Public sculpture touch tour

Last week the current (and previous, i.e. me) MA Curation Practices students took the new intake of MA students – curators and creative practitioners – on an art walk in Leeds city centre.

I invited people to experience a public sculpture through touch rather than just by sight, considering what we can learn of a sculpture by doing this: material, temperature, technique, weight etc. And this elicited a discussion on who is allowed to touch in galleries and museums, and whether this needs reviewing.

It was a bit of fun with a serious undercurrent. The sculpture in question is The Boules Player by Roger Burnett on Bond Court. It was the only public sculpture that I found that was at a level so you could touch the whole thing. Other public sculptures tend to be on high plinths so you can only reach the base, if that.

The writers and their chosen artworks

Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland (2018), Matthew Bellwood, Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the challenge of creating and reading a description for my event on 19 July. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.

The artworks that the writers chose to describe were:

  • Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) by Frank Auerbach – Brian Lewis
  • The Remains (2007) by Roger Palmer – Matthew Bellwood
  • Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd – Emma Bolland
  • The Convent Garden (1878) by Francis S. Walker – Peadar O’Dea
  • The Bridesmaid (1883-85) by James Tissot – Eleanor Snare
  • Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage – Terry Simpson.

IMG_7227Brian Lewis’s detailed examination of an abstract work showed how much was represented in this painting of the pulling down a furniture store in London: Maples Demolition, Euston Road. Through the context of the artist’s body of work and the post-war period, we discovered how the layering of thickly applied oil paint reflected the subject matter and the period. Brian’s use of directional navigation to guide us round the picture was appropriate and effective. The tactile qualities of this work were not lost on us, even though we were unable to touch.

DSC00595Meanwhile, Matthew Bellwood told a fascinating tale of Botany Bay and its links to Leeds. A contemporary work in neon, quite minimal and stark, the layers of The Remains were revealed through research – into the artist’s other work and previous exhibitions, the woollen trade and industry of Leeds, the meaning of words and names, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the erasing of Aboriginal culture in Australia. A complex description arose from a deceptively simple installation. We made discoveries of our own, centuries after Discovery sailed.

EmmaIn the same gallery, showing contemporary works in the collection, Emma Bolland found her route in to her description of Movie through the letter form. This set up a conceptual dialogue with the visitor. Her description was an interrogation of what it means to see or to look at things differently, for gallery visitors to have different perceptions of artworks – from the artist, from other visitors and from curators. In addition, the bright daylight in the gallery all but obscured the moving image element of this installation, a fact that Emma wove in to her description, musing on what is and isn’t visible.

PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-38Peadar O’Dea, with his story of an agnostic Mother Superior, challenged by a novice in The Convent Garden, had introduced disabled characters, “… because I just like to write about disabled characters. I thought: Why not?” And why not introduce a fleeting bluebird, if it improves the plot? Playing around with timelines and describing the poses of the characters “as if caught in a painting” was inventive, introducing humour and playfulness. The painting was originally created to prompt viewers to make up stories. The stories we tell today may be very different from those imagined by the artist.

An art gallery with Victorian pictures on dark red walls. Several people stand around

One of the research participants had suggested that poetry is a good way to bring paintings to life. That was certainly the case with Eleanor Snare’s poem which accompanied The Bridesmaid. She wrote from the point of view of a messenger boy who appears in the foreground of the painting, chosen because he is the nearest person to the audience. Her beautiful poem described the scene with longing and wonder. This proved that a good description need not include every last detail in a picture – that would be boring and difficult to follow. Instead, Eleanor cleverly revealed key details through the observations of the boy.

Terry Simpson chose the mammoth Victorian painting Retribution. Such a significant and well-known (loved?) presence in the gallery seemed an appropriate ending to the event. It’s certainly a controversial picture, painted at the height of the British Empire.
Heroic Britannia is PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-46

shown exacting revenge on the Indian tiger. The painting in fact represents a shameful series of events provoked by Britain’s savage treatment of the people of India. Terry was able to put this into context and give a contemporary interpretation. Conflicting feelings arose from this work: condemning the injustice of empire while admiring the representation of a strong woman, “A Victorian super-heroine”.

In the discussions that followed the readings, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination. People picked out phrases or sentences that they particularly liked, or styles that they felt were evocative of a mood, scenario or historic period. Reading the drafts of the descriptions before the event, I had been impressed with the high quality of the descriptions, as well as the varied styles.

 

References

Armitage, E. (1858) Retribution [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Auerbach, F. (1960) Maples Demolition, Euston Road [Oil on board]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Bolland, E. (2018) ‘Silvery, Silvery’ Emma Bolland – Artist, writer, 3 August.Available at: https://emmabolland.com/2018/08/03/silvery-silvery/ (Accessed: 3 August 2018).

Lloyd, H. (2015) Movie [Digital film with sound, fan and fabric]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Palmer, R. (2007) The Remains [Neon]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Tissot, J.J. (1883 – 85) The Bridesmaid [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Walker, F.S. (1878) The Convent Garden [oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Slow looking

How interesting that Tate Modern is encouraging ‘slow looking’ at the current Bonnard exhibition (Brown, 2018). The show’s curator is quoted as saying that the paintings “reward very close and extended scrutiny”.

This is consistent with the findings of my research, that what suits blind and partially sighted people is good for everyone. The Tate is showing that close examination of works is a rewarding experience that reveals details of artworks gradually.

At the audio description event at Leeds Art Gallery last week, there were several comments by sighted people who realised that you didn’t need to take in a whole picture at once. In fact, if you did you were likely to miss many of the details and features. The descriptions that were read out pointed out some of the details that people might have missed and supported a longer, closer look at the artworks.

In an art gallery a man is moving one of the stands of a low flexible barrier in front of a large painting
Terry Simpson moves a barrier, ahead of describing Edward Armitage’s Retribution

Leeds Art Gallery had given me permission to move the barriers in front of the particular works we were viewing, so that partially sighted people could get closer to the art to better appreciate the detail. This is something that other participants took advantage of as well.

The Tate is also making their labels larger, so that people don’t have to break off their viewing to peer at them. Again, this is something that will benefit visually impaired people.

Reference

Brown, M. (2018) ‘Tate recommends ‘slow looking’ at major Pierre Bonnard exhibition’, The Guardian 23 July.  Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jul/23/tate-modern-slow-looking-pierre-bonnard-exhibition-2019 (Accessed: 25 July 2018).

An adventure in audio description

I’ve been writing a couple of reports about last week’s audio description event – one as a reflection and record, to be shared with interested people as well as being an appendix to my dissertation: An adventure in audio description report (pdf 1.22MB). Another for the university website (see https://www.leeds-art.ac.uk/news-events/news/an-adventure-in-audio-description/). Below is an article before severe editing – and a few more photos.

Twenty five people, a mix of visually impaired and sighted people, met at Leeds Art Gallery last week to explore the possibilities of audio description in the gallery. I invited them as part of my final MA project. I have been researching the experiences of blind and partially sighted gallery visitors, talking to visually impaired people about their connections to and appreciation of artworks in the gallery. This research informed the curatorial event: an experiment with live audio description.

The research participants had shared their experiences – positive and negative – of previous gallery visits and suggested ways that their enjoyment of art could be enhanced. Engaging all the senses, particularly hearing and touch, was important.

What was valued highly, and made gallery visits memorable for all participants, was having staff available to talk to, who could explain and answer questions, and who could guide them to artworks of interest. Pre-recorded audio guides can be useful, but they don’t match the responsiveness and enthusiasm that a worker or volunteer in the gallery can provide.

Blind and partially sighted people would not be the only people to benefit from being able to hear explanations or descriptions of artworks, or being able to touch objects. Participants agreed that these should be available to all gallery visitors and would improve everyone’s experience.

While participants were familiar with audio description in the theatre or on television, nobody had come across it in an art gallery. Audio description relates key visual elements of a scene. In film, theatre or TV it aims to be as objective as possible. Describing art, on the other hand, offers opportunities for innovation and creativity. With this in mind, I invited six writers, including artists, poets and storytellers, to produce a description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection, and to read it out at the event, to an audience comprising visually impaired and sighted people.

Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland, Matthew Bellwood (pictured above describing Roger Palmer’s The Remains), Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the occasion. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.

In the discussions that followed, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination.  The event showed that improving accessibility can be creative and can benefit everyone.  But, more than anything, it had encouraged everyone to look more closely, to notice more detail and to make deeper connections with art.

Many thanks to Leeds Art Gallery for supporting this event.

My report of the event: An adventure in audio description report (pdf 1.22MB).

An art gallery with Victorian pictures on dark red walls. Several people stand around
Elly Snare reads her poem on Tissot’s The Bridesmaid

Looking closely: audio description event, Leeds Art Gallery 19.7.18

The story tellers made the paintings come alive and was a great way to describe the art to the visually impaired (participant at event).

This was the “instance of curatorial practice” I organised as part of the MA Curation practices. An experiment with audio description: I invited six writers to create an audio description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery and to read it out to an invited audience made up of blind and partially sighted, and sighted, people.

Four people stand in front of a large abstract painting
Discussing Frank Auerbach’s painting with Brian Lewis

The planning paid off, it was a good event, largely thanks to the wonderful descriptions that the writers had produced. The works they covered:

  • Brian Lewis – Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) by Frank Auerbach
  • Matthew Bellwood – The Remains (2007) by Roger Palmer
  • Emma Bolland – Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd
  • Peadar O’Dea – The Convent Garden (1878) by Francis S. Walker
  • Elly Snare – The Bridesmaid (1883-85) by James Tissot
  • Terry Simpson – Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage.
PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-46
Terry Simpson prepares to describe Edward Armitage’s Retribution
IMG_7234
Poet Elly Snare mid flow, bringing Tissot’s The Bridesmaid to life

I’d made a few last minute changes to my plans, because I got wind that a few extra people, as well as those invited, were going to turn up. While it was exciting that a lot of people were interested in the event, extra bodies posed some logistical issues. I decided to split the group into two. Each group would hear three descriptions each rather than all six. This worked OK with careful timetabling and by drafting in a friend to help out. The added bonus of this approach meant there was more time for questions, discussion and taking a close look at the artwork.

Five people stand round in a bright art gallery, listening to a woman reading
Emma Bolland reads her text about Movie by Hilary Lloyd

The descriptions, which included a poem, stories, a letter to the viewer, historical contexts and personal viewpoints, were all brilliant, from their different approaches. There were appreciative comments from participants and writers and everyone seemed to enjoy the event. The descriptions were effective in bringing artworks in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection to life, and in getting everyone there to look more closely at the art.

 

I’m gathering more feedback and will do a proper evaluation of the event. For now, here are some photos.

 

Huge thanks to all the writers and to Leeds Art Gallery for letting me hold the event there, and to education officer Amanda Phillips for her support.

Links to audio recordings

Emma Bolland: https://soundcloud.com/emmabolland/silvery-silvery

Peadar O’Dea: https://soundcloud.com/gill-crawshaw/peadar-odea-reads-the-convent-garden/s-QOPGR

Eleanor Snare: https://soundcloud.com/gill-crawshaw/eleanor-snare-reads-poem-the-bridesmaid/s-YY7JX

Terry Simpson: https://soundcloud.com/gill-crawshaw/terry-simpson-describes-retribution/s-mCXe4

 

 

 

Further research

My research for my dissertation has been completed, but I didn’t want to pass up meeting another interesting person! Having spoken to Linda at length on the phone back in April, I knew she would be worth chatting to. However, due to studying for a diploma, she wasn’t available till early July.

Linda is a keen traveller, has visited many museums around the world and has been in many roles representing visually impaired people, including for the RNIB, which is how I made contact. She told me about a lot of museums and places of interest where she had had an interesting and rewarding experience, for example:

  • The working model of the Millennium Bridge, Newcastle, available to be touched
  • Whitby Abbey’s audio tour, told through the character of a monk
  • The stonework in Barrow-in-Furness Museum: “You could just touch it, it was marvellous!”

Top marks went to the Yorkshire Museum (pictured, with map behind the statue), due to the approach of the staff.

“I would’ve happily gone to Yorkshire Museum on my own, the staff were so good”.
“There was a map of the Roman Empire on the floor, he [staff member] moved my cane round the map. He loved his subject. If I hadn’t seen anything else that day, it would have been worth it.”

Of a visit to a different museum, she said,

“It was a fabulous experience. She took the time. What you need is time. people aren’t always willing to give up their time for you. That’s what we need, more than most.”

When we arranged to meet, I suggested to Linda that I could summarise my research findings to get her perspective, rather than talking in the art gallery, which proved useful. I found her comments on touch particularly wise:

“There’s an assumption that we are clumsy and likely to drop things, but that’s just not true. We are really careful, we have to be, it’s our way of life. Blind people are much better at manipulating objects and getting around than people think we are.”

Assets not deficits

In my research, I aimed to identify assets that visually impaired people bring to curation within the gallery space. I therefore took an asset based approach to the research, within the framework of the social model of disability. The starting point of this approach recognises that visually impaired visitors to the gallery have strengths or assets to bring. Tapping into these strengths could offer curators and galleries opportunities to innovate and to improve the experiences of visually impaired people along with other visitors.

This approach has been (heavily) adapted from a type of place-based community development, known as ABCD or asset based community development (Nurture Development, 2017), but in this case applied to the community of people with visual impairments.  When realised fully, ABCD provides a structure for local communities to come together to identify, link up and use the assets that they have, categorised as: individuals’ capabilities; local associations; neighbourhood institutions; physical assets; exchange between members. The task of development workers, community leaders, connectors and activists is to support this to happen in order that those communities can draw on their own strengths to solve problems they face (McKnight, 2016). The essence and spirit of ABCD, of drawing on communities’ strengths, was a useful tool which informed my research.

Asset based approaches do not ignore or deny barriers and inequalities that communities face. But by focusing on strengths, communities can tackle these barriers more effectively.  While the social model of disability has a focus on barriers, accessibility and discrimination, an asset based approach enables attention to also be given to disabled people’s capabilities. Although I took care not to describe blind and partially sighted people as somehow “special” or having unusual powers. Rather people’s lived experiences can be valuable assets in curation.

In his research into blind people’s experiences in art museums, Hayhoe writes that ‘We are now on the edge of a new form of the post-deficit model of blindness’ (2017, p.43) . This idea is important if galleries and museums are to move away from thinking of visual impairment as being purely about deficiency or loss, as Candlin claims they often do:

… disability was understood as being an impairment or lack that as far as possible needed to be made good through the other senses, and so touching functioned as a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for sight (Candlin, 2010, p. 124).

Going beyond the ‘post-deficit model’ that Hayhoe identifies, an asset based approach offers one way of better understanding, valuing and including the experience of visually impaired people in galleries and museums.

Finally, the very title of Georgina Kleege’s book More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (2018) tells us that visually impaired people can indeed enrich art. She calls for a reassessment of blindness in relation to wider society and culture:

If we abandon the notion that blindness can only diminish, damage or destroy identity, and adopt instead the idea that the experience of blindness, in all its varieties, can in fact shape and inform other facets of personality and personal history, we will move towards a more genuinely inclusive society. (Kleege, 2018, p. 13).

 

References

Candlin, F. (2010) Art, Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McKnight, J. (2016) ‘ABCD: Origin and Essence’ Nurture Development. Available at: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/abcd-origin-essence-john-mcknight/ (Accessed: 13 June 2018).

Nurture Development (2017) About Asset Based Community Development. Available at: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/about-abcd/ (Accessed: 14 March 2018).

The joy of risk assessments

A necessary part of any event. I am using a form provided by Leeds Art Gallery which helpfully includes information from previous assessments so I can adapt it. Some risks e.g. causing offence, unruly behaviour, may be minimal! It’s designed for many eventualities.

But need to factor in any additional risks in the gallery for blind and partially sighted people. All the participants hate freestanding barriers!

Things to consider / include:

  • Welcome and introduction – include practical information
  • Moving around the gallery
  • Furniture – use of folding stools, need to make sure they aren’t obstructions
  • Keep the numbers fairly small so we can hear
  • Avoid noisy areas for descriptions e.g. top of stairs
  • Don’t use electrical equipment
  • Some people might not want to be photographed
  • Ask a friend to be a guide and look out
  • Ask people to arrive in good time
  • Check the descriptions for any potentially offensive material!

Touching natural history

At Oxford University’s Natural History Museum there are all sorts of objects you can get your hands on, including real ancient trees, rocks and fossils, bears, badgers and other animals. Plus the Touching Evolution display which has objects, tactile models, raised relief drawings and Braille.

img_6922

These exhibits were in prominent positions, part of the general displays, available to everyone top experience. It was good to see all ages, including teenagers, engaging with the exhibits.

I now know that I’m uneasy stroking or touching taxidermy animals. The brown bear and badger were too realistic for me.