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

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.”

Touch tour as part of RCA degree show

It was great to read about the touch tour that the Royal College of Art students union has organised. The touch tour is of selected works from the textiles end of year show on 27 June and is already fully booked. Maybe this could be replicated in Leeds in future?

Here’s the information about the event:

As part of the Royal College of Art Degree Show the Students’ Union invites you to a touch tour of works by graduating Textiles students. This tour is an opportunity for visually impaired visitors to experience the work of up and coming textile artists designers through the sensation of touch. The makers will be on hand to provide short presentations on their practice and audio describe the works.

Please feel free to call or email Benji on 02075904211 / benji.jeffrey@rca.ac.uk with any access questions. Guests may bring a support worker / access assistant with no need to order a ticket.

FEATURED DESIGNERS

  • Alice Blackstock
  • Phoebe Corker-Marin
  • Marika Grasso
  • Renfei Huang
  • Andrew G Illman
  • Domenica Gabriela Landin Burbano
  • Orla Lawn
  • Carley Mullally
  • Annie Richardson
  • Ruby Smith
  • Maria Francisca Vidal Vergara.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/textiles-touch-tour-rca-degree-show-students-union-tickets-46113594001

Progress report

Yesterday the MA Curation Practices cohort – full and part time – updated on our progress. I didn’t quite manage to keep within the requested 200 words, but here’s my summary.

Visiting Leeds Art Gallery with blind and partially sighted people: informing an asset-based approach to curating

Literature review:

  • Many reasons for visiting galleries
  • Rights issue
  • Intellectual and emotional meaning
  • Deeper relationship with art than sighted people?
  • Hirose: ‘Tactile learning will change the museum, and the museum will change society!’
  • Kleege on audio description: ‘a literary / interpretative form with infinite possibilities’
  • Hayhoe: ‘…, experiences of visitors who are blind can teach those with sight about the importance of the exhibit, as the narrator and as a repository of our subconscious human evolution’.

Research findings:

  • As above!
  • Having people around who will guide, talk to you, explain, answer questions
  • Emotional connection: Art is a good medium for expressing emotions, feelings, relationships, particularly difficult emotions (Paul)
  • Touch – definitely
  • Getting close – barriers really annoying!
  • Audio description: don’t need training, enthusiasm, fun
  • Doing things differently = good for everyone.

Practical curated event:

Half a dozen writers will prepare and read a description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection at an event in the gallery 19/7. Audience = mixture of sighted and blind & partially sighted people.

Prepared guidelines for describers.

‘Abandon the pretext of objectivity. It is impossible and besides the point’ (Kleege, 2018).

‘I wouldn’t worry about trying to get things right straight away, what is more important is to have a go’ (Partington, 2017).

‘We were drawn into it, they explained it, the way it was lit, the brightness, the colours, it came to life!’ (Brian, 2018).

Arts to Share at Horsforth Museum

Great to reconnect with Arts to Share, a local organisation that arranges handling sessions with galleries and museums across Leeds. I joined a group of regulars today at Horsforth Village Museum. Unlike other venues that Arts to Share works with (generally local authority), Horsforth Museum is entirely run by volunteers. They are in a beautiful 18th century house, owned by the council to whom they pay a peppercorn rent.

Today’s objects related to education and childhood, so we examined and talked about objects from the classroom and playground. This was a social event as much as an educational one, part of a varied programme throughout the year.

Candlin (2003) interviewed blind and partially sighted people to find out what they thought about facilities in museums and galleries that aim to meet their needs. She found that the social aspect of attending workshops or other activities for blind and partially sighted people was of great importance to many people. This did not mean that they were not interested in the art, but the social side might be an added attraction, or might make the logistics of organising a visit to a gallery more worthwhile.

 

 

Denise, Catherine, Alan and Martin inspect artefacts relating to childhood and education.

Reference

Candlin, F. (2003) ‘Blindness, art and exclusion in museums and galleries’. London: Birkbeck ePrints. Available at: http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/745

Doing the groundwork (LAUMACUP705)

This is a period of planning and preparation. The next four months will fly by!

I have a growing list of books and other texts for the literature review. This week I have added a number of books relating specifically to touch in museums (see references below).

Being a keen Japanophile, I was also pleased to read some of the work of Professor Kojiro Hirose of the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan (pictured above).  Being blind himself, Hirose is an expert. The way he has classified ‘three elements of tactile sense: look at, watch and see’ (2013) is very clear. And his mission to ‘provide fresh excitement of “being astonished through touching” to many visitors, especially, to the sighted’ (2013) is highly relevant to my research.

Woman in foreground looks carefully at photos in a book. Behind her is a smiling woman in dark glasses.
Image from Sensing Culture Project

Simon Hayhoe is a leading academic in the field of blindness, education, and the arts.  I now have his most recent book (2017) which will be one of my key texts. And excited that he will be one of the key speakers at the Sensing Culture conference on 1 May, which I’ll be attending.

I thought I’d put out feelers via the RNIB’s Connect project to see if anyone would be interested in talking to me and taking part in my project. I was invited to post on their Facebook page, and within a couple of hours four people have expressed an interest!The power of social media, so encouraging! With the people I’ve already approached it looks like I’ll have enough people to talk to.

Finally, I read a fantastic leaflet in the University of Leeds’ Special Collections in the Brotherton Library: How We May Show Our Museums and Galleries to the Blind (Charlton Deas, 1913). Despite being over 100 years old, some of the ideas for increasing access to blind and partially sighted people have resonance today. For example:

‘I would lay emphasis on the need for special care in selecting guides whose sympathies and imagination enable them to realise to some extent the importance to the blind examiner of thorough handling.’ (p.7).

Members of museum staff had donated their time to be guides, ‘actuated by the true feeling that free service to the claims of brotherhood is the best rewarded labour’ (p.6). Note: brotherhood, NOT charity!

References

Candlin, F. (2010) Art, museums and touch. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Charlton Deas J.A. (1913) ‘How We May Show Our Museums and Galleries to the Blind’ The Museums Journal, Vol 13 1913.

Chatterjee, H. (ed.) (2008) Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Oxford: Berg.

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

Hirose, K. (2013) Research on Methods of “Touching the World” —The Aim of the Exhibit Area of Tactile Learning in Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology Disability Studies Quarterly, vol 33 no. 3. Available at: http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3743/3245 (Accessed: 3 April 2018).

Pye, E. (ed) (2007) The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

 

 

Professional Practice & Study: Getting started (LAUMACUP705)

Last week (22.3.18) I presented my draft research proposal to the MA Curation Practices cohort.

In brief, I plan to research blind and partially sighted people’s experience of galleries and what can facilitate / improve this. I feel this is an issue that I have somewhat neglected in my practice.

For my thesis, there is a lot of literature to go on, particularly concerning museums – key texts in references below.

A curated project informed by this will involve conversations with a small number of visually impaired people, who are interested in art. At first I was thinking of getting them together in a focus group, but now I think it will be more realistic to have individual conversations: walk round Leeds Art Gallery, record discussions.

I am challenging myself to take a more experimental approach – reflective, iterative, continually planning and evaluating. No “end product” planned, let’s find out where it takes us! Potential for talk, tour, workshop, paper, small exhibition.
(Influenced by Aggregate, Fritha Jenkins’ recent exhibition and live curation at LAU Gallery, pictured below).

Borrowing from community development / social policy – taking an asset based / strength based approach: What do visually impaired people bring to the gallery? But grounded in the social model of disability (of course) (Barnes, 2012).

 

 

References

Aggregate: Fritha Jenkins and Edna Lumb (2018) [Exhibition] Leeds Arts University, 14 February – 29 March.

Art Beyond Sight http://www.artbeyondsight.org/index.php (Accessed: 16 March 2018).

Barnes, C. (2012) ‘Understanding the Social Model of Disability: past,
present and future’, in N. Watson et al. (eds.) (2012) Routledge Handbook of
Disability Studies London: Routledge, pp. 12-39.

Chick, Anne (2018) Inclusive exhibition design and curation: Improving intellectual access for blind and partially sighted visitors to non-permanent exhibitions through co-creation and co-assessment. The Design Journal, 21 (2). ISSN 1460-6925.

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

Sensing Culture (2017) https://sensingcultureblog.wordpress.com/about/ (Accessed: 30 March 2018).

Vocaleyes (2016) Museum Access Information Guidelines 2016. London: Vocaleyes.

Vocaleyes (2016) State of Museum Access 2016 A survey of UK museum website access information for blind and partially sighted visitors. London: Vocaleyes.

Woodhall, A. (2016) Sensory engagements with objects in art galleries: material interpretation and theological metaphor PhD Thesis, University of Leicester.

Looking, listening, feeling and remembering in the gallery

Eighteen people came together for Art Chat at Leeds Art Gallery on 16 March to talk about “art for the senses”. The session got us thinking and talking about different ways to experience art.

It’s important to engage a range of senses so the gallery is accessible and interesting to more people, including visually impaired people.

It was, however, difficult to find works in Leeds Art Gallery that engaged senses other than sight. There were a few videos, but no sound artworks, for example. We used our imagination, and thought about memory, atmosphere and emotions and this gave us more food for thought.

By placing your ear near the perspex cones of Naum Gabo’s sculpture, Construction in Space: Soaring (1929-30), the sounds around you were distorted. A bit like listening to the sea in a seashell.

One room was described as cathedral-like, a retreat. It was a quieter space, but not silent. You could hear noises from around the whole gallery, but at a distance. The atmosphere of this space was important, even if it was difficult to describe or put your finger on.

Sounds can be heard differently in different areas.

Being able to touch sculptures is so powerful. For visually impaired people it really helps to connect. But it’s the same for other people. Touch tells you about texture, material, weight, size.

Touch also provides a direct link to the artist – they made this with their hands and now you are touching it with yours.

What prevents us touching artworks is the need to protect and preserve them. While the desire to touch things in the gallery is strong, it is rarely allowed. Perhaps developing technology such as 3D printing will mean that replicas or other alternatives can be available to touch. Or a touchable sample of the material used could be placed beside the artwork.

Leeds Art Gallery held an event, many years ago, where anyone could come and touch sculptures, with gloves on. It wasn’t just a special session for visually impaired people. The idea of having open sessions for all, rather than just for particular groups e.g. visually impaired people, was popular. Although effort may need to be made to include the people or communities who would particularly benefit.

Other senses are powerful – sound can be engaging, annoying or repelling. It is being used more and more by artists. The sense of smell evokes memories. Olfactory art, art made to be smelled, is a relatively new and developing art form. And we talked about how you can smell some artworks, due to the materials or treatments used by the artist.

img_0054
Bruce McLean “I Want My Crown”. Photo: Mel Dewey

We also thought about performance, gesture, movement – inspired by Bruce McLean’s film I Want My Crown (2014), where the artist is shown dancing and gesturing to the song of the same name.

While we weren’t focusing on sight, it was noted that artworks that included or were made of electric or neon light had a very different effect than paintings. You view them in a different way, they are intense in a different way to paintings.

img_0055
Photo: Mel Dewey

Most people in the group got to experience Anne Hardy’s installation Falling and Walking (2018) and lots of people enjoyed it. Although there was a feeling that it wasn’t immersive enough – you couldn’t touch things or step over / through many of the parts of it. It seemed the rules shut down the enjoyment for some people. People responded positively to the sound element of the work which many felt was immersive and atmospheric. One woman said how disoriented she felt in the installation. One visually impaired visitor’s experience was greatly enhanced by a member of staff / volunteer guiding them round the installation.

Conclusions:

  • Lots of people’s experience of artworks would be appreciated by being able to touch them.
  • Art galleries aren’t just for looking at things. It’s great if artworks engage other senses, but the venue can also be used to have a broader sensory experience by paying attention to the gallery’s sounds, echoes, smells and atmosphere.
  • Talking about art together helps to bring senses and emotions into play.
  • Having staff or volunteers available to guide people or to discuss artworks with them is a great idea.
  • Different ways of appreciating art make for diversity and interest. They are assets to the gallery and to everyone’s experience.

Thanks again to Leeds Art Gallery for inviting me to host Art Chat. And thanks to everyone who attended and embraced the topic.

References

Gabo, N. (1929-30) Construction in Space: Soaring [brass, plexiglass, wood]. Leeds Art Gallery.

Hardy, A. (2018) Falling and Walking [Exhibition] Leeds Art Gallery 21 March – 26 May 2018.

McLean, B. (2014) I Want My Crown [Film] Leeds Art Gallery.