I met Ben in the Cherry Road Learning Centre in Bonnyrigg. He seemed to be on the fringe of things, passive, his potential untapped. Week upon week, for an hour or so at a time, Ben took me on a journey. As an artist I absorbed his world. This began with the idea that I could somehow enable Ben to have choice, provide him with agency, empower him with greater abilities to do or not do. I had a few basic facts about Ben – he could see, he could hear and enjoyed high-pitched sounds. I was Ben’s pupil and I would learn by creating aesthetic experiences for him. I combined sounds and light to see how he reacted using a video projector and amplifier. I made sounds using my voice, echoing him. I also focused on what Ben could actually do rather than what he couldn’t, trying to find ways to empower him. I noticed he could use his right hand; it lifted when he was excited or laughing. We yelled and made noises together and each time I noted when he laughed at something or reacted strongly or subtly. Together with his care staff we would try and work out why.
Process was key to learning: not knowing where we’d end up; working intuitively, ethically, playfully, sensitively and creatively; looking at tiny details of reactions and what might have caused them. Trying to be as imaginative as possible without imposing my own narrative on Ben. Being sensitive and receptive to Ben’s reality at all times.
Art here lies in the joy of a conceptual journey, entering new sensory realms that propel him beyond the physical confines of his wheelchair and introduce him to new perceptions. To this end I started working with Lauren Hayes, a PhD researcher in the music department in Edinburgh University with an interest in haptics. Lauren wrote some software that could manipulate still images and sound – slow sounds down, speed them up and also increase and decrease the scale of images and turn them around. It also changed the color through varying speeds on an LED strip. This all added up to an immersive sensory experience for Ben, controlled via a joy-stick. I downloaded images from the Hubble space telescope and the sounds of planets’ magnetic fields turned into audible frequencies. Allowing Ben to journey to the stars. Ben probably has no understanding of outer space but the other-worldly colors and sounds provide a huge sensory load that Ben can manipulate and enjoy. Once Ben was laughing so much during a session he pressed down on his footplate with such pressure of joy and broke his wheelchair. This isn’t a remote experience for Ben in the way of a video game. It involves all of us – Ben and the people who care for him playing together.