The Touch Tour was led by Marcus Horley, Curator of Access Projects, Tate Modern
Marcus Horley gave a fascinating explanation and demonstration of Tate Modern's approach to interpreting works for visitors who are visually impaired. The five principal methods curators use to interpret works to visitors who are visually impaired are:
Touching original artworks
This can only be carried out under careful supervision, and then only of works selected as sufficiently robust by the curatorial and sculptural conservation department, using 'paper conservation' gloves to avoid damage through skin oils.
The experience of touching Umberto Boccioni's sculpture 'Unique Forms of Continuity in Space' was very different from merely looking. Aspects of the smoothness and curves of the material became apparent using a sense - touch - that we are rarely permitted to use in a gallery (for good reason in Boccioni case - there was evidence of damage caused by skin oils by illicit touchers). Touching the Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture 'Seated Woman' revealed aspects of it that aren't immediately visually available, such as the angular planes on apparently smoothly curving surfaces, and the changes of texture at various points...it also felt, through gloves, very much like stone, despite being cast in bronze. Most of us felt a sense of privilege at being able to interact this intimately with the artworks; but also, there was a transgressive element for some.
Use of handling objects
Marcus brought in some tactile objects which he uses to explain different aspects of the works in Tate Modern, ranging from touchable painted textures, to a half size reproduction of 'Bust of Diego' by Giacometti - a work which was surprisingly heavy (the original weighs in at 8.8 kg), again an aspect of Giacometti's scultpure that most visitors to the gallery will not appreciate. Unless you are familiar with the artistic materials, the weight of a sculpture is hard to intuit from the appearance.
Using a device to raise the lines of an outline drawing, Marcus demonstrated how interpretation can be aided by having a touchable 'map' of a picture. We related Heather Bowring's raised image interpretation of Roy Lichtenstein's 'Whaam!' to the original work. The raised image using different textures provided a map of the painting that the viewer could be guided through. Heather Bowring explained what motivates her work in an email to me:
'I have been making sculptured narrative paintings that are meant to be seen and touched, for the past three years and have shown this work extensively during the same period. I developed this style of work as a result of a chance remark from an elderly lady. She had lost her sight gradually over the past few years and I asked her where she went to see and feel art. She replied " I don't go anywhere, because you are not allowed to touch". I told her that I would make work that she could touch and have done so ever since. The work has also attracted the attention of many groups aside from the visually impaired, including adults and children with learning difficulties, and school children. The one moment that has always stayed with me was when I had an exhibition in Guernsey. A group of autistic children were brought in and I had been told that one child would not interact, communicate, give eye contact or show any emotion. After twenty minutes he stepped forward and felt 'Share my dream' and in the following fifteen minutes he felt his way around the painting, stopped and looked down for a while and then continued for another fifteen minutes feeling. He then turned and smiled. This was the first time he had done so in four years. Another child who had been born blind, felt ' Incoming Tide' he told me " I remember this day, it was a happy day because I was on my holiday" My work crosses the divide of seeing and feeling, and by encouraging the sense of touch this opens up dialogue between viewers and myself. '
Whilst raised images are probably very useful for those of the partially sighted who are used to 'reading' diagrams and images with their fingertips, they proved quite difficult to understand from touch alone. Perhaps this is because we haven't had the experience of 'reading' raised images before. One of the benefits for the partially sighted of the printed form of a raised image (available from line drawings) is clearly that they can take home a touchable record of what they have experienced.
Interpreters use spoken descriptions to complement the other methods. Marcus was particularly adept at this, combining a light touch with art historical information and an accurate description of what was in front of the viewer. A verbal description of Rodin's 'The Kiss', for example, might trigger memories of having seen this famous work before and a sense of the aura of being in its presence again (even though it is not a unique object, in the sense that there are many versions of this sculpture in existence).
This is an interactive computer animation method using audio as well as visual techniques for understanding and appreciating pictures, breaking them into manageable elements and reassembling them ..see www.tate.org.uk/imap/
More information about Tate Modern's Touch Tours is available here.