Change Makers: Gareth Cutter & Gemma Nash

The word ‘huh’ written in chalk on a blackboard

Gareth Cutter and myself have been exploring voice in all its many guises: in classic literature (the Tower of Babel, Echo the nymph, The Little Mermaid), contemporary science and technology (for instance, Voice Banks where you can ‘donate’ your voice to someone without speech), and sociology (‘huh?’ as the only universal word shared across all cultures; dysfluency power). And we’ve been imagining what the voice might be like in the future, as above.

Read more here:

My Research trip to Reykjavik: ‘othered’ bodies and The Toilet

Our new animation, The Toilet is on tour!   A few weeks ago, the tour began as Dr Jenny Slater (Reader in Education & Disability Studies) and I travelled to Reykjavik, Iceland for our animation’s WORLD PREMIERE. 

Over the next year, we will be taking conversations of toilets, disability, gender and access to grassroots disability and queer arts and activist spaces internationally to different spaces, including film festivals and activist groups.

This blog post summarises the event:

Activists in Reykjavik launch the new Around the Toilet film

Reimagining Creativity


August Natterer My Eyes in the Time of Apparition (1913)
August Natterer
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition (1913)

Recently I’ve attended two MMU led events that I found particularly interesting, both of which broadly examined ‘human’ ways of being, notions of creativity and human flourishing.  In connection with the first of these events – Theorising Normalcy And The Mundane – I have been working with the fantastic Drake Music Innovation Lab North  on my Beyond Vocal Norms sound investigation and research project. I’ll be blogging about Normalcy and Beyond Vocal Norms later this month … so watch this space.

Extending the concepts of creativity and value…

In the meantime I will focus on the second event – VCHF (Value, Creativity and Human Flourishing) – and its relevance on music making for people with significant learning disabilities. VCHF brought together artists, academics and activists to re-examine and extend the concepts of creativity and value within different arts practices. The two day symposium had a particular emphasis on what these concepts mean for people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems. Concepts around creativity are of particular interest to Drake Music’s research into bespoke instruments, and how these developments invariably challenge perceptions of what musical expression is and how music is made.

The symposium featured nine internationally acclaimed speakers, and I will reflect on two sessions that were of particular relevance to many philosophical discussions we have at Drake Music. Drake Music has a core belief that everyone can fulfil their creative and musical potential if given the right opportunities.

One of the aims of the Drake Music Think2020 Education project is to explore more meaningful and inclusive frameworks for measuring musical development for those with profound and multiple learning difficulties.  This can be difficult as mainstream definitions of creativity often excludes people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems.  Currently Drake Music Associates try to overcome this difficulty by using both the Sound of Intent framework and the Youth Music Quality framework, both of which work beyond the limitations of the ‘P-Scales’ for music education.

Co-production and human flourishing …

One of the speakers, Julian West, discussed these concepts, amongst others, in relation to music making with people living with dementia.   West is a Creative Music Leader, Oboist and Consultant, and has spent 14 years working on music projects with older people. He is currently working with Spitalfields Music on an innovative project called LivingArts. LivingArts explores and celebrates the creativity of residents at a care home in East London. West and a small team of artists and musicians visit the care home each week enabling residents to express themselves through music, movement and visual arts. Manchester Camerata have been running a similar project at an early dementia centre, with huge success.

Musicians by Kate Munro, LivingArts
Musicians by Kate Munro, LivingArts

The overall aim of LivingArt was to challenge public perceptions and improve wellbeing for people living with dementia, through the creative arts.  In order to meet this aim, West describes the importance of working beyond conventional ways to measure outputs, and making musical expression and co-production a core value.

The LivingArts group were invited to bring various objects to make sounds with – a particularly successful object was an old typewriter that a participant found engaging as he used to work in an office. They also had a dancer who integrated walking frames, and other disability related equipment during her session there. This all happened with the participants taking a leading role in the creative process with no pressure of defined outputs, therefore providing value for all taking part. West describes how this project also helped the artists to re-examine their own perceptions of creativity and co-production.

Like West and the LivingArts team, Drake Music associate musicians continue to re-evaluate their notions of creativity, and creative potential within the field of music production.   This can be particularly challenging in a culture dominated by the language of the ‘medical model’ and ableist notions of who is ‘allowed’ to be creative, and for whom.

 Who is ‘allowed’ to be creative? …

Tokyo panorama by Stephen Wiltshire
Tokyo panorama by Stephen Wiltshire

Conference organiser, and speaker Dr Lucy Burke, discussed these notions in her talk – Human Trouble and the Cognitive Difference. Dr Burke is Principle lecturer in English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at MMU. Prompted by Oliver Sacks essay The Autistic Artist, her session explored the ethical and ideological implications of particular concepts of creativity, personhood and the human.

In the Autistic Artist, Sacks examines a 21 year old called Jose who can allegedly only copy draw and deemed to be ‘retarded’. Sacks recognises that Jose’s artwork demonstrates the powers of imagination and expression, and describes his work as both verisimilitude, animated and richly expressive. It could be said that Sacks is being quite progressive by inferring that Jose’s ability is more than that of the stereotypical ‘idiot savant’. However, he also describes Jose’s work as child-art and primitive, whilst paradoxically deliberating whether Jose could gain a meaningful life through being employed to draw. Burke argues that Jose’s work is put under the kind of scrutiny rarely experienced by neurotypical artists. Jose’s art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis, or beyond the belief that personhood is fundamentally interconnected with work and labour.

Music therapy or music education? …

Dancers by Kate Munro, LivingArts
Dancers by Kate Munro, LivingArts

The Autistic Artist case study reminded me of the way musicians with learning disabilities and/or autism still experience harsher artistic scrutiny and barriers to creative expression. The authenticity of their musical abilities are either considered a symptom of impairment and therefore disbelieved, or used to somehow validate their initiation into the work-based notion of personhood. And whilst this validation can be empowering, the superhuman or curative disability narrative often accompanies it. Music therapy, for example, is often based around the notion that people are broken and need fixing. On the other hand music education is becoming less about the actual learning experience and more about the potential monetisation it can offer.

How do we measure music potential and value against mainstream definitions of creativity ? Leave a comment with examples of your own experiences of good or bad practice. Also If you’re interested in these kinds of philosophical discussions visit

Blog commissioned by Drake Music.

How do we measure outcomes against normative values about what creativity actually means?




Clock (c) Mreadz
Clock (c) Mreadz


Art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis.




Two Fishes (c) Mreadz
Two Fishes (c) Mreadz


Technology: to augment or not to augment … that is the question?

As a digital artist who uses both assistive and mainstream technology, I am disturbed and excited by the idea of augmentations that provide an alternative way of experiencing the world, and for me, assist me to make my work. I currently work in a variety of digital mediums and recently took part in the D2art project for disabled visual artists (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by the University of Birmingham – in partnership with DASH).


The aim of D2art is to explore the use of technologies to remove barriers experienced by some disabled visual artists.  The project focused on software and computer based graphic design and editing programs, such as Photoshop. I use programs like Photoshop on standard computer equipment with a specialist trackball instead of a mouse for editing. Using my trackball for prolonged periods of time has caused RSI problems, and existing dictate software is impossible to use because of my speech impairment. So I was keen to explore a few possible alternatives to both my trackball and dictate programs.


Tobii EyeX
Tobii EyeX

During my session I used Tobii EyeX (left), Enable Viacam, Finger Mouse, Leap Motion, Oculus Rift and Steady Mouse. The most useful software for me was the Tobii EyeX – a fairly reasonably priced eye tracking software. Although I found it was too fast for fine control, I could see the potential use it has for screen jumping and scrolling in conjunction with my existing trackball.


Dr Chris Creed, leading the research, explained that other participants had experienced similar problems. He discussed the need to develop a whole new photo editing software that is made specifically for use with assistive technologies, such as eye tracking. Exciting stuff!

When it comes to assistive technology for producing art there are revolutionary ways of making music, including using your brainwaves, in real-time. D2Art did make me wonder whether there will ever be a similar programme for visual artists? Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?


Enhanced Artists …

The prospect of technology that enables disabled artists to be more enhanced than their non-disabled counterparts might seem farfetched. But since the 2012 Paralympics this phenomenon has come into mainstream discourse for disabled athletes. Sportsperson’s prosthetic limbs, such as those used by Oscar Pistorius, surpass the capabilities of biological limbs – making these athletes ‘enhanced’ rather than ‘disabled’.

Augmented Eye - Bionic Eyes
Bionic Eye

Bioethicist, Andy Miah, refers to the prospect of these types of enhancements as becoming the optimal for “faster, stronger, further and more accurate performances”. Guardian journalist, Jemima Kiss, recently wrote an article about the climber Hugh Herr and his bionic legs. She explores the idea of bionics becoming so appealing that some people may choose to amputate just so that they can augment their bodies – creating a far more profound human digital divide: the augmented, and the unaugmented.


This divide not only questions who exactly is disabled, but also raises questions about our relationship with technology and what it means to be human in the twenty first century. Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’. In this context, are contemporary philosophers such as Braidotti right – is the human an out-dated phenomenon? Critiques of the technological society often seem obsessed by a fear that what is happening is profoundly unnatural, that we are becoming post-human, entering what Professor Sherry Turkle has called “the robotic moment”.  I certainly found eye-gaze software slightly disconcerting in this way, but perhaps this is no different from early anxieties about the telephone. Lets not forget we were once fearful of the telephone’s unnatural ability to separate the voice from the body.


Appropriate use of technology…

I really do support initiatives in new technologies, particularly ones that focus on removing disabling barriers and improving quality of life. But I also feel that we sometimes need to question when it is appropriate to use technology. Sometimes I find it helpful to take part in more kinaesthetic ways of learning or creating work even though these methods are physically difficult. Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more:

hand writingMueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory … and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand…who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used laptops.

Certainly the module I did the best at during University was one that happened to be in a classroom with wide enough desk space for me to handwrite notes, where I would normally have taken notes using a laptop. Of course it needs to be recognised that using technologies is crucial to some people who may have little or no alternative.

And if there is one thing I did take with me from three years at university it is this; always finish an essay with the opening ‘title’.

‘To augment or not to augment … that is the question?’

“Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?”

Gemma testing Tobii EyeX


“Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’.”