Shape Arts make a welcome move into the world of audio-description at Tate Exchange


How do you ‘see’ art? How do we describe art to others? As part of the Tate Exchange programme at Tate Modern, Shape organised 4 days of events from 23-26 February, with a showcase of artwork from the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary Shortlist, a series of workshops led by blind and visually impaired artists and a symposium exploring audio description of artwork. Colin Hambrook reports.

Sculpture consisting of a series of bright yellow and red walking frames arranged on a blue plinth to resemble a merry-go-round

Oliver MacDonald ‘Whirlie Wheelers’

The issue of audio description within galleries and museums has been around for a long time, but getting organisations to embrace the need to open their doors to visually impaired people has been a difficult process. Curators and Gallery Administrators have shown reluctance to take on board the idea that visually impaired people are a viable audience, let alone could be artists in their own right – or that creative ways of approaching audio-description could kick-start innovation.

It was great to catch up with Shape last Sunday with their series of interventions around audio description at Tate Modern. With a lively series of workshops organised there was a playful atmosphere in the Tate Exchange – a light-filled space on the fifth floor of the new Switch House galleries. Overlooking London on three sides the views are breathtaking and the open plan space is ideal for experimental participatory projects encouraging Tate visitors (over 3 days of public-facing events Shape had more than 700 people through the door) to dabble in art in new and exciting ways.

With several pieces from Shape’s Adam Reynolds Bursary shortlist on display, the challenge to participants was to have a go at audio-describing the artworks via iPads on hand, which were linked up to a page on the Shape website where the recordings then went live.

There were a few short, cohesive instructions on what makes for a clear piece of audio description but the most important direction was about encouraging people to have fun. And last Sunday when I spent an afternoon in the space it was clear a lot of gallery-goers, of all ages, were doing just that.

There was also a strong element of education for the general public. Some of the messages left on the wall of feedback notes demonstrated a learning curve in individuals understanding that visually impaired people can not only appreciate art, but can also be artists.

Bronze relief with a darker etched texture within a simalcrum of a portrait photograph

Aaron McPeake ‘Silent Painting’. Bronze

Aaron McPeake’s two bronze pieces on exhibition ‘Silent Painting’ and ‘Photograph of My Mother’ are both enigmatic examples of how different levels of visual acuity can bring alternative textures to the fore. Both these pieces have an old and wise quality to them and make you think about visual impairment, challenging stereotypical notions of blindness as a metaphor for ignorance.

Oliver MacDonald’s Whirlie Wheelers was a great favourite with the children visiting Tate Exchange – and it seemed Shape volunteers had quite a task keeping hands and feet off what to all appearances is a merry-go-round.

Playing with audio description can be a way of getting people to look more closely at artwork and to think more creatively about engaging with it.

Liz Porter ran a workshop through the afternoon where she had a variety of art objects on a large table, which she was asking people to record impressions of, firstly just using five words to describe their tactile qualities and then to answer a series of questions such as what people thought the objects were made for, or what sounds might describe them.

The objects ranged from a small tactile model of Anna Berry’s Dole Scum II to a Giacometti-type maquette, a marble pillar, a white cane and a model of a fruit pie. It was an opportunity for those taking part to exercise their imaginations in a playful way. In making up stories about the objects in relation to each other, one participant imagined the white cane guiding the fruit pie to somewhere it wouldn’t be eaten.

A 5 foot circle of broken egg shells is arranged artistically in a pile on the floor.

Anna Berry’ ‘Dole Scum II’

The way audio description is incorporated within all aspects of approach to the gallery, the website, marketing as well as exhibitions themselves, was at the heart of Ways of Seeing Art. As things stand, many visually impaired people would be sceptical of the idea of visiting a gallery or museum, as lack of access is a given. New worlds can be opened up with object-handling sessions and guided talks. With a bit of thought audio-guides can incorporate description, making artwork accessible to blind people. It’s not necessarily a difficult thing to do, or something that is going to incur extra expense for the gallery.

A series of eight small oil paintings of the mouth of US president Donald Trump

Anne Teahan: ‘Read My Lips’

Careful consideration and education of gallery staff is what is needed to counter ignorance. I took my blind partner to a gallery in Prague last summer. We went to visit Mucha’s Slav Epic in the National Gallery – a series of monumental paintings exploring the myths and legends of the Slav people. I was admonished by gallery staff several times not to leave my partner alone in the gallery. They seemed to believe that she was going to willfully damage the paintings with her white cane: “No pointing of the stick! Make sure the stick is vertical, not horizontal,” they barked. The two women clearly had a problem with a visually impaired person being in the gallery in the first place.

Ways of Seeing Art was a welcome move by Shape and Tate Modern to look at ways of welcoming visually impaired people into galleries as audiences and as artists. Thinking about access creatively can potentially also do much to enhance creative interventions on all sorts of levels. This is evidenced via the audioboom podcast channel Shape have set up, where you can listen to recorded conversations (in short clips) with the artists, panel participants and attendees of the symposium – as well as examples of audio-description recorded and uploaded by the general public.