Tuesday Sensory Session at Cherry Road, 2017. Photo: Steve Hollingsworth

Experiencing the Senses in Slow Time: Cherry Road Learning Centre

Steve Hollingsworth

Art is about transformative experiences; having the world reflected back at us through aesthetic and emotional registers. Allowing us to consider our place in the world afresh. In this context art isn’t about placing static objects in white cubes to ruminate over. It’s about creating aesthetic experiences through time, generating new memories that ripple out in subtle and powerful ways. It uncovers new narratives created by people who are considered of no worth, too disabled. Learning about ways of being from people with severe and complex learning disabilities could be considered a form of reverse pedagogy. It is counter-intuitive, unleashing creativity that is LIVE and exists on mutual levels. Some call it “relational art” but in actuality, away from academic labels, creativity here is about creating catalysts for positive change, on many levels.

For many people with complex developmental disabilities, events happen far too rapidly to be perceivable, the world and events move way too fast for them to catch. To try and decipher minds and memories time has to be ‘thickened’, made ‘sticky’ or ‘congealed’ somehow, to be slow enough to appreciate. We need to meet very much on the same level, unlearning our own rapid perceptions, trying to disengage our own sensory habits – our own “normals.” Learning to meet someone with complex disabilities in THEIR time and building meaningful connections with them opens interesting doors into new ways of thinking about who we are.

This resonates with the work of British artist John Latham (1921-2006) and the artist placement group (APG).1 Latham firmly believed that art could be a vehicle for social change: “In Latham’s view, the prerequisite for socio-political change is an improvement in communication between individual disciplines and wider contexts.”2

In his Time Base theory, Latham took issue with the traditional mode of Physics where emphasis is directed toward ever more complex understanding of sub-atomic particles. He stated that as creatures of memory, our awareness of time as an “Event” should be our fundamental unit of understanding the world. He argued, from a humanistic viewpoint, that an “Event Structure” or “Least Event,” could help us explain the world. A “Least Event” for Latham was the shortest bridge from nothingness to a perceivable memory, an anti-physics fundamental unit of being.

This parallels with Ben in that in creating new experiences (or units of memory) we punctuate his existence with meaning for him beyond institutional care structures. Ben has complex physical and developmental disabilities. Given the level of Ben’s disabilities it is best to describe him: “as having substantial barriers to learning and participation in community life, which arise from an interaction between organic impairments and an often unresponsive and unsupportive environment.”3

Fig 1. Ben, 2017. Photo: Steve Hollingsworth

I met Ben in the Cherry Road Learning Centre in Bonnyrigg – a publicly run day centre for adults with complex developmental, cognitive disabilities and autism.4 He seemed to be on the fringe of things, passive, his potential untapped. Week upon week, for an hour or so at a time, Ben took me on a journey. As an artist I absorbed his world. This began with the idea that I could somehow enable Ben to have choice, provide him with agency, empower him with greater abilities to do or not do. I had a few basic facts about Ben – he could see, he could hear and enjoyed high-pitched sounds. I was Ben’s pupil and I would learn by creating aesthetic experiences for him. I combined sounds and light to see how he reacted using a video projector and amplifier. I made sounds using my voice, echoing him. I also focused on what Ben could actually do rather than what he couldn’t, trying to find ways to empower him. I noticed he could use his right hand; it lifted when he was excited or laughing. We yelled and made noises together and each time I noted when he laughed at something or reacted strongly or subtly. Together with his care staff we would try and work out why.

Process was key to learning: not knowing where we’d end up; working intuitively, ethically, playfully, sensitively and creatively; looking at tiny details of reactions and what might have caused them. Trying to be as imaginative as possible without imposing my own narrative on Ben. Being sensitive and receptive to Ben’s reality at all times.

Art here lies in the joy of a conceptual journey, entering new sensory realms that propel him beyond the physical confines of his wheelchair and introduce him to new perceptions. To this end I started working with Lauren Hayes, a PhD researcher in the music department in Edinburgh University with an interest in haptics.5 Lauren wrote some software that could manipulate still images and sound – slow sounds down, speed them up and also increase and decrease the scale of images and turn them around. It also changed the color through varying speeds on an LED strip. This all added up to an immersive sensory experience for Ben, controlled via a joy-stick. I downloaded images from the Hubble space telescope and the sounds of planets’ magnetic fields turned into audible frequencies. Allowing Ben to journey to the stars. Ben probably has no understanding of outer space but the other-worldly colors and sounds provide a huge sensory load that Ben can manipulate and enjoy. Once Ben was laughing so much during a session he pressed down on his footplate with such pressure of joy and broke his wheelchair. This isn’t a remote experience for Ben in the way of a video game. It involves all of us – Ben and the people who care for him playing together.

Left: Sensorium, 2017. Photo: Steve Hollingsworth | Right: Ben and Sensorium, 2017. Photo: Steve Hollingsworth

When I showed Ben’s mother Brenda, footage of Ben using the sensorium she was astonished, she thought her son was no longer able to learn. The fact that Ben could engage, motivate and control his own stimulation in activity was unimaginable to her.

In the way of narrative identity defined by French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Ben has rewritten his personal life story and has laid a new path for me and others to follow.6




Steve Hollingsworth
Is an artist based in Glasgow. He graduated from the MFA course at Glasgow School of Art. He also works with Artlink and this work has influenced his PhD study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has a collaborative practice with fellow Artlink artist and writer, Jim Colquhoun. Working with performance, neon, sound, installation, text and film. Their practice is called Two Ruins.

1 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/artist-placement-group

2 Ina Conzen-Meairs eds et al. John Latham: Art after Physics. Oxford/Stuttgart: Museum of Modern Art Oxford and Edition Hansjorg Mayer, 1991, 30.

3 Kieron Sheehy and Melanie Nind. “Emotional Well-Being For All: mental health & people with profound & multiple learning disabilities.” British Journal of Learning Disabilities (BILD), vol. 33, issue 1, March 2005, 34-38, 33.

4 E.N. Cherry Learning Centre offers tailored and personalised experiences supporting adults with learning disabilities and adults with autism. Formerly based on a more traditional model of care, the service recast itself in collaboration with leading arts and disabilities organisation, Artlink. This enabled the service to develop imaginative and enriching experiences for people and has significantly improved how the service supports people with very complex needs, leading to sustained positive change and contributing to reduced use of health and care services. For more information see the other essays in the case study on Artlink [http://institutomesa.org/revistamesa/edicoes/5/artlink-escocia/?lang=en]

5 Haptic or kinesthetic communication recreates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user.

6 Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource. /http://www.iep.utm.edu/ricoeur/