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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A Sensory Tour of the Watts Gallery

As part of my ongoing work on creative audio description, I have been collecting different ways of experiencing museums. In March I had two very different experiences at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester. This weekend I took part in a sensory tour of the Watts Gallery, led by visual artist Monica Takvam. The Watts Gallery is a collection of late-nineteenth-century painting and sculpture by British artist G F Watts, one of the leading artists of Victorian England.

When we met Monica, she explained that rather than giving us a traditional audio-described tour of the paintings, she wanted to take a much more immersive approach to the collection. Before leading us into the gallery itself, Monica asked us to think about the surrounding grounds. We were encouraged to listen to our surroundings and asked to choose words to describe our sense impressions. Once in the gallery, Monica encouraged us to break with conventional ways of experiencing art. Rather than looking at the paintings and sculptures, she asked us to smell them and to find any that smelt particularly strongly. It had never occurred to me before that even sculptures which are more than one-hundred years old still smell of their materials. Paintings too carry the smell of oil paints in them, and a stronger smell can suggest several layers of paint.

This photograph shows me with my nose pressed close to Watts' cast-iron bust of Clytie

Instead of describing the whole collection, Monica focused on one picture, Watts' painting of Greek mythological figure Clytie. First, Monica encouraged the non-blind members of the group to participate in a collaborative description of the painting. Then she took us outside to a half-hidden sunken garden where we were able to touch a stone bust of Clytie which Watts made as a study for the painting. We also had the chance to explore the cast-iron bust pictured above. By juxtaposing painting and busts, Monica cleverly used Watts' own artistic practice to create a sensory experience of the painting.

In the final part of the tour, Monica, who is the artist-in-residence at the Watts Gallery this year, introduced us to her own work. I was particularly drawn to two photographic portraits of blind people hanging on the wall of her studio.

This photograph shows one of Monica's artworks. It represents a man's head and shoulders. The man's features appear blurred because they are behind a sheet of Perspex. Holes in the Perspex form words in braille. 

This portrait is hanging on the wall of Monica's studio at the Watts Gallery. Monica invited us to touch the Perspex cover and explore the holes pierced in it. The holes spell out words in braille but these words are too difficult for a braille reader to understand: like David Johnson's art installation they are 'Too Big to Feel'; they are also absences rather than raised dots. Sighted viewers are just as frustrated in their quest for information. Through these holes we are given tantalising glimpses of the photograph beneath. but it is not possible to build up a complete picture of the man's face. This piece challenges both blind and non-blind ways of seeing. It remains impervious to the sighted gaze whilst also denying blind readers easy access to it. It raises questions about how we see and how we look at other people. It also creates an association between blindness and sightedness which emphasises their shared lack of perception.

This photograph is a close-up of the Perspex cover with the braille holes in focus. Details from the photograph are visible through the holes whilst the portrait itself remains blurred.

Like her art, Monica's tour brought blindness and sightedness into dialogue. As well as myself, our group included one completely blind adult, two non-blind adults and two non-blind children. Rather than focusing on the blind members of the group, Monica included everyone: by privileging all our senses, and by thus introducing new ways of experiencing art, she encouraged everyone to rethink their relationship with visual dependency and to explore their neglected senses.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Braille Legacy: the irony of (lack of) access

When I heard that a French musical about the life of Louis Braille was opening in London my heart sank. How, I wondered, could the production possibly avoid the stereotypes of blindness in a genre which thrives on cliche-ridden songs of sentimental pity or triumphant overcoming? Luke-warm reviews of the show confirmed my fears, as did the director's controversial decision not to cast a single blind or partially-blind actor. Disability activist MIchele Taylor criticised the show for its 'spectacular cripping-up' of blindness as well as for its failure to employ any blind cast or crew: she boycotted the show for these reasons. Despite not being able to attend an AD performance - out of 90 performances, only 2 were audio described and they were both on the same bank holiday weekend when I was out of town - my curiosity got the better of me...

...and on one level it was rather better than I was expecting. An outstanding performance by Jack Wolfe as turbulent, intelligent (and actually quite sexy) bad-boy Braille and some pretty good tunes led to an enthralling and moving evening: on the whole the play did a very good job of telling an important and little-known story. But there were also some serious problems....

From Vocaleye's helpful introduction to the play I learnt about the over-complicated glass and wood two-storey set, the unnecessarily detailed period costumes and the fact that all the blind characters in the play wear blindfolds to symbolize their blindness. 

Wait. Blindfolds? Really? 
Yep. Blindfolds. 

In their introduction, the describers explain that 'All the actors in the production are sighted.  Blindness is indicated by gauzy black cloths worn as blindfolds.'

This use of blindfolds to represent physical blindness is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it suggests that blindness is these children's only defining characteristic; their blindfolds stigmatize them, positing them as a homogeneous and marginal group who are diametrically opposed to their sighted teachers and carers. Secondly, it suggests - wrongly - that blindness is always total and always in both eyes. This use of blindfolds reminds me of the controversial use of blindness simulations to allegedly teach sighted people about blindness. Researchers have recently found that simulating blindness can in fact do more harm than good, and I fear that the show's use of blindfolds may have a similar effect. 

But as the play progresses, the blind children sometimes remove their blindfolds, particularly when they are celebrating the invention of the braille alphabet or protesting against the Institute's refusal to let them use braille to read. This removal suggests that the blindfolds do not in fact signify physical blindness at all. Instead they stand for the metaphorical blindness which comes from being denied access to literature and knowledge. This association between blindness and lack of knowledge is of course equally problematic. As David Bolt explains in The Metanarrative of Blindness, the ‘seeing-knowing metaphor’ (p. 18), like the ‘blindness-darkness synonymy’ (p. 21) and the odd idea that people are either fully blind or fully sighted (pp. 69-70) all contribute to sighted society's view that blindness is an affliction in need of a cure or a tragedy in need of a happy-ending. But at least this metaphorical dimension allows the director to make the point that the children are 'blinded' less by their physical lack of sight than by society's insistence on using sighted means to communicate information. 

Importantly, as well as telling the story of the invention of braille, the plot of The Braille Legacy includes a sinister suggestion that an over-zealous ophthalmologist at the Institute was secretly conducting dangerous, even fatal, experiments on the children's eyes in a bid to find a 'cure' for blindness. Happily, this medicalization of blindness is countered by the play's more sympathetic characters who argue that blind children do not want or need a cure: instead all they need is a simple and universal way of accessing information. This tension between cure and societal change echoes the tension between the 'medical' and 'social' models of disability which still exists today. By associating the cure with the death of innocent children, the play controversially argues against medical intervention and in favour of improved access to literature, culture and the arts. 

Given this insistence that the blind children deserve access to knowledge, it is unspeakably ironic that the play itself was not made accessible to blind audience members. If audio-described performances are too expensive then why not include AD in the show itself? Surely this production would have been ideally suited to the kinds of integrated audio description deployed so effectively by theatre company ExtantWhy not use a simple set rather than a confusing structure with reflective surfaces and glaring spot lights? Things off-stage were no better. Despite the fact that the production was supported by the RNIB, I saw no evidence of braille or large-print programmes. This is a shocking omission as is the fact that the video about the play on the RNIB website is captioned but not audio described. If the RNIB can't lead by example then how can other organisations hope to improve access? To be fair, the front-of-house staff had clearly had some training in how to act as sighted guides, but their techniques, whilst enthusiastic, were clumsy and patronizing in places. Perhaps the play's overall lack of accessibility meant that they did not have many blind audience members to practice on...

Overall, this production represents a massive missed opportunity: whilst the play's script convincingly calls for the emancipation of blind people, this optimistic message is completely undermined by the failure to make the production accessible. Like the embossed books which frustrate Louis in the opening scene, the play was designed by sighted people who have put no thought into the best way for blind people to access its content.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Precious Blindness Archive and Museum Under Threat!

I began Blind Spot Blog immediately after my first research trip to the Valentin Haüy library and museum in Paris in February 2012. My first post is full of excitement at the rare and precious books which I discovered there thanks to the archivist and curator Noëlle Roy. Noëlle retires next month and she learnt recently that she will not be replaced. This raises worrying questions about the future of the books and artifacts in her care.

It is impossible to over-state the significance of the Valentin Haüy collections. The library's founder, Maurice de la Sizeranne (1857-1924), began collecting copies of works of French literature either written by blind authors, or referring to blindness in some way, in 1886. Since then, the library has continued to acquire both fictional and non-fictional material relating to blindness and blind people in French (and to a lesser extent English) and is thus quite simply the single most important collection of literature on blindness in the world. Presumably acquisitions will cease without an archivist to manage them. Many academics, students and general readers have used the collection in their work. Zina Weygand's crucial history of blindness in France owes a significant debt to the collection as does my own forthcoming book Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction. Many of the speakers at the 2013 History of Blindness conference and the 2015 Blind Creations conference referenced the Valentin Haüy collections directly and most of my conference presentations since 2012 draw on material I discovered there.

The collections are a crucial resource for researchers but they also have huge symbolic value. They are housed at the heart of blindness history, next door to the Institut national des jeunes aveugles where Louis Braille was educated and where he developed his eponymous writing system. In addition, Sizeranne's decision to collect works by and about blind people transformed blindness from an affliction into a valuable means of cultural production. His collection legitimized and validated blindness as a life experience and crucially gave a voice to a group of people who had been - and continue to be - silenced by mainstream culture. Any threat to the Haüy collections is a threat to the ongoing exploration of the history of blind people. It is also a threat to research into disability history more broadly. Most importantly though, the threatened loss of access to this collection risks an erasure of the history of a marginalized and under-represented group. If people can no longer access this collection of materials by and about blind people, this history could disappear. Sizeranne began his collection to celebrate and empower blind people. It is deeply sad and shocking that a resource that has been growing for more than 130 years is now under threat.

It feels particularly poignant that I am writing the blog post from the Association canadienne pour les études sur le handicap (Canadian Disability Studies Association) conference in Toronto. Tomorrow I present a paper on Québécoise writer Marie-Claire Blais whose work I first encountered at the bibliothèque Valentin Haüy. Without the Haüy collections I would not be here.

If you want to save the Valentin Haüy collections please e-mail the two directors of the Association Valentin Haüy using the addresses here and here.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Book Review: Patient H69

This image shows the front cover of Vanessa Potter's book. The title - Patient H69  - is presented in the style of the familiar Snellen eye chart. The subtitle - The Story of my Second Sight  - and the author's name sit beneath the eye-chart letters.

Vanessa Potter, otherwise known as Patient H69, lost her sight suddenly over three bewildering days. In this compelling memoir, - part patient diary, part journey into and out of blindness, part popular science book - she describes how her sudden blindness made her feel, what changed as she slowly regained her sight, and how her new way of seeing has changed her outlook on the world and herself.

When Vanessa and her publisher first asked me to read and review her manuscript I was worried that I would find yet another blindness-as-tragedy, triumph-over-adversity story. But Vanessa's refusal to accept the role of passive patient-victim, the pleasure she takes in the new experiences of her 'second sight' and the humorous and articulate way she talks about her own and others' reactions to her new way of seeing, saved this book from becoming yet another self-pitying account of blindness as almost death. 

There is much of interest in Vanessa's tale. Some readers will love the human-interest aspect of Vanessa's story as she describes how her illness impacts on her life as wife, mother, daughter and friend. Some readers will be fascinated by the psychological and neurological explanations which underpin Vanessa's understanding of her condition. I am most interested in what Vanessa's story of sight-loss tells us about how visually-dependent and appearance-obsessed modern society has become. 

It is fascinating to see how Vanessa's attitude to blindness changes. At first, she sees blindness as unimaginably awful, so unspeakable that she bans her family from even using the 'b' word. Although the terror she feels at the possibility of going blind is entirely understandable given how visually dependent sighted people tend to be, the passion with which she articulates her fight against her failing sight nonetheless still feels like an insult to blind people. When she refers to herself as 'staring with that blank, off-centre gaze that blind people have', Vanessa not only lumps all blind people into a homogeneous, alien and unattractive group, she also refuses to relinquish her sighted status, by talking about 'them' as opposed to her. Perhaps it is this inability to see herself as blind that prevents Vanessa from accessing services for blind people. As I read the descriptions of her struggle to weigh herself, her abandonment of reading, and her attempts to write with a giant felt-tip pen I was horrified that no-one offered to help her get hold of some talking scales, an audio book subscription or the kind of free text-to-speech software I discuss here.

After several days of total blindness, Vanessa becomes more appreciative of its nuances and wonders. At the very moment when her sight begins to return, albeit in odd, unpredictable and indescribable ways, Vanessa begins to appreciate the complexity of seeing and not seeing. Her struggle to put her new way of seeing into words is the book's most interesting part. For during this struggle she encounters society's misguided obsession with perfect sight and its consequent need to categorize people as either 'blind' or 'sighted'. Vanessa can read nothing on the Snellen eye chart. She is therefore officially blind. But she can see patterns, shapes, even faces. Yet the medical establishment has no way of measuring this kind of sight. By showing how seeing actually happens on a spectrum, and how it is as much about the brain as it is about the eyes, Vanessa reminds us that everyone sees things differently. No-one has perfect sight so everyone is partially blind.

Vanessa quickly learns to supplement her sight with her other senses and the enjoyment she takes in this new way of relating to the world is a precious reminder that sight is not as necessary as we often think. The multi-sensory nature of Vanessa's prose reflects her other senses' expansion. For example, her description of the sound of the nurses' shoes as an 'invisible symphony' is a clever and synaesthetic way of combining (non)sight with sound to emphasize the power of the latter over the former.

But despite this increasingly multi-sensory approach, which is beautifully and evocatively reflected in her prose, Vanessa refuses to give up her fight for sight. Throughout the book she insists again and again on her need to see. This stubborn reliance on sight is the book's most important, yet most unsettling message: by revealing just how embedded sight is in most people's sense of their own identity, Vanessa unwittingly reveals the complex reasons why most people are terrified of losing their sight. Anyone who is frustrated by society's refusal to acknowledge the validity of their particular way of seeing will find much to relate to in this enthralling account.

Patient H69 is available in print and e-book here. Enter PATIENT at the checkout to receive at 30% discount. It is available from amazon here as a kindle or audio book. At my behest, Bloomsbury have provided descriptions of all the images found in the book here.

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.