Nesta: Making Digital Work Conference 2015

Making Digital Work, was an event designed for attendees to share and participate in the learning from the funded projects of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

The day included keynote speakers, presentations, demonstrations and performances by some of the funded projects. It seeked to explore how and why to do R&D and how to further develop digital practice. Delegates were able to experience, share and take away practical knowledge as well as network with speakers, the projects and digital experts. 

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, spoke on the topic of: accessibility – using technology to reach public audience, focusing specifically on disability.

My name is Jo Verrent and I’m the accessibility champion… I’ve 15 minutes to convince you that accessibility isn’t a dry boring add on to what you do – and I mean anything that you do – but instead a fundamental intrinsic element, and a fascinating one at that.

Access is usually thought of as so dull and boring that they’ve stapled us to the main keynote so you can’t escape – seriously. So first, I’m going to go down the quick and easy spectacle route to wow you…

An Incredible Journey – Follow Sue Austin’s Quest to Fly

Ok – a fantastic piece by a fantastic artist – but what’s it got to do with access?

Sue Austin and her team at Freewheeling gained funding through the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts to look at how such immersive work can be created and displayed – by everyone and for everyone. Their research looked to produce a commercially viable, robust system of integrated 360° recording, editing and display technologies for small arts, community and educational venues.

They developed portable and accessible headsets plus affordable, transportable installations so that work can be made by – and seen by audiences currently excluded from accessing arts venues due to disabling physical, psychological, and financial barriers. Access isn’t just about captions and audio description – although those are vital too.

Banner 2. INNOVATIVE. Sue Austin. .JPGBut it’s more than that.

Access isn’t just about access to individual artworks, it’s about access to ambition, to seeing reflections of yourself. Watching Sue gives a sense of freedom, liberation, transformation – a far cry from how disability is usually portrayed.

Access is about involvement – it might mean access to participating in the arts or even access to the possibility of being an artist. Ultimately it’s about access to being seen as part of humanity.

When we deny people access, we treat them as lesser. We say they aren’t as valued, as important, as human as everyone else. We deny them what they need. And this is what you do every single time you forget to put on captions. Don’t have time to alt tag an image. Don’t bother with audio description because you think no one will listen.

Ok – so I start by lifting you up only then to crash you down.

Lets go back to the motivational stuff. What’s out there that’s inspiring?

Motion Disabled, by Simon McKeown – a work that took the unique movements of disabled people, using motion capture technology, creating moving avatars showcasing that idiosyncratic movement and identity. The work exists as a warning against eugenics – fighting the so called ‘traditional’ way of seeing disability as ‘ugly’ or ‘wrong’, the thing we should try to get rid of instead finding the beauty, the uniqueness within it.

The work began for galleries – here seen both on small screens and projected on a wall. I was lucky enough to produce Motion Disabled, not in its first incarnation at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, but for Light Night in Leeds where we wanted to scale up the impact– so projected it 80 foot tall on a building. This really took off as a way for Simon to work, and in 2010, the work was exhibited globally in 17 countries and 25 locations on the same day – December 3rd International Day of Disabled people.4eaf8a33d2bc3bd06132c60a7afc9f8f

Simon’s work has always been – and continues to – push the boundaries of technology. He’s a Reader in Animation and Post Production at Teesside University so has plenty of opportunity to play. He’s often cited as a prime illustration of Arts Council England’s Creative Case – where disability is seen as a creative advantage and not a barrier or block.

His most recent work, Cork Ignite, was produced as part of Culture Night Ireland this September where the whole of the front of Cork College of Commerce was brought to life with wild 3D projections and accompanying music. And it was stunning.

Cork Ignite was one of three Ignite commissions for disabled artists, representing the largest ever investment in Ireland’s arts and disability sector.

Ignite, as a commissions programme, was modelled on Unlimited, the UK wide commissions programme now delivered by Shape and Artsadmin, of which I am Senior Producer. We fund disabled artists to create extraordinary work and we cover all art forms – visual arts, literature and performing arts…

A number of our commissions have used technology to increase access – often unconventionally.

This is a shot from Katherine Araniello’s, ‘The Dinner Party Revisited’. It’s a live art performance piece which involves Katherine performing alongside herself on a number of screens – but that’s not the tech I want to talk to you about. Katherine can experience limitations to her ability to tour – physical barriers created by her impairment that mean she can’t travel with the freedom that she’d like. So when she performed as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre, she used the opportunity to try out a new touring option. Her team created an inflatable Katherine who was the key performer in a mirrored performance. The two performances were live streamed to each other, and Katherine’s face was projected onto the inflatable version. We wanted to see if she might be able to tour the piece physically, whilst appearing herself only virtually.

And tech was used in Wendy Hoose, the sex comedy by Birds of Paradise – the captions for the piece, like the StageText we are using today – are a fundamental part of making the work accessible, but in this case were also part of the aesthetic of the piece – as you can see in this image, they were projected in the middle of the set in ‘text speak’ – as though on a giant phone app. Perfect for this piece, which was about hooking up for sex via phone apps.

In the installation, 213 Things About Me, which was part of the ’Unlimited Exhibition’ at Summerhall Galleries in Edinburgh, Richard Butchins wanted to create a surround sound experience that amplified the experience of autism within the piece – so the sound comes in from different directions, unsettling, unexpected and yet perfectly matched to the work itself.

Audio exploration has been used by many. It’s the heart of Bekki Perriman’s The Doorways Project – also part of the ‘Unlimited Exhibition’. A series of audio voices from those living on the streets, played in doorways. Not just perfect for visually impaired people, but in this world of constant moving image, a real chance to stop and focus simply on one channel of information. It’s incredibly moving – and of course transcripts are available for those who can’t access audio.

Bekki used to sleep in doorways, and it’s her unique insight into this experience that makes the work so powerful. Access is about making work accessible to all, but sometimes only disabled artists themselves can make the experiences of disability accessible, highlighting the way in which the world appears to perceive and value – or not value – our humanity.

I was thinking about which artists really make me think differently about the world – Jon Adams is one. He describes himself as being neuro-diverse. His artwork explores the ‘hidden’ and plays with perceptions of normal and the inaccessible. For me he repositions neuro-diverse as something intriguing and beautiful rather than its more common reading as odd or unusual.

This desire for repositioning I take into my own work. Last year I worked with Luke Pell to make Take Me To Bed, an installation exploring intimacy and difference currently showing in Sweden – challenging that sense of a ‘normal’ body, a ‘normal’ sense of movement.

So access is about everyone getting access, everyone getting represented. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone.

People with learning disabilities are still rarely considered, especially to projects and play involving tech.

Apart from in ‘Sprung Digi’, led by Sarah Pickthall. SprungDigi focuses on learning disabled people getting creative and connecting with the world through digital tech, finding new ways to take their artwork to different places, spaces, new ways to express themselves in ways that surprise, delight and sometimes frustrate them!

Sprung Digi 11th July 2015

The work also highlights and addresses the isolation that learning disabled people are currently facing across the country through drastic changes in social care. You’ve heard about the cost of austerity? Disabled people are bearing the brunt.

This work builds on and amplifies work done by groups such as Heart and Soul based in London, who’ve been using tech as part of their Beautiful Octopus Club nights for years. If you’ve not ever been. Go.

One more example before I go – I wanted to show you Aidan Moseby’s Periodic Table of Emotions created for Dundee. The periodic table of emotions exists as a digital projection which illustrates the current mood of Dundee through sentiment analysis of twitter and local newspapers. Jealousy, shame, euphoria, It is a dynamic visualisation of the city right now. Whatever emotions the feed picks up, light up…

I’ll be seeing Aidan soon – in Australia. Unlimited is working with the Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT) to run a 10 day creative residency for disabled artists, 5 from the UK and 5 from Australia looking at the concept of UNFIXED – Aidan is one of the artists we are taking out. We’ve paired up with Watershed from Bristol so it’s not just a one off opportunity too, but a chance to seed work for the future.

So look, listen and enjoy – but don’t just leave it there. We’re not interested in you sitting back and just finding it all mildly informative, we are interested in what this might inspire you to actually do.

Catch up with all the tweets that came out of the conference: #artsdigital

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