Blind artist launches ' genuinely audio-visual art' exhibit in aid of Talking Books

Post date: 
Friday, 7 April 2017

An Irvine-based artist who is visually impaired will launch a unique two-week exhibition in Edinburgh College of Art (April 8th-22nd), using sound to add an extra dimension to his work.

Keith Salmon's dramatic pastel drawings of wild Oregon landscapes will come with multiple accompanying soundtracks triggered by special sensors.

But the sounds aren't spoken words. Instead, varying tones will convey an audible sense of texture and palette, corresponding with the intensity of the artist's use of crayon strokes and colour in each part of the drawings.

"I wanted to develop a piece of genuinely audio-visual art," he says. "Not just something with a bolt-on tool for visually impaired people, but something that everyone can enjoy at different levels."

Keith (57) began to lose his sight to diabetic retinopathy twenty years ago. Despite now being registered blind, he has won a Jolomo Award for Scottish landscape painting. "I have had to find ways of working that allow me to overcome the problems inherent in producing very visual material with very limited vision," he says.

"I have tried to explore my new and changing view, recording with oils or pastel how I now see my surroundings. The images I produce are becoming more distorted and broken. My drawings, built from numerous coloured lines woven together, are more like organised scribbles."

The technology and support to make his exhibition happen comes courtesy of Microsoft. The corporate giant invited Keith and his partner Anita to its Seattle headquarters last spring after a mutual friend put Keith in contact with Neel Joshi, a Microsoft researcher who was exploring ways of making two-dimensional images more accessible to people affected by visual impairment.

All three of Keith's (8’x4’) drawings of Oregon's Hell's Canyon are divided into six sections, each with its own minute-long pre-recorded soundtrack. These are activated by 'Kinects', special scanning cameras which were originally devised for the games industry, installed by Microsoft at the corners of the gallery.

Each Kinect can track up to six people at a time, sensing where they are standing in relation to a drawing and even which part they are looking at.

"I draw with pastels," explains Keith, "so up close you are seeing more of an abstract of scribbled lines. Each type of mark made a different sound as I made it on the paper and Graham Byron, an Ayrshire-based sound engineer, recorded this for me. So stand close in and you get the sounds, varying in intensity, of me actually creating the drawing in the studio.

"Stand a metre or two back and the sounds change. Now they represent the colour palette used for each drawing. Graham has matched a different computer-generated tone to where different colours are in the drawing.

"Then if you stand even further back you start to hear the natural background sounds we recorded in Oregon, which relate to the part of the drawing you're looking at. Point to a bottom corner and you can hear, say, the sound of walking on stony ground. Point to the sky in the top and you hear sounds of the wind and rain and birds."

Keith hopes his exhibition might prompt other artists, both sighted and unsighted, to experiment with new ways to marry sound to art.

"Who knows," he says, "maybe in five or ten years time you might go to the National Gallery in Edinburgh and instead of just a simple audio-description you get a richer audio-interpretation."

A preview evening on Friday, April 7th, will raise funds for sight loss charity RNIB to publish a new 'talking book' for readers who are blind or partially sighted. Keith, an avid 'talking books' user himself, said: "I very much want the written word to be as available to people with sight loss as I do the illustrated image, so I'm very happy to help support RNIB. I love talking books. I have my talking book player in my studio and when I'm doing work that doesn't involve too much thinking, I listen to a book."

* 'The Oregon Project and other works: a Keith Salmon landscape retrospective in light and sound', Tent Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art, Evolution House, 78 West Port, Edinburgh EH1 2LE. Exhibition runs from Saturday 8th April to Saturday 22nd April 2017. Open daily from 11am to 5pm, except Thursdays (1pm-7pm).

Visit Keith's website to find out more.