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[00:00:00] Viv Mullan 

We would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we record this podcast. The Gadigal people. This is their land, never ceded, always sacred and pay respects to the elders past, present, and emerging of this place. 

[00:00:16] 

(Bright, uplifting music with electronic beats and cheerful synth melodies.)

[00:00:17] Viv Mullan 

Coming up on Remarkable Insights

[00:00:19] Laurel Lawson

We could hear them gasp and there wasn’t anything like that in the audio description. What did we miss? We had failed.

[00:00:28] Viv Mullan 

How do dance, tech, access, design, and art intersect? I'm Viv Mullan, welcoming Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson from Kinetic Light to Remarkable Insights.

Alice, Laurel, we're excited to have you here. Could you please introduce yourself?

[00:00:43] Alice Sheppard 

Good morning and good evening. My name is Alice Sheppard, and I describe myself as a multiracial black woman. I have yellow blonde dyed curly hair. I am wearing a black headset.

Today I have black eyeliner, one of my style pieces, brown eyeshadow and a brown lipstick.

I'm wearing a red, blue and yellow, white stripey jumper, so the colours are intense. I am a dancer and choreographer and the artistic lead for Kinetic Light.

[00:01:12] Laurel Lawson

My name is Laurel Lawson. I am a choreographer and artist engineer. I work in the medium of the body and kinesthesis and that I invent new technologies to think up new ways to create and to build experiences for people. So happy to be here.

[00:01:36] Viv Mullan

Amazing. Thank you. And I love what you do at Kinetic Light. Could you explain exactly what that is?

[00:01:44] Alice Sheppard 

Kinetic Light is a disability arts company. We make dance, we make film, we make software. And everything that we do centres access, equitable artistic access, and the conversations, politics, and values of disability community.

[00:02:06] Viv Mullan

I would love to talk about one of the creations I know that you really helped design was an app called ‘Audimance'. Could you speak to that?

[00:02:14] Laurel Lawson

Audimance came from a failure and it came from a challenge. 

Back in, maybe 2016, when Alice and I were doing our very first work in process showing of ‘Descent’. And for the most part everything went much better than we had dreamed that it would. But afterwards, two of our colleagues came up to us to talk about the audio description. Now, if you're not familiar with audio description, this is a way of experiencing performance primarily through sound. The way audio description usually happens is that someone sits in the back of the theatre, often in the booth, watches the performance and talks into a microphone that's delivering that stream of narration to people in the audience via special short-range headsets. We thought we had done everything right. We had a fabulous audio describer, probably the best dance describer on the West Coast. But our friends and colleagues came up to us and said, “We could hear people leaning forward in their seats. We could hear them gasp, we felt them holding their breath, and there wasn't anything like that in the audio description. What did we miss?” We had failed.

That set off the product design journey for me and the end result of that after some iteration a lot of testing is Audimance, which permits us to deliver audio description in multiple tracks, multiple forms, sound as rich and complex and varied. Multiple tracks that allow the listener to choose between poetry, soundscape, movement, lighting, the environment, the narrative, or all of them at once.

[00:04:31] Viv Mullan

And I believe the intersection between technology and the arts is a huge piece of what you do. Could you speak to some of the examples about that intersection in a practical way?

[00:04:44] Alice Sheppard 

First of all, we probably need to get some working definition of technology on the table. That there are production technologies, digital technologies, and maybe less helpfully, some people like to refer to a wheelchair as a technology.

Our work centres disability. Our dance centres disabled movement. And so it's not adaptive dance, it's not inclusive dance, it's not seeking an explicit relationship with the non-disabled norm that justifies the presence of disability. It is actually the expression of disability. And when you start asking those kinds of questions, you come up with very, very different designs.

[00:05:35]  Viv Mullan
Such a good point. And I'm curious, have you had any other light bulb moments where you've seen a barrier or something that you would like to design a product for that could help enhance the accessibility and the experience of the performances that you're creating?

[00:05:52] Laurel Lawson

Yes. One of the areas in which I'm actively working right now is about haptics, transforming the sonic aspects of the performance into vibration. But more than that, with haptics, we can create the actual kinesthetic experience of the dance itself. You know, I often say dance isn't a visual art. Dance is in fact kinesthetic art. So if you're sitting there and watching a moving body, you are having a second hand experience of that. The human brain is really good, so good at empathy that we can feel through that visual connection. You can also do it through a sonic connection and we can create some of that sensation very directly through vibration.

I'm also very pleased to say we have just premiered a new set of dance wheelchairs for Kinetic Light and we have only just put them in the air, designed them to fly and they handle like a dream. So this is something that I've been working through many design iterations for years.

[00:07:17] Viv Mullan

And do you see that having more use cases in different contexts?

[00:07:22] Laurel Lawson

That's a wonderful question. Is it possible? Certainly, they are incredibly strong. They are incredibly safe. If you're in a situation where you think you are likely to take impact with something, I have absolutely no desire to test this against a plane, but you know, it would be interesting to see. And I don't say that lightly. I did have a chair once that got squished between two fully laden backing up together baggage carts.That one was like, I didn't even know you could do that to a titanium axle bar. But apparently if you point two fully loaded baggage carts at each other, the engines are strong enough to do it. Puts the hole through a lot of people's luggage before the titanium gave though.

[00:08:13] Viv Mullan

[Soft laughter] I can imagine. And I would love to know, how do you sort of measure impact? At what point is something a success?

[00:08:21] Laurel Lawson

If one person has better access because of it, then that's successful. We cannot measure access. We cannot measure the right to exist. To be in space, to be treated equitably, to have equal access, not just to physical places, but access to community experience and access to art. We cannot treat that through cost-to-benefit analysis. We cannot tote up the dollars and cents on that. 

Now, in a complex sense, you know, my core training is really as a researcher. So particularly in these areas, such as audio description, where I am not the primary user of these technologies. They work through test groups, we have advisors, build research, not just to help me design and build the thing, but to find out “How is it working?”, “Can we make it better?” “Is there another way to do this that would serve better?”.

[00:09:46] Viv Mullan

It's almost like a social movement in itself. There is a conversation and a feeling that people experience as a result of it that really does cause a shift in mentality.

[00:09:57] Alice Sheppard 

The means of experiencing a work of art should not prioritise sight. It doesn't have to. I mean, there are dedicated auditory and sonic arts, but mostly if you go to a dance performance, people assume that sight is the only way to experience it, and it's not. So then the question is, once you've taken that wall away, you open up this massive creative pathway to think about multiplicity and access in conversation with each other.

[00:10:32] Viv Mullan

Laurel and Alice, we like to finish our episodes by asking our guests to share a Remarkable Insight about the future or present tense of Disability Tech and innovation. Could you please share one with us?

[00:10:44] Alice Sheppard 

What if we think of our bodies as technologies? Now, I know that's really, really easy when you have a prosthetic limb, because the addition of a prosthetic limb suddenly becomes the technology. Right? It's a new thing. And all of a sudden disabled people become cyborgs. But in many ways, the body is in itself its own technology. And that's not an exciting and sexy answer, but it's a very real answer because a technology is a way of knowing and interpreting experience. And the body and the mind are ways of knowing and interpreting experience. So before we get to A.I. or film or any of the kinds of things that we're focusing on societally. Let's back down and understand that our bodies are their own technological experience and that we haven't even fully understood how they work and how we deploy them and use them in this lived reality that we share.

[00:11:55] Viv Mullan

Amazing. Thanks, Alice. And one for you, Laurel?

[00:11:58] Laurel Lawson 

The critical thing when you're designing for other people is to remember that you need to centre the people you're designing for. That means decentering yourself, which is really hard. We're all the centres of our own universe, right? I know I am. But that leads to designing products that work for me. So at its core, I often say design is the discipline of getting out of the way, letting your users lead.

[00:12:31] Viv Mullan

(Uplifting music returns with rhythmic electronic beats and melodic synths). Make sure you subscribe or hit follow to not miss another Remarkable Insights episode. 

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