Singapore-based arts platform Unseen Art Initiatives presented Move For?ward (Unseen: Inside Out), an interactive art installation at National Gallery Singapore, as part of Light to Night Festival 2022: New Ways Of Seeing, Thinking And Being. Unseen: Inside Out is a disability-led project by visually impaired artist Claire Teo and artists Kira Lim, Clarence Chung, and Samuel Woo, in collaboration with 12 visually impaired co-creators.
Edited by Brack’s editor-in-chief Kei Franklin, the E-publication features essays from the Move? Forward team as well as invited contributors. The first of this series is by Brack’s contributing writer Kirin Heng.
What is the first thing you notice about a person who is visually impaired? Would it be how good-looking or quick-witted they are? Their sense of style? Their cane? Can we look into ourselves and confront our prejudices?Can we move forward together as a society?
When out in public, people with disabilities often face ableist responses that stem from stigma, ignorance or even well-intentioned misunderstanding. What many of these individuals wish for is to be treated with respect and dignity, as equal fellow human beings, and to live in an equitable society where their access needs are met. At the same time, they realise that they must stand up for themselves, take initiative and hold their future in their own hands.
This article tells the story of how Claire Teo, an artist who is visually impaired, used her imagination and tenacity to bring out the best and hidden talents in a group of aspiring artists with disabilities. Claire is one of the Unseen: Constellations alumni, a project which provided seven visually impaired students from Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School a chance to explore their creative dreams for two years, from 2014 to 2016.
Her key artistic collaborator was Kira Lim, contemporary classical soprano and passionate educator who has taught at the Lighthouse School Choir among many others. She describes herself as an ally of disability-driven arts.
Unseen: Inside Out is best described as a collaborative process in which Claire and Kira created sound works with 12 visually impaired co-creators. In early 2022, these sound works will be exhibited at National Gallery Singapore as Move For?ward, a sensorial, immersive and accessible soundscape installation designed in collaboration with Music Composer and Audience Experience Lead Clarence Chung and Installation Artist and Design Lead Samuel Woo.
Introducing Inside Out
The story of Inside Out began in November of 2019, and was extended due to the pandemic. This extended journey was a blessing in disguise, however, as it allowed more time for the growth of the 12 co-creators as artists and people.
The seed of Inside Out was Claire’s ambition as a fresh Lasalle graduate to bring art to the visually impaired community, and carry forward the torch that Unseen: Constellations had ignited. In its nascent stages, Inside Out was a loose collection of workshops conducted with Ahmad Ibrahim alumni. Over time, it evolved into a project with 12 participating co-creators of various ages and from different backgrounds. They were recruited by word-of-mouth or through the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) and iC2 PrepHouse.
The aim of the project was to bring to the public stories and lived experiences of the co-creators. Each building block that comprised the foundations of Inside Out took the form of a conversation. During conversations of 2-3 hours each, Claire and Kira would excavate from the participants stories of their life, hitherto untold by them. Sometimes, participants relayed what they considered to be mere facts of their lives, not realising that these too were stories, which fundamentally shape who they are.
Disability in Leadership
At the heart of Inside Out, in Claire’s words, is a “disability agenda”: an intention to spotlight disability, and artists with disability. She says: “I love [the idea of] disability [inclusion] as it gives the idea that society can be more advanced, supportive and embracing in time to come. If people can accept disability and see themselves as not so perfect, as disabled themselves, society will start thinking of providing access as a norm; as something to consider in everything we do.” Once society normalises disability as an undeniable facet of humanity and not an experience to be ignored and marginalised, we will move towards a more compassionate and open society as a whole, accepting various differences beyond ability.
It is crucial to invite people with disabilities into leadership positions in society, because of the strong potential for disability to be a common denominator – uniting people from across seemingly diverse communities. Tan Beng Tian, co-founder of The Finger Players and advocate for disability-centred art, says “We [all] have different points in our life in which we experience disability, like when we get injured, we have a fracture in the arm or we break a finger due to an accident.”
Despite the simple truth of Tan Beng Tian’s statement, the growth of disability-centred art is unfortunately stunted by ideas behind many disability arts initiatives. There is a tendency to expect lower standards for disability art. Especially if it is funded by, directed by, and made for non-disabled people. When non-disabled people watch people with disabilities performing what are often considered ‘awe-inspiring feats’, these non-disabled people reveal their own underlying assumption that people with disabilities were not capable of such accomplishments in the first place. The dangers of viewing art by people with disabilities as so-called ‘inspiration porn’ is especially poignant in a society where people with disabilities tend to be objectified in the media, seen for their disability and nothing more.
The fact that Inside Out is led by someone with disability sets it apart from many productions, even progressive ones with an agenda to give voice to people with disabilities. There are many nuances within the creative process that only someone with disability could be attentive to when it comes to accessibility and the narratives surrounding disabled identities.
“Claire really is a leader,” says Kira. “It’s really great watching her grow as an educator, because she really believes in our participants. She is the one driving [the project] and pushing for [the participants’] rights [to be respected] and stories [to be heard]. I really admire that.”
Singer and performer Wan Wai Yee has taken part in the full spectrum of disability arts programmes: from exploitative charity shows, to productions and organisations aimed at highlighting the narratives of people with disabilities, to her very own shows as a street busker and on Zoom. With her long career behind her, she has never felt more empowered than as a co-creator of Inside Out, wherein her artistic growth was guided by someone who has a similar disability. She says, “Claire pushes you [to achieve your best art] as she comes from the same place as you, and she understands more [than someone without a disability]. In Inside Out, I just have to express myself and be me. Claire creates this environment in which I feel safe to express myself.”
The Activism Behind Move For?ward
“Role modelling is crucial in allowing young people to know that they can be a part of this art world.”Caroline Bowditch, CEO of Arts Access Victoria, and performance artist and choreographer (Arts and Disability Forum 2020)
Along the journey of Inside Out, Claire and Kira evolved into mentors in their own right, training their co-creators to practice art, and holding them to high standards. For many of the participants, this was not only their first opportunity to receive formal creative training, but also their first job.
According to Claire, some of the co-creators grew up in environments that were tailored to meet their needs to the extent that they often ended up feeling smothered with mollycoddling. Claire notes that unfortunately such an environment, while ideal in terms of access, does not often prepare young people for the ‘real world’ and working life: “They do need to have some semblance of independence and [skill-building around] professional conduct before anyone can hire them as professionals.” Together with Kira, Claire strived to push the co-creators to meet the professional standards of the formal arts industry, and to stand up for themselves. To build their capacity to move forward, as it were.
Both Kira and Claire highlight the importance of developing the capacity for self-initiation in their co-creators:
“What we’ve always been doing from the start is telling them to ask questions, to tell us what they need. It’s a start, but it’s something that should be coming from them in the future,” says Kira.
“In a way, we are trying to instil self-advocacy in them. So instead of things being handed to you, you have to start fighting for what you want, as access should be your right. Although we are moving towards that as a society, it will be some time before we get there,” says Claire.
Sometimes just existing and taking up space in society as a minority is a radical act. In the arts, with the stage dominated by non-disabled people, when a person with a disability comes onstage, their mere presence is immediately a novelty that can dominate or obscure the message of their art. This is why representation in the arts is so important. Artists who happen to have disability should not have their artistry constrained by their identity, and should be free to choose how to define their own artistry for themselves. However, in order for them to be able to exist within artistic spaces and communities in the first place, access must be made a requirement and norm.
As the principal artist, Claire successfully campaigned for standards that were on par with the wider industry and that protected her participants’ rights as artists. All participants were paid a nominal fee for participating in the programme, their transport expenses were reimbursed, and they had trained access workers onsite to assist them when needed.
Claire’s tips for access workers working with visually impaired individuals:
• Mobility – allow the visually -impaired person to hold your elbow or shoulder, depending on your and their height;
• Stand on whichever side the participant is most comfortable with;
• Always walk one step in front of the person to prepare the person regarding what’s ahead;
• Always keep in mind that you are the person’s eyes: warn them of anything that could obstruct their movement;
• You need to let them know when there are steps or slopes ahead;
• When walking down flights of stairs: Pause before each step down, and take the step yourself first;
• When opening doors: Be always on the outside of the door. Let the person open the door themselves first;
• Most importantly: let them feel that they can trust you – trust is built in how confident you are in walking, rather than hesitating and asking every few steps “are you okay”?
The case of Inside Out shows that the best advocate for a community is someone from the community itself. The best way to ‘give voice’ is indeed to pass the mic.
Move For?ward – the Inner Worlds of Inside Out
Move For?ward is intimate, and the emotions expressed by each of the co-creators are raw. These emotions evolve into different forms in the world of sound, such as a menagerie of house pests screaming, a poignantly read letter to a lost father, a game show about job interviews, and a piano piece filled with a longing for escape. All of these invite the listener into previously contained, colourful worlds.
By pushing their co-creators to express what they normally would be hesitant to express, Claire and Kira encouraged them to step out of their comfort zones and confront the difficult parts of being human, with the help of embodied acting exercises such as archetypal gestures.
Through their work, the co-creators refute prejudices and stereotypes that exist about blind people – that they are helpless, invisible, non-sexual – and channel these refutations into anger and sarcasm. By reclaiming the
narratives surrounding their identities as visually impaired people, the participants reclaim their power. They reclaim their place in society.
The space of this article allows for a limited portrayal of Move For?ward by focusing on its relation to disability. It is so much more. The stories of the participants give us glimpses into different facets of their lives, with disability as just one part of it.
It was during Inside Out that Claire realised that there was a common thread in each of her participants’ stories. She sensed deep personal growth in each of them. Move For?ward tells the story of how this creative process gave the co-creators the impetus to transform, to be set free by releasing their truths into the world.
I was able to ask each of the co-creators how they felt about having recorded their pieces, whether they felt ready to share Move For?ward with a broader audience. Having been in this space of intensive, artistic learning for two years, they had grown in many ways. With their respective personal breakthroughs manifested in their pieces, they realised they were capable of unimagined feats, and had a right to spaces they had never thought to venture into. Now, they each had a new sense of courage to move forward on untrodden paths and pave their own journeys. Their joy, catharsis and hope was transformative in itself to hear.
Move For?ward is scheduled to be exhibited at National Gallery Singapore in 2022. I’ll leave it to you to discover their stories for yourself.
1. What inspired this piece was an article I wrote last year, on What If. What If was a production directed by Okorn-Kuo Jing Hong featuring 6 cast members who are persons with disabilities, as part of M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival by ArtsWok Collaborative, which focused around the theme of disability in Singapore that year.
One key difference between both productions is that Inside Out is led and directed by a person from the visually impaired community (Claire), while Okorn-Kuo is ‘non-disabled’. Another is that Inside Out set out to solely be a platform for people from the visually impaired community, whereas What If had participants from several different disabled communities. These differences will come into play later in relation to Wan Wai Yee’s reflections, who was a participant in both projects.
2. A charitable organisation for visually impaired children and youths.
3. For writers on community-led art, the work of art is simply not an outcome – a tangible work of art – but is a specific social process, of which dialogue plays a key role (borrowing the words of Jay Koh). Therefore, I am doing the process of Inside Out some injustice by referring to it as the process towards Move For?ward. The little insight I’ve gleaned into it, not having been present, suggests that it would make for a rich, fascinating exploration of dialogical art.
4. It was with care and respect, and the authority of a mentor – someone who sees herself as “leading their learning” – that Claire and Kira excavated these stories. They avoided triggering memories that might be troubling to their participants, and instead focused on what their participants were ready to share.