A new disability arts festival is coming to Birmingham

A man seated at a table, feeling a green cube

For years, Sense has been supporting people with sensory impairments and complex communication needs to be creative through arts workshops that explore everything from painting, to using vibrating backpacks to experience sounds.

With our new Birmingham-based multi-purpose venue, TouchBase Pears, there’s now a permanent space for artists and disabled people to come together and collaborate in new creative ways, including an arts festival taking place in May.

As the national arts manager for Sense, I’m always questioning how different art forms can be made accessible to someone with complex communication needs. This might include supporting people with mobility issues or sensory impairments to be involved in sculpture, photography or movement and choreography sessions, or it might be enabling someone with complex communication needs to explore different narratives and emotions through sounds, smells, vibrations and new technology.

Sensibility project and arts festival

A smiling older woman

In 2017 we were delighted to receive funding from the Arts council for our project called Sensibility.

The Sensibility project provides progressive and experimental art opportunities that nurture and inspire the creative potential of individuals with sensory impairments and the wider artistic community.

The project is working with sixty participants with complex communication needs across Birmingham. These participants are also artistically advising on a festival, also called Sensibility, that will showcase the project’s work in May.

Sensibility is being led by the Sense Arts team, and Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham. We’re delighted to be working with Midlands Arts Centre, and have been blown away by their commitment to welcome sensory impaired audiences and art makers into their venue.

Directing the project is Graeae Theatre company and Steph Singer (BitterSuite, Open Senses Festival). Both directors bring a wealth of knowledge, ideas and creativity to the project, and are pushing everyone involved to create highly ambitious work.

All contributions by co-creators, no matter how big or small, will be in the final installation which will be led by four local artists; Justin Wiggan, Lynn Cox, Saranjit Birdi and Becca Thomas. The four artists are delivering sessions for the co-creators, and are undergoing their own transformation, thinking about how to make their work accessible for people who are deafblind or have complex communication needs.

Making art accessible

A smiling woman hugging another woman

To enable the artist’s work to be fully accessible, Sense is providing specialist support and constantly making sure workshops are as sensorial as possible. For example, each artist has their own scent and ‘object of reference’ – a communication method used to represent and help people with sensory impairments to identify everything from abstract ideas, to other objects.

Throughout the project, groups are welcomed to spaces by tactile communication, and the atmosphere of the sessions is calm and welcoming.

The heart of ‘Sensibility’ is exploring arts through the senses, and enabling everyone to connect to art and creativity through non-verbal communication. It moves away from verbal and sighted communication, and focuses on haptic and immersive experiences.

The ‘touch’ and atmosphere of practice is of equal value to outcomes created. It is a way of making art that connects people to art and creativity through the bodies automatic responses to sensorial communication and awareness.

Festival happening in May

The festival, which will be the end result of this arts project, is a brilliant combination of different organisations leading the way in cultural, disability and inclusive practices.

As project manager, I’m really excited to showcase to the Birmingham community, how collaborations between artists and people with complex communication needs leads to new ways of creating and experiencing art.

A seated man is presented with a flower to smell, a fan blows air across him from the side

The festival will be over three days, from the 18 – 20 May. Audiences will be led around the different spaces, stimulating the senses.

‘Gatekeepers’ will guide people from one experience to the next, and audience members will be able to unlock parts of the journey using tactile objects of reference.

You’ll feel sensorial portraits on the wall, experience sensory dance performances and tea parties, relax in a living room of tales, trails and trinkets, and create your own part of the sensory installation.

Events will happen at both Sense’s TouchBase Pears venue and Midlands Arts Centre venue.

Free transportation between venues will be provided, but need pre-booking.

Find out more and purchase tickets on the TouchBase Pears website.

Author: Stephanie Tyrrell

Arts and Wellbeing Projects and Development Manager at Sense

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