The Multi-Sensory Art Project

The Multi-Sensory Art Project (MSAP) is a collaboration between The Roche Court Educational Trust and Larkrise School in Wiltshire to provide creative, sensory experiences for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). The project annually engages groups with learning difficulties and disabilities, alongside mainstream schools and the wider community.

Since 2013, large-scale immersive installations, inspired by art at the New Art Centre and Roche Court Sculpture Park, have been constructed at Special Schools across the county.

I am always thinking about who might miss out, who I can’t reach, who currently has access to the arts… All children at the school, including those with PMLD should be able to access the Arts Curriculum and to make their experiences unadulterated and playful. Partnering with the team at the Roche Court Educational Trust helps to make contemporary art accessible and breaks down barriers. Art must truly be for everyone and available every day.

Rebecca Churchill — MSAP Founder, and Artist in Residence at Larkrise School

In 2020, due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, we were unable to engage with children and participants face to face. Rather than abandon ship, we seized the opportunity to share a host of sensory offerings digitally with our partners, families and teachers, online.

The learning curve was a steep one for the Trust staff, Artist Educators and partners involved. We continue to reflect on our foray into ‘the digital’ and consider how to implement what we have learned and develop the project in its next iteration in 2021.

Film Still courtesy Emma Kerr and Roche Court Educational Trust.

Virtual ‘Super Nature’

The theme for the MSAP in 2020: ‘Super Nature’!

Nature is a wonderful thing. A walk in the forest can focus the mind and sharpen the senses in ways that numerous creatives have tried to describe over hundreds of years. The sight of dew on a leaf early in the morning, the smell of freshly cut grass, the sound of birdsong through the trees, the taste of icicles on the tongue and the textural touch of rough and smooth surfaces that pervade our journeys through natural landscapes. Not all people have the privilege of such experiences.

It is extremely unlikely that many young people with PMLD will have ever been to the forest or a beach and that is why, through the ‘Super Nature’ project, we wished to cultivate ways to bring the natural world to them. Originally this project would have resulted in an arts installation at Larkrise School, featuring made and found things to evoke the senses and simulate the natural worlds these pupils have never inhabited.

‘Super Nature’ was inspired by the ideas and artists featured in the Psychotropics exhibition at the New Art Centre, curated by Iwona Blazwick. This bombastic group art exhibition displayed the artists’ relationships to nature in the prevalently digitally driven, 21st century. Due to the circumstance the world found itself in, we decided to test how we share this project with our audiences.

Can an experience that relies on touch and proximity translate through digital means?

Can you exercise your sensory self through the computer?

As a group of artists and people who are passionate about learning we used the time to play, to try things out. We listened to our partners who also work in Special Education Needs settings and heard how they too are experimenting with how to converge the sensory with the cyber.

Now more than ever, through necessity rather than election, ‘the hand has been replaced by the eye’ as Iwona Blaswick quoted in her opening speech. Referring to our hands now as the mere prop to hold an electrical device that offers the eye a portal to infinity via our touchscreens. By ethos The Multi-Sensory Art Project prefers the hand to make, connect and communicate with our audiences but we have tested ourselves to dive into the digital portal and created virtual tasters of ‘Super Nature’.

Film Still courtesy Emma Kerr and Roche Court Educational Trust.

Adapting the project and learning together

We had planned for participants to visit Roche Court Sculpture Park for Multi-Sensory visits in April, followed by the installation of a large-scale Multi Sensory environment in school in mid-May, designed by project artists Emma Kerr, Rebecca Churchill and Pauline Cain. However, in early March when the UK went into Lockdown, it looked as though the project would be postponed indefinitely, especially when you consider the vulnerability of many of the children and young people, whose day-to-day lives may be highly medicalised.

We know that families with members with disabilities, particularly those with PMLD, are often excluded from cultural opportunities, and we knew that this would only be exemplified during the pandemic whilst families were in isolation, with opportunities moving, for a time, almost exclusively online.

In March, as our school-based colleagues began teaching remotely and parents began home schooling, the small MSAP team of artists educators, led usually by material processes, began to consider virtual possibilities. Our main funder, Wiltshire Community Foundation, was also flexible in allowing us to be creative and deliver the project in a new way. We made short films to upload to YouTube, for our website, social media channels, and a number of schools’ different learning platforms. We feel that the necessity of producing these films very quickly, led to an accessible artist sketchbook-like quality. We created instructions and worksheets, told stories to camera, sang nursery rhymes with massage, and encouraged viewers to head outside to touch, taste and smell the natural world.

A tiny team, we found ourselves up-skilling, undertaking a self-taught crash course in filmmaking and social media marketing. Many families at home joined us on this journey towards digital proficiency as they necessarily became more familiar with online learning portals.

We considered each short film we shared a sensory prompt or ‘provocation’, for children or their parents to watch and be inspired by. As advocates for ‘Loose Parts’ play, these were open-ended offerings using only very basic materials that families on lockdown would have to hand.

PMLD children are unable to access such digital offerings independently. A project like this requires mediators to actualise the provocations with the young people. For MSAP, this is usually the role of artist educators, teachers and other specialists in a multi-sensory environment. With an online version of the project, it was parents, guardians and carers at home acting as mediator, some of whom may be less confident in using certain methods and models. We hoped that the project might give permission, or a reminder to play, and that the provocations may open a gateway for those carers who are less confident or without creative training.

It was the link to nature that transpired to be a great advantage for the project. Though this theme was planned in advance of a global pandemic, it was fortuitous since Super Nature capitalised on the fact that many people have been more grateful than ever for experiences in nature! Getting outside for one’s daily, government-sanctioned exercise became a real necessity for many people. Though it may seem at odds with the fact that this was a digital project, it may not have worked so well with another theme. Though the project’s platform was online, it invited people to get outside and have time away from the screen.

Enjoying MSAP Super Nature. Image courtesy Roche Court Educational Trust.

Feedback and outcomes

Feedback from parents was that any content we provided where sitting at a desk was not integral to the learning experience was valuable for children who learn in a different way. We were also told that reading stories to camera was popular, seeing faces and hands made the videos more friendly and accessible.

We also found that many people took the Super Nature theme as inspiration and explored it in entirely new ways, one family through flower pressing, and another who made a giant collage out of eggshells.

Some of the engagement in the project has included lovely walks through forests, climbing trees and painting in the garden. One parent in particular uploaded a photo of her child watching the leaves on an apple tree move in the wind — she said ‘I’ve never seen him so relaxed and engaged before’. Others have been busy in the kitchen tasting lots of different flavours in homage to Jonathon Trayte.

Josh Hamblin — Teacher, Exeter House School

Though the project has always been developed with PMLD children in mind, we know that our sensory, open-ended approach appeals to Early Years settings too. Hosting the project online has allowed us to significantly broaden our audience reach. Many other organisations have shared the project with their members, such as our regional Mencap group, and we have been able to promote and share it nationally via other platforms such as Children’s Art Week and Fantastic For Families. The legacy of the project is also extended, and it is still available to access via the Roche Court Educational Trust website, indefinitely.

We see Super Nature very much as a pilot, an opportunity we approached through play and experimentation, discovering through a process of trial and error how you make a project that is so ‘hands-on’, virtual. Time constraints, along with being in an intense working from home environment certainly made it difficult to step back and think about quality and end results. We were challenged to learn new processes, though this at the same time provided an opportunity for CPD.

A further barrier to overcome was some childrens’ limited access to technology, and the reliance on parents to mediate these experiences, who were at the same time navigating unfamiliar territory amidst a pandemic. We couldn’t expect to engage everyone without operating face to face — and it is difficult to know who engaged and at what level. Capturing evidence was difficult and much of the feedback is anecdotal.

Though it is hard to measure, we also hope that this online iteration of the Multi-Sensory Art Project offered some advocacy for our work, giving a wider audience an insight of PMLD, especially as provision by cultural organisations for those with profound and multiple learning disabilities is still rare.

The experience of producing this project under unusual circumstances has provided a seed for the future, in the way we practice and in our approach. As an organisation, the Trust recognises the need to be agile and flexible in our approach, and we are currently developing a virtual offer for the coming academic year, whilst many schools and groups are unable to visit us in person. This will build on what we learned during this project.

MSAP is funded for two more years, and whilst we are still unsure of what the possibilities will be in 2021 for face-to-face working, we continue to consider the role of ‘the digital’ in future projects and how digital methods can enrich the Multi-Sensory Art Project and enhance meaningful physical interactions, though not entirely replace them.

Jenny Cooper
Education Officer

Emma Kerr
Artist

Roche Court Educational Trust

Twitter @ilovesculpture
Instagram @_ilovesculpture