In the realm of the senses

An experimental exhibition for disabled people opens in Rome

Is it possible to interact fully with an artwork, whatever your sensory and physical abilities and whatever the complexity of the work? "The Roads of Art through Emotions", an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, tries to answer this question. The show, designed specifically for a disabled public, is meant to facilitate a complete emotional immersion -- visual, tactile and aural -- in artworks drawn from the gallery's permanent collection.

Works by artists such as Kandinsky, Giacomo Balla, Alberto Burri and Filadelfo Simi are reproduced in relief and thus made touchable. The reproductions are presented together with descriptions in Braille, as well as audio and video materials. Music and perfumes help to deepen the experience.

This is very welcome news in a country where good intentions, as far as disabled people's access to cultural heritage is concerned, are not always matched by good practice. Here in the UK, where London 2012 has recently launched "Unlimited", a £3m programme to celebrate arts, culture and sports by disabled people, they are significantly less likely to participate in arts activities and to attend museum and galleries than their non-disabled peers, as figures from the UK Office for Disability Issues show.

The use of multi-sensory devices to help disabled people to further their cultural experience isn't new. Take "Altered Images", an exhibition that opened in June at the South Tipperary County Museum in Clonmel and moves to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 2010. This has the explicit aim of enhancing the viewing experience and introducing new ways of seeing and experiencing art, for disabled and able-bodied people alike. As well as touch-screens and audio and video descriptions of the artworks, there's an interpretation of the exhibition in sign language, performed by one of the artists.

"New technologies are having a big role in creating new means to improve disabled access to culture," says Alessandro Marianantoni, a multimedia artist whose CO2morrow installation appears in "Earth" at the Royal Academy in London. "Interactivity is a fundamental tool in these kinds of project.

"I'm thinking about an installation I did in 2007, which is still on, for a hospital in Napa Valley, California. It is intended for patients affected by dementia, in particular Alzheimer's disease. The system is able to recognise individual patients when they walk by and activates a range of multimedia content -- photos, videos, music and other stuff -- managed by the hospital and by the patients' families.

"The work is called Memoryvision, and despite its application for medical purposes, it has a cultural and artistic aura in its own right, as it was inspired by my study of Memory Theatre by Giulio Camillo."

The Italian artist Santina Portelli, who paints with her mouth, as she is quadraplegic, says: "The Roman show is certainly very stimulating. It is difficult to imagine how blind people can definitely 'see' a picture. Who knows if, sooner or later, a deaf or a blind person will find a way to give the rest of us to his or her heightened sensibility and let us into a different emotional experience."

 

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Why a new Keith Richards documentary doesn't give enough satisfaction

I wonder whether Julien Temple is stitching up Richards in his documentary The Origin of the Species.

As we sink down into the dog days of summer, something weird appears to have happened to BBC2. Boy, does it reek of testosterone – and that’s even before we get to Louis XIV’s underpants (yes, unbelievably, the first series of Versailles is still not over). It’s the television equivalent of a potting shed, complete with leaky armchair and battered record player: its schedule last week included, among other manly treats, Gregg Wallace touring a cereal factory, Roald Dahl talking about an old mate who made model aeroplanes, and Keith Richards describing his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Dartford Scouts (“Suddenly, I was a patrol leader . . . I could get the other cats into it!”). I kept thinking of Charlotte Moore, the executive who now runs both BBC1 and BBC2. What on earth is she thinking? Doesn’t she want to rush around the place, squirting air freshener and opening windows?

I’ll spare you the delights of Wallace, who has unaccountably been given a series called Inside the Factory in which, over the course of six hour-long episodes, he gets to find out how various things are made. Imagine the treatment he usually reserves for a good meringue on MasterChef directed at a conveyor belt and you’ll have some idea of the patronising tedium involved. I’ll also move pretty swiftly through The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl (23 July, 8pm), which was basically Jackanory for grown-ups, narrated by Robert Lindsay, who read extracts from Dahl’s autobiography, Going Solo, in a voice I can only describe as the full spiced ham. I wasn’t after a hatchet job; I love Dahl as much as the next fortysomething, brought up to believe that in Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny the Champion of the World you will find all the rules necessary for living. But nor was I in the market for this kind of unmediated hagiography, a portrait Dahl himself – who thought nice people rather boring, and vicious ones endlessly fascinating – would doubtless have despised.

No, let’s head instead straight to the hard stuff, by which I mean to Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species, in which the director Julien Temple focused perhaps just a little too closely on the guitarist’s oh-so-English childhood (the film concentrates exclusively on the years 1943-62). Poor Keef. He’s spent so long trying to be cool, he can’t remember how to be anything else. And so it was that we were treated to the weird sight of a 72-year-old man, wearing a range of headbands, talking about rationing, council houses and, yes, the Scouts (apparently, he got loads of badges) in the kind of language last heard in an airless teepee at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, in about 1969. “I can’t say I had any real affection for the joint,” he said of Dartford, the town where he grew up, and to whose determination to charge a toll for crossing its bridge over the Thames he apparently takes exception (“a stick-up joint”). Woo! Taxing road users. Rock’n’roll.

Was Temple trying very subtly to stitch up Richards, or was this Open University-style assemblage of black-and-white newsreel and interviews a genuine, even reverential, attempt to place a so-called genius in context? Knowing Temple’s other work (last year, he made a film about Wilko Johnson in which he presented the Dr Feelgood guitarist as the seer of Canvey Island), I feel it must surely have been the latter – and yet, I still wonder . . . That title: it’s so appropriately (sarcastically?) Darwinian, given what we know of the Stones’ politics, their restless quest to go on – and on – making money. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Deep into the film, Richards complained about the rise of advertising in the Sixties. “Wanty, wanty!” he said, talking disdainfully of Daz and capitalism. This, I felt, was a bit rich, coming from him. At other moments, though, there was something elegiac in his tone, a dolefulness that cut through the enamelled rock-star-speak. A white mare on a bomb site; a dead tramp in a pillbox; the day sweets came off the ration; the day his voice broke and he could no longer remain a member of the school choir (“Here’s the pink slip, man!”). As the titles rolled, movie reels flickered over his face, eerily. A study in the past: granite, lit from below.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue