More and more these days, 'access' is the name of the game, and as visually impaired people, we find that if there is provision made for us in this respect it usually focuses on making information accessible, buildings accessible or the art product inside these buildings, like plays, films or exhibitions accessible through audio description.
Ironically, access usually begins and ends here, and the social time before, in the middle, or after such events, which is just as much part of the arts experience, remains inaccessible to us. During intervals, launches, in the bar after a show, we can often find ourselves not knowing who is around us, what interactions are taking place, what the layout of the space is etc, and without this information, our movement and communication can be impeded.
The Project Aims
- To simulate the 'in-between-time' of an art event, by creating a social/networking gathering.
- To set up a discrete technical system to access each visually impaired person present at the gathering to their own live, remote commentary of what will be happening around them.
- To test if this method of access increases levels of information for the visually impaired people present and whether this enhances their ability to move around more spontaneously, identify people more easily or enable better interaction with people around them.
- To explore the process of interaction between describer and visually impaired person and to begin a basic assessment for this form of navigational access.
- To devise a participatory task for everyone at the gathering, that encourages circulation and interaction.
- To discover how individuals at a general gathering react to being described to the visually impaired people present.
Maria Oshodi devised the project in early 2004, initially receiving support for the idea through an Artsadmin mid-career bursary. She later added this start up funding to an award to Extant from Orange for the same project.
In early 2006, while searching for an appropriate venue for the project, that would ideally have something like a gallery so the describers could look down from above onto the main party space below. Artsadmin suggested the Great Eastern Hotel, with its internal balcony architecture, and after meeting the hotel's PR, they agreed to come in as a partner, providing the project with free space and hospitality for the event.
Orange backed the project further by supplying all the mobile phones and airtime used during the event.
A date was set in August for the event to take place. Leading up to then 15 visually impaired people were invited to take part in the project, along with 15 sighted people from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations.
During this time Maria also worked on creating the task for the event, which she devised as a new, party game based on lines from famous films.
Invitations were sent out to friends of Extant, Artsadmin, Orange and The Great Eastern Hotel to attend the event. Two weeks before this we held a training day at the hotel for the 30 visually impaired and sighted project participants.
As this project was breaking into completely new territory, with all the people involved being from such a wide range of backgrounds, and not knowing each other, we decided to hold a training day, which was held at The Great Eastern Hotel two weeks before the event itself.
Extant, Artsadmin and Orange, ran the day for the 15 visually impaired participants and their 15 sighted describers, with the day focusing on:
- Matching pairs and getting to know each other
- Open discussions about differences in negotiating social situations
- Describing hotel environment from a sighted and non sighted perspective
- Navigating exercises using language only
- Testing mobile phone link up equipment between pairs
- Testing navigational exercises remotely via phone earpiece, with describers up on balconies communicating to their visually impaired partner in space below.
- Describing the party game that would take place at the event.
The Cast Party Event
On Friday 11 August 2006 about 100 people arrived at the Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street for the Cast Party. All they had been told was to turn up wearing something distinctive and be prepared to take part in a task that would require their detection, communication and observational skills.
Famous film sound tracks from films such as Star Wars, The Amazing Mr Ripply and Mission Impossible were played by DJ Jamie Renton, as guests spilled out of the hotel lifts into the vaulted party space resembling something of a film set itself.
The describers, appeared like CI'A agents, stationed up on the balconies above in dark clothing with mobile phone wires feeding into their ears. To steady their nerves, the guests took full advantage of the free bar, transfused with an eerie blue glowing light.
When everyone had arrived, Maria welcomed the guests, explained a bit about the project and handed over to the MC to explain the task for the night.
It entailed everyone at the party being given a line from an anonymous famous movie. There were 15 films with several lines from each film given out randomly among the crowd.
When everyone had their line, the aim was for people to move around, quoting their line at each other, in order to locate the other cast members from their particular film.
When a cast managed to find each other they all presented themselves to the MC, delivered their line over the microphone to the whole party and claimed their prize.
The aim of this game was to break the ice among the party guests including the visually impaired participants, and get them all moving around and enthusiastically interacting with each other. This was ultimately so that the describers above would have a lively, energetic and constantly shifting scene to describe to their partner going on around them on the party floor.
The purpose of the guests wearing something distinctive was to attempt to help the describers track people in the crowd, in case their visually impaired partner needed to locate someone specific as one of their potential cast members.
Visit the Feedback link for visually impaired participants, describers and guests experience of this project.