Interview with Kara Jarrold: Sensory Arts and Accessibility with Sense

experimental, inclusive, evocative

Hi Kara, can you tell us a little about yourself and Sense?

Sure, I'm Kara Jarrold, Head of Arts and Wellbeing at Sense. Sense began in 1955 and supports people who are deafblind, have sensory impairments and complex needs. It provides, among other things, info and advice, accommodation services, day opportunities and campaigns strongly for disability rights. I’m responsible for our creative and active programme and ensuring that people with complex needs have access to high quality opportunities in the arts.

Why are Arts and Wellbeing important at Sense?

Access to the arts is so important but can often be misunderstood as simply a ‘nice thing to do’ rather than as a fundamental right – creativity gives us the tools to make sense of the world and articulate our thoughts and feelings and we’re yet to find ways of making this available to all. At Sense we’re interested in starting to find ways to empower people to find their cultural voice. We’re doing this through working collaboratively and experimentally with artists and participants to explore access to art through the senses. We’re playing around with environments and breaking down artistic processes into basic sensory elements to find new ways of tapping in to people’s creative potential.

How are the senses incorporated in your work at Sense?

We’ve been developing a really exciting arts programme at Sense which establishes the concept of Sensory Arts Practice as a new strand of inclusive arts. This approach is all about using the senses as a stimulus for artistic enquiry, developing the idea of sensory communication and playing with the environment to encourage creativity. We’re exploring this sensory approach because it provides new ways of accessing art, concepts, narratives and emotion for people with communication challenges. I love the interdisciplinary way of working and thinking ‘what happens if we try different textures, temperatures, smells, tempos…’ etc. It’s also just really, really exciting to play and explore different ideas with the senses!

And how did you first get involved with Open Senses?

I’ve worked with Steph Singer for a while now through her involvement with Sense and she’s pushing the idea of using sound, taste, smells and the sensory landscape in her work. Our approaches really chime and we keep coming back to the idea of sensory practice and how this type of work is getting more and more recognised.  So when the idea of the festival came up I obviously couldn’t wait to get involved.

What has Sense worked on at the Open Senses Festival this year?

Sense is involved in quite a few ways: as an accessibility consultant, working with others to develop accessible experiences; supporting artists with sensory impairments to create new work for the festival; and exhibiting some of our existing work.

Busy then! Which bits are you most excited about?

Marcus Innis’ exhibition at Moorfields Eye Hospital for sure! I’m really excited about this original work which provides a glimpse into his experience of Usher Syndrome – a genetic condition affecting sight and hearing – through photography, film and design. The condition affects everyone differently but can result in tunnel vision, night blindness and distortions in perceiving colour. It’s interesting to be showing this work in a clinical environment, within a working hospital, and putting those two experiences, of patient and artist, together; it’s creating a dialogue about the creative opportunities that come from seeing or sensing things differently.  I’ve been working with Marcus for a while and I’m really looking forward to seeing it all come together. There’s going to be a small immersive film screening on the Saturday only (so get along to the opening from 11am).

I’ll also be visiting the V&A Museum who will be showing a series of films Sense and Kate Dangerfield (PhD student at Roehampton University) have been collaborating on. Last year we received funding from the BFI’s Diversity Fund to develop new ways of creating access to low budget film-making for people with complex needs. The project workshops have been participant-led and through working with all sorts of wearable and accessible equipment, participants have been creating fascinating films which really open up their world to us. Expect stop-motion animation, drumming and dreamy ethereal landscapes. We also worked with the V&A to develop their sensory backpacks which are available to hire all year round and especially over the weekend.

In addition to all of this, Stephanie Tyrrell (the National Arts Manager at Sense) and I are talking at the Symposium about our work and Sensory Arts Practice, and Sense will be collecting at Kings Cross station alongside the performances curated by I=U.

So there are loads of ways to come and say hello!

Plenty! How would you describe all of that in just three words?

Experimental. Inclusive. Evocative.

Why did you get involved with the Open Senses Festival?

I’m all about this work, I didn’t need any persuading! I also think that the turn to the sensory is a really important opportunity for us, as a society, to value and understand those who have little access to the cultural world. Through the senses, people with complex disabilities can find new ways to communicate and express meaning and also, most importantly, be art makers and consumers like anyone else. We can also learn a lot from others when we take a step back and start thinking from the starting point of the senses; these are such basic shared human instincts.

And also, it’s going to be a lot of fun! Sensory exploration has so many applicable uses in our lives today particularly in new approaches to technology, architecture and wellbeing. It’s exciting to step out of our insular worlds and start appreciating the big wide world out there which is full of sensory information. That’s what this festival is all about.

Why should people come out and experience Open Senses?

The festival is not focused on disability but there are so many unexplored creative opportunities when we start thinking about creative agency and opportunities. A good starting point is a festival like this that puts artists with disabilities on the same platform as everyone else. So by coming to one of the events that Sense is involved with, hopefully you’ll go away with a greater appreciation for access to the arts and will have seen some great stuff that’s made you think.

What else are you looking forward to seeing at the festival?

How much time have you got? There are loads of interesting things happening and familiar faces around so I expect we’ll hit the trail and see where it takes us. I’m interested in the immersive experiences but also getting my hands on materials so there’s plenty to keep me occupied!

Where would you like to see the sensory area developing in the future?

There’s so much potential and through our art programme we will be embedding sensory practice into everything we do, which will take us down some really interesting roads. Taking a sensory approach also has so much potential for access and I’d like to see more mainstream organisations and institutions exploring how to make their collections or work more inclusive. It’s not just about physical access but also about creating emotional access – we’re exploring how you might convey the emotion in a painting or a piece of choreography, for example, through the senses. These are aspects of the human experience that everyone has a right to.

I’m also anticipating the rise of the sensory in our everyday environments and I’m intrigued by the idea of sensory-led design. I love it when I meet someone who is incorporating or augmenting the senses in different fields like science, technology, architecture, design and so on; there seems to be a growing appreciation for embracing the human sensory instinct and a realisation that we’ve all become, well, a bit disembodied and attached only through technology.

How would you like Sense to progress in the future?

It’s exciting to imagine a future where people with complex communication challenges, who may not yet be able to fully articulate their thoughts and feeling, could do this through the senses. As someone working in the arts, working with people whose creative potential is yet to be realised is really inspiring. We just don’t know where that is going to take us yet.

We’re about to embark on two major projects which will push this work forward. Sense is about to open a new centre in Birmingham, TouchBase Pears, which will be a home for Sensory Arts Practice and a place of artistic excellence. We’ll be working with established and emerging artists to deliver a fully inclusive programme, part of which is ‘Sensibility’, our second big project. This project, funded by the Arts Council, will culminate in a Sensory Arts Festival in Birmingham in May 2018, where we’ll be celebrating the contribution of artists with complex needs in contemporary culture. We’ll even be working with some big names you’ll recognise from Open Senses… watch this space!

Wow, it’s spreading already! And three words to describe how you feel about the Open Senses festival?

Intrigued. Inspired. Excited.

Any closing thoughts?

This is just such an amazing opportunity and Steph [Singer] has crafted such a great platform for people passionate about this work, I’m looking forward to immersing myself in it, in true sensory fashion…

See you there!

Start your own conversation @OpenSensesUK #OpenSenses2017, this conversation initiated by Natasha Blok.