I was super excited to attend the ‘Creative Approaches to Audio Description’ talk at the Southbank Centre. I am a complete newbie when it comes to audio description, however this particular event caught my attention. I have experienced how art can be heavily visual and it piqued my interest to know a little bit more about how audio description is created to describe visual experiences and, even further - how they can be innovative and imaginative.

The talk included a live captioning and a sign language interpreter at all times. The chairman was Tim Gebbels. On the panel were Chloe Phillips, Claire Cunningham, Barry Ginley and Khairani Barokka.

Audio description is when an artwork (painting, performance, theatre, dance, etc) is described using words verbally for a visually impaired audience. The conventional and usual way of doing this is through a set of headphones.

The first person on the panel to talk was Chloe Phillips. She spoke about her interest in making audio description part of the art process rather than bolted on at the end. She also spoke about how audio description available through headphones can be isolating and, when wearing them, there is a feeling that you are being excluded from the action.

I loved the video she showed us of a play she worked on. There were no headphones and the performance was described out loud by the actors and members of the audience. There were many humorous moments in the play that was enjoyable for both visually impaired as well as sighted members of the audience.

Khairani Barokka, an Indonesian interdisciplinary artist, spoke about a book she worked on called 'Indigenous Species' that combines braille, tactile artwork and text. Khairani spoke about having other versions of this book that does not include braille or texture, which emphasise the sense of absence. I thought this was great because normally braille and tactile are seen as add on features but in this case they are essential to the book and the versions that do not include them feel like there is something missing. I absolutely love the concept behind this and how it could be applied to audio description.

Barry Ginley, the Disability and Access Officer at the V&A, spoke about the V&A’s 'touch tours' for visually impaired visitors and the touch objects available around the galleries. Barry highlighted that these objects are not necessarily just for blind people but that, more often than not, sighted people also want to touch these objects. He also spoke about the future and how the development of haptic technology could be used to help visually impaired visitors 'touch' objects.

Claire Cunningham, a performer and creator, spoke about her production 'The Way You Look at Me Tonight', which was supported by Shape Arts and Artsadmin through their Unlimited programme. She worked with Chloe, the first panellist, from the beginning of the production to consider audio description. Claire (who does not have a visual impairment) highlighted that although this question might be perceived as uncomfortable, it is important to ask why blind people would want to see a heavily visual art show and what they take from it. This kind of questioning is important because the answer to this question often breaks the stereotype that blind people don’t enjoy art. There are many reasons why visually impaired people want to experience a performance; Chloe, for example, spoke about the idea that for her it is all about the story behind dance and why someone wants to dance.

For me, this part of the talk was very honest and refreshing, because I believe a lot of people would be scared to offend someone by questioning this, however the answers are incredibly informative and helpful for sighted people to understand the need for accessibility.

Claire also spoke about a choreography exercise called 'Say what you do, do what you say' where the performer talks through their movement as they are doing it. This exercise emphasises how language influences movement and vise-versa. The idea that eventually these descriptions can become audio descriptions is great because it is so profoundly built-in within the process of developing the performance.

I loved how she also questioned what is interesting and worth including in the audio description. For example, it might be boring to say that the performer “walked across the room” however if you deepen this description to a micro level, it becomes something a lot more interesting and telling: the performer “slowly puts one foot in front of the other, feeling his muscles tighten with every step”. This way, audio descriptions can act as a method of adding a new layer of understanding to your audience.

The main point expressed throughout this talk, was that audio descriptions should not be something that takes away from an art form but that adds to it. In many ways, audio descriptions are being explored as contemporary pieces of art in their own and this is incredibly new and exciting. Khairani mentioned that she would love to see a future where audio descriptions are not a mark of accessibility but rather an enhancing feature of an art form, and I completely agree.

Everyone could benefit from attending this talk. There was a lot of interesting material. The examples I have mentioned are ones that really stood out to me but there is so much more to grasp. As an audience member, I felt like I learnt a lot.

I would like to finish by reiterating a quote I heard at the talk: 'The beauty of limitation is that it makes us think outside the box. Being limited from a sense allows us to be creative in unpredicted ways and construct beautiful interpretations that are playful, humorous and enriching.'