Can sound be made visible? Exploration via sensory marble runs

A boy and girl holding on to a card tube, held up beside a wall and painted in red light

How can sound be made visible and tangible to young people with sensory impairments? As artists, that’s the challenge we set ourselves with a collaboration between Sense and the British Library, taking inspiration from its enormous sound archive.

My name is Emma McGarry and I am a visual artist. I have been working on a Sense and British Library collaboration to deliver an exciting eight-month project with a group of young people with sensory impairments.

Every month, myself and Judith Brocklehurst – another artist working with the British Library – come together to meet with young people who have sensory impairments and complex needs, at one of the Sense Centres in Barnet.

Working with the children, we developed an idea to create a giant sensory marble-run. Exploring this idea, we had lots of fun making different size and shaped marble runs, using different materials (found and planned), incorporating the different sounds made by the paths. We used contact microphones – microphones that respond to vibrations – to explore different output of the movement of marbles, as they went through the run.

A girl showing her taped up tube which is being used for balls to travel through

Working with the young people has been full of experimentation, risk-taking and fun. Each session we introduced a new material or idea into the space, and let the group decide if and how to incorporate it into their marble runs.

A group of people holding a constructed slide that runs down past shoulders to the floorThe collaboration between participants has been great, allowing us to work at a scale we had not anticipated so early on in the project. I think this is largely because the young people all have different approaches to working with the materials. And these different ways of working kept pushing the project in new and exciting directions.

For example, one of the young people was really interested in technology and investigating how things work. They often spent the first part of the session testing out the limits of the equipment, through experimentation and play, sharing their findings as they went along.

Others in the group were more focused on the mechanical and sensory potential of the different materials and how they could be used to create, not just the most ambitious marble run, but one in which they can feel and hear the marble as it passes, as well as see it.

A boy with his ear close to an object that is giving off sounds, beside a speaker that is bouncing white cubes into the air

Some children have been more into the making side of things, creating first small, and then much larger sculptures, which they then placed on the speakers at the end of the marble runs.

Often the full effect of each person’s explorations is not seen until the end of the sessions, when all the different elements are combined. This side-by-side making is something Judith and I both enjoyed, and as artists, found it has been really interesting to see the young people making and learning alongside each other and enjoying the benefits of collaborative practice.

It has also been great to watch the group’s confidence with the materials grow over the sessions. At the first session, one of the young people really didn’t enjoy the loudness of the microphones at all, but by the third session they were making the loudest noises in the room.

In our most recent session, we took our giant marble runs to the British Library to takeover and explore different parts of the building. This was great, as it allowed the group to test out their ideas in a new and very public space.

During their visit, the young people met the Learning Manager at the Library, who was intrigued by their creations and came to see what was happening. This also gave the group a chance to ask lots of questions about the Library and the sound archive. To conclude out trip, we went on a tour to explore the Library and to find, among other things, one of the world’s biggest atlases.

Looking ahead, the next challenge is going to be finding a way to archive the project and recorded sounds and actions, so that they can be shared with others. We are confident the group will have lots of ideas!

Find out more about Arts and Wellbeing activities at Sense

Explore Learning at the British Library

Lights, camera, action!

Author: Emma McGarry

Emma is an artist and anthropologist, commissioned by the British Library to work with young people at a Sense Centre.

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