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A collaboration between deaf and disabled artists and interior architecture students

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Facing up to differences

Making Discursive Spaces contained many interesting differences between what the various participants wanted it to be for, and what they got out of it. This led to some constructive conflicts and also to a wide range of possibilities around how to take the project forward.

Disability and artistic practices

Disability Arts is an umbrella term for artists who do work related to their experiences of disability. Inside Out, the group from which this project grew, was for artists particularly interested in interpreting their relationships to the built environment via a variety of media.

Through the artists’ presentations of their work, students began to appreciate the differences between artists who saw their work as a direct response to the barriers put in front of them because of their disability, and those who saw their artistic practices as informed by, but not centrally about, their disability.

For the artists, this raised interesting debates about differences in approach within the deaf and disabled community. So, for one of the deaf artists, for example, both the lack of awareness of deafness as cultural discrimination rather than a disability (on the basis of refusing to recognise BSL as a proper language); and the inability to really think through the impact of Deaf culture on design, made his experience of the Making Discursive Spaces a frustrating one.

By the time I arrived, the students had already established ideas for creative solutions that did not include the deaf cultural perspective. Discursive Spaces, it became clear had long since moved out of that initial stage where other peoples input is most crucial to the formation of ideas
Artists evaluation; 4th Sept 2007

These differences raised questions about how different artists saw the project; how they wanted to engage with it, and what they saw as its successes and failures.

The educational context

Differences revealed themselves most directly in relation to the educational context of a university-based interior architecture course. For the participating artists this increasingly framed what they had hoped to do.

It felt important to give support on whatever level people were processing really
Artists’ feedback 11th May 2007
Being able to suggest practical solution or shift perceptions concerning functionality and space proved to be very rewarding, as did the opportunity to suggest various sources of inspiration.
Artists evaluation; 4th Sept 2007
I was concerned that they may have felt intimidated by us and the tutor, so didn’t necessarily open up as much as they could have. It might be that it was a bit overbearing, so I think we’d need to look at dynamics together and agree ways of working.
Artists’ feedback 11th May 2007

The questions increasingly became about what could be an appropriate, creative and impacting relationship between deaf and disabled artists within the context of the learning experience for interior design students.

Roles and responsibilities

The artists viewed themselves variously as practitioners, clients, mentors, collaborators and tutors. It was sometimes unclear how much they were responsible for the student’s overall academic development, for example, or for insisting on changes to a students work.

In addition, they ended up being (due to circumstances beyond our control) very much an additive element to the design project, brought in when students were close to completing their design. This was unsatisfactory for everyone and raised questions about roles and responsibilities more generally.

Finally, project design and co-ordination was done by the in-house design studio team. There were many tensions on access to, and control over, both content and organisation. For the artists this led to questions about what terms of reference they would want for future project like this.

Doing and interpreting

Another tension was between those who focussed their interventions directly through shared collaboration over the work; and those who wanted to stand back and interrogate the whole project process.

Exchange through ‘doing’ was the mode most students and many of the artists felt most comfortable with. They recognised and enjoyed the conventions of design tutoring face-to-face. Most of the responses to this experience, as it happened, were very positive from both students and artists

However, requests to reflect on, and write about, this process (through the blog or personal diaries for example) was clearly less interesting or relevant. All of the students and some of the artists were much less comfortable with these other, parallel, modes of operation.

Some artists did use the blog. These tended to be see themselves in both the role of academic/researcher as well as artist/practitioner. Here, the emphasis was on how what we were doing could be interpreted back into a wider context. Both these approaches – and their inter-relationships were productive but raised questions about where Making Discursive Spaces and Inside Out should go next.

  Next: Next Steps
Arts Council England University of Brighton, Interior Architecture and Design

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