Day 2 - (or, the one with the symposium)

From the moment I walked in and saw people sitting on the many sofas around the space, chatting, catching up with colleagues, acquaintances and friends, registering at the desk and wandering around the showcase and generally exploring, I knew it was the right event for us, with the right people involved. And on such a good day too for late February, with the sun streaming in through the auto-adjusting windows and London’s embankment lit up in the background.

An auspicious start, I thought, and if you would like someone’s else’s view on it, read Mel Griffith’s first impressions in her blog:

Two women sit talking animatedly as an audience assembles at tate exchange 2017. The atmosphere is one of bustling activity and of people chatting and taking seats

People sit talking animatedly as an audience assembles at tate exchange 2017. The atmosphere is one of bustling activity and of people chatting and taking seats

Setting up in the Southwark Room

So why were running today's event? Well, we had gathered a panel of advocates and practitioners of audio description with a view to them having an open conversation with curators and museum professionals to examine the gaps between artists, galleries and audiences. Essentially, we wanted to explore how all parties could work together to bridge these gaps through creative and innovative means. The event was chiefly for those interested in applying audio description to contemporary art. And, with a focus on how blind and partially sighted people connect with art, we aimed to find out how creativity, innovation, technology, knowledge of art and the user experience could enhance the current offer. I have to say that demand for the event was enormous, and we capped numbers early on to ensure maximum quality of experience for those who attended, and to ensure, within a confined space, that it was as accessible as possible. 

a seated woman with an assistance dog lying beneath her chair listens to the panel discussion at SHapeview of a monitor screen and audience members,  overlooking them in the direction of panel speakers at Shape

The panellists were highly distinguished, and all experts in their fields: Chair: Tony Heaton OBE (Chief Executive, Shape Arts); Craig Ashley (Director, New Art West Midlands, Birmingham School of Art); Dr Louise Fryer (Audio Describer and Audio Description teacher at UCL); Vidar Hjardeng MBE (Diversity Consultant, ITV News, Chair of Audio Description Association and Shape trustee); Anna Murray (Assistant Curator of Public Programmes & Access at Tate); Zoe Partington (Disability Art Consultant and Creative Equality Trainer for the art, heritage and cultural sector). Our deepfelt thanks go to them all for supporting this event.  

panellists seated together at Shapes Bridging the Gpas Symposium at Tate Exchange, feb 2017

Panellists left to right: Craig Ashley, Anna Murray, Tony Heaton, Louise Fryer, Vidar Hjardeng, Zoe Partington

While our panellists met up with Tony, the live-stream broadcast team from This Is Tomorrow set up cameras and equipment and our access facilitators positioned themselves and were updated on the running order and names of people involved. Before long, with over 50 people seated in the Southwark Room, Tony got the event underway by asking everyone to introduce themselves to the person next to them – always a good way to get people in the spirit of group discussion, and fully orientated. And indeed a useful access tool for audiences of blind and partially sighted people, who in this case made up more than 20% of attendees.   

I won't try to reflect the entire discussion here, other than to say that many important observations were made to the effect that experimentation is not only fine to do within an access context, but like all forms of progress and innovation, it's essential in ensuring that access improves in quality and well as availability. Zoe Partington made the point that through adopting new approaches, levels of engagement with art can improve for all members of society, not disabled people alone: 

research does say if you use audio description and you interpret art work in another way using different language, people remember that art work for much longer than if they just walk past it and read a bit of information on the wall  

Vidar Hjardeng emphasised the importance of bringing together all relevant parties when discussing access and arts engagement: 

What is terrific about today is in a way we have got a holy trinity of people in the room.  Artists who are fundamental to that grouping and people who appreciate audio description as service users and professionals who describe and are themselves audio describers and people who work with those professionals

Louise Fryer spoke of the difficulties of native speakers making audio description and the need for collaboration to overcome taking what we see for granted and thereby missing out what blind or partially sighted people are not themselves experiencing. Louise spoke of using:

things like sound to enhance a description of an image.  So we describe some photographs recently and one of them was of a woman looking out to Sean a harbour with boats around and Zoe added the sound track ... the clicking sound you get as the wind blows through.  And it added an extra dimension and made it more memorable and allowed people to engine a different way.  And an implied meaning rather than explicit through words, so more of that should be encouraged and other ways of bridging the gaps through the artists and users and also with the curators 

Craig Ashley took up the point about collaboration and gave a practical demonstration using recordings of a historical incident affecting the black community in Birmingham, whereby one version was the 'standard' audio description, and the other the same account as voiced by a member of the affected community: the second contained an authenticity that brought the scene to life in a way the first did not. This echoed an earlier point made by Zoe Partington about the way that audio description brings art to life through the power of words. Craig added:

I think actually artists, talking about the Holy Trinity, artists have a lot of contribute when their work is put in context on the ground - and that should be a shared responsibility.  If it was left to the venues it might very well fail  

Anna Murray explained how Tate was doing more to bring people in to touch tours and other access-led programmes, including reviewing opening hours to attract people who miss events due to work commitments. She emphasised that Tate too would continue to experiment, and occasionally get things wrong, but in doing so would learn, in conjunction with artists as well as disabled people, how to improve their offer.

It is going to be a work in process but we're going to be mixing the idea of tours and practical [sessions] and really trying to push the way that we're thinking about working with audio description, and making the collection more accessible because it is a  complicated collection.  Working with modern and contemporary art and ... we've got the the added complications of performance and conceptual art

After a stimulating question and answer session, Tony drew things to an end. The filmed discussion can be viewed below via our youtube channel:

Following this, six artists, including Zoe, who had been speaking on the panel, led breakout sessions in the designated area in the main space - and just as we had hoped, the room was filled with lively debate. The artists, all blind or partially sighted, were Sally Booth, Lynn Cox, Rachel Gadsden, Aaron McPeake, Zoe Partington and Liz Porter.

people grouped around a table, taking part in focussed discussionpeople seated round a table in focussed discussionpeople grouped around a table, taking part in focussed discussionpeople grouped around several tables, taking part in focussed discussion

Many of the discussions were passionate, and, taking their cue from the earlier conversations, all dedicated to tackling barriers to arts access and identifying solutions. Again our focus was on creativity, and the use of innovation to solve longstanding problems that beset artists, visitors and cultural organisations alike, in determining what works best (in accessible interpretation) and in whose interest the work is being done. 

people seated round a table in focussed discussion; underneath one of the seats is an assistance dogwoman in a pink top with written notes before her

Many of the points raised, including key recommendations, were captured in writing, and we have prepared a summary for you to download at this link here

people sit taking animately at tables throughout the tate exchange space

It was (I’m glad to say) with some difficulty that we managed to persuade the groups to finish off so we could return to the Southwark Room for a general summing up and sharing session. In fact, there was no time for a refreshment break in the end, as the attendees streamed back to take their seats and listen to what the lead artists had to say and reflect on their own group’s discussion.  

symposium artists sat at the panel table addressing the audience at Shape

Wrap up session panel, left to right: Rachel Gadsden, Zoe Partington, Liz Porter, Lynn Cox, Sally Booth, Aaron McPeake, Tony Heaton

aaron mackpeake speaks at the wrap up session at Shape

For myself, on considering the points raised throughout the symposium, I was reminded of the US spy, Edward Snowden. It was something he’d said in a recent interview about suddenly having dealing with life in exile, likening the experience to someone having to ‘build the plane’ on the way down. Although arts settings offer nothing like such drastic scenarios, it struck me that access provision is like the plane in his analogy. Why? Because so often access is something hastily assembled to thwart disaster.

Access is the last issue thought of, the difficult subject put to the bottom of the list, or delegated to a junior, someone disempowered who does not know what to do with it. So often, access is ignored or overlooked, squeezed in, a topic to avoid if possible. It is a subject rarely to be found in project budgets, and instead considered at the last moment, when the ‘awkward guest’ arrives - we at Shape get this kind of anxious phone call from venues all the time.

 My point is that in arts programming, access is the plane - and where it is going, who is on it and what it contains, are all far more realisable considerations when the plane is not being assembled in mid-air. To conclude: good planning puts access first; and so, the message from our event attendees resounded, should we all.

sally booth speaks at the wrap up session at tate exchange symposium, february 2017woman in a black top sits with a large sheet of notes from group discussions at Shape

The wrap up session came to a conclusion after all the artists had spoken. Then, upon Tony thanking the panellists, artists and participants for their excellent input, it was time to go - or not to go, that was the question facing many of the attendees, whether it was nobler to head for the lifts or to stay a while and enjoy the conversation, the sunny atmosphere, the art, or even a glass of something.  Very many stayed, and taking advantage of this moment, our blogger Gavin Griffiths began to take individuals aside and sit with them, recording their responses to the day’s events.

A collection of these recordings can be found on our audioboom playlist ‘Conversations’  - they make a great record of the day and perfectly capture some excellent reflections as well as the background mood of the symposium.

They also feature as a soundtrack for a slideshow of images shown below. Click on captions for subtitles:

A written transcript of the responses is available to download at this link here

Two of our other bloggers give their views on what happened and what they learned at their blogsites: The link to Fae Kilburn’s blog is here:

And the link to Mel Griffith’s post-event blog is here:

a woman in an orange top records an audio description into an ipad at tate exchange 2017

With the day drawing to an end, it was good to see a number of people listening to the audio description posts which had been made so far, or recording their own, often with the help of our excellent band of volunteers and staff members.  To listen to them, go to the link here

gaving griffiths interviews a woman using a portable recorder

two women in conversation at tate exchange, one with an assistance dog

four people standing in conversation at tate exchange, with  others in the background exploring artworks

The image for each post should correspond to the image of the artwork being described, although there are a few creative exceptions.  Some younger participants also took the time to comment on the overall event and experience of being at Tate.  Worth a listen. The link is here:

For those who aren’t sure about this kind of thing, I have embedded a couple of audio posts here so you can compare them. It is two different interpretations of Trump Mouths and Read My Lips, by Anne Teahan. Enjoy. 



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

Photography c. Andy Barker

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