sensory workshops

Strange sounds and other worlds

The tuesday workshop sensory sessions:

Our workshops have taken place in Penicuik town hall for several years, with an hour’s session in the morning and afternoon. We work with up to about 6 people with varying levels of disability, some can walk about the space and some are wheel-chair users. I currently work with 1 other artist (Jim Colquhoun) in the space who bring their own interests to bear and aspects of their own practice to the workshops. One of our main concerns is to transform the space we work in, through using light, projections and sound then introduce other levels of perceptual detail such as reflections. Week on week we continually assess what we’ve done and its affects and then use that to inform and evolve the space the following week.

Transformative spaces

Although constantly shifting and moving the sessions have always been about creating transformative spaces where new interactions can occur. Using projection screens we’ve changed the way a group can interact with the space and move through it. Through a combination of light and different ambient sounds we create an ever-shifting sensory environment that has references to the imaginary worlds of film or theatre. Once people are over the threshold into a workshop, they enter a space of difference where everything is in a state of subtle flux, people are then allowed to interact with both the space and situations we create for them. The space hopefully dislocates people enough from what they might be used to, to be both fun and stimulating and also prompt new reactions.

Dark spaces

Due to the nature of the equipment we use: projectors, laser beams, overhead projectors and mirror balls, we’ve always worked in a predominantly dark space. We feel that our bespoke nocturnal or twilight environments provides an effective, stimulating atmosphere in which to explore reactions and also where the smallest point of light can work to provoke a reaction from someone. What we really aim to do is to transport people to new perceptual spaces, in doing this we hope people are more receptive to the interactions and activities we offer them.

Identity and masks

We’ve worked with notions of identity in the workshops, where we’ve dressed up so we look surprising or unusual to people and also used masks with people in the space. Using mirrors or reflective surfaces we can then bounce back the new identity to the mask wearer. Perhaps when people try on a new identity then it might lead to a new behaviour from the one that might exist in the outside (institutional) world. This is obviously very theatrical, using masks or taking on a different voice: but it helps us create a space that isn’t necessarily rational but has many textures and surfaces that might just unlock a new behaviour or new way to be in the people we work with. We all have behavioural habits, perhaps we literally ‘act’ our identities in light of what people expect us to do. What we aim to do is gently nudge people toward different ways to be which might only be incrementally a shade away from daily behaviour but might unlock new potential in future.

New sounds:

More recently other changes have taken place within the workshops. We’ve started thinking much more about sound and music and changing the relationship from being just a listener to one of a producer and performer as well as an intent listener. As I mentioned before we’ve used keyboards and samplers to try and prompt people to produce a sound. We also began to question the role of music within our sessions and start to lessen our reliance on established music and songs. We started to think about sound beyond the linearity of a hermetically sealed song, which although enjoyable, perhaps made responses predictable. For instance, you can only respond to a song through it’s structure or melody by either dancing, humming, or singing along, no matter what the song is it remains the same. That is not to say we don’t think conventional music can have an effect, it can and we’ve seen people react positively, we just felt the need to try another strategy. Music can be anything, any sound, and any sound or sounds can qualify as music, with that in mind we started to think of how the whole group, participants and care workers could work together to make sound-scapes of our own, which were unique, driven by happenstance and improvisation.

Feral choir

We ran a block of workshops where we sat around in a group and were each allocated a sound (to produce by voice) we were ‘conducted’ by another artist in the group, Jim. Some of the sounds we each had, were deliberately strange or unusual. Our only concern was to try and create an energy or collective presence that might prompt the people we work with to enter into our bizarre communion and respond in anyway they liked.

Currently we’ve started to use electronic means to produce sound. I’ve made a series of transducers to pick up sound from people in the group, amplifying everything and everything. Using sound to increase awareness of a physical touch, a microphone gently stroked along an arm amplifies both the sound and the sensation. The sounds we make are obviously experimental and none of us claims to be a musician. New technology has democratised a music making process, interfaces with touch sensitive pads has enabled anyone with the slightest hand movement to produce incredible sounds by using a synthesiser. We’ve been using an instrument called a Kaossilator to great affect. The soundscapes we make are bespoke and unique, made specifically by people in the group for their immediate responses and enjoyment. The sounds we make mediate our interactions with each other, this in turn becomes a language that everyone in the group can become engaged in. Sound becomes a space we can explore collectively through listening intently. Through our improvisations we hope to encourage people to engage on whatever level they can and be actively forming unique sounds that they themselves can be transported and stimulated by.

As well as using transducers to pick up and amplify minute and hidden sounds we’ve engaged in hardware hacking, finding old electronic sound making toys in charity shops. Taking them apart and by adding other components make them reveal other aural identities away from the manufacturers intentions. These are then, easily played by people in the group.

Hopefully we create sensitive, respectful, performative spaces where we encourage people to add their own sounds and interact in their own way. You could call this way of working a type of ‘sound harvesting’ enabling people to produce those types of sounds that they are uniquely stimulated by. Ultimately it’s not just the sound but the exchange that happens mediated by the ambient sound produced that becomes an art work even if it only exists for a few minutes within the session, it’s memory might persist. What we do is create a space outside structured institutional time and by using this space, try and prompt new reactions, there are no rules and a deliberate openness. We make situations where a collective sound can mutually happen, that isn’t a product to get away from the linearity of what people normally listen to which is pre-packaged and pre-determined. We work to allow entrance to a world of sound, which is produced by participants themselves.

You might argue that people with profound disability exist in another perceptual world to us, perhaps another time, senses are configured differently and what we see and perceive as the world is of our own making through learnt perception and is radically different from these other subjectivities. In using experimental sound we hope to create bridges between our differing perceptual hierarchies and offer new experiences. Although what I’ve just described sounds very structured and organised it is only on reflection that it seems this way. Sometimes with this way of working it is important to not know where we are going or doing in order to let process and accidental chance lead us forward.

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