Material Conversations: Creating Multi-sensory Art with Blind and Partially Sighted People
UCL Trellis is a knowledge exchange programme between UCL researchers and artists through public art. The programme aims to promote collaboration between UCL researchers and local communities based in east London around the new UCL East campus which is expected to open later this year. The programme has been running for over 3 years and has produced fruitful collaborations resulting in a wide variety of creative outcomes.
Our project, SPIRAL, explored multi-sensory dimensions of materials with disabled people. We aimed to explore if creative approaches could intersect with the work of UCL researchers to bring new and stimulating experiences to people. We collaborated with the east London sight loss charity, Beyond Sight Loss, to explore the sense of touch, which plays a crucial role in the lives of people with visual impairments. From using fingertips to reading braille letters, to developing mental maps and spatial representations through long canes, people with visual impairments obtain a great deal of information from touch.
- Caroline Wright
- Maryam Bandukda
- Tim Adlam
- Ben Oldfrey
- Youngjun Cho
Co-creation Workshop with Blind and Partially Sighted People
Maryam’s PhD research explores the multi-sensory experiences of blind and partially sighted people in open spaces. Therefore, we decided that a multi-sensory artwork would not only represent the true synergetic relationship between different senses but also provide opportunities for the artwork to be experienced in a variety of ways.
We conducted a workshop with blind and partially sighted residents of east London, where participants explored different senses and ways to interact with materials such as moulding clay, rocks, lavender, play doh, and slime. The value of touch was particularly evident during the workshop when participants interacted with different materials and the sensations afforded by these objects, evoking unique imaginations, emotions, and recollection of past experiences. Participants also spoke of the way that sound can assist them to understand different spaces and aids navigation, often using the different materials within an environment.
The Artwork – Material Conversations
The learning gained from the workshop participants, with knowledge from the team members informed the creation of artworks for the exhibition. Exploring the different senses, a multi-sensory artwork was produced – taking the senses of touch and sound to its core.
The work was based around a collection of materials that might be found in the built environment - such as steel tread plate, aluminium, glass, Perspex, and plywood. By asking questions such as what does wood sound like, how does aluminium feel, and how can these senses help us interpret and navigate the world, the form of the art was developed.
Caroline worked with sound designer Simon Keep, to capture sounds of different materials shaped into 30mm disks which were played on a turntable and their sonic resonances recorded binaurally. The artwork enabled innovative ways to connect and interact with different materials through touch and sound and was aptly named “Material Conversations”.
The Trellis Exhibition
Visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to touch the disks and simultaneously listen to the unique sound of that material. To complement these pieces, a series of prints on paper using frottage, embossing and mono-prints were made. These techniques are based on one material touching another, in this case using hand pressure to create tactile and visual imagery, and result in variable textured surfaces pressed into and on the paper.
Beyond Sight Loss Visit
The exhibition was visited by the Beyond Sight Loss group who enjoyed Material Conversations in addition to the work of other Trellis artist/UCL researcher partnerships. Some of the comments included surprise at being able to interact with the art, meaning people felt involved with the exhibition. They expressed interest in the unexpected sounds created by some materials, for example plastic, and appreciated the variations of surface texture on the works on paper. An audio description of Material Conversations was available for visitors, who could also choose to take a walk in the surrounding parkland accompanied by a sensory audio tour created out of the project. Both can be found on our project website.
What’s the future of this collaboration?
Through this project, we have greatly benefited from the knowledge and experience exchange through this collaboration. For GDI Hub researchers, being part of the project has given us important insight into the creative process of producing a multi-sensory artwork.
Simultaneously, we have been able to share our knowledge and expertise in the areas of disability innovation, accessibility, and assistive technologies that, combined with the artistic impressions from the blind and partially sighted people, have contributed to the Material Conversations artwork displayed in the Trellis exhibition.
While we have now completed this project, there is so much to be done to make creative arts inclusive and accessible for disabled people. The project has presented possibilities to adopt creative sensory approaches in other applications such as way finding. We are already in discussions to pursue some of the ideas that we’ve been able to develop while working on the Material Conversations project.
The Material Conversations team are thankful to UCL Culture Trellis Programme for funding this project and giving us the opportunity to exhibit this work. We would also like to thank the members of Beyond Sight Loss charity, particularly Ms. Ashrafia Chourdry for her cooperation and openness to collaborate with us on this project.