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Disability Arts Online

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Disability Arts Online
Surface Impression, Brighton
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Aaron Williamson's blog on Disability Arts Online 

Aaron Williamson's blog on Disability Arts Online

Disability Arts Online [DAO] is a disabled-led visual and performing arts website full of news, artist galleries, reviews and in-depth features about the particular experience of being an artist with an impairment of one kind or another.

While the site, which is project-funded by Arts Council England, is journalistically-led, it also is a platform for a large group of user/contributors who add their own blogs, videos, cartoons and lots of comments. A large community of volunteer writers keep the site fresh with stories every week, many entering content directly into the CMS remotely.

Web accessibility is key to the small part-time team of two who edit and co-ordinate the site from a tiny office in Brighton, UK. The site [founded in 2002, rebuilt totally in 2009] has as much technical accessibility as possible; a homepage style-sheet switcher allows users to tailor the use of the site to their own access needs. All video and podcasts have transcripts, where possible. Most pictures used on the site have long description fields accessed by click-throughs. User panels are used extensively to keep improving accessibility. 

While it also covers literature and performing arts and moving media, the beating heart of the site is visual arts coverage. Professional artists like Tanya Raabe and Aaron Williamson are currently blogging the progress of major commissions and public projects; in Raabe's blog she's documenting a series of live public portrait painting sessions at Tate Modern. All her subjects are prominent artists or performers in the public eye who happen to have impairments of one kind or another.

Aaron Williamson is writing a [very funny] blog about his studio residency at the Bristol-based Spike Island studio set-up. Aaron's writing about how you make those first marks when all is new in the space; it's very hard indeed. 

Effective use of multiple media formats is key to the site: an example of this is a recent major Disability Arts Online commission, The Explorer/Transformation by Allan Sutherland and Nancy Willis. In this commission, which went live in December 2009, poet Sutherland responded to a series of paintings by artist Nancy Willis, by writing what he calls 'transcription poems'. These are creative responses to recorded interviews. Willis then made an animated film called Transformation in response to the poems. 

Still from Nancy Willis' Video, Transformation

At Disability Arts Online we have to find innovative ways of reacting to physical exhibitions; this is because many of our writers have impairments which prevent the sort of response that most art writers and consumers take for granted. Artist and lecturer Ben Phillips uses video to make his narrative pieces, because his dyslexia prevents him from using written means. Ben's video blog has a transcript for our site users who have hearing impairments.  

Providing surrogates for physical experiences in on-line only exhibitions is in many ways what the site is about. It offers new responses to visual arts and performance that come from our own experiences as people with deafness or disabilities. Designer and blogger Sandi Wassmer, who is vision impaired, wrote a review of Miroslaw Balka's big black box installation at Tate Modern, which is called How It Is, and her perspective on the blackness is revealing.

Disability Arts Online tries not to invent new ways to show arts online; it's about using conventional techniques to give people a voice who might not get heard. It is about being a socially-responsive arts organisation; it's about training and finding routes to employment for people who work with for the site as volunteers. It's about harnessing the wisdom of a crowd, in this case a crowd who have interesting, witty and creative views.


Sandi Wassmer's review from Tate Modern

Disability Arts Online is very keen to catalyse its engagement with participants through the use of social media, and Facebook, Twitter and Flickr use forms around 20% of site monthly traffic. Since the website was relaunched in April 2009 monthly visitors have sprung upwards from a quiet-ish 1000 per month [and about 5000 page views] in December 2008 to a more positive 6000 visits per month in December 2009, with around 18,000 pages viewed. 

Readers make lots of comments on content and DAO engages commenters with constant responses back. Staff enhance participation and engagement by inviting some of the more trenchant and creative commenters to become Disability Arts Online  bloggers, or they are offered Gallery space on the site.

Disability Arts Online is about working with and giving voice to many different categories of 'visitors'; we think our writers are a unique resource and they are the centre of our creative and cultural offer. We're now making further social media developments: we'll be 'folding back' a lot of the enquiries we get about Deaf and Disabled arts and culture and putting the questions directly to our Facebook community, to get the benefit of their wisdom.

Yes, we work on a tiny scale, and on a small budget; the redesign cost less than £10,000, and we run on project funding, with no core support, so we have to eke out the most we can from what we get, and always in partnerships and with volunteers. Sustainability is what we aim for, and in support of this, our strategies for the future include developing a funded arts writer training program; more consultancy activity [in accessible arts development online] and the addition of advertisements across the site.

Full Disclosure - nominated by DAO manager, Jon Pratty


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