Good Vibrations

May 2005

Blackout Arts’ ‘vision and vibration’ workshops for deaf people

Teresa Dillon, Futurelab (Web Article)

Picture the scene: rolling fields, blue skies and sunshine, and add to this mix a cacophony of grooves, chilled-out revellers and the pop of a beer can and you get some impression of the Orange Ashton Court Festival. This annual two-day fest is Bristol’s largest outdoor music event. Over 30 years old, the festival has its roots in the free party community arts scene and used to be known as the Bristol Community Festival.

For the first time, in 2004, I attended the festival. Ambling into the Blackout Arts tent towards the end of the first day I was greeted by a deep, hard and very loud, almost ear-plug material, bass-line. On stage a solo performer was working it, energetically dancing and moving her hands and head intensely, in time to the music. What was going on? Perplexed, with my mates wondering what I’d dragged them into, a quick glance towards the mixing desk and the darting eyes of VJ Rodell, aka Rod McLachlan of Beam Productions, set the mind to rest. Knowing that VJ Rodell was partially involved in running Deaf Rave workshops, I quickly realised that we had stumbled into Blackout’s Deaf Rave.

The idea of Deaf Rave first started in London in 2003, when partially deaf music promoter, clubber and entrepreneur, Troi Lee, realised how few music venues and events catered for deaf people. Taking matters into his own hands, Lee set about hosting the first Deaf Rave in the UK. Lee and his group organise and run the events, providing unique opportunities for deaf people to come together and socialise. Each event brings together deaf DJs, dancers, poets, comedians and VJs (‘visual jockeys’) with techniques such as signed rap and MCing being used to enhance the experience. As a result the company has also become a hotspot for scouting new talent, and runs a forum for deaf artists and practitioners.

The response to Deaf Rave has been enormous, leading to further events, which to date sell out and attract people from across the UK as well as Europe, America and the Caribbean. This international reach has led to events in 2005 such as the Valentine Deaf party in Poznan, Poland to celebrate Deaf Love.

Drawing inspiration from Lee and the Deaf Rave community, Blackout Arts brought Deaf Rave to Bristol in 2003 and 2004.

Blackout Arts is an organisation dedicated to the development and promotion of experimental audio-visual arts practice. It started in 2002, taking over the role of managing the former ‘Arts and Film’ tent at the Ashton Court Festival. Bringing together local, national and international artists interested in exploring cross-disciplinary practices with a focus on music, sound, film, performance and installation. The company’s core objective is to present work to new and existing audiences and encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas among individuals and creative communities. Drawing on close, long-standing links with The Cube Microplex, Bristol’s innovative, art-house cinema and performance space, the Blackout Arts tent has become an annual fixture at the Ashton Court Festival.

In 2003, as part of the Festival’s ‘Arts in Partnership’ initiative, members of the Blackout Arts collective, Jem Noble and Rod McLachlan (VJ Rodell), designed and ran a series of ‘Vision and Vibration’ workshops for deaf participants.

The workshops introduce participants to VJing by showing examples of AV (audio-visual) and VJ work and related equipment. Drawing on their respective visual and music-making backgrounds, Rod and Jem explain the qualities they look for when trying to match sound, rhythm/vibration with visual elements (speed, vividness and imagery). Working in groups of two or three, participants create their own mixes and learn how to use the VJing software Resolume to capture real time content and create their own performance pieces.

Describing their hands on technique, which mixes hi- and lo-fi technologies, Rod McLachlan notes that in working with the deaf and hard of hearing in such an immediate and responsive way, participants can “… capture silhouettes of their signing and movements, creating very striking and effective pieces”.

Using non-invasive, low-cost techniques Rod has created simple structures to enhance deaf peoples understanding of sound and light. For example, talcum powder and chalk is sprinkled onto a membrane covering small speakers connected to an audio source, and a camera above captures the patterns made by the sounds. Such a technique allows deaf participants to visually ‘see’ the sounds they are making and use the images to create their personalised representations of sound.

Since their initial workshops Blackout Arts have received development funding to run an advanced training programme, developing VJ production and performance skills for two artists linked with Deaf Rave. As a result, Deaf Rave now has deaf artists providing visual projections at events when previously a lack of skills in this area among the deaf community meant work was outsourced to hearing people. The culmination of this project was a headline performance slot for Deaf Rave in the Blackout space at Ashton Court Festival 2004, where newly trained deaf VJs showcased their skills.

For Blackout Arts, and in particular Rod and Jem, the success of their workshops has made a substantial contribution to the Deaf Rave community. For hearing artists working with deaf people in this way, the sessions bring challenges. Both artists note that the success of their workshops often depends on the talents of the translator(s), who have to quickly grasp the jargon and vocabulary that they use to describe their process. On top of which, due to the expense and shortage of translators they often do not have time to adequately prepare them before the workshop, or are unable to use the same translator for successive workshops.

Naturally working with the community has also pushed their own practice; both Rod and Jem took some basic training in sign language and key issues in working with the deaf. This has led Rod in particular to think further about learning sign language so that he can more confidently lead the workshops and also develop sound/light workshops for all abilities. He has also begun to use his speaker-membrane interface in his own practice.

Reflecting on their work in this area, Jem Noble notes:

“Cultural minorities, especially those defined by special needs, often aren’t afforded the same opportunities to participate in creative productions like DJing and VJing, or they simply aren’t aware that these are things that they can join in with. There is no shortage of creative people who happen to have special needs but who are outside of a context that gives them the confidence to develop their interests. The same goes for the socially-economically disadvantaged – there are many people to whom it simply wouldn’t occur that they could try something like making music or playing with film and visual projections. It’s important in a society that celebrates difference and strives for equal opportunities that resources are provided for everyone to explore their creative potential in different areas.”

What Deaf Rave and Blackout Arts’ work in this area highlights is the overall lack of events and educational provision for deaf people. Clearly more attention needs to be paid to how new solutions and inventive, non-invasive practices such as the Blackout Arts deaf workshop techniques can be further developed and supported. ‘Special needs’ is an area that educationalists and the Government are well aware of but there still remains a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately the software industry often tends to neglect the needs of such communities when developing new interfaces. Within the broad categorisation of ‘special needs’, people with learning, sensory and physical disabilities are included. Consequently such ‘labels’ tend to be diluted, with the specific needs of particular groups overlooked and in worst cases neglected. Added to which, alongside lo-fi solutions there is a wealth of new emerging interfaces and advancements in visual imaging and sound amplification techniques, whose potential within this area needs to be capitalised upon. Alongside current practices, such advancements need to integrated in a more holistic and meaningful way, with the aim of opening up more channels of expression and communication for deaf and hearing people to come together.

Note:  Web resources developed by Futurelab prior to 2011 used to be hosted by NFER, UK but were decommissioned, hence this is a reproduction from the archive.