The proposed research network will act as a forum for the discussion of non-sighted modes of beholding art, within the context of situated forms of contemporary art practice. It will question how a shift in the aesthetic engagement afforded by hybrid (intermedia) forms of contemporary art opens up new engagements for the partially sighted and blind community. Sound, smell and touch, for instance, have become an important factor in some installation art, while the discipline of sound art has expanded the spatial reception of the auditory. The network aims to develop a deeper understanding of the spatial and curatorial possibilities of such forms of engagement, and their potential application beyond the world of contemporary art.
The proposal is set against a background where the engagement of 'visual' art by blind and partially sighted beholders has primarily been addressed through questions of improving access to medium-specific forms of art, such as through audio descriptions and touch tours, or (more problematically) mediated forms such as 'tactile' paintings and 3D facsimiles. While in a post-pandemic situation access is an ongoing concern, a narrow focus on 'traditional' art does not register how intermedial/installation art has (i) fundamentally challenged ontologies of art, (ii) deliberately sets out to dehabitualise the beholder position, and (iii) challenges the notion of 'context independent' art. Addressing where the criticality lies in non-sighted modes of engagement, the proposition is that the engagement afforded a blind or visually impaired audience should be every bit as complex as that of sighted beholders.
This issue is pressing given the prevalence of the default white cube gallery situation and entrenched conventions of 'viewing' art. A deeper understanding of non-visual ontologies of art will not only widen participation to new audiences, but enhance the experience of non-sighted and sighted beholders. This will impact upon the design of galleries and museums - the types of spaces made available, such as their acoustic properties and embedded tactile cues - and attitudes to curating (where partially and non-sighted beholders are rarely treated as part of the core audience, despite the RNIB estimating that over two million people in the UK have visual impairment). This means challenging museum conventions of engagement which prioritise sighted audiences (such as the ubiquitous 'please do not touch').
This research network will facilitate an exchange of ideas that engages interdisciplinary thinking on the phenomenology of the non- or partially-sighted engagement of art. Crucially, it will engage the blind and partially sighted community and organisations that promote cultural opportunities for this audience, and those within institutions enacting policy around inclusion and access to (and the design of) museum/gallery environments. But it will also draw upon disciplinary insights from: cognitive science and psychology (i.e. non-sighted spatial orientation, and the interdependence of perceptual systems); the philosophy of art (the ontology of art and the aesthetics of reception); art and design practice (sighted and non-sighted artists making work where the engagement extends beyond the visual); theoreticians engaging critical disability studies.
The workshops and symposium will be organised around three key themes: (i) non-visual perception and orientation (such as sound/haptic localisation); (ii) architectural and spatial situations/contexts (rethinking the gallery situation); (iii) expanding art and curatorial practices (theorising new types of encountering art). The discussions will be transcribed and made available through the network's research website, and live-streaming will facilitate virtual participation. An edited book, organised around themes emerging from the network discussions, will be published at a later date, and made available as an audiobook and large format print edition.
AHRC funded research network officially commences on 15 November 2021. We have now fixed the relevant dates and venues for the three workshops and concluding symposium, which are:
WORKSHOPS 1 and 2 (two-day workshop)
Theme: Day 1: Non-visual perception and orientation
• How has contemporary art opened up new forms of engagement for partially sighted and blind audiences (engaging senses beyond the visual) and how might these challenge gallery conventions or norms of encountering art?
• What is the interrelation between auditory, tactile, olfactory and visual processing systems with regard to spatial location/orientation, and how this might apply to beholding artworks?
• What role does context play in contemporary art practice, and how might we expand the ways contextual information might be communicated to blind and visually impaired audiences?
Day 2: Rethinking the gallery situation
• How does architecture engage senses beyond the visual, and how might exemplars inform our experience of situated contemporary art?
• How might embedded haptic and auditory cues, or aids such as audio descriptions or tactile maps, facilitate navigation and enhance the experience of contemporary art?
• How might such architectural affordances help rethink the generic white cube gallery, and open up new kinds of spaces for experiencing art?
Venue: Tate Exchange Floor, Blavatnik Building Level 5, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
Date: Tuesday/Wednesday 15-16 February 2022, 10:00-17:30
WORKSHOP 3 (one-day workshop)
Theme: Expanding art and curatorial practices
• How might we challenge dominant (occularcentric) ways of theorising the encounter with contemporary art, and in so doing enhance the experience of non-sighted and sighted beholders?
• How might the problematising of the beholder position (central to much contemporary art) translate through senses other than the visual?
• What are the applications of these spatial and curatorial possibilities beyond the world of contemporary art?
Venue: The Boardroom, Henry Moore Institute, The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH
Date: Wednesday 18 May 2022, 10:00-17.30
SYMPOSIUM (two-day event)
Title: Beyond the Visual: Non-Sighted Modes of Engaging Art
Venue: The Banqueting Suite, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL, Entrance from Atterbury Street, London SW1P 4JU
Date: Thursday/Friday 03-04 November 2022, 9:30-18:00