges some people's tendency to overprotect or talk down to blind people, particularly blind women, by both her proud love of dolls and her discovery and celebration of submissive BDSM age-play. Michelle's sex-positive, non-binary stance is a crucial part of the film's challenge to normal. As the director Garrett Zevgetis puts it in a Q and A for PBS:

Our collective ideas about “normal” can be downright dangerous and thus must consistently be challenged. #HackNormal: The most dangerous and deep rooted normality might be hegemonic masculinity.


We all have a tendency to make assumptions about other people based on our own preconceptions. 'Best and Most Beautiful Things' urges us to rethink how we see others. It is a powerful, touching, yet resolutely unsentimental call for a more tolerant, imaginative and creative society where everyone is valued for who they are.

Watch it.