Capturing the space between actions

Artist Justin Allder writes about his work for I Am at Tate Exchange Festival creating filmed sensory portraits with two SEND settings

2 July 2020

My aim for the I Am Festival was to create an interactive, multi-sensory experience in collaboration with the staff and young people at Shenstone and Beatrice Tate schools over the course of three sessions. These sessions were to culminate in an installation for the young people to experience with their peers.

I wanted to:

  • Use a range of carefully curated multi-sensory stimuli specific to each of the participants to generate interaction with the young people, and capture this on film
  • Produce a short, filmed, multi-sensory portrait specific to each of the participants reflecting how they as individuals connect and respond to the world
  • Use the resulting films to create an immersive multimedia installation that would envelop the participants from above, the side and below.
  • And, finally, screen the resulting films along with interactive resources used in the workshops at the I Am at Tate Exchange Festival

The first two sessions in each of the participating schools were used to work one-on-one with each of the young people and their support workers to create the multi-sensory portrait. I worked with each of the students for between an hour to an hour and a half using a range of carefully chosen stimuli that schools had provided, based on their knowledge and experience of working with that young person.

One of the challenges was finding stimuli that would both read well on film and engage the young people. Some of the stimuli that the school had chosen worked well as a sensory stimulus e.g. plastic toys, but they were very literal in their representation and did not really read well on camera. This was further complicated by the fact that I could not really judge the effectiveness of the props until I had actually seen them being used with the young people and watched them interact with them. It was quickly reconfirmed for me which stimuli were useful – specifically abstract props like feathers, fabric, rope whose form and function could not immediately be defined. Like all good stimuli, this provided and allowed for a more creative and less literal response.

The other challenge was that large numbers of the group responded best to some form of sensory interaction with the staff, which they naturally found engaging and exciting. The challenge then was how to capture this interaction on film while still making sure that the young person was the subject and focus of the portrait. This was partly solved by a simple framing choice to make sure that the staff were always off screen so one could only see their hands enter the frame from the edges. The other solution was to find objects which could be used as a medium to connect them physically with the young person. Typically, this would be tubes, balls or materials that could be used as a means to connect to each other.

The final challenge was simply a matter of scheduling, as many of the young people were often either absent on the session days or were physically unable to take part because they were too tired or asleep. This often necessitated more than one session with some of the young people.

A big surprise was that music became central to the project. This started when I used music as a stimulus in some of the one-to-one sessions, and it really became integral to the resulting portraits during the edit. I was looking at the relationship between the mood and the world that the person was exploring and trying to reflect that in the choice of music.

The success of the project will ultimately lie in the installation and the public screening which is still to come, but I feel that the films are evocative portraits of the young people which hopefully allow the audience get inside the young peoples’ experience of the world and see the world through their eyes. Hopefully the experience will be empowering for the young people and enlightening for the audience.

The staff at both schools were fantastic and were invaluable in being able to interpret how the young people were responding to the stimuli. “She will throw the object away if she does not like it,” for example, and, “when he makes that sound, it means that he is enjoying it and wants more.”

It was very important for me to be able to observe the relationship between the pupils and staff and how they interacted, in order to better understand the communication needs of each young person and gain a much deeper understanding of them as individuals. Quite often I would look at the interaction between them and find a way of either introducing or extending a sense of play. For example, moving a puppet or an object in very slowly and counting down slowly as they approached the person created a sense of tension and a reward when they finally make contact.

In terms of what I would do differently next time, the initial stimulus had to come from them, but I think I could have then been more ambitious in my response. I could have introduced more of my own stimuli during the filming sessions. I had a much better understanding of what props would work by the second session. On reflection, I think it would have been a good idea to have observed all the young people working with the sensory stimuli that the school had provided for them and then gone away and planned by own activities in response to this.

For example, there was the one boy who really liked to flick panels or objects that rotated on his favourite plastic toy. If I had more time, I could have found a stimulus that would have replicated this movement schema that he was drawn to.

If I were to start the project again, I would also follow my initial instinct and adopt a different approach for each of the two groups. My initial plan was to use the multi-sensory room in both schools for both the filming and installation. The rationale was that the space would provide a neutral environment and allow the students to focus on the specific stimuli that we are introducing. Filming in one location would also minimise the set-up time for the lighting and camera for each of the participants and allow for maximum control of the environment, eliminating any possible distractions. The idea was also that filming in the sensory rooms would give the portraits an overall and uniform style.

The more formal studio portrait style worked for Beatrice Tate because, as a group, the young people had much less mobility than their peers at Shenstone. The portraits really benefited from having a very controlled environment in which things like the colour of the background could easily be adjusted to suit the mood of the individual. The students from Shenstone however were much more mobile and physical, and at times felt confined by the much smaller space which did not offer the same aesthetic advantages as the sensory room in Beatrice Tate. I realised this as the work developed and started to film some of the other students in different parts of the school which was really beneficial.

The main takeaway for me is that the experience for the young people has to be elevated and moved away from a task-oriented approach into a unique and heightened experience. I think that there is a danger that the stimuli used when working with these young people becomes mechanical and process-orientated and something that is done to them, rather than making an offer and allowing space for the young person to respond. It is important that you are not attached to a result, but rather facilitate the experience and see if they respond. It’s fine if they don’t respond, you just move on and try another approach rather than waiting for things to happen. It is a continuous process of observation and response.

The Japanese call this space between actions Mah, and I think it is this space that needs to be explored. When I edited my films, I was looking for moments when the young person either stopped and was breaking their habitual physical response, or where their gaze suddenly shifted from their internal world to what was going on in the external world. The time spent editing films allowed me to really understand first-hand on a sensory level the way the young people interact with the world, and that when designing experiences, I need to always be thinking in terms of shape, sound, smell, texture, light and pattern.

That is really what excites me when working with young people with disabilities: it forces you to think about these very fundamental principles of design and try to condense them down and apply them in their simplest form which is often most powerful.

This blog is part of I Am At Home Festival – a unique online celebration of creativity with SEND settings and disabled-led organisations. Find more blogs, resources, videos and events on the festival web page.