Artists as Innovators

“The Meeting,” a dance by Bruce Naokwegijig and Spirit Synott.
Perhaps you’ve been to a concert or watched a video online. Did you hear it all? See it all? Understand it all? Can we really have it all? What is that "all" exactly? When the lyrics, whispers and visual moments are not as open to us as we’d like them to be, what do we do? We want more than just a partial experience-we want the full impact of art, drama, music and culture.

A key focus of the CulturAll project is to explore the common challenges of individuals and groups who have been left out of the Canadian cultural exchange, and to find promising solutions and best practices.

Recently we brought together a group of people to tackle the idea of an accessible musical performance. Some 20 participants took the better part of an afternoon to grapple with some of these questions. Our group was composed of artists, musicians, dancers, composers, advocates, software developers, music lovers and academics. Over half of us brought our own personal experiences as people with disabilities as well as our professional identities. Attempting to come together as a group for the first time, we began to explore what fully accessible and experienced performances might look like in a variety of settings, from concert halls to video streaming over the Internet.

A scene from a documentary of a side-by-side fashion show

The participants agreed that if you cannot hear all of the lyrics, music or dialogue, the degree of connection, or even intimacy, will diminish. One approach is to supplement the information provided. Both captioning and video description come into play as obvious choices. The caption writer creates a written transcript of any spoken words for audience members with hearing disabilities, and the describer produces a narrative that conveys the visual moments for audience members who are blind or have low vision. While we may think of captioning and description as television-based, real-time captioning has been gaining popularity over the past 15 years, and description for live theatrical events has been available in North America since the 1980s, the latter inspired by live theatre description pioneers Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl.

The challenge with music, though, is not just about getting such an event captioned and described, but also taking into account how to do this in a way that synchronizes accessibility and art, creating an experience that’s deeper, richer and more personal rather than just informational.

Involving artists directly in this process may be the missing piece. Challenging caption writers and describers to become or think of themselves as artists may be another key. Can such an approach bring an audience closer to what the performer is delivering? It was suggested at our meeting that captioners and describers are unacknowledged artists, and many participants agreed.

Our CulturAll partners have been pushing a few boundaries already in their exploration of media access and creativity. Toronto dancer and artist Spirit Synott and her partner, Bruce Naokwegijig of the Debajehmujig Theatre Group, worked with Charles Silverman at University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) to add a creative descriptive narrative to the digitized video of their original dance piece, "The Meeting." A video describer who is not directly connected to the performance would find the job of describing this performance difficult, to say the least. The artists, on the other hand, had vital information for creating a narrative that explains the moments of the performance. The resulting description adds to the experience, not just description for users with vision disabilities, but for all viewers. In this case, the narrative is captioned as well so that audiences with hearing disabilities have access to this value-added layer. The final result is that description and captioning become vehicles that enhance the experience for all.

CulturAll partners Deborah Fels from Ryerson University and Jonas Diamond from Smily Guys Studios have spent a great deal of time exploring and producing a new kind of descriptive video, one that personalizes the describer and makes him a character. You can experience their approach by watching this season’s Odd Job Jack episodes, which air every Saturday on the Comedy Network.

In addition, Ryerson has been exploring live video description to create a more intimate connection with the audience. The next event to explore this approach will be held on November 25th when an audience of people with vision disabilities will experience a described performance of Hamlet at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre.

In the coming months, we plan to work with musicians in open-ended, open-minded jam sessions. Is it possible to perform music in a completely accessible way? Can we override our notion of a musical performance to allow other modes and media to become part of that performance? Can we have it all, with all senses engaged? There’s an opportunity to break new ground.

Our next gathering is being planned, complete with performance material and some innovative technology and techniques. Several musical groups have expressed interest in collaborating with us in this initiative.

In the meantime, we’re meeting online, and we’d like to invite you to join our discussions. Please visit http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/musicbrainstormers/.

Vera Roberts is an ATRC researcher on Culturall’s Artists as Innovators project. Charles Silverman coordinates the ATRC’s SNOW eLearning Portal for Inclusive Education at the University of Toronto.