Bridging the Gaps – ‘Exploring the link etween art and audio description.
Hosted by Shape Arts and Tate Modern on Friday 24 February.
I have to admit that I am not a particularly artistic person and have attended very few events of this kind. I therefore did not know what to expect from this event or what I would get out of it.
The afternoon consisted of a symposium, followed by break out sessions and concluding with a wrap-up session.
The afternoon began with introductions from a panel of speakers, all of whom have worked with audio description in the arts. Zoe Partington and Craig Ashley from the Midlands Arts Centre talked about embedding audio description and making it part of the art itself. Zoe has previously provided description to a series of photographs which I was involved with a year ago when I voiced the description. Gavin Griffiths created relevant sound which he edited into the descriptions to create an audio soundscape. Craig had worked on a project, also using photographs where first a description was given of the photograph, followed by an authentic voice, in this instance, a black person describing the times when the photograph was taken. Craig played us some short clips of these two types of contrasting audio to illustrate his point.
A question and answer session took place and for me, the overwhelming impression I still have is that audio description can only be part of the whole accessible experience. As I have said previously in the article I wrote which appeared in the accompanying booklet, providing a verbal description and nothing else is a bit like showing written descriptions to a sighted person without giving them something to look at. It is unlikely to hold my interest for long.
People also spoke of not being allowed to get near enough to a piece of art to see it if they had partial sight. Also not being able to view sculpture, for example, from all angles when using a wheelchair.
Attitude is key and museums and galleries who have someone senior who is receptive to introducing accessibility will do better than those who do not. An example was given of the Pen Museum in Birmingham where the director is blind. Because of this, the staff all have good awareness of the needs of blind and partially sighted people and therefore are welcoming and knowledgeable when blind or partially sighted visitors arrive at the museum.
Another area which was mentioned a few times throughout the afternoon was that artists could and should be encouraged when they are commissioned, to include accessibility in their work. One artist went as far as to say that currently, she is never approached about accessibility when speaking to curators. It was felt that curators and accessibility officers should work together to build in accessibility and inclusivity for all from the start.
More work should be done when designing websites to make them accessible to all. Description could be used more effectively to encourage blind and partially sighted visitors to make the effort to attend galleries and museums.
In conclusion, my opinion is that there is still a way to go. My background is in computing and as a blind person I have been faced time and again by software that is not accessible and where building in accessibility after the event is often too costly or time consuming. If accessibility had been brought in at the start, it could have been much easier to implement.
The art world appears to be no different for blind and partially sighted people. Accessibility and inclusivity are still often an after-thought.
It is up to all of us, artists, galleries and museums, and us, the visually impaired consumers to change this. As consumers if we don’t address areas of inaccessibility, we can’t expect things to change. I hope that, as an individual, I am able to be constructive. I believe it is essential to praise good practice and offer suggestions for improvement when things go wrong.
The arts produce a tremendous sense of wellbeing for everyone and it is vital that blind and partially sighted people are included to enable us to experience that same wellbeing.
Often, an accessibility feature such as audio description, brought in for blind and partially sighted people, can be tremendously helpful for other people such as those who have difficulty reading. Providing different ways of accessing art gives everyone the choice on how they approach it which can only enhance the experience for everyone.