SINNERLIGT: Making a Sensory Exhibition

“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” 

Margaret Atwood

SINNERLIGT is a commission by Scen:se, a multi-disciplinary project pioneered by the very brilliant Eva Von Hofsten, to bring accessible art and performance to Sweden. Making work for neurodiverse audiences is one of the areas of inclusivity that Sweden are actually a bit behind the UK on. Visual artist Laura Blake and I are collaborating to make an inclusive sensory exhibition, which will tour galleries in Sweden, linked in theme to a sensory theatre performance called ‘The Beach’, which will tour to the same cities. This is a clever way of allowing neurodiverse audiences to prepare themselves for the theatre visit in a less time-pressured way, while also creating an original artwork within its own right. More and more I see the value of durational arts experiences for audiences who are by nature not predictable.

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Sculptural Tapestry by Laura Blake. Photo by Tina Umer

It has been exciting to explore the cross over between craft with performance. I am really enjoying going deep into our shared fascination with materials. We have been inspired by reading about sensory neuroscience and the architecture books of Juhani Pallasmaa, especially The Eyes of The Skin. Laura’s attention to quality and the tactile properties of each material we use has made me far more aware of what we place in front of our visitors. As a maker Laura is also used to working intuitively, through her hands. As someone who can tend to be quite cerebral in a creative process, relying a lot on talking, this has opened up to me a much more sensory making process, where we literally feel our way, relying on sketching rather than words to communicate our ideas.

Laura and Ellie

Laura and Ellie

I am also enjoying creating a performative space that does not rely on performers to animate it. It feels refreshing to focus on all the scenographic elements without putting the audience under any pressure to interact with people they have only just met.

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We want the exhibition to be as accessible for as many different people as possible, working with ideas of rich inclusion or universal design. Unlike exclusive, specialised performances, I am excited to make a space that families who have a child or adult with additional support needs can enjoy together. Sensory work equals the playing field and strips back to the source, to what is deeply human.

One of the best aspects of this project so far has been working with the McMillan family. Thea and Ian are architects. Their daughter Greta is an artist who has profound disabilities. She paints using eyegaze technology (Tobil). Greta uses her eyes to control her ipad to communicate and make art and also to make music (with Drake Music, a brilliant organisation in Scotland). Greta, Thea and Ian co-designed their house in Portobello, Edinburgh: The Ramp House , which is a fully accessible house and also beautiful, elegant design. I went to Greta’s exhibition and saw her painting ‘Staffin Beach’, which she painted while on a visit to the Isle of Skye.

Staffin Beach

Staffin Beach by Greta McMillan

This picture is so evocative of the wildness and sensory experience of that landscape, that it made made us imagine our exhibition to be like walking through Greta’s picture. Her work will be shown on a huge canvas in the gallery, with a video showing her creative process. The visitors will then walk into a series of immersive installations that create abstract sensory experiences as if you are wandering through Staffin Beach. Each installation is designed to be touched, ‘disrupted’ and interacted with.

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Greta painting on the Isle of Skye

This is the first step for Laura and I in exploring meaningful co-design or collaboration with artists who have profound and multiple learning disabilities. For me, one ongoing challenge in work for neurodiverse audiences is finding ways to give individuals with complex needs autonomy in both the artistic experience and the creative process. It feels right that Greta created this art from her sensory experiences on Skye, and now, based on her interpretation, we will create a series of sensory experiences for visitors who have all different types of needs, considering those with the most complex needs from the beginning of the process. I think the opportunities in collaborations that technologies such as eyegaze open up are staggering and as yet untapped.

During development, we have had lots of design input from visiting adults and young people with additional support needs, who have been testing out our ideas. This has made us think more about:

  • The balance of play and art (is there a difference between them?)
  • The balance of concept and accessibility
  • The balance of active and passive experiences

For me, learning to let the work stand on its own two feet is a fun challenge. I am hardwired to ‘perform’ everything and assume my presence as a performer will make a creative experience better. Laura assures me this is not the case!

We hope SINNERLIGT will create moments of intimate, playful connection between the people who go to it.

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The SINNERLIGT team: Ellie, Laura, Eva and Ulrika

You can keep up to date with our progress making the exhibition on Instagram @performing_materials

SINNERLIGT open on the 1st of September at Halsinglands Gallery, in Hudiksvall.

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https://scense.se/

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