Between 23 and 26 February 2017, Shape Arts delivered a programme of events entitled ‘Ways of Seeing Art’ at Tate Modern, as part of Tate Exchange (TEx hereafter).

Our aim was to increase awareness of the barriers disabled people face in the arts (in this case with an emphasis on blind and partially people), and to encourage arts organisations to experiment with their audio description offer (as well as other forms of access) so that a richer, more creative experience is provided for the public. Also to make people reflect on how they, and others, perceive art.

This blog is four parts, one for each day we were there. So, here we go.


Day 1 - (or, the one where we work out what to do)

You can know a space and not know a space at all. Like when you revisit a flat or house you wish to move into – weirdly, it seems to change from visit to visit. These were my thoughts, or something like them, when after running a few last errands I entered level 5 of Tate Modern’s Switch House to see the Shape team in action, moving furniture around and installing the art showcase as we took up our brief period of residence. Fortunately they were working to a well-devised layout plan of their making: massive credit here to Fiona Slater and Andrew Cochrane for the artwork install, as well as to Sara Dziadik, the project’s lead coordinator.

I had visited the space a few times before when it was occupied by other TEx associates, but only once had the space seemed so full of objects and people, although saying that, the eastern side (looking out at the Shard) was still an oasis of calm and well-ordered chairs and tables.  

There was a lot going on. Amidst it all was a quiet figure, who, along with helpers, was setting out broken eggshells in a circle that was gradually filling out. It was the artist Anna Berry, preparing her installation 'Dole Scum II'. I put down my gear to lend a hand.                                              white walls with shortlist artworks being installed at Tate Exchange

'Trump Mouths' and 'Read My Lips' by Anne Teahan beginning to find their place colourful roundabout-like installation lying unattended during assembly at Tate Exchange

Caglar Kimyoncu's 'Self Portrait 3', left, and 'Self Portrait 1', right, are mounted on the standing wall.  Oliver MacDonald's 'Whirlie Wheelers' is in the foreground

Artist Anna Berry adding broken eggshells to the existing shells lying in a circle on the floor at Tate Exchange

Anna Berry painstakingly at work on 'Dole Scum II'

Much more reorientation of furniture later, and after some timely chats with the Tate team, we had what felt like a good, fluid sweep of a space: a welcome desk, signage, a desk where we had our audio describing equipment (more on this later), a mostly-completed showcase of the work of this year’s Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary shortlisted artists, and various standing surfaces where people could write, sketch or pin up their own responses to what was happening around them.  Plus the postcode collection point – that’s right, the six or seven digits that can get you the funding these days. The eastern side was mostly in readiness for the next day’s event, whereby attendees of our symposium would (we hoped) sit and connect with each other; raging discussion without the rage was what we were aiming for.

Hours later than planned, we had a run-through of what to expect in the next few days. Then, while the final touches to the showcase were being made (credit card pressing out the vinyl letterings, we’ve all had to do it) it was back to working out how to get the ipads to record people’s spoken descriptions of the art, so that others could hear them and compare one person’s recording with another. This was a key aspect of the event, and the words bug, glitch, audioboom support desk, try pressing that one, and help, all featured heavily until we had a means of ensuring the system worked. So now, finally, people could record their voices on an ipad through one channel and listen back via another channel through headsets connected to laptops set out at a table. 

To read our top tips of producing an audio description, you can download a word document by clicking this link here.

two women peering at Tate Exchange Shortlist artworks

Visitors explore the ARMB Shortlist 8 showcase

black audio handsets sitting in a charging rack on a desk at tate exchange

Handsets for the 'formal' audio description of the ARMB showcase 

Access considerations.  We consider accessibility as a matter of course, and had given due consideration for how people would interact with the artworks and navigate their way around them.  However, not wishing to place physical barriers between artworks and audience, we were going to be running the risk of people coming into direct contact with the showcase. In particular, we thought, children might want to play on Oliver MacDonald's rotating sculpture, Whirly Wheelies (on whose polished base stand small walking frames as tempting to clamber on as anything in a children's playground), whilst other people might walk straight into Anna Berry's eggshells, or pick up the sculptures on the plinth or shelf.  We agreed eventually that constant invigilation would have to win the day, and made sure that nothing was posing a danger to anyone. Anna, already mindful of the possibility that Dole Scum II might get trodden on, had ground up a number of shells into small fragments, which she dispersed in a ring around the installation, acting (in effect) as a sonic and textured warning to anyone who made it past the nearby invigilator that they should go no further.  

At this point, having mentioned audio description more than once, I’d like to introduce you to our lovely audio description booklet. With the help of Zoe Partington, our lead artist and a professional access trainer, we had some weeks before commissioned some contributors with highly varying experiences of audio description. The idea of the booklet, apart from to provide reference material for our TEx symposium, was that readers would gain an understanding of audio description's applications from the perspective of service users, arts programmers and curators, professional audio describers and artists.  The booklet’s contributors are: Shelley Boden, Lynn Cox, Dr Louise Fryer, Mel Griffiths, Dr Aaron McPeake, Zoe Partington and Liz Porter. Happily, all had confirmed they could attend, lead on or document events in the next few days, encouraging informed, and critical, debate to flow at all times.  

Cover of the Ways of Seeing Art audio description booklet. The cover shows a doorway, with two long shadows falling through it onto a slate floor. The mood is portentous and intriguing.

Ways of Seeing Art booklet cover

This link here to the booklet on the Shape website will allow you to opt for printed, electronic and audio versions. Thanks to Zoe and Sara for pulling this together so quickly ahead of the event.  

If you've read it, you will have noticed that a number of the contributors are artists. One of the reasons we had arranged for artists to lead on so many of the events in our programme was to inject a creative narrative into all the activities, our aim being to open up discussions and take them into new territories, so that artists and cultural professionals alike could feel emboldened to try out new techniques and approaches for themselves. Our main hope was that organisations might be inspired to arrive at accessible solutions through an integrated, informed and inclusive approach that does not preclude creativity, but fully embraces it.  And this remains our hope still – so please, read the booklet and try out something new for yourselves, and let us know how you get on.

So that’s the booklet. I should mention that the space had been open to the public for much of this time, who had been watching us assemble to set up, whilst enjoying the great art on show. No complaints from anyone, however: we seemed to be all part of an enjoyable and relatively quiet day at Tate, all part of the stuff that makes life interesting.

Then a group entered who had a more vested interest in us. Some of our bloggers had arrived - Mel Griffiths, Fae Kilburn and Gavin Griffiths, who were attending through support of the Sensing Culture project. Along with them was the aforementioned Zoe Partington, the person who’d been so integral to the programme design and its composition. Introductions were made and a few chats were had, not least between Zoe and Tony Heaton, our CEO, who would be chairing the symposium the next day.

And then, so quickly, it was time to close.  A great job had been done. The space looked weirdly different, but now we were ready.

small square paintings hung on white standing walls atate exchange, artworks are of from the Shortlist 2017

circle of broken eggshells at tate exchange, artworks are of from the Shortlist 2017

colourful roundabout adjacent to works hung on white standing walls at tate exchange, artworks are of from the Shortlist 2017

tall woman viewing small square paintings hung on white standing walls at tate exchange, artworks are of from the Shortlist 2017

woman viewign small sculptures on a shelf hung on white standing walls at tate exchange, artworks are of from the Shortlist 2017

ARMB Shortlist 8 showcase, beginning (top to bottom) with Pam Newall's 'Field' series of twelve silk screen prints in the foreground. Second image: Anna Berry's installation 'Dole Scum II', eggshells, crumpled DWP letters, wood. Third image: Oliver MacDonald's 'Whirlie Wheelers', gloss-painted wood, metal frames, motor. Fourth image: Anne Teahan's oil paintings, 'Trump Mouths', top row canvases, and 'Read My Lips', bottom row canvases. Fifth image: Caglar Kimyoncu's digital photograph on canvas, 'Self Portrait 3' mounted on the wall. Aaron MacPeake's bronze sculpture 'Photograph of my Mother in a Swimsuit Circa 1950' is mounted on the plinth. Oliver MacDonald's 'A Christmas Tale' resin, plastic, photograph and card frame, appears partially on the shelf.

Shortlist artists:

Anna Berry, Caglar Kimyonchu, Oliver MacDonald, Aaron Mcpeake, Pam Newell, Anne Teahan


For more on our Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary and past ARMB awardees, please go to this link on our website: click here

For more on Tate Exchange: the link below takes you to a page on the Tate site where you can find out more about Tim Etchells’ role and input: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/workshop/tate-exchange/give-take


Join in on our conversation, tweet @ShapeArts using the hashtag #WaysofSeeingArt to let us know your thoughts.


Photography: banner and body images c. Andy Barker