New South Wales – Lights, Movement, Action

Vivid Festival Audio-described Session

Sydney’s Vivid Festival began in 2009 as a festival of light. Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2018, the Sydney Opera House event has expanded to become an annual celebration of light, design, technology, and culture. It is only fitting then that the festival offers audio-described sessions to include people with blindness and vision impairment in the Sydney Harbour extravaganza.

With the Lighting of the Sails of the Sydney Opera house being the cornerstone of the event, the festival is typically very visual. People with vision impairment have had to rely on their imagination — and their friends and family to describe the lights. However, in 2014 the festival made a change and began offering audio-described sessions of the Lighting of the Sails.

Jane Armstrong, who attended an audio-described session in 2017, described the difference to her experience and feeling of social inclusion:

‘Without the audio description and the detail that’s provided I wouldn’t be able to tell what’s happening on the sails, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the experience of Vivid as others can.’

People with blindness and low vision attending the festival are given more information about the displays via tactile elements such as Opera House tiles to feel what the lights are being projected on, and a miniature model of the Opera House itself.

These audio description and tactile features were part of the Sydney Opera House’s Accessibility overhaul, a plan seeking to ‘provide barrier-free access, making the site, building and the experiences they offer accessible to all people.’ The Opera House’s accessibility measures take into account people who are blind or have low vision, people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment and people with physical disabilities.

While Vision Australia volunteers provide the audio description of the Lighting of the Sales, audio description provider The SubStation audio-describe the light installations (Accessible Arts provided the audio descriptions from 2014 to 2016. The SubStation provided AD and text-to-talk in 2017 and 2018). They approach the task by considering both the artists’ intentions and the reality that audiences may be accessing the art and audio description in the cold  and try to keep descriptions to less than a minute. Major installations can require descriptions of 2-4 minutes, however, the descriptions aren’t synced to the installation which allows the audience to visit at their own pace. Audiences can use The SubStation’s description, the artists’ description, plus their own experience of the installation to decide on the meaning of the artwork.

Much of the artwork is purely visual. The festival’s describers focus on conveying what the installation itself looks like. Alison Myers  from The SubStation told us that although the describers try to stay neutral in their descriptions, the artist’s intention is often outlined in their blurbs, so describers  ‘try to use language that matches their intent – eg, if their installation has a nautical theme, our descriptions will follow suit. ‘

The SubStation described the 2018 installation HE’E NALU which is Hawaiian for ‘surf’ as:

‘Two undulating fences formed by sets of illuminated posts flank a footpath. The contours created by the different angles and heights of the posts resemble rolling waves. The vertical shape of the waves are created by arranging the posts in order of height, gradually rising then falling. The posts also stand at angles, their gradually increasing and decreasing steepness creating the horizontal curve of the waves. As visitors move between the waves, marine shades of blue and orange flow through the sinuous structures.’

Because most installations change in some way, The SubStation describers try to capture the nature of their visual change. Descriptions reproduce the physical nature of the changes for example, pulsing, flowing, weaving, spinning and twisting. Because most installations involve moving coloured light, the audio describers try to be imaginative with the descriptions they provide to ensure variety in the words they use. The installations are often interactive, so when necessary descriptions include details on how to interact with the installations.