Seen-Unseen Art Project by Clare McLaughlin: We See With Our Brain, Not With Our Eyes

Accessibility, Arts
Clare McLaughlin
3 minutes reading time
May 14, 2021

In our predominantly visual world, access to art for the visually impaired person can be somewhat restricted. This is what inspired me to create the socially engaged art project Seen – Unseen in 2014, which explores the access to art for the visually impaired person, particularly in the gallery space.

Our navigation of the world around us employs a plethora of sensory information and not only the ‘isolated visual sense.’ Sometimes, we don’t even notice this because of the concentration on the visual experience. Our sense of smell, touch, sound are all important but sometimes neglected sensory experiences. Art can be so inspiring in people's lives. And the fact that it is perceived to be a primarily visual experience might prevent access for people with a visual impairment.  

A group of visually impaired people gathered in a circle in an art gallery during the visit.

I created the Seen - Unseen Art Project in 2014. I was doing some research, and I started to wonder how blind and visually impaired people could access art. I tried to imagine how I would access art if I could not see. The emphasis on the display of art is mainly concentrated on people who have visual access. I began investigating how welcome blind and visually impaired people were to art galleries in Ireland.

I contacted all the major galleries, while not all the galleries replied, I started to engage with the galleries that did. The first Seen - Unseen gallery visit took place on May 15th, 2014, at The West Cork Arts Centre. I had one participant who came with his guide dog, and I conducted the tour of the exhibition myself. I had asked the gallery to allow us to touch some of the artworks, and they facilitated this, which made a massive difference to the level of engagement during the tour.

The second Seen - Unseen visit was with five VIPs, and three sighted guides to The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. And this was conducted by the gallery guide, and again we were allowed to touch some of the sculptures. Most of the group had not been in the gallery before and felt there was nothing in the gallery for them. Interestingly one of the participants remembered the sculptor Seamus Murphy as he had his workshop near where she lived. She never thought of him as an artist but as a stonemason who created headstones. The feedback from this visit was very positive, and all the participants said they would definitely be interested in future Seen - Unseen visits.

Today, Seen – Unseen collaborates with Visually Impaired People, Galleries, Service Provider Organizations, and sighted guides in organizing gallery visits explicitly geared for visually impaired People.

There have been over 60 Seen - Unseen gallery visits, including visits to VOID Derry, Northern Ireland, The Crawford Gallery Cork, The National Gallery of Ireland, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, IMMA, The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, The Butler Gallery, The Crawford Gallery, The Glucksman Gallery, The Visual Carlow, The Ikon Gallery, The West Cork Arts Centre and National Museum and Gallery in Birmingham U.K.

The most recent ones are conducted via the Zoom platform. Attendance numbers vary with up to 40 people attending via Zoom, some from as far away as South Africa. I am still very passionate about Seen - Unseen and access to art in all its forms for the blind and visually impaired community. Many more exciting strands of this art project are planned for 2021 and beyond.  

Seen – Unseen has moved to the virtual platform Zoom due to the Covid 19 Pandemic. The next Seen – Unseen VIP Gallery visit is to The Crawford Gallery in Cork at 14.00 on Friday, May 28th.

This will take place on zoom, and a tactile pack will be sent to participants in advance. To book a place, please contact Artist Clare Mc Laughlin by email at claremclaughlinemail@gmail.com or at 086 3091653

More information on upcoming events can be viewed on: https://artistclaremclaughlin.org/seen-unseen-events-2021-for-visually-impaired-people-vip-to-book-your-place-email-the-artist-claremclaughlinemailgmail-com/

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