The image appears to be a close up of powder on a speaker as if it's forming a pattern through vibrations
Juliet Robson, HERTZ

Unlimited Innovation – how disabled artists are harnessing the power of technology

On 14 July, Unlimited are presenting at the Disability Innovation Summit 2017. Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, explains why – and why digital and technological innovation is of such interest for Unlimited…

The summit is billed as ‘a unique opportunity for academics, disabled people, practitioners, community members, international partners, organisations and innovators to shape the future of disability’. Of course disabled people are in all of those groups rather than being a category of their own, and we felt strongly that disabled artists needed to be right in the middle of such an event to both make that point and to showcase the incredible work disabled artists can do – in all fields.

I recently went to an exhibition in Sheffield called The Body Electric. Fascinating in many ways but one crucial collection stood out. It was the story of Cindy – a quadruple amputee given a $90,000 high tech myoelectric ‘hand’. Did this magically solve her access issues? No. She found it ‘heavy, awkward and imprecise’ preferring instead cheap homemade hacks such as inserting eye liner in a foam tube or creating silicon attachments for a traditional knife and fork.

There is a saying in the disability movement ‘nowt about us, without us’ and I think it’s probably more important in the field of technological innovation than anywhere else – don’t get so high on inventing something that you forget to include the input of the very person you are inventing it for. It’s the same with many of the access solutions that magically come up on my Facebook feed. Enormous tech-gloves that turn sign language into speech! Wow – they aren’t going to look inconspicuous at all. Let’s think about it for a moment – if captions and sign language was included within our culture more frequently, would these be necessary? And yes, they might enable a deaf person to ‘speak’ – but how would the deaf person then process the spoken response? Some of the tech we are in such a rush to create might seem to solve a problem – but it’s not always the right one. And sometimes, the solution causes more problems than it solves.

Unlimited were key partners in Unfixed – with ANAT, Watershed and Access2Arts – an art and tech project across Australia and the UK that placed disabled artists in the centre of conversations about the intersection of art, technology and disability. Two of our shortlisted artists were engaged in that project – Jane Gauntlett and Aidan Moseby – both of whom will be speaking at the summit session. They’ve both gone on to be studio residents at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio. Jane recently presented In My Shoes: Intimacy, a 360 degree experience for two at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Aidan gained an Unlimited/Northern Festival Network commission for Between Stillness and Storm and was recently announced as one of the 5 Brilliant artists for Lumiere this year.

Unlimited has supported and shortlisted many artist working with digital and new technologies. From the Unlimited 2012 sensation of Sue Austin’s Underwater Wheelchair (available in Virtual Reality (VR), 360 degree and standard installation formats), to Sabrina Shirazi’s work on OPUS, uniting sound, image and taste by harnessing congruent elements (we supported a series of workshops for d/Deaf and hearing people testing her bone conduction gobstoppers…). Our most recent callout saw many artists working with digital and new technologies shortlisted, including: Ben Fredricks, Chisato Minamimura, Jason Wiltshire Mills, Justin Edgar, Maria Oshodi, Raquel Meseguer.

To work in these fields, partnerships are essential. Whether it’s individual connections – artist Juliet Robson is working with a meteorologist, a mathematician and astrophysicist for her R&D HERTZ, making visible / tactile the inaudible symphony of the stars singing and the earth’s hidden resonances – or on a more strategic scale, no one can go it alone. Unlimited are planning with both The Space and Wellcome Trust to develop support events for a limited numbers of artists playing in their relative fields. And as Liz Carr says in her duet with the Pope in the incredible Assisted Suicide: the Musical – sometimes we need to align ourselves with those we might usually disagree with!

Our session at the Disability Innovation Summit is on the Friday morning. We’ve said:

Disabled artists have always stretched boundaries, challenged stereotypes and created change – and increasingly they are using technology to do so. A number of artists supported by Unlimited, the world’s largest disabled-led arts commissioning programme, are at the cutting edge of such work. This session will enable you to gain insight into the work of artists in the Unlimited commissions portfolio working with digital and new technologies. Developments in technology often place disabled people as recipients rather than creatives. As new technology shapes the future of culture, how can we ensure disabled artists are at the forefront of innovation?

Why don’t you come along and be part of the conversation? More information about the 2-day event here.