Accessibility, Disciplinarity and the Senses

Communicating with public audiences.

10min read


In making judgements about how best to communicate ideas to audiences, one must pay real attention to the audience in question. However, it is important to recognise that the concept of a ‘general public’ is long gone. There is a growing understanding among public facing entities that ‘publics’ (plural) are made up of people with an assortment of different backgrounds, communities, experiences, perspectives, interests, motivations, personalities, genders, ethnicities, education histories, ages, religions, sexualities, disabilities, cultures, socio-economic and geo-demographic contexts, health needs, political affiliations, values, attitudes and beliefs.

Reducing people to a series of character traits or demographics is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least because that is not what people really are or want to be thought of, neither do they respond naturally or honestly to that which measures them. People often surprise you (or change) when you get to know them. They regularly change their minds and have public and private personas. 

Some might understand successful public engagement to be that which renders the passive audience member active, but even levels of interaction and enthusiasm can be put down to mood. Whilst it is a positive step to create multiple opportunities for two-way communication there is still the desire and expectation amongst audiences to sit back and consume.

Interaction design is concerned with how audiences actually behave and what they’re susceptible to, not how we want them to behave or how they’ve said they behave. In a way, designing for oneself is also designing for others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. By creating experiences in this way connections are established in more meaningful ways, ways that transcend demographics. But understanding comes from seeing someone else’s point of view. Might it be the dialogue between these two methods of design where we find the truth?


We can sometimes wrestle with the word ‘accessibility’ because in some circles this is seen as an exercise in dumbing-down the original work, or in some cases limiting the creator so as to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This concern was echoed by the founder of the BBC, “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards, which he will then satisfy.” (Reith, quoted in Lawson, 2008).

I’ve always believed that if I could sit in the living room with every person in America, I’d have the majority […] on my side on every issue that we work on, just by having a conversation. The problem is we have all these filters. If I watched Fox News I wouldn’t vote for me either, you’ve got this funhouse mirror through which people are receiving information […] So in this new age, what is the equivalent of being able to get into someone’s living room and having a conversation? and being able to listen…

Barak Obama

Sir Mark Elder’s brief and insightful spoken introductions to The Halle performances (Brave New World, 2016) do not downplay the culture, its weight or depth, they provide means with which to see it from a new perspective. Classical music, art galleries, museums and research institutions were born and sustained because of their appeal to specific parts of society. But with social inclusion and mobility rightly high on the agenda, many are looking for ways to broaden their appeal without losing their identity, alienating existing audiences or moving too far away from their core business.

The curator of research thinks of accessibility as removing barriers to engagement, providing a productive frame or entry point to research projects so that the viewer stands a chance of understanding and seeing their potential in life itself. Barriers may be hard to identify unless you are open to the experiences of others. One of the most challenging to overcome is the internal idea that ‘this is not for me’, which is held in the minds of the audience themselves. This notion, a kind of self-exclusion, continues to hold people back from experiences they could find transformative (McMaster, 2008).

The impact of art is often not what it should be because the frame is quite often wrong. People aren’t actively encouraged to bring themselves to it, or see themselves in it (The School of Life, 2013). As a young man in the Rothko room(s) at Tate Modern in London, Alain de Botton noticed the captions alongside the paintings told him what the artworks were made of, their worth and various affiliations to galleries and collectors – but it didn’t help him understand the work. Years later he heard an interview with Rothko in which he said, “You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us can feel less sad.” This quote would have made a far more appropriate caption because it provided a way to enter a relationship with those artworks. Research deserves a productive frame too, so audiences can enter into similar relationships. We should see research on billboards, on train station platforms, or scrawled across a wall in spray-paint.

Senses and Sensibilities

What my senses tell me is the world I live in. Our senses are the receptors through which we humans make sense of the world, a constant data source streaming in. The lens through which we experience, perceive, understand, judge and engage with our environment. We attach emotions to what we sense and form memories (Stewart, 2005) and divide it up into stories in order to make sense of it (Brown, 2018). “The sensory order, in fact, is not just something one sees or hears about; it is something one lives.” (Howes, 2005). One might go as far as to say that, from our point of view, culture cannot exist without the senses, and neither can we.

Human innovation originates from improvements upon experiences. What we experience on a daily basis can influence our behaviour and learning styles. It’s perfectly logical therefore to suggest, as Loewy (1951) did, that if you’re designing for people, you should consider all their senses. This does not give us the license to barrage the senses, rather consider them carefully.

One hundred years earlier Fourier (1851) thought it fair to say that you can judge a society on how well they master and push the boundaries of their sensory abilities. Science and technology has provided us with instruments (telescope, microscope, sonar etc.) with which to extend them and achieve a broader understanding of whatever is in the spotlight by experiencing it first-hand. Throughout history our use of tools to overcome obstacles and the effects of this on the human brain have come to define our species (‘The Evolution of Us: Part 1’, 2016). 

A champion of a sensory turn in cultural studies, Howes (2005) identifies visual display as the primary sensory mode of consumer culture (who play on the idea that seeing is believing or something being out of sight, out of mind) and alerts us to a revolution which focuses on ‘the senses as mediators of experience, eclipsing the role formerly played by discourse, text and picture.’ The growing understanding that culture runs deeper than language itself drives this. The analysis of the senses and the behaviours and emotions they induce highlight not only possibilities for progressive communication, but also our unique frailties, preferences and blind spots. The commonly held belief that people have preferable learning styles highlights the need to communicate in multiple forms, but also to connect with and create experiences for the active, passive and anyone in between.

What the artists does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wrestling precepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience

Jacques Rancière
Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, Place du Pantheon, Paris (2015)

Ice Watch (2015), a collaboration between artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing resulted in the transit of twelve sizeable chunks of glacial ice from Greenland to an area of public thoroughfare outside the Place de Panthéon in Paris during the UN Climate Summit (COP21). The ice gradually melts reminding us of the environmental crisis and looks to provoke a reaction to climate change. This act appeals to the idea that our civilisation doesn’t act because we can’t see the cause and effect with our own eyes, the polluting gases being invisible and the ice located in the poles. There is a hope here that a jolt of visible or sensory reality on the doorsteps of those responsible might act as a societal defibrillator. Similar tactics had a large impact during the recent South African water crisis with Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ inspiring large numbers of people to change their behaviour, which cut consumption by half (Explained, 2018).

If pollutant gases were purple [as shown in Cosmos (2014)]

Faraday opened the door for Einstein and all the physicists who came after him to glimpse the interplay of hidden primal forces in the universe when he discovered the unity of electricity, magnetism and light. Perhaps similar discoveries can be made in the interplay of other mysterious invisible forces that govern perception and our subsequent actions. If knowledge is made through experiences and experienced through the senses, if these are the tendencies that govern perception (or perceptiveness) in the viewer, then it is only natural to investigate them further as makers.

The idea of “academic work using additional senses and making as a mode of public engagement… It satisfied my very personal need to marry things that I think should absolutely be together, and were not, namely the analytical, the creative and the public” (Lehrer, 2018). This idea of sensory modes of presentation offers perhaps the most common language across ‘humans, culture and society’.


Disciplinary boundaries are a way of compartmentalising or categorising knowledge and activities to make them easier to manage. They are not based on natural forces, but provide the foundations upon which we build the systems that govern our lives. They may be helpful from a budgetary or administrative point of view, less so for students and outcomes (D’Amico, 2018). The more siloed practitioners are, the less problems get solved, the less creativity happens, the more dead-ends occur.

Throughout history the solutions to problems, and even solutions to problems we didn’t know we had, have been discovered by either venturing out of a discipline, or inviting those from other disciplines in. The MRI machine wouldn’t exist without a chemist seeing physics research into the gas clouds between stars in space and its potential use in medicine (PowerfulJRE, 2018). The camera is likely the result of putting mirror makers and painters into the same building, The Guild of St. Luke in 15th century Bruges (David Hockney: Secret Knowledge, 2002). This is the theory driving the lab model of working in some institutions – that being connected to people with other fields of knowledge and interests leads to a multiplication of possibilities. This opening up of new tangents leads to something academics are calling ‘research creation’, which focuses on the process of creating research questions as much as answering them.

But this potential can all be for nothing unless free reign is given, a common language is established and an end product is expected. “When you put a bunch of people together and want them to be ‘interdisciplinary’, nothing happens at all unless you ask them to make something together” (Lehrer, 2018). So we could say that it is by the very act of making that interdisciplinarity happens. How might practitioners be ‘arranged’ in ways that produce genuinely valuable outputs? 

The interdisciplinary nature of collaborations can be mutually beneficial in that it encourages individuals to build ideas using a wide range of knowledge domains and experiences, generating new ways of looking and seeing, which can result in a cross-pollination of audiences. The involvement of artists can “tease out the more social and human, provide lateral thinking, facilitate the socialisation and humanisation of technology, challenge dominant structures and contribute to invention” (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, 2016).

Faraday’s peers needed to see his ideas expressed in the language of modern physics before he was taken seriously, luckily for him James Clerk Maxwell obliged when he wrote his work in to precise equations. We cannot pretend to have a perfect formula for interdisciplinarity, but we do know, thanks to people like Michael Faraday that there is much to learn in the discovery of how things connect, and much time and effort to be wasted in the acceptance that tunnelling deeper and deeper in to one discipline can offer the answers and progress we crave.

The act of curating is an ongoing search for a common language between “…the analytical, the creative and the public” (Lehrer, 2018). In art, in science, in life. Even though curatorial practice and subsequent discourse will for now remain within departments of art and design because of its historical use in the world of art galleries and museums, its future as an umbrella that sits above disciplines will eventually reveal its true weight in the world.

These stories of boundaries to cross, and of a distribution of roles to be blurred, in fact coincide with the reality of contemporary art, in which specific artistic skills tend to leave their particular domain and swap places and powers. Like researchers, artists construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibited

Jacques Rancière