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Expanding your interests: Accessing creativity

In this video, Zoe Partington-Sollinger describes the importance of disability-inclusive architecture and design.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Accessing creativity.
ZOE PARTINGTON-SOLLINGER: If a performance was made accessible to BSL, to British Sign Language users, or to deaf users, they used to have a sign interpreter at the edge of the stage. So you’d have this amazing performance going on in the middle, but as a deaf person, you wouldn’t see the performance. You’d have to watch the sign interpreter to the left. And I think what was important was that deaf people and actors, they began to say, well actually, if I signed while I was acting, it would become more integral, so you wouldn’t have to miss what was going on. So things like that, it’s really important to involve people very early on.
I’m very interested in inclusive space in architecture and design, but the creative ways of making it accessible. So rather than looking at how things are adapted– how you might put a lift in, or you might create a wayfinding system using audio systems– I’ve tried to look at it in a different way. So maybe we could create environments with enough texture, and pattern, and colour, would be able to soak up sounds, so people could clearly think about relationships in space to sound. And I think it’s very obvious when you look at new modern designs now. A lot of the surfaces within those designs are very hard surfaces, so that the sound bounces around.
And it’s difficult for lots of disabled people, but it’s also difficult for older people who don’t always think that they’re a disabled person. And it means that you can’t have a conversation if you’re in a cafe, because you can’t hear what the other person is saying. So as an artist, it’d be really interesting to go into those environments, and carpet the whole environment, to try and show people that things quite quickly could be very different if we treated services in a different way, were a bit more creative about it. And with modern materials, I’m sure we could create sound pieces that would actually soak up the sound in environments like that.
I’ve worked with a lot of people around trying to embrace this idea of disabled artists working with architects, and worked with Jos Boys on those areas. And I think what’s worked and what’s really important is that you can bring professional artists in to work with architects as professionals. So you have an equal platform really where people can work together and exchange ideas.
So we did a project at Tate Modern in London, where one of the team members at Tate who deals with a lot of access provision within Tate, Marcus Dickey Horley, was able to give us a space– to give us the Turbine Hall for the day– so that we could get teams of architects and disabled artists to work together and to develop installations within those spaces that questioned and challenged things that people wanted to discuss really in those teams, but did it in a very creative way. So I think the brief of the day was called “The Joy of the Turbine Hall.” And the reason that that is really significant is there is a massive ramp into the Turbine Hall.
And wheelchair users talk about that being a really exciting space to enter a building, because it means that everybody’s equal, and you can get in, the steps are not there. And you can have fun. You can go fast down that ramp. And it’s brilliant. Certainly as a disabled person, you can be at the front, and people that are walking are far behind. And you can just enjoy it, so a lot of the work that we did was about having fun in those spaces, challenging the misconceptions of those spaces, and just getting the architects and disabled artists to have time to talk to each other about why things are important for them.
And I think that sometimes is a lot more useful than having this, and I’ve talked about it before, about having a focus group that just sits there. You ask questions, you fire the answers back. Physically doing things and having that experiential learning in a creative way actually moves everybody’s thinking forward. And I think what we’ve found is that architects think exactly the same as disabled artists. But actually when you’re working with that space in a proper manner, and you’re thinking about it creatively, that nobody wants an adaptation in a space, including the architects and including disabled people, that looks naff, that’s not very attractive.
Everyone thinks the same really, but we just never have the opportunity to have that discourse really. As a disabled person, you’re often asked to join these sort of focus groups. And then you can sit around and discuss how environments can be improved, or how scenarios could be improved, designs. And you end up moaning really. You don’t sort of talk about the fantastic ways that could be done in a very creative way, because you just sort of sit around with all these disabled people, and go, yeah, no that happens to me. And oh, yes, that’s really terrible. But I think what’s more interesting is if you– and I’ve used new technology, particularly digital technology to start to do this.
I might work with an artist or somebody else to track binaural sounds through a particular walkway. Or we might film that walkway– so an urban design between, say, a university and a shopping centre– we’ll film that space. And then we’ll also look at testing the person, looking at the person’s brain patterns, looking at the stress levels, looking at their heart rate, looking at whether they’re sweating, so we can start to map to see whether that person’s stressed in that space.
And then I can use that creatively, so I can create images of the very simple really maps and lines of the stress that’s going on within that space, and then project that back into the environment, so people could begin to understand there might be a different way to think about creatively how we change those environments.

In the video above, disabled artist Zoe Partington-Sollinger talks about the importance of including disabled people in creative thinking around the design of buildings and spaces.

Talking points

  • When it comes to designing inclusive spaces, what do you think is the importance of interaction between designers and disabled people, and of experiential learning?
  • Zoe describes a project where physiological stresses are plotted in space to raise awareness of the impacts of the built environment on different people. Do you find this idea useful or interesting?
  • In what ways does Zoe suggest we might intervene in the built environment to make it more accessible for diverse people?

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