Two women using a VR system they seem to be staring at eachother without noticing
Attendees of Unlimited Connects at Watershed, trying out work by Jane Gauntlett. Photo by Jon Aitken

Seeing round technological corners: Introducing ‘Future’ Chair for Unlimited: The Symposium

As William Gibson may or may not have said in 1992, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So how can we make sure it is? How do we understand the opportunities and barriers that technology catalyses for disabled artists and the culture sector as a whole? Clare Reddington, CEO at Watershed, is our final chair for Unlimited: The Symposium, leading the Future panel with guests Kamal Sinclair, James Hilton and Jonny Cotsen. Here she shares some of the themes and questions they will explore.

Though tech companies are rarely out of the headlines – our trust in them is at an all time low. And, though the internet is used by the majority of people living in the UK, the people making technology remain largely the same: according to the annual Technation survey, women in the tech industry are outnumbered 4 to 1 –  and data on disability in the workforce is not even currently collected.

Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio seeks to enable people to create inclusive, transformative experiences, using technology to challenge and shape our ideas of the future – taking tiny, magical slivers off the status quo.

To do this, we believe you need to challenge and change every aspect of tech – from who makes it, to how we think about users, to what we want to do with it, to where it goes. This is as true for creative content as it is for the underlying code – and the voices of disabled people are vital in every part of this mix.

In the US, Kamal Sinclair of Sundance New Frontiers edits a site called Making New Reality which reflects on the implications of narrow technology authorship.

The essays, ideas and solutions she has pulled together point the way forward for a more democratic approach to making technology, which will make it richer and better for everyone:

“It is imperative that we engineer robust participation of people from a broad set of communities, identity groups, value systems, and fields of knowledge in this emerging media landscape, in all roles and levels of power. This will help to mitigate the pitfalls of disruption and potentially usher in a change that has justice and equity as core values.”

Whilst Kamal’s work is largely focussed on examining the barriers that people of colour face in the world of technology, the challenge and responsibility to create equality in the world of disability, are similar.

All too often where technology is thought about alongside disability it is with the notion of ‘fixing’ something that is missing. This theme is picked up by James Hilton, chief creative officer at Native, in an essay for Campaign:

“Just because the PlayStation won’t accept an Xbox game, doesn’t mean it’s broken. Not all features of atypical human operating systems are bugs”.

He goes on to offer practical ways for companies to think of diversity as a creative asset (again, as long it is inextricably linked to equality).

The notion of difference as an asset is covered in Raising the Bar – a podcast from Reply All, which offers great examples of how engaging people with different experiences leads to problems being solved faster and better. Listen to it and you will never think of ketchup in the same way again.

In the past year – largely through our allyhood with Unlimited, the Pervasive Media Studio community has been enriched by residencies from deaf and disabled artists including Aidan Moesby, Jane Gauntlett, Raquel Meseguer and Jonny Cotsen – all asking exciting, new and different questions of technology, to push forward their practice, create innovative options for access and offer audiences new experiences.

Theatre maker Jonny explores language, communication and the differences between deaf and hearing people in his work – and he is currently building a prototype hearing aid which transports hearing people into a deaf person’s world (with all accompanying extra sensory experiences such as traffic, mobile phones, birds, smells of food and pollution).

Some time ago I heard Tom Morris of Bristol Old Vic being asked to define what makes an artist. He said (and I paraphrase) that the special thing about artists is 1) they can see round corners, and 2) they take you with them. Jonny’s prototype seeks to use technology to take you around a corner, it acts as a tool to share experience. Crucially, he is sharing his own experience (rather than appropriating other’s – a scary facet of the VR wild west), which we believe will achieve something extremely meaningful for himself, for audiences and for our understanding of what technology is for.

Myself, Kamal, James and Jonny will be looking around the corners of technological change at the Unlimited Symposium in September – do join us in person or online. And, if you have them, please come ready to share examples where you think technology has been used transformationally and where you think the art world still has work to do.