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Flipping descriptions: a new phase of democratising audio description

By Simon Hayhoe, Department of Education, University of Bath, UK

Elisabeth Axel, from the US educational charity Art Beyond Sight, suggests that we’ve passed through three eras of arts education for people with visual impairments (Axel, E (2018) Sensing Culture. Keynote presentation, Developing a Community of Practice Through Inclusive Capital Symposium, University of Bath, March 2018).

The first era, from the end of the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century, was that of radical teachers. Against the fashions of their times, these teachers taught students with visual impairments fine art as a form of perceptual and emotional self-awareness.

These teachers, such as Wilhelm Klein and Viktor Lowenfeld, developed teaching strategies based on first-hand observations of students and questioning their own methodology.

In this era, the prevailing thinking was that a student’s level of sight was linked to their ability to enjoy or appreciate what is known as visual culture. This ability was focussed in those days on the fine arts, but was later applied to theatre, film and television.

In their era, these radical teachers were thought to be attempting the impossible – or, at least the highly improbable – to teach an understanding of ‘beauty’ through touch.

The second era, in the second half of the twentieth century, was that of the scientists who went against the beliefs of previous eras to try and change the minds of art institutions, schools, colleges and museums. These scientists, such as John Kennedy or Morton Heller, suggested that visual concepts were nothing of the sort.

Supposed visual concepts were found instead to be simple cognitive puzzles that could be solved through various means. These scientists showed that visual properties of objects were nothing of the sort. Instead, they showed that objects merely had information properties that were interpreted in the brain by various sensory mechanisms.

According to Axel, we are currently living in the third era of art education for people who are blind. And, we have growing acceptance of what was once thought to be radical thinking as mainstream.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to think that people with little or no sight can successfully take an art class, turn up to a museum and feel an object, or take on a drawing class. Art Beyond Sight themselves now provide drawing sets for visually impaired children who request them. These are found to make the drawing process more inclusive, and one capable of being mastered by all children.

Just as the art education of people with low or no vision has gone through a cultural evolution, so has the place of the voice to describe objects or performance – this form of description is mainly termed audio description, but is also known as verbal imaging or verbal description. However, unlike art education for people with low or no vision, the evolution of description has largely been technical and linguistic rather than offering a revolution of attitudes.

For instance, in the early twentieth century the first recorded examples of audio description were basic guided touch tours with stuffed animals in Sunderland and New York.

In the 1980s, audio description was applied to existing and specially commissioned pieces in art galleries often using clunky audio tapes on crackly Walkmans. Yet, these tours were rare, ill-publicised and rarely known about outside a selected few invited visitors.

Nowadays, we have highly sophisticated and well-researched recorded or bespoke real-time descriptions of art works, theatre performances or films. For example, in the UK, VocalEyes produces around 180 live audio descriptions at theatres, and around a dozen recorded guides for museums each year.

Alternatively, Nathan Geering is developing systems of technology and breakdance music to symbolise words and gestures, such as the sound of a broken cup representing a smashing image or symbol; and Alison Eardley and colleagues at Westminster University are researching how language is cognitively best processed to achieve the most meaningful verbal image.

These descriptions are also increasingly publicised and well-resourced, and many mainstream television remote controls have buttons that can bring audio-description into the home.

However, it would seem that audio description is now on the brink of a further cultural revolution, a new fourth era that can be described as flipping descriptions; that is to say, we are now taking the description out of the hands of what was considered to be the sighted person and handing it to the audiences it was designed to support.

Flipping descriptions can also be considered to be about handing-over the powers of description to people with visual impairments. In doing so, it’s also about making description part of the art work or making description its own form of performative art.

Two cases of flipping descriptions are given below: the first example is a project by Georgina Kleege and the artist Fayen D’Evie; the second example is a recent participatory report commissioned by Extant, the UK’s leading professional performing arts company of visually impaired people, which sees audio description as part of each production’s development.

Case one: Georgina Kleege’s work on audio description and fine art

Georgina Kleege is a professor of English Literature at University of California Berkeley. She is the daughter of fine artists and was raised in and round New York. As a child she often visited the city’s museums, and through her parents she brushed-up against painters and sculptors throughout her childhood.

Kleege is now a well-known author of non-fiction, much of which biographs her social and cultural experience of being raised as a woman with a visual impairment. Her writing is academic and critical, but also widely read outside academia for its cultural commentary.

In her latest book, More than Meets the Eye: What blindness brings to art (Oxford University Press, 2017), Kleege finds that one of the problems with traditional approaches to blindness and visual culture is that our knowledge of visual impairment is based on that of a Hypothetical Blind Man.

The Hypothetical Blind Man is a person born without any sight or visual memory and theoretically without any understanding of visual culture. It’s this imagined person who many philosophers have used as an example of sensory deficit, to hypothesise the imagined binary nature of sight in comparison to sightlessness.

Culturally, the Hypothetical Blind Man is imagined to be living at the margins of society, needing little cultural stimulation and needing little knowledge beyond subsistence in a visual world. Unfortunately, this cultural image is one that has inhabited the consciousness of generations of philosophers; from Descartes in the seventeenth century to the likes of Nagel and Hopkins in the latter years of the twentieth century.

By contrast, Kleege finds recent figures suggest that total blindness from birth effects only about three to eight births in every 10,000. Moreover, the great majority of people with visual impairments are more likely to gain their impairment later in life and have some residual vision. This leaves a large population of older visually impaired people with a lifetime of visual memories of art works, performances, media and the world around them.

Although not deliberately designed to exclude, this Hypothetical Blind Man has done much to stereotype people with visual impairments and visual culture. He has reinforced the public’s image of a visually impaired person as a man (further evidence of the figure’s bias) without any vision, and no comprehension of colour, perspective or distance. Unfortunately, the Hypothetical Blind Man has also affected institutions and their treatment of people with visual impairments.

For example, the image of the Hypothetical Blind Man has affected the choice of objects museums use for touch tours, on the grounds they are ‘accessible’ to the Hypothetical Blind Man. These objects often include what is thought to be non-visual sculptural pieces, usually bronzed or monochrome artworks, and are accompanied by a basic description of their tactile form.

Consequently, such tours will have marginalised a large number of of people with visual impairments. In her experience, Kleege observes that a number of these tours regiment the experience of being visually impaired in the museum; they are only planned on certain days, at certain times. They also tend to include only a pre-selected group of people with visual impairments.

For Kleege, this separateness, this binary condition of visual impairment, takes away a large part of the pleasure of being an attendee at a museum or gallery. This feeling of separation also restricts the aesthetic choices that any visitor wants to exercise for themselves, and further reinforces a feeling of dependence on a or an institution.

So, what’s the solution to this feeling of dependence?

Although there is no simple answer to this question, Kleege feels that one possible contribution could be people with visual impairment taking control of verbal description.

Kleege’s opinion is built on her previous experiences of attending guided touch tours with other visually impaired visitors. Kleege observed that she was treated differently from her sighted counterparts; she often had to call or write ahead to let the museums know she was coming, and her group attendance was often based on a tour being available when she was on vacation.

It’s rare that Kleege or other blind museum-goers can be spontaneous in their visits or be given permission to touch or have audio description in a museum when turning up unannounced. These rare exceptions to the spontaneous visit are often made possible by well-thought through solutions, such as:

  • contemporary mobile technologies that can play recorded audio descriptions of artworks through apps that intelligently locate your place in the museum
  • accessible interactive displays that can respond with information on being touched
  • tours led by trained docents (guides), who know how to differentiate between the needs of visitors
  • access to mainstream tours, where descriptions can be differentiated for all visitors’ needs
  • participatory description, where each visitor is encouraged to add to an overall understanding of an artwork from their own unique perspective
Two women reach with hands, horse saddle
THE GRAVITY, THE LEVITY, Fayen d’Evie and Georgina Kleege

In what can be seen as a new phase of audio describing, Kleege has now taken ownership of this form of description by developing a project in partnership with artist Fayen D’Evie. This project involves developing a representation of D’Evie’s exhibition The Gravity, The Levity as a touch exhibition with the audio description by Kleege. This audio description is based on Kleege’s experience of touching the art work and a lifetime working with fine art.

This different representation of D’Evie’s work was exhibited at the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco in 2016, with Kleege providing her own prepared description of the piece. As part of this exhibition, Kleege also invited sighted participants to touch the pieces themselves; Kleege observed that this was something that they were culturally reluctant to do. It would seem that Kleege’s observation is a further confirmation that touch and proximity to art works has been stigmatised by museums and art institutions.

Case two: Extant on audio description and performative art

Extant is a theatre company which employs visually impaired actors and promotes equality and an understanding of vision loss through its performances. Importantly, Extant encourages the use of philosophy and technology throughout its shows. And, in doing so it often collaborates with academics, engineers and technologists to develop innovative performances.

In 2018, as part of its twentieth anniversary celebrations, the group commissioned the report Integrated Access… Is It Working? that  was designed to improve the quality and effectiveness of its audio description. The inquiry was designed to address the following five questions:

  1. What are the traditional models of access provision within theatre?
  2. How do these work or not work for the audience?
  3. What are the impairment specific and pan-impairment examples of integrated access and what has been the audience experience of these?
  4. Is it possible to provide integrated access that meets the needs of everyone involved – audiences, artists, companies and venues?
  5. How can artists and companies best be supported to provide integrated access services for visually impaired people and how should they be checking that what they are providing meets the needs of the audience?

As a part of this inquiry, Louise Fryer and Amelia Cavallo worked with a focus group of adults of long-standing and recent vision loss to define the experience of audio description. The ages of participants in the focus group varied from thirty to seventy years and members of the focus group had experienced different amounts of audio description in performing arts. One of the participants had never experienced audio description before participating in the inquiry, and had an additional hearing impairment which made following audio description difficult.

The focus group found there was no perfect audio description that can satisfy all theatre goers with visual impairments, as there are so many diverse experiences of visual impairment.

There are also so many diverse cultural preferences and needs, including those who have seen before to those who prefer artistic literature, just as there are preferences for styles of writing. For example, some people like highly descriptive, aesthetic forms of description such as that found in works of fiction. Others prefer concise, information-rich descriptions that allow them to develop a less complex mental image.

However, beyond aesthetic preferences there seems to be a need for a balance between ‘traditional’ standardised  reproduction and the creative work to get the most from a work of art. Also, how do we develop audio description for people who are visually impaired and hearing impaired, to suit the broadest audience?

The first answer to this question seems to be, give the creative power of audio description to visually impaired people themselves, as Kleege did with fine art. However, Extant and others have now taken this a step further and transformed audio description into performative art, in which the audience is brought into the description.

Two examples of this new art form can be seen in the work of Amelia Cavallo and Elbow Room Theatre Company.

Cavallo, co-author of the Extant report, developed a participatory burlesque performance in which she describes and invites description of erotic dancing. She starts the performance covered in an Indian silk scarf, sticking out her legs and arms underneath the scarf, and describing her body movement to the audience as she does so.

In the second half of her performance, Cavallo removes the scarf over her body, bit by bit, and invites the audience to shout out descriptions as she does so. After her performance concludes, she sits down and discusses the piece with the audience, explaining how it was designed to explore sexuality and blindness.

At the end of this post-performance dialogue, Cavallo problematizes her own sexuality and identity. She also describes how she didn’t want to describe her most overtly sexual body parts during the performance; instead she describes the parts of her body that weren’t immediately identifiable with her sexuality, such as her shoulder. In this way, the audience is invited to examine sexuality and the body as a whole through this form of audio description.

Similarly, Elbow Room Theatre Company consciously include visually impaired and sighted performers in an attempt to address and re-balance the lack of visually impaired performers. Through this balance of experience, Elbow Room develop performance and performative art for a mixed audience, relying on sighted and visually impaired references.

Woman and man embrace, other actors behind
Chloë Clarke (Phillips) – The Importance of Being Described…Earnestly? Picture by Michael Aaron

Elbow Room’s latest production, The Importance of Being Described… Earnestly? is the result of its visually impaired writer and director’s frustration at traditional audio descriptions and Chloë Clarke’s attempt to re-define description for her sighted and visually impaired audiences. Subsequently, throughout this play the performers describe their own behaviour, and invite the audience to add their own description throughout.

Conclusion and future directions

Audio description is evolving rapidly, thanks to the development of research, creative activity and more importantly its visually impaired audience taking ownership of its performance.

Consequently, audio description has moved from being a presentation of largely non-visual information to a participatory art form with multi-sensorial references. Through this art form, audio description has also become a discourse between all audience members, sighted and visually impaired alike.

As evidenced through the two case studies of fine and performance art in this essay, discourse and description can address issues of politics, well-being, emotion and sexuality. More importantly, this discourse can provide people with sight and visual impairment alike a glimpse into each other’s cultural experiences and develop a greater understanding of perceptual experience.

In this respect, audio description is now less of a support act and is now becoming an instrument of emancipation for the visually impaired community.

Questions raised during this discussion

Through discussions in London on consecutive days in June 2018, at the Westminster Forum (where Georgina Kleege spoke) and the symposium to launch the ‘Is It Working? report, the following questions were raised:

  1. Do we need to develop research on concentration and attention in audio-description? What is too much / too little description?
  2. What about older people who have hearing loss and visual loss? What about enhancement of vision and sound only, rather than substitution?
  3. What ‘image’ of a blind person does the audio describer have in their head when constructing their script / description?
  4. Can closed captioning learn from audio description, as the description of sounds is awful – particularly on television?

Simon Hayhoe is a lecturer in the Department of Education and also a centre research associate in the Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics. His current work focuses on the epistemology of disability and ability, with special reference to education, inclusion, technology and the arts.

Simon’s current research project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693229 – Appendix A.