Last year, Shape supported the development of Beyond The Visual - a new forum for the discussion of non-sighted modes of beholding contemporary art. Led by Dr. Ken Wilder and Adam Reynolds Alumnus Dr. Aaron McPeake, the research and networking project invited participants to develop a deeper understanding of the spatial and curatorial possibilities of different forms of engagement, and their potential application beyond the world of art.

Today, we’re thrilled to share the news that Beyond The Visual has received further funding in order to continue this important conversation and, ultimately, realise it for audiences in the format of a landmark exhibition in 2025. We caught up with Aaron to find out more.

This interview was read by Narakeet. It is available to listen to as a single audio track or individual questions.

Find out more about Beyond The Visual Read Aaron's artist profile

Listen to the full interview:

Congratulations on the new funding to continue Beyond The Visual. Can you give us a short outline of how the project came about, and where your investigation in 2021-22 left off?

The project came about when Ken [Wilder] was having his book published in 2020: Beholding: Situated Art and the Aesthetics of Reception. Ken and I do share interests and have worked together on other projects but it seemed to be a great opportunity and a good time to further develop our interests surrounding making and the reception of artwork, mine obviously from my position as a blind practitioner and researcher and Ken’s slightly more philosophical and theoretical standpoint.

We thought that there was a great opportunity to increase the level of discourse and that we might even have some influence on the museum sector. The project was always connected with access and had access at its core, but it was much more than that, insofar as we believed we could bring something to the museum sector and the experience of blind practitioners and blind audiences could actually inform the curatorial perspective bringing something that would benefit all audiences, blind or not. 

The initial Grant was for us to set up a network and thanks to Tate, the Henry Moore Institute and Foundation, Wellcome Collection, Vocaleyes, and Shape Arts, as well as a host of workshop participants, we managed to establish a network that is actively engaged in developing new modes of beholding artworks. There have been other awards granted to network members since our symposium in 2022 at Wellcome including The Sensational Museum project headed by Hannah Thompson, and our own exhibition bid. 

The culmination of the research will be a landmark exhibition in 2025, the first major UK show of sculpture predominantly by blind and partially blind artists. The project, and its curation, delves into a rich catalogue of lived experience. What does this kind of knowledge bring to the UK arts and cultural scene? How will it impact the experience and engagement of the audience?

In some ways, I think we’ve already brought something to the cultural scene, in that we’ve created or helped to create increased discussion and some organisations have already acknowledged that they are changing their own approaches. 

I believe that you can go well beyond making access or accessibility for a particular group. There are elements of access that, if handled differently (not just an additional provision) it can provide a richer experience for all. I think that if this becomes more embedded in the sector - actually, not if but when - it will go on to inform or act as a template for other areas of life and possibly not just in the cultural sector.

the hierarchy of the senses is something that the museum sector has always held close

Joe Rizzo Naudi and Sasha Galitzine have recently curated shows that build on many of the themes discussed and have a show currently on in Hackney titled, Blind at the Age of Four - work by Jack Warne. So things are moving on at a pace which is really encouraging. 

In a previous show curated by Sasha, audiences were invited to touch some of the work but also offered guided tours by Joe and in this instance it was not just audio description that Joe was providing, it was a much more in-depth discussion about the work. A dialogue was developed between beholder and gallery staff that was open and could go in any direction. It opened up for a kind of Duchampian take on a multiplicity of readings or possible readings and interpretations for the work. 

In our case, we wish to extensively develop all manner of engagements from touching the work to smelling the and being given a rich mix of audio description as well as an integrated design for navigating the gallery and any supporting materials. I remember attending an exhibition in the Barbican just over a year ago. My friend who was accompanying me was describing the work in quite a prosaic way. We were sitting in front of a piece by Shilpa Gupta which featured a railway station motion flapboard, one where the letters appear from a cascading movement and sound. The messages appearing were poetic phases and my friend was describing both the movement quality as well as reading the final text. A couple were watching, and the woman turned to her companion and said, “can you do that for me?” 

This kind of novel description not only gives a clear account of the work but also a different experience of the work and the space it is situated within. It feels like a whole new contextualising of the work and the act of being in a museum, a sort of new beholding. We aim to offer other expanded access to work and navigation of the gallery. We are at an early stage in the design but we have some rules about our approach. 

These are:

  1. Majority of participating artists are to be blind/visually impaired.

  2. All works to provide a multi-sensory capacity for engagement by beholders.

  3. Access to be embedded in all aspects of the design and delivery of the exhibition and associated elements.

I think this is a robust approach and I am feeling quite confident about the journey ahead.

Press play for audio description

The project promises to challenge the ‘dominance of sight in the making and appreciation of art’. What are your hopes and ambitions regarding the exploration of contemporary sculpture that brings in, and prioritises, other senses?

In terms of your first point, the hierarchy of the senses is something that the museum sector has always held close. I remember being at a conference at the Courtauld Institute a number of years ago, and a number of curators made the case that they were in charge of looking after these items forever - and that’s a very long time. 

So, the idea of anything beyond looking at something carries with it a risk of damage or theft. But we know that more recently the thieving has been done from the inside, rather than the outside. The visual arts have always had that idea of there being something to look at by a particular demographic - the educated. For example, for many years you had to get permission to enter the British Museum, it wasn’t open to the public.

To that end, it created an elite, a set of experts, who were able to look and appreciate. So I think, for lots of reasons, the idea of being an expert and being able to make a judgement has been regarded as the only way to appreciate things. That hierarchy has always been there, and still is to a large extent.

But on the other hand, I do think that museums are conscious of the need for further engagement. And they do go some way, by improving access, providing audio description, signposting to a certain extent, although it’s still quite primitive considering how long the issue has been in the public domain.

We don’t know yet what audiences can expect because we’re still working on selecting a long list of artists and works, but it is something where access is ingrained, embedded in all aspects of the design. We’ll be able to experience things in a more intimate way - so some objects you will be able to touch, others you’ll be able to experience by hearing or feeling, possibly smelling - I think tasting is a bit unlikely, because that raises all sorts of problems… I think we’re going to be able to provide something that speaks or provides an opportunity to respond using all of the senses.

Among the other big questions the research poses to artists, curators, and audiences is to what degree those relationships are as static, or rules-bound, as they seem. Do you feel that, by focusing on a shift in priorities and engagement when it comes to exhibition making, this project might help to alter the balance of these relationships, in a productive way? Would you like to see a reorientation of how we understand artist-audience encounters?

Well I think that the artist-audience encounter is quite problematic. Yes, we would like to see a shift in that, but we think it needs to be a very ‘baby-steps’ process. For example, I’ve  had a number of works broken in exhibitions, in San Diego at the Art Institute, a show I was in that was curated by Amanda Cachia, I had a piece - a bronze - that was about 14/15mm thick, broken. It turned out that the kids were swinging on it, using it as a swing - it ripped from its fixing and smashed on the floor.

So audiences in some ways, in the San Diego case for example, were treating it something like a funfair. The audiences don’t really know how to - it’s either all or nothing, look and don’t touch, or touch and it’s a free for all, a full on fair ground.

We’re going to have to focus a lot on the training of invigilators and how we best inculcate a sense of ‘this is something that needs to be approached by beholders in a very sensitive way’ - that’s a problem that we need to address. But as I say, I think we can only do that in baby steps.

Different artists have different ambitions in terms of how the audience engages. In my case, because people can touch things, strike them, make them sound, for me it’s about having a multiplicity of responses. So people are doing something novel, or relatively novel, by striking an object (hopefully gently) and the way that they strike that and the sound it makes will provoke a different reading, a different response - it will remind them of something that is not necessarily what I had in mind. And again, that brings us back to Duchamp and the equation of what the artist’s intention is and what the reader’s reading is. 

Whereas in other cases, artists are quite happy for the work to be on the wall and visually read. We can support a wider reading by different types of audio description and different types of engagements. Like with Joe and Sasha’s Behold exhibition - it was guided tours that were more discursive than descriptive, although there was still a heavy element of description. 

In those sorts of situations, there is an opportunity for those discussions to begin and then it opens out - what the reader is getting from it, then the discussion about what the artist intended can follow on and generate a really interesting rereading on the behalf of the beholder. 

When they discover what the artist was trying to do, or what the intention was, then they see things slightly differently. So there’s plenty of opportunities there to open that question up. We're at a very early stage,  but we do think that we can open those questions up for further examination and hopefully appreciation.

 Photo of shadows cast by two people across a large stoney floor.

Untitled, Aaron McPeake, image courtesy of the artist

It feels as though contemporary audiences are more embracing than before of culture as an immersive experience. Do you anticipate that a curatorial approach that brings touch and sound into a visually-dominated space might attract wider audiences for the exhibition than in the past? Do you feel this will influence the exhibition’s success?

I do think it will widen the audience base, just because of the novelty of the thing - where you can go into the Henry Moore Institute and touch something - because of the prohibition for decades, centuries, of touch or other ways of engaging beyond the visual. For example, a friend of mine visited the Henry Moore a number of years ago when they were displaying his piece King and Queen - it was a different casting, there was a number of them made - but one of the bronzes was on a Scottish moor, so sheep and cows were scratching themselves and urinating on it, hikers would be sitting on it, kids would be climbing on it. But he was asked to leave the gallery because he touched it and it was behind ropes - the same piece of work! Which he did point out to the invigilator. 

So in terms of the widening audience, it will be more because of the novelty. In terms of the idea of an immersive experience, I worked in theatre for many years, in lighting - now the technologies of lighting and projection have just moved on incredibly, especially in the last 20 years. If you can think of somewhere like Piccadilly Circus, it's brighter by factors than it would have been in the 60s. And the lights of Piccadilly are often shown as an example of perfect modernity. 

But now these screens and projections, and things like the Van Gogh immersive show or David Hockney's more recent pieces which have incredibly powerful projections and very complicated sound design systems - there is a kind of overwhelming amount of stimulus going on. And I think, to a large extent, the focus of these kinds of projects is that sense of being overwhelmed by these super powerful technologies and very sophisticated control systems; I believe it’s more about a sense of being overwhelmed than actually being immersed in something. I’m not sure that one is learning a great deal more, other than the huge spectacle that these things are providing, which is down to the technological shifts along.

in the future what we’d also like to engender is the idea that disabled artists are not outsiders

New audiences are going to come into our work because they’re going to be nosy and think “oh, this is different.” But I think we need to be careful of that - that’s it’s not a free for all - being immersed doesn't mean you can do whatever you want. As I said earlier, we need to approach it with baby-steps in the way the work is beheld and the gallery management and invigilation is planned - the route maps and visual materials are all going to complement the reading of the work and experiencing being in the space. It will be quite different from the immersive shows that people have become used to.

Beyond The Visual moves between the contemporary art and academic fields. Despite disabled people representing a fifth of people in society, meaningful representation in such environments is still lacking. What are your thoughts as to why this persists? How does Beyond The Visual engage with these systemic issues and/or work to challenge them?

Well I think that’s two huge questions - the academic nature of the museum sector and art history, that sort of goes without saying - they are incredibly academic fields and obviously in the museum you’ve got anthropology and archeology and other disciplines which are primarily academic. So, nothing really happens without being able to make citations, because your arguments are very difficult to bring forward without substantiating them through research and referencing. 

I think we’re doing that to a large extent. The first part of Beyond The Visual - the networking bit - has led to us working on a publication with over 20 papers contributed by network participants. And that will culminate in a book launch, hopefully to coincide with the exhibition launch, so there will be an academic element to that. I think it’s kind of unavoidable - within the sector we’re not taken seriously unless there is some rigorous academic work done on it.

My feeling is that since the 70s, since disability arts practices have been thriving, they’ve very much been perceived as activist and pressure groups with more of a human rights agenda, rather than a philosophical or artistic argument being at the centre. It’s been much more about that representation. I think this persists: when we look at artists around the world and the coverage they get in newspapers and magazines, the narrative is always “these amazing people, look what they can do, isn’t it incredible that a blind person can make a painting or a sculpture?” 

It’s complicated because I identify as a disabled artist but also as an artist who just happens to have a disability, or has happened upon one - I’m advantageously blind so it happened in later life, I had perfect sight before, so I've lived in both universes. The lack of representation in the gallery and museum sector has really been down to that emphasis on providing opportunities for activists rather than artwork being seriously considered and critically engaged with. 

It’s the disability symptoms, for want of a better word, that seem to be to the fore, and although we’re making a case that the majority of artists are blind or partially blind in the show, it’s not just about that. It’s about making that access central to the provision of work, to the showing, so it’s not just about the access - not just about the touching, we’re trying to weld together two very different paradigms: expanding access and changing the nature of the engagement within the gallery. That people are disabled (in this case blind or partially blind) just happens to be another lever by which we can make that argument more clear. 

To finish, in light of all these thoughts and ambitions, what do you perceive as the lasting legacy of Beyond The Visual, for the cultural sector as a whole? How would you like the project to impact institutions, funders, and curators when they come to programming their own exhibitions?

Well, I think the main case is that we’re making baby steps here. But already, prior to this exhibition project, the Beyond The Visual network did get some really good feedback, certainly from Wellcome Collection and the Henry Moore Institute who both said, “right, were going to change how we do things.” Although Wellcome are very rigorous and thorough, they’re minded to take a different approach in the future. I think by having these discussions, we’ve already opened that up a bit.

Maybe it’s a kind of reverse osmosis - we’re trying to get this to become a standard part of the design agenda and curatorial agenda, to expand access and that is not necessarily just supporting material, but actually the way the work is displayed. So if we can get that discussion onto the agendas of galleries and other institutions, then that will be a fantastic result. I think it’s already happening in a small way. 

In terms of representing or programming, in the future what we’d also like to engender is the idea that disabled artists are not outsiders, they just happen to have other issues. I think that in some ways, the discourse around gender and race is helping to open that door - to say “we’re not doing things as well as we could, so let’s think about them in a slightly different way.” So rather than the identity of disabled artists being the focus, we should emphasise what they have to say - focus on the curation and discussion around the work that they're making, rather than just on facilitating a disadvantaged group. 

There’s a number of things going on simultaneously and we will have to be very careful about how we balance that. But, as I said, we’re at a very early stage - there’s a lot of work to do. We’re having a number of consultation workshops about making, about the expanded access - we know there's many ways to go about it, but we’ve got to consider and make the best of things like our limited budget. 

We probably can’t do all the things that we’d like to do to the extent that we’d like to do them, so we’re going to find the best mix. Hopefully this will filter through. We’ll certainly be making a lot of noise within the sector - we’re also having a research season and a conference at the Henry Moore Institute which will hopefully widen that discussion. And hopefully that discussion will in turn inform the last stages of our decision making and the project. I hope we can drag as many people along as possible and that they get as much from it as they possibly can.

Find out more about Beyond The Visual Read Aaron's artist profile

Banner image: Aaron McPeake's Once I Saw It All 2022. Bell Bronze, casting of Snellen Chart. 

Image description by the artist: The image shows a splayed left hand  touching a bronze plate upon which are lines of single black letters that are recessed into the plate. The letters are from a Snellen eye test chart and reduce in size with the larger letters being at the top and the smaller at the bottom. As the lines of letters become smaller they also become more numerous with the letters D Z U and the numeral 24 to the right being visible at the top of the image where the little finger of the hand caresses the metal. At the bottom where the thumb touches, the letters  D H E NF P are visible with the numeral 5 to the right.