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Issues of access have beleaguered artists and audiences alike. Jamie Wyld explores how access streams can be used in innovative ways to enhance both artist and audience experience.

AH AW (OR) OO EE UR (UR) The Long Vowels, 2020
Damien Robinson, AH AW (OR) OO EE UR (UR) The Long Vowels, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist

Anna Lukala

The pandemic has ushered in a rapid transition to digital. For some sectors, this change has been fairly straightforward. However, in the case of the arts, the global shift online has not been a smooth ride – particularly regarding access for disabled artists and audiences. 

Arts and cultural organisations that can afford to are developing their websites to improve accessibility. But for many, accessibility of content (notably, artistic content) can be patchy at best. We’ve seen recorded performances, video works and films uploaded to websites without captions or subtitles, and fewer still with audio descriptions. 

Obviously, this is a matter of financial cost and time. However, it’s important that such groups aim to integrate access into the very making of the artwork, as well as in its publication or exhibition. 

There are, of course, organisations targeted at bridging this gap: Shape Arts does a fantastic job of providing digital access training. However, despite a growing demand from the sector to become more accessible, the availability of such programmes is sparse – and those that do exist are oversubscribed.

Creating an accessible, virtual residency space 

Early in the UK’s first lockdown, videoclub was able to secure emergency funding from Arts Council England to pilot our Vital Capacities project. The goal was to tackle the limiting effects of the pandemic, especially those affecting international travel and artists isolated at home. We set out on a journey to discover what a digital residency experience might be and how it could be made accessible for both artists and audiences.

The initial challenge lay in considering how we could engage artists with this way of working, as well as ensuring that our website was fully accessible. To this end, digital inclusion specialist Sarah Pickthall was brought on board, and together with our web developer, Oli Pyle, the Vital Capacities platform began to take shape. 

Put simply, the site provides a blog space to explore ideas and showcase artwork through posts. Various access streams can be added through the site, including alt text, transcripts, audio description and captioning. Artists are invited to participate in a month-long residency which includes group meetings, support, training and feedback. 

At the end of the month a show is curated of materials such as research, sketches and work-in-progress, all of which is exhibited online. Our aim is to simulate a physical residency, bringing residents together online for group engagement and using the blog space as the digital equivalent of a studio wall - a place for artists to sketch out ideas and new work. Access is added as artists post, with support from the Vital Capacities team where needed. 

A holistic approach to access

When building the website, we considered as many access streams as possible. This included options to change contrast, being able to zoom in, including alt text and adding audio description and captions to videos, to name just a few. 

But we didn’t want Vital Capacities to be a box-ticking exercise, with a long list of different access streams for each form of disability. Rather, our approach was a holistic one: how can we include as many people as possible? In which context does each access stream apply? For example, if it's a video, a transcript is redundant - what's needed are captions in the video so it can be watched at the same time. Changing our mindset in this way made the integration of accessibility an organic process. 

Each cohort of artists was briefed and supported by Sarah. She challenged them to consider how access could be woven into their work in creative ways that perhaps they had not considered before. She developed scripts with them, deciding how the work would be voiced and exploring how audio description could be creatively placed within artworks. This has included working with D/deaf artists Seo Hye Lee and Damien Robinson to produce audio descriptions of their work for low vision, hearing audiences. 

Damien said of the process: “I love this approach to incorporating accessibility, which feels like a creative challenge, instead of the more usual ‘let's bolt it on at the end’. Working on the audio description with Sarah, I felt more confident about some aspects of digital accessibility, particularly those relating to visual impairment. That's particularly important for me as a D/deaf artist since my life is visually orientated and while I've made some attempts at using alt text before, going up a level to incorporate audio description into an explanation of my work felt really satisfying.”

Audiences are a core part of the process of improving and developing what’s available in terms of access. We always ask for audience feedback to improve our offering and make the site more accessible. There are also comment sections on the site where audiences can engage with artists in their virtual studios. Having an ongoing dialogue and involving audiences like this gives us the scope to grow and develop the platform in new and exciting ways.  

The future is bright for digital arts and culture 

There’s still a lot to be done, but there’s a shifting attitude to build more accessible options by artists and organisations alike. 

As technology to add access streams becomes more widely available, websites will become more inclusive. It’s also likely that funders will put in place policy incentives to develop accessible content - both on and offline. What’s needed now is some additional support to those providing the training and development work, and to continue highlighting best practice in the sector.

So, we’re on the right trajectory. By focusing on access as central to the way of making, showing and distributing artwork, rather than treating it as a last-minute functional add-on, I hope that Vital Capacities can serve as a blueprint for how content can be both shown, and created, with access at its heart. 

Jamie Wyld is Director of Vital Capacities and Artistic Director of videoclub.


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