Developing the hertz art-science project to allow the inaudible sounds of the Earth and Cosmos to be experienced

To read the research article about hertz written by Graeme Marlton and Juliet Robson for a special issue of the European Geosciences Union Magazine, click here. Click here for Five Years of Earth Science and Art at the EGU, Special Isssue.

To read the research article about hertz written by Graeme Marlton and Juliet Robson for a special issue of the European Geosciences Union Magazine, click here.

Click here for Five Years of Earth Science and Art at the EGU, Special Isssue.

Interview with Liz Hingly for the Phyart website, University of Birmingham

INTERVIEW: JULIET ROBSON How has the engagement with physicists changed your practice, inspired/stimulated new ideas and ways of working? “Initial ideas for hertz and the star machines were drawn from longstanding concepts I had been playing with for art works. I have notebooks full of ideas that reflect on the physics of sound and artworks […]


How has the engagement with physicists changed your practice, inspired/stimulated new ideas and ways of working?

“Initial ideas for hertz and the star machines were drawn from longstanding concepts I had been playing with for art works. I have notebooks full of ideas that reflect on the physics of sound and artworks that have a sensory aspect to them. My interest is to make invisible sound tangible.

I came across an article in the Birmingham Post about the work Bill Chaplin was doing sonifying the data of the stars. I sought a way to apply Bill’s research to my conceptual ideas and manifest them in an artwork with scientific authenticity. I have a deep interest in societies historical relationship with stars. How they have shaped our systems of faith, agriculture, navigation etc. Today we are losing sight of stars due to earth’s light pollution. It requires a pilgrimage to find a landscape where stars are clearly visible. One of my motivations is to communicate this loss and reconnect us with the significance of stars.

For me, simply a representation of the sound of stars is not as powerful as the incredibly inspirational concept that stars make sound and ring like bells. With my artwork I aim to recreate the actual sounds of stars as closely as possible. Creating the star machines has required me to embrace technology, which has been a steep learning curve, and brought about a new surprising way of working. At the same time I am first and foremost an artist and thus make creative choices. The star machines are sculptures, in which science is made visible and tangible. However, their value does not rely on people comprehending what they are doing. Their beautiful and mysterious quality as artworks is crucial and I am cautious of them being limited to an engagement tool.

The ongoing work being done by the UoB Astrophysicists department has a deep synergy with my interests as an artist. Bill and his colleague’s empathy for my artistic process has been invaluable in supporting this creation. Gaining knowledge of the research has motivated me to develop the star machines further using stars we can see with the naked eye from the TESS project and simulating aging stars. I envisage a whole orchestra of stars made up of multiple star machines. I have also been exploring how you can feel the invisible sounds of our planet. The sound is too low to hear but with the right technology it is possible to feel the sound of your location in relation to stars in real time. Connecting the earth to the stars to look at our place in the wider cosmos. I am experimenting with using a huge amplifier and speakers to enable vibrations to be felt throughout the body.”

How has this impacted your audiences and those who you reach?

“Making and touring hertz in collaboration with the UoB Physics department has fostered new relationships and platforms to share the work. I have a fantastic new assistant who was inspired by the workings of the star machines when we met at the Oxford Science festival. My residency at 101 outdoor arts in Newbury was instrumental in designing and building the star machines. Martin, the Head technician there is now a key part of the hertz team and is my primary technician for the star machines.

There is a great interest in the music world for the essence of the star machines. Max Ernst featured the star machines on BBC’s Late Junction.”

How has working with a scientist changed your understanding of your career?

“The project (hertz) is the first time I have worked with scientists. Overall it has given me an understanding and deep appreciation for the ways artists and scientists can collaborate, affect each other’s work and learn each other’s language. This can only be achieved though a commitment by the artist to meaningfully engage in scientific research and for the scientist to trust in the artist’s ability to create something that communicates on both an artistic and scientific level. Finding a successful working partnership, where both parties meet on a common ground is not easy. Simultaneously the partial mystery in each other’s processes of research and creation motivates the relationship. I am very interested in historical relationships between artists and scientists.

Both parties may have different priorities, especially if they attached to an organisation. Juggling and doing justice to the needs and agendas of different funding bodies has also been challenging and something to learn from. The process and outcome of creation are both enabled and comprised depending on the funding source. The funding body Unlimited – which supports exceptional art made by artist with disabilities – has generously contributed to this project. However, considering the legacy of my practice, I am wary of my work being limited to disability art or as primarily an educational tool for the field of Physics.

The University of Birmingham has a particular understanding of the power of immersing art and science together. Their funding for the RND and tour has made the project possible and supported the fundamental time required for the Bill and I to learn how to communicate. However, funding from science research sources generally focuses on impact and engagement. My main motivations are to make an outstanding artwork with the use of cutting edge science that is accessible to as many people as possible. Something interactive, intangible, mysterious, an encounter that leaves people with questions. I don’t aspire to be a physicist; I want to retain and share the mystery of true science. When presenting the star machines together with Bill, audiences can really appreciate the depth of both the art and science encapsulated in them.

I am pleased to say that every work of art I have made I am happy with. You have to understand that you cannot please everyone. That’s the artist’s license.”

Do you feel that your processes and outcomes can inspire/further the field of physics?

“I believe that hertz has already demonstrated the ability for art and artists to inspire the general public and visitors to art works and talks. I know hertz has inspired the physicists (collaborators) in a number of ways.

Every bit of the machines is so extraordinarily precise and considered. The experimentation element of their production has influenced and inspired both scientists and myself in our research. I started using colourful sand to visualise the sounds, however the smaller white grains give a more accurate scientific reading, hence I choose to use white sand the majority of the time. As an artist I need to know why I am doing something scientifically as well as visually. I appreciate low-tech materials if they can convey what I want to convey. Being disabled, I am drawn to create artworks that offer a particular array of stimulation for the senses and are accessible to as many people as possible, which I believe takes science to the next level.


First published at

For more information about the Phyart project which explores the collaborations taking place between artists and scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham (UoB) go to the Phyart website.

What if you could hear the stars singing?

By Deborah Caulfield for Disability Arts Online magazine, December 2017. What if you could hear the stars singing? Juliet Robson’s hertz Artist Juliet Robson has been utilising installation, sculpture, performance, film and video, and sound art for 25 years. She works in response to sites and environments and is passionate about engaging with visitors and […]

By Deborah Caulfield for Disability Arts Online magazine, December 2017.

What if you could hear the stars singing? Juliet Robson’s hertz

Juliet Robson at a sharing of hertz.
(Photograph: Deborah Caulfield)

Artist Juliet Robson has been utilising installation, sculpture, performance, film and video, and sound art for 25 years. She works in response to sites and environments and is passionate about engaging with visitors and users of those spaces. As well practicing art she has advised on disability access to contemporary art galleries, museums and arts organisations.

I began by asking Juliet, why hertz, where did the idea come from?

“Named after Heinrich Hertzhertz describes the pitch of any given audible, inaudible note or frequency. We chose hertz for the project title because we’re connecting two happenings: stars singing and invisibly vibrating, and the earth’s hidden resonances.

Growing up, I was always looking at the stars, curious about the constellations and moon cycles. My parents loved to share with me their knowledge of the natural world and encouraged curiosity.”

Artists concept sketch of hertz event, 2017.
(Credit: Juliet Robson)

Juliet is also a trained classical singer with a degree in contemporary art and 20th-century music composition. The project brings together two loves and passions – music and science – allowing her to go into them in more depth, and to work with scientists, for whom she has a deep respect.

Indeed, the hertz team is practically a work of art itself. As well as astrophysicist Professor Bill Chaplin, meteorologist Dr Graeme Marlton, and mathematician Dr Andrew Gibbs, the team includes independent curator/producer Kate Stoddart.

For Juliet, collaboration is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the hertz project, and her first time working with a producer.

“I’ve loved getting to know people I’m working with, their work and research, and exchanging knowledge with them. I’m looking forward to seeing how hertz influences their research. It’s easy to see how science can influence an artist’s work, but less easy to quantify how artists affect scientists’ work.

Series of blue and white lines in a graph
Graph of infra wave frequencies made by summer storm, 2017
(Image credit: Graeme Marlton)

It’s not something artists tend to do, but Unlimited strongly advised applicants to have a producer on board. It’s an interesting and rewarding process for both of us. We’ve been working together since the mid-90s – we co-curated a festival in Nottingham called VITAL with a day seminar called Vital Signs that commissioned international disabled and non-disabled artists for example (written about in a piece for Whitechapel Art Galleries ‘Parallel Lines’) – but it’s the first time Kate’s been in a producer role for me.”

I asked Juliet about the access challenges she faces.

“Between 2010 and 2015 my career had limitations upon it, partly because of health issues and partly due to geographical isolation in Devon.

Black and white photo of a flower-shaped star system
First signature pattern made by harmonic vibrations of star Kepler 36,
found in the Cygnus constellation. 2017.
(Photo: Juliet Robson)

In 2015 I returned to the South East which has better physical access, better access to contacts, colleagues and collaborators, so more opportunities for networking and funding. In 2016 I designed and built an accessible studio, for my own and (in future) other artists’ use.

So I have removed a number of barriers I was facing, which is why I was able to realistically embark on a project like hertz.

I needed to prepare, as much as possible, for new physical challenges in respect of unpredictable chronic pain or other health issues.

It’s been challenging at times to stop myself worrying about that interfering and compromising the project. I’ve been doing it for a year now and so far haven’t dropped the ball or let anyone down, so that’s a great confidence boost.”

hertz close up shot
hertz close up shot

I asked Juliet how she’d feel about being categorised as a ‘disabled artist’, or her art being including under the ‘disability arts’ banner?

“I don’t have a simple answer and that, in part, is deliberate. I don’t personally use any prefix to ‘artist’.

In reference to being under the banner of ‘disability arts’, you would need to look at the body of my work, writings, and projects I’ve facilitated and curated since the early 90s to get a real insight into the why, how and when I have shown work under that and other banners. It’s about putting the right work in the right context.

A project is in the planning stages, which will in part explore those issues through the lens of one artist’s practice (mine) and how questions like these have been navigated. It will be framed through conversations with a curator (Kate) and others.

It will include lines of enquiry such as how investigations can take a more universal approach when dealing with the construct of normality, suggesting that identities are (necessarily) fluid.

That said, if a prefix is needed, I’m currently liking ‘furry toed lesser spotted’, but don’t read anything into that and don’t hold me to it.”

The R&D phase of hertz ends by mid-April 2018. What will have been achieved by that point? What audiences will see and experience when it goes public?

“I’m now thinking creatively and conceptually about the development and production of hertz the art work. I’ve begun conversations with organisations and individuals who can help make that happen.

By mid-April 2018, and the end of my Unlimited award, the project so far will have been evaluated and I’ll have a plan of how to go forward with the next stage.

We’ll have finished developing the infrasound sensor, so audiences can experience in real-time the inaudible, secret soundtrack of their city for example.

We also plan to have captured the infrasound of falling stars and/or a meteor shower, and the imperceptible movement of an Icelandic glacier.

And I hope to have fixed glitches with the Chladni machine and built another prototype.”

I wondered why Juliet is building her own Chaldni machine, rather than using an off-the-peg kit. Was it because of the nature of the sound, and if so, what were the challenges?

“You’re right. Those Chladni plates use pure sine waves (a particular type of wave) to create the patterns at different hertz, and are used to demonstrate aspects of physics in education, for example. They’re small electronic machines made for very specific purpose and are not adaptable for the kind of sounds I’m using or what you find in the natural world. I have one and it’s great, but you need ear plugs when you use it because the single electronic tone produced at some points is like a painful fire alarm.

Some of the challenges of improving it are to do with the type of speaker I’m using, and the contact between the metals parts.

For the vibrations to transmit evenly, and for the sand to move consistently, the material and surface of the metal plate need to be right.

Also, the plate needs to be absolutely flat and level – any bends or too much slanting one way or the other and the pattern will be disrupted or not take shape evenly.”

Lastly, I asked Juliet how the final pieces will appeal to both arts-oriented and science-oriented audiences.

“hertz will be an artwork first and foremost and will be experienced as that. But it is an artwork borne out of research that scientists do; it could not be made without it.

Through the art, audiences will get an insight into the science experientially. If they then want to explore more about how, for example, the stars make sound, they will be able to access that information through a variety of platforms that could be highlighted in any interpretation or information.

There’s great potential for events to happen alongside hertz – talks, panel events or workshops. These could be about the science but also could be about collaborating with scientists and/or how artists and scientists can influence each other’s work for example. All of this depends in part where and how it is developed.

As Bill said, people may go to see hertz for the art, but if they come away saying, ‘Wow, stars make sound’, that will be a success.”

You can listen to the sounds of the stars by catching up with the project on Juliet Robson’s blog.

Research for Art Of The Lived Experiment and Fieldworks

Below is text relating to various works including Art Of The Lived Experiment and Fieldworks, written for an academic and practical research period at Dartington College of Arts.  One part of my practice is motivated and inflected by a concern for how visual arts practice is constrained by normative conceptions of human bodies – conceptions […]

Below is text relating to various works including Art Of The Lived Experiment and Fieldworks, written for an academic and practical research period at Dartington College of Arts. 

One part of my practice is motivated and inflected by a concern for how visual arts practice is constrained by normative conceptions of human bodies – conceptions that are integral to the ways in which art is made, discussed, understood and assumed to be experienced.

The concept of the ‘autonomous object’ on a plinth in a white gallery space was challenged by new arts practices during the sixties. Against the backdrop of developing civil and human rights movements they challenged the way in which arts meaning was constructed and maintained though culture and economy and undermined the paradigm of arts and art institutions’ autonomy.

Documentation of site-related work of the late 1960s and early ’70s suggests that there has been little, if any acknowledgement of how normative values assigned to bodies have impacted on the creative practices of artists across the spectrum of physical body types.

Works were invariably made and marketed with ‘human scale’ in mind, but whose human scale? Whose bodies was it assumed were negotiating, navigating and experiencing the works and the sites they were located in? Artists, writers and thinkers with disabilities were not privy to this critical and cultural debate for a variety of reasons. Still widespread is the siting and installations of pieces in relation to normative dimensions of human scale.

Practice investigates these assumptions; work provides a way in to think critically about physical bodies in space. It does not confront normative environments or cultural attitudes with their downfalls in relation to ‘disabled’ versus ‘able bodied’ but begins to reveal interesting opportunities through the problematising of issues of architecture, environment, installation and perception and nurtures dialogue that does not start or end in polarised territories.

Investigations take a less essential and more universal approach when dealing with the construct of normality and constructed identities (yours, mine, ours, artists and audiences) suggesting that identities are fluid and that their essentialism is in doubt when confronted with varying frames of physical, cultural, political and social contexts.

The aim to remove inherent signifiers and autobiographical dichotomies, further attempts to upset paradigms, problematise and reframe in the presence of the unfamiliar.

Experimental processes and works of this era incorporated an economy of means and relatively low tech materials which are applicable to my methodology such as tape, pencil, yarn, wood paper, paint, chalk, builders string as well as wire, and Film.

One advantage in using these materials is that, if appropriate, I am able to manipulate and construct on a variety of scales with self-sufficient autonomy. For example, through repeated small scale motifs or components or by using light weight low tech materials. An outcome of that is that inherent in the making installing and aesthetic of work are elements of my own physical identity. This pragmatic approach to my work is married with a theoretical conceptual process which inflects making and via versa. Rather than reducing work to a dry intellectual exercise though, it seeks to create something experientially bigger than the sum of its parts without a heavy hand, a space for open, generous dialogue and reflection.

Ten Years On: Re-presenting VITAL, Problematising Playing Fields

An article reflecting on Vital and Vital Signs a ground breaking festival and seminar day co-curated by Juliet Robson and Kate Stoddart. Written for Parallel Lines (Serpentine Gallery), edited by Aaron Williamson. Produced by the London Access and Diversity Peer Learning Network and is supported and initiated by Arts Council England.   Ten Years On: […]

An article reflecting on Vital and Vital Signs a ground breaking festival and seminar day co-curated by Juliet Robson and Kate Stoddart.

Written for Parallel Lines (Serpentine Gallery), edited by Aaron Williamson.

Produced by the London Access and Diversity Peer Learning Network and is supported and initiated by Arts Council England.


Ten Years On: Re-presenting VITAL, Problematising Playing Fields

by Juliet Robson

What I deduce from all this is the value of a rich, complex language. Instead of creating dichotomies between good and bad words, we can use accurate, individual descriptors. Instead of taking for granted the meanings assigned by one or another political group, we can struggle with distinguishing our own definitions from theirs. The process is awkward; it slows down talk; it is uncomfortable. It slows down thought and increases complexity.
Barbara Hillyer, Feminism & Disability, 1993

Over a decade ago, in 2000, I was co-curator with Kate Stoddart of VITAL and Vital Signs: a three-month contemporary arts festival and a one-day symposium held in Nottingham. Featuring new commissions by international and national artists, with and without disabilities, and events including film screenings, discussions and workshops, a three-day performance festival, the reading room and illustrated talks, VITAL aimed to tackle complexities of the human condition looking at ideas of beauty and normality, perception, representation and the ways in which we communicate.(1) In this article, I would like to look back on the curatorial challenges we faced in the cultural climate of ten years ago and how they were met.

In the written material generated during the lead up to VITAL, at times it was necessary to identify artists as having a disability or impairment. We generally used the definitions of ‘disabled artist’ or ‘artist with a disability’ rather than other terms in use, specifically ‘Disabled Artist’; therefore ‘disabled artist’ will be the descriptor most commonly used in this text. The term ‘Disabled Artist’, while understood erratically by the general population, was used as an identity to define artists who aligned themselves with the Disability Art Movement, its associated organisations, and political and social agendas. The art itself regularly expressed disabled people’s lived and historical experiences of having an impairment and its audiences were others who shared common ground in those areas, events were frequently organised by groups such as SHAPE, which at the time of VITAL was the most influential arts and disability related organisation in Nottingham. These identifiers continue to be contested within the disabled community: a recent research project completed by Anne Teahan, ‘Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility’, is just one of the latest publicised debates, and reflects the diverse reactions of a selection of British, American and Australian artists to these unstable and problematic labels.(2)

As I hope will become clear, VITAL was not intended as an activist vehicle for the social and/or political agendas of either the Disability Movement or the Disability Arts Movement. The role of VITAL was not to present a collective message, but to support individual voices: in other words, it was not conceived as a Disability Art festival for a disabled audience. Nor, however, was it a denial of the real concerns of disabled artists with regard to representation of their chosen identity by institutions in favour of obtaining membership into the Holy Grail of mainstream art and culture. (‘Mainstream art and culture’ being defined as the established institutional art structures of the dominant culture whose physical, cultural or philosophical positions create barriers to disabled people’s participation in their activities.)

With hindsight, I believe that VITAL had a relation to what Lennard J. Davis calls with regard to any identity group movement ‘the second wave’. The first wave of any identity group movement establishes a common identity and solidarity in order to achieve its political ends (such as basic rights and an end to discrimination, or the creation of a separate culture to the existing one). The second wave begins to question and redefine common and personal identities in more nuanced and complex ways, finding diversity within the manifesto of solidarity.(3)

As curators, Kate and I fully acknowledged the importance of the Disability Arts Movement and its historical and cultural significance. However, we were also aware that there were artists (such as myself) who, at times, questioned the framework of Disability Art festivals and events finding them too restrictive to contain our identities as artists, or the content and concerns within our practices. We felt strongly there was a need for a (predominantly visual) arts festival that addressed the issues faced by those artists who felt compromised by both Disability Arts and by the physical and philosophical barriers to mainstream arts – artists who ‘fell between two stalls’, so to speak, and who were potentially isolated. We recognised a need for a platform on which artists could have as much autonomy as possible to construct their own identities and to represent themselves free from any external pressure to conform prescriptively to either camp. Through VITAL, we hoped that problematising this dichotomy would provide a fertile discourse.

Historically, definitions and meanings of identity shift culturally and socially. They are as subjective and unstable as the numerous aesthetic and genre categorisations that artists find themselves in or define themselves and their work by. Relationships to contexts, agendas, criteria and critical reviews are negotiated; identities are appropriated. It may be that, if VITAL were taking place in 2012, a definition other than ‘disabled artist’ or ‘artists with a disability’ would be used to identify these artists – if it was deemed to be required at all. So, while finding it necessary here to use certain descriptors, I acknowledge the limits of any such label and the ongoing debate surrounding the use of the words ‘disabled’ and disability’. Karl Popper has stated: Definitions are either abbreviations and therefore unnecessary, though perhaps convenient, or they are Aristotelian attempts to “state the essence” of a word and are therefore unconscious conventional dogmas.’(4)

Since it would be impossible to talk here about all the events that made up VITAL, this text will focus on the six new artist commissions – by Jaap De Jonge, Alison Lapper, Tim Register, Bill Shannon, Ann Whitehurst and Aaron Williamson – and the symposium Vital Signs, giving consideration to how we dealt with issues such as commissioning, marketing, publicity and representation of the artists. In the main, I have drawn from archival documentation, including minuted notes from the regular meetings we held with the partner venues and marketing team, draft proposals, briefs, publicity, reviews and evaluation documents, as well as my own recollections.

Kate and I met through the Drawbridge Group, which was employed as a consultancy team by Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Galleries from 1995, when Kate was exhibitions officer there. The Drawbridge Group, of which I was vice chair, was one of the first to contract disabled people to advise museums comprehensively on issues ranging from physical access to staff awareness, training, programming, exhibition content, interpretation, marketing and front of house. The Drawbridge Group was also the lead applicant for the funding for VITAL, while Kate and myself devised and wrote the applications and briefs for the match funders.(5)

Kate’s curatorial concerns and her interests in the representation of artists collided with my own investigations of these issues within my artistic practice and resulted in a proposal for an art festival in 1997. We already knew our objective was not to formulate a dominant ‘disability’ or ‘able-bodied’ cultural and political message, but to attempt to problematise the polarisation of these identities and to place the ‘art’ in the primary position above hegemony. In addition, we aimed as far as possible to create a level playing field for all involved, and to open up spaces within which a discourse could take place around the issues raised. We wanted open questions rather than closed answers. The tagline for the brochure that accompanied the day-long symposium Vital Signs reflects the ethos of the festival:‘A day exploring the power of contradiction at the heart of the VITAL season through film, live presentation, open discussion and intervention. Tracing strategies, engaging work, exploding ideas.’

One question we faced was how to go about sourcing and promoting the disabled artists from whom we wanted to commission new works within an integrated festival, where the focus was not on disability but on the calibre and concept of the art work. At the same time, we were keen to invite speculation and raise awareness of what is possible when contemporary art is inflected on some level by experience of impairment or disabled identity. Additionally, there was the issue of how to allow the audience of disabled and non-disabled visitors to experience and interpret the works with integrity, rather than through the usual arbitrary interpretation material – the common solution being handout sheets describing visual work, separate tactile objects or standardised audio description. We wanted to improve on this practice. Could we do this by asking the artists to make the commissions engage through more than one sense without compromising their own ideas? We were attempting to subvert standard methods of interpretation usually employed to ‘accommodate’ specific visitors to museums and galleries.

It was agreed that the commissions would include artists with and without disabilities, but that the artists without would be those whose work reflected some aspect of the human condition. During the planning stages for VITAL, Andrew Chetty (co-director of the NOW Festival in 2000), questioned the inclusion of non-disabled artists being commissioned to make work that commented on disability issues, believing that this might detract from the emphasis of VITAL being on the art work and not on disability avoiding a label of undue worthiness.(6) The documented reply from Kate and myself, after consultation with members of the Drawbridge Group, was as follows:

VITAL is about communication and the emphasis is on the quality of the work. It is an event that promotes difference and doesn’t shy away from the fact that disability is an issue for everyone whether disabled or not. Whether it touches someone’s life in passing or on a long-term basis, we will all experience the effect of some kind of disability in the broadest sense, as we get older. Having a disability or knowing someone who has a disability adds another dimension to our experience of life and gives an invaluable insight into the human condition. The way in which people’s lives are affected by disability can be indirect and nonetheless powerful. It can be a temporary disability or knowing someone with a disability that can have an impact on our lives. To have able-bodied people making work which comments on disability is to emphasise that this is a universal experience, avoiding a sense of the voyeuristic. As VITAL is a positive role model for young people, disabled or otherwise, it is important that issues of disability are seen in a valid and positive light. Disability is not seen as ‘something that affects other people’, but as part and parcel of being human and participating and interacting with culture and society. If non-disabled artists are making work that makes a valid contribution to the debate, providing their work is strong enough, they will be considered for invitation.(7)

We were not saying that to have a temporary impairment is to know what it is to live with a chronic condition; still, such experiences alert us to the porous boundaries between disability and apparent health. Disability cuts across all races, classes, genders, nationalities and generations. This was one of those curatorial decisions to which there was no absolute right answer, like many of the decisions we made in the lead up to VITAL. Hopefully, we would achieve our goal either way; it was all food for the Vital Signs debate, and I would rather break a few eggs than avoid making the omelette.

How, then, did we find artists to commission, particularly disabled artists who did not necessarily promote or identify themselves as having an impairment or disability? We were looking not only for artists making interesting work of high quality, but also those who were not the usual suspects of the Disability Art scene or the first port of call when certain mainstream venues needed to tick a disability box. We were keen to find artists whose relationship with their art and their disability was problematised, artists who were critically and aesthetically aware.

The process of research was started at least a year before the final selection was made to allow as much time as possible to find exactly the kind of participants we were looking for. Kate and I were excited and confident that there were artists, and also programmers, who felt the same as we did and who could give us some leads. Through a combination of enquiry, research and calls for interest we gathered a list of artists and asked for documentation. It was apparent from the feedback we received that there were significant numbers of artists with disabilities who were frustrated and looking for just the kind of opportunity VITAL aimed to provide. In the spirit of enquiry and open mindedness, partners and representatives from the Drawbridge Group were invited to a viewing of the documentation, at which there was an honest and open discussion of the challenges facing disabled artists who wanted to show their work in mainstream galleries and spaces, as well as those facing mainstream galleries wishing to present work by disabled artists, and how the work should be described and contextualised. From that meeting, a shortlist of artists was drawn up who were invited to put in a proposal for a VITAL commission; from those proposals, the final selection of commissions was made.

What became apparent was that a significant number of the partners had little awareness or understanding of the fact that there were artists with disabilities whose aesthetic practice, critical thinking and execution was compatible with and interesting to their existing programmes, and was as equally commercially viable as that of artists they’d already exhibited. It was commercial not in a paternalistic or charitable sense, nor in a distorted politically correct sense, but in the sense that its innovative form and content could draw viewers and generate complex interpretations and evaluations relevant to their existing audience, as well as attracting new visitors. It was at this point that I felt our partners and contributors becoming genuinely invested in an exciting and committed dialogue regarding the possibilities of VITAL and its legacy.

Partners and venues were matched to the commissioned artists. For example, Angel Row, previously having worked with deaf artist Joseph Grigley, were keen to build on this experience and matched funding to commission a work by Aaron Williamson. Williamson took on board the sensory requirements of the commission, fully integrating them into his piece Sonic Traps: Involuntary Head Sounds (2000), in which he narrated a series of texts onto audio tape that described ‘involuntary head sounds’. These were then ‘translated’ into installed objects and materials in the gallery, as well as into a creative text in book form. During the exhibition, Williamson also presented three performances in which he explored the installation physically. In addition to matching the right artist to the right partner institution, we were keen to offer the artists and venues opportunities to stretch themselves both artistically and curatorially. The Angel Row commission, for instance, was an example of a performance artist creating his first installation piece with intermittent performances, and a gallery working for the first time with performance.

Related to the sensory interpretation of the work, and as part of our aim to provide a level playing field for artists and audiences alike, was the issue of practical access and visitor experience. VITAL had a budget for improvements. We worked closely with venues (some of which had more experience and disabled access than others) providing equality training and tailored support to each venue and their matched artist. For the most part, venues knew what was needed to make their buildings accessible at a basic level but had less concept of what it meant to create a fully accessible event or rounded experience. It is still common to construe the provision of accessibility to an audience or artist as a compromise in terms of the content and quality, in danger of destroying an experience for the majority by catering for the minority. Or, with limited budgets the issue falls off the agenda entirely. Making sure we had budgeted to support venues and artists in enhancing this aspect of installation was integral to VITAL.

The marketing of VITAL incorporated at least three strands, all of which needed tailoring to attract our target audiences. The question was how to balance marketing on a national scale a contemporary art festival that aimed to provide a platform for disabled artists and highlight them as role models for emerging disabled artists, while making sure that the calibre of the work was equally if not more prominently articulated in the limited media space available to us. Our priority was to get as broad an audience as possible. We took an educated gamble that the way to begin this was first to get mainstream visitors through the door. We believed that, once in, they would begin to engage with the art work in a meaningful way. This involved careful consideration of the language of the brief for the marketing teams and the framing of the press releases.

At the time, it was not uncommon for marketing teams to have their own department and criteria for specific genre exhibitions and events – often based on what had been done before – and for the curator to be absent from meetings. We strongly felt it was important to have more than the usual level of communication with the marketing team at the Nottingham Castle Museum, who led on the national publicity for VITAL. And, initially, there was a certain amount of resistance to this change in policy. Historically, marketing anything inflected with disability – even on a minimal level – had been straightforward in that the disability element was the hook designed to attract attention. While other marginal groups had campaigned with some degree of success to change their public image, in the media, disability carried (and continues to carry) a negative social charge still supported by dominant cultural assumptions. It was, to my mind, a lazy approach appealing to the lowest common denominator. After much discussion, we chose not to use the word ‘disability’ in the mainstream publicity of the event but decided instead to focus on ways to promote the calibre of the work being shown and the notion that: ‘Part of the essence of VITAL is the range of sensory experiences. Every art work or event will engage at least two of the human senses.’(8)

We knew we would have some negative feedback – not least from some disabled people who would see it as denying disability rather than being ‘loud and proud’. However, we did not want VITAL to fall into the common trap of contemporary and public art audiences thinking this was nothing to do with them and fail on that count. We took a different approach when marketing to national and local disability publications, where it was made clear that this was an opportunity to see to great art made by professional artists with and without disabilities, all of which was accessible on a number of levels in high-profile, nationally recognised mainstream spaces.

In the individual brochures and programmes for VITAL and Vital Signs, the artists described their work on their terms and represented/identified themselves exactly as they chose. These brochures were distributed through all the partner venues’ mailing lists and publicity programmes, as well as through VITAL’s own national mailing list. In addition, VITAL brochures were available from all the usual festival outlets throughout Nottingham. We wanted all text to be printed in a clear font at 14 point size, avoiding complicated overlapping graphics. It was put to us that this would not be sophisticated enough and would compromise the design. We stayed firm and commissioned a design team who did not feel limited by this brief. The feedback we received from the evaluation report and from many visitors recognised how easy to read and understand our brochure was compared to other contemporary art festival guides that followed the trend for privileging complicated graphics over clear content.

Marketing for the Vital Signs symposium was also an issue for some people within the arts community of Nottingham, who were not convinced by the level of critical and theoretical language in the publicity, never having come across that kind of discourse in relation to contemporary art and disability before – even to the point where some doubted we would find any audience for it, if we pitched it at that level. I did have a few sleepless nights as a result, but it seemed to me that to do anything other than to have a serious critical debate about these issues would have been to dumb down the symposium and to do the contributors and potential attendees a major disservice, as well as to undermine the ethos of VITAL. As one panel member and artist put it: ‘This needs doing and, whatever happens, there will be a record in the future that it was done.’

Vital Signs brought together and aired all the contradictions and controversies of the VITAL season and placed issues of identity and territory at the centre of the debate. One indicator of this was the title itself: Vital Signs. Members of the Drawbridge Group queried our use of the term ‘vital signs’, expressing concern that it was medical terminology and therefore associated with the medical model of disability as opposed to the social model. Would there be the same sensitivity around its use today? At the time, however, this very association, as well as the connection to the signs and symbols of semiotics, were the two key reasons we decided to use Vital Signs as a title: to provoke debate.

In keeping with our belief in broadening and elevating discussions around art and disability, I approached the artist, activist and theorist Doran George to curate Vital Signs. During my early discussions with George, I had found we had common interests in unstable identities and their representations, as well as in contemporary art. One initial conversation we had, which was both relevant and amusing, was on the subject of public toilets and the implications of their designated gendered identities: the essentialist male/female dichotomy of non-disabled toilets and the non-essential and/or androgynous identity of disabled ones. George noted in his introductory address for Vital Signs:

Investments I have made in art and activism have resulted in me navigating the interface between art practice and struggles for social viability. My interest in the VITAL season is the way it treads on fragile territory where frameworks of identity based on culture have exhausted their productive potential but there still remains a desire to reconvene with the history of this culture in mind. If the critical reception of work is dominated by understandings that are familiar, then the work is in danger of being taken for granted. This is a sure step to suffocating any explorative cultural exchange with the work. In putting together Vital Signs, I have been attracted to artists and practices that upset my familiarity relevant to the debates at hand but could not be contained by them. My hope is that there won’t be any common aims nor coherent resolutions but perhaps moments of recognition and glimpses of fertile possibility in the discursive exchange and the exchange that happens in the work.(9)

Vital Signs consisted of four seminars, each panelled by two artists: one of whom George had invited to participate; the other of whom was a VITAL commissioned artist. Each seminar began with – but was not limited by – a locus that linked the artists: Toichi Nakata and Minoru chaired ‘The Pressure of the Image’; Aaron Williamson and Lawrence Harvey led ‘An Exploration of the Enabling, Informing and Prospective Impact of Identity Discourses’; Becky Edmunds and Ann Whitehurst headed up ‘Ideological Residues: Making Work within the Current Structures of Funding, Promotion and Reception: How the Ideologies that Shape the Structures within which Art Work Emerges Might be Productive or Ensnaring’; and, finally, there was an open discussion chaired by George: ‘How Might the Questions and Problems that a Critical Framework Attempts to Address be Best Left – in the Work or its Process?’. (The day also included a screening of Nakata’s 1992 documentary, Minoru & Me; a performance lecture by Harvey entitled ‘Why I Love Monsters’; a live presentation of Future Human by Edmunds; and Invisible Dances, a, live intervention by Bock and Vincenzi. Our hope for non-consensus, lively debate and no-closed conclusions was upheld. Discussions at times became heated, particularly around group and individual identity appropriation or transgression of paradigmatic territories. Tickets for Vital Signs completely sold out – we could have filled a much larger space – and the audience demographic covered theorists, curators, educators, students, policy-makers, professional and emerging artists, and art lovers alike. They came from Disability Art sectors and from mainstream sectors, as well as including those who choose not to be prescriptive in identifying with specific sectors. Conversation continued in the bar late into the evening, many further questions and views were aired for potential later debates, and many new connections were made.

Attendance evaluation commissioned by Nottingham City Council and East Midlands Arts Council bore out the success of Vital Signs, and recorded high audience figures for VITAL. On the whole, visitor feedback was extremely positive. The small number of negative comments were predictably narrow-minded, such as the one from a woman who wrote in response to an image in the galleries of Nottingham Museum of an artist with a disability being handed her baby son while naked: ‘Disgusting. I shouldn’t have to look at this. I wish I’d gone to [nearby stately home] Chatsworth House!’ However, these were balanced by positive comments. In particular, I was struck by one from a participant who spoke of the ‘very real sense of truth and reconciliation’ that came from the process of having their voice heard when attending Vital Signs.

Through VITAL and Vital Signs, seeds were planted as to what was possible within the cultural climate of Nottingham – and beyond. After the festival, I was contacted by both artists and organisations who were keen for there to be annual VITAL event. The legacy was a shift in mindset in the programming and policies of a number of art institutions. There was recognition between mainstream arts and disabled artists of nuanced differences within artists’ identities and the need for open discussion. An interest in a shared terrain prevailed – be that in the constructs of those identities, the paradigms and narratives of art histories, theoretical concerns, or aesthetics and methodologies. Tangible examples of that legacy include the growth and expansion of the interpretative approach to exhibitions at Angel Row, as well as the development of Dance4’s Lines of Enquiry – an exploratory space within the annual NottDance Festival regularly featuring artists with disabilities. The reviews of VITAL and Vital Signs that appeared in both local and national publications, such as The Guardian and Art Monthly, were gratifyingly complex in their reflections. The profiles of the artists involved were raised nationally and led to further opportunities.

A CD-ROM entitled VITAL: Exposing New Views, produced by Intermedia Film & Video (Nottingham) Ltd., documented all the events that took place over the three months, while interviews with the six commissioned artists and extra footage of their work was edited into an eponymous video, produced by myself and director Steven Sheil, which explored creative ways of using interpretive access tools both were widely distributed nationally to organisations and individuals.(11)

So where are we now, ten years on from the conception of VITAL? Working on the event was a fascinating and illuminating process, and I hope and believe that VITAL and Vital Signs contributed to the increased visibility of individual representations and complex nuanced identities. I hope that, at least partly as a consequence of VITAL, there are many more fluid and diverse voices out there now in ‘art land’ – from those who choose labels for themselves to those who choose no label; from artists who make work inflected by their identities as a footnote or as the locus of their practice to those who focus on other interests of equal importance. I would also hope to find the same diversity across the territories that artists inhabit, for the cultural discourse between those in the ‘mainstream’ and those outside it to be problematised, so as to lead to meaningful and productive events. VITAL would be a different animal were we to organise it again today, but the fact that I have been asked to write about it for this journal, a decade after its conception, is testament to its impact. It is also, perhaps, a sign that there are still things to talk about and, more importantly, things to do.



  1. Juliet Robson and Kate Stoddart, VITAL, Tom Partridge Design, 2000
  2. Anne Teahan, ‘Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility’, 27 September 2011,
  3. Lennard J. Davis, ‘Constucting Normalcy’, The Disability Studies Reader, Lennard J. Davis (ed.), Routledge, 1997
  4. Karl Popper, ‘The Problem of Demarcation’, Philosophy: Basic Readings,Nigel Warburton (ed.), Routledge, 2005 (2nd Edition)
  5. The partners and match funders for VITAL were: Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Galleries, Angel Row Art Gallery, Broadway Media Centre, Now Festival, Nottingham Playhouse, Dance4 and Future Factories’ Forward Thinking Programme at Nottingham Trent University.
  6. Minutes from VITAL Partner Meeting, June, 1999
  7. Ibid.
  8. Juliet Robson and Kate Stoddart, VITAL, Tom Partridge Design, 2000
  9. Doran George, Vital Signs, Thom Patrick Design, 2000
  10. Juliet Robson, ‘How Does the Artist’s Physicality Impact on Her/His Creative Intent, and within Contemporary Visual Arts Practices that Respond to Physical and Cultural Environments?’ PhD research, Dartington College of Arts, 2009
  11. Both the video and the CD-ROM can be accessed through the Live Art Development Agency’s archive:


Links to websites of individuals and organisations related to this article:



More articles written for the journal by Aaron Wiliamson (editor), Colin Cameron, Lennard J. Davis, Yinka Shonibare (MBE), Joseph Grigely and others are archived at the Live Art Development Agency  here.


In 2002 I won the Year of the artist award and was commissioned to make a permanent public work for the Arboretum Park, Nottingham. The park is situated in the heart of the city and is a focus for many communities, a meeting place, a place of social interaction and a place of escape from […]

In 2002 I won the Year of the artist award and was commissioned to make a permanent public work for the Arboretum Park, Nottingham.

The park is situated in the heart of the city and is a focus for many communities, a meeting place, a place of social interaction and a place of escape from the demands of city living and inspiration for  the work Curio was drawn from the quote by Mary Jane Jacobs from Culture in action, outside the loop:

“The first requirement is that the community based art project benefits the community. The community with which the artist has collaborated must be the primary audience for the work… it must be clear for the duration of the project. No one owns the project more than they do.”

This publication about  includes images writing including text by John Newlyn and Robert Ayers.

To view the publication click here: Curio

Politics of Space

Written by Jordan McKenzie reviewing the Norman artwork by Juliet Robson and held in the Live Art Development Agency Archive.   The Politics of Space: Difference as Discourse in the work of Juliet Robson. “What I deduce from all this is the value of a rich, complex language. Instead of creating dichotomies between good and […]

Written by Jordan McKenzie reviewing the Norman artwork by Juliet Robson and held in the Live Art Development Agency Archive.


The Politics of Space: Difference as Discourse in the work of Juliet Robson.

“What I deduce from all this is the value of a rich, complex language. Instead of creating dichotomies between good and bad words, we can use accurate, individual descriptors. Instead of taking for granted the meanings assigned by one or another political group, we can struggle with distinguishing our own definitions from theirs. The process is awkward; it slows down talk; it is uncomfortable. It slows down thought and  increases complexity.” ( Hillyer 1993 )

How do bodies operate in social spaces? How is meaning inscribed across the body? Who describes the body? Juliet Robson’s creative practice has set out to investigate these questions. Her artistic output has taken her into the territories of film and animation, performance, installation, sculpture and new technologies. Though diverse in nature all of these investigations have posed questions about how we read the body in space, whether that be physical, social or emotional.

What is important here though is that physicality is not seen in terms of an abstracted ideal type (THE body), but specific constructed identities ( my body, your body, our bodies) and it is the languages and power relationships that are generated around these specific bodies that provide the locus of the work.

An example of this is the installation entitled NORMAN ( alluding to the fictitious nature of normality ), that she produced at Loughborough University. For this piece of work she re-situated another academic institution ( Nottingham Trent University ) within the gallery space of  Loughborough University creating a dialogue between the two institutions. A wheel chair user since the age of sixteen, Robson  projected architectural blue-print plans of the visual arts faculty building onto her body employing a colour coding system that highlighted all the parts of the building that she could not gain access to. Upon a facing wall there was an illustration of Corbusier’s Modular Man, an idealized bodily form that was to act as a blue-print for Corbusier’s modernist architecture. As Rob Imrie in his essay Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment goes on to point out:

“The Modular by Le Corbusier was devised in 1947. Modular man is 6ft tall and became a standard for architects and/or designers to build from. It seeks to present the human body as singular and universal, as a type. In this sense, it is insensitive to bodily variations.”

Robson’s exhibition did not just look at the relationship between the ‘impaired’ body and the built environment but opened up questions of the impact of space on all bodies. The piece is not an illustration of essentialism but a way of asking questions about all our bodies; if Modularity is a primary discourse within architectural practice then what are the implications of gay bodies within space, female bodies, black bodies? The piece examines which modes of power are present and which are absent within these architectural spaces.

Yet the implications of this piece go beyond asking us to recognize other kinds of bodies and the particularites of identity. Norman, by referring to Le Corbusier acts as a kind of mirror held up to normality, making us realize that the very thing that acts and impacts upon other bodies in very real ways is often the very thing that remains invisibilised, that the normal body itself is yet another constructed idealized myth.

Robson’s work asks fundamental questions about bodies, space and the discourses built around them. These questions are complex and rely on new levels of engagement and understanding of both ourselves and others. The process is awkward; it does slow down talk; it is uncomfortable, yet it is absolutely vital.

Jordan McKenzie


For more information see chapters on Norman and Shopping written by Robson, commissioned by Arnolfini Bristol for The Degenerate Art Book.

Edited by Matt Hawthorn. Contributors: Paul Gannon, Juliet Robson, Jordan McKenzie, Roddy Hunter, Glyn Davis Marshall, Otiose (Alith Roberts and John Dummett), Kira O’Reilly and Doran George.