The National Neighbourhood builds cultural projects with communities, connecting artists, groups and villages with libraries, museums and creative places across Dublin City.
We have been bringing people together through a series of online exploration projects with our cultural partners and artists. Each project features weekly discovery sessions and conversations, focusing on everything from history and heritage, to visual art, music, theatre, performance and more. There will be another open call for participants to join later this summer, and you can find out more about The National Neighbourhood here.
Below, artist Emilie Conway, who worked with a group late last year, tells us about her experience of connecting with culture through Zoom and exploring accessibility in art with The National Neighbourhood.
The main focus of my work is jazz vocal performance. In recent years, I’ve been attracted to projects that allow me fuller expression of other areas of my arts practice including dance, visual art and writing.
Another motivation driving this broader embrace of work and collaboration came through my acknowledgement of having a visual impairment.
I couldn’t help but notice the relative absence of people with disabilities in arts and culture, both as audience/participants and artists. I now see this as a question for me, as an artist, to raise and explore in my work.
So, I was very excited to be invited to partake in The National Neighbourhood and to learn that the group I would be working with all had varying degrees of visual impairment. I was curious to see to what art and culture meant to the group and whether or not their sight-loss had been a barrier. Together with the partner institutions, I was hopeful about what we might learn and what might change through the experience of the art over the course of the 10 weeks. I’ve included images from my journals inspired by the session over the weeks.
Potential and possibilities
Our first session took us back in time to old Dublin and the ways of life of people in 14 Henrietta Street. Stories from the tour guide became woven among stories and experiences of people in the group. There was such richness.
I feel that when people experience being a marginalised group in society (such as the experience of people with disabilities), they will be quick to recognise and empathise with other marginalised groups and individuals. This was borne out by the second session with the Abbey Theatre where many of the Dear Ireland monologues expressed some degree of feelings of separateness from mainstream groups in society.
This provoked a lively debate and the contributions on this session made me aware that the group had important things to say, and I wanted to make sure that this was a welcoming space for their voices. As a singer, in my artist-led session, I focused on exploring voice and sound exercises, and games, to connect to the body to warm up and free the voice. This led into a conversation where the group explored what art and culture meant to them. They shared positive accessible experiences of art as well as exploring how art might become more accessible.
Our next session opened with a presentation by Róisín Hackett of her work at the LAB Gallery. This was very powerful and inspiring, and provided lots of food for thought. We were then whisked away to a beautiful painterly scene through audio description which everyone loved. I believe it was the first time the LAB had offered an audio description, certainly on Zoom, and I feel that it evoked a great depth of engagement. I have a theory that people who have a visual impairment are particularly sensitive to sound and words and so, audio description provides a wonderful experience.
I was amazed at how these sessions made everything so accessible and we virtually visited places I probably would never have visited in real life with my blindness so it was great that we could do it online. Participant, The National Neighbourhood
Our next session was with the Chester Beatty and this time we journeyed off on a magic carpet (such as the one that hangs in the collection of the library!) to the beautiful exotic illuminated manuscripts of Rimini. This was also accompanied by an audio description with a twist! We were all asked to bring along some sensory objects to create the atmosphere of the time when these manuscripts were created. This was a lovely touch and it was mind-bending to go back to a time when people worked with quills on papyrus in candlelight.
The National Library presented their Seamus Heaney exhibition with readings of his poems followed by a discussion. I was reminded of the particular power of Heaney and his connection to Irish people as everyone from the group shared their personal connections to the poems. It was Heaney’s poems that inspired one group member to propose that, as soon as restrictions lift, we all meet to pay a visit to this wonderful library and meet the guides. Everyone agreed and felt it was really something to look forward to.
Energy, connection and inspiration
Our session with the National Concert Hall gave us a history of the hall and, like many of the sessions, it included a discussion on accessibility. Many of the smaller music venues in the city are poorly accessible or located in areas that are particularly challenging to get to safely. Lack of bus routes, and poor footpaths are factors that deter people who have disabilities from venturing out into the night to go to concerts and gigs. In contrast, the National Concert Hall is quite a favourite, and also has staff that can assist when you arrive. For this session, Cormac Larkin took us on a fantastic journey back in time to the history of Jazz in Ireland.
We were taken to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane the next week, and I mean taken! The group really welcomed an audio description of the building and its layout as well as two images in inverted colours. This was something the group felt all galleries could have on their websites to help someone who is visually impaired, or for whom mobility is challenging, to prepare in advance for their visit. As the group explained, often when a person with a visual impairment arrives somewhere, something as simple as altering light conditions can be extremely disorientating and stressful. Being able to orient beforehand would really alleviate stress and facilitate better enjoyment of the art. Here again we were treated to a wonderful audio description with sound effects which were also particularly welcome by the group as a means to really connect with the paintings.
We experienced so much together over the weeks.
I was so grateful to witness the blossoming of the group as they came forth more and more with their responses to the art and, I think, genius ideas around improving accessibility. So, I was not really surprised when in the last session, no-one wanted it to end and lots of ideas were shared on a group project, which included new ideas around accessibility.
Watch this space!
Emilie Conway is an award winning vocal jazz artist. She also composes and writes lyrics. Her work is informed and complemented by her love of literature, poetry, sound and silence.
In performance, she explores original compositions with music from a range of genres which she weaves through musical recitations of spoken word poetry with improvised or composed music.
Emilie’s current projects centre around her quest to continuously develop as a vocal jazz artist through deepening her collaborative relationship with her long-standing musicians and a careful choice of creatively challenging and innovative projects in inspiring contexts and settings.