1 November 2005
Can sound sculpture boost Deaf Awareness? Melissa Mostyn talks to Colin Redwood about his work.
People interact with sound through my work, asserts the artist in his statement,
and in doing so, they become aware of their own sense of hearing and realise that the not-perfect sounds created are equivalent to how deaf/hard of hearing people hear sounds - muffled, muted and distorted. My work makes people question their ability to hear and how much they take it for granted.
Colin Redwood is nearly 48 and, in Deaf Community terms, oral deaf. The majority of his work - be it a near-abstract, flint-like light, a structure resembling Battersea Power Station, or a park bench - revolves round the concept of sound and how its reception affects the way we communicate with others.
Strictly speaking, it isn't Deaf Culture. Rather, it applies the Deaf Awareness principle in its loosest context, inasmuch as it highlights variations in the auditory make-up of deaf and hard-of-hearing people - especially those who are deaf late in life. The medical model it might be, but at least it sets hearing people thinking about acquired hearing loss. Of one sound sculpture,
I had lots of people complaining that it wanted tuning, laughs Redwood,
but that's the reaction I wanted!
A latecomer, Redwood only became an artist ten years ago on the perceptive advice of his wife Michelle:
When I first met Colly he was in a pretty dull job. At this time he was only 37. From previous letters from him I knew he was artistic and wanted more from life. Not being negative about his parents, but they were of the mindset that bringing in money from any job was all-important. It was Michelle who prompted her husband to apply to college - and made him the person he is today.
Michelle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003. Given the severe symptoms she had in the six months pre-diagnosis and for a year afterwards - including losing the sight in her left eye - it's a measure of their mutual support that Colin abandoned his artistic practice to care for her until her acceptance onto a drugs trial last year, which enabled her to return to her PhD and full-time work.
One HND in Ceramics and Visual Arts BA degree later, Colin Redwood is now poised for a MA in Public Art at Bolton University, working alongside landscape architects. The excitement is palpable:
I have this wonderful dream about a theme park based on sound: very disabled-friendly with both blind and deaf people benefiting from vibrations through the ground, walls and around them! Natural noises like a river, a volcanic eruption, earthquake, thunder and lightning…
distortion of sound
Given such enthusiasm and commitment to raising Deaf Awareness it would be unfair to disqualify Colin Redwood as a deaf artist on grounds of using speech. Isn't diversity what makes visual art so plentiful in its themes and conundrums? Why shouldn't deaf visual art be as inclusive in its debate around the deaf issues it raises?
Even if the link between his sound sculptures and BSL might seem rather tenuous, he is at least open to learning BSL. One workshop he ran at Gallaudet University during their 2002 Deafway II conference involved deaf children making musical instruments that made vibrations, but
once they got the concept, they were off, creating their own thing!This enabled him to learn and practise signing, an opportunity he welcomed:
At school signing was frowned upon and discouraged so I thought that was cool!
Of course - the medical model again - the children were responding to a new world, namely the aural environment, but only as a means of learning to appreciate their sense of feel. Sound is to Redwood what the void was to Yves Klein: an invisible commodity that can be exploited for the purpose of highlighting what we normally take for granted - hearing or deaf. All too often we assume the malleability of sound to be more limited than paint, so upon experiencing it in Redwood's work, we are often surprised.
The only difference is in how hearing and deaf people react. While deaf people accept the distortion without question - even going so far as to enjoy it - the hearing reject it. Clearly, dysfunctional sound is like music to our dysfunctional ears.
Redwood also shows how distortion of sound can induce gestural and facial expression into your speech. Organoiser (2001), a series of gas pipes on a wooden frame painted glossy black (the Power Station-like assemblage mentioned earlier) has two cylindrical levers pointing up. Alternating the push-and-pull action on these two levers will produce a discordant whistle that changes depending on your application of pressure and speed. You want more noise, you gesticulate more; you want to make yourself clearer, you use your hands more.
Not that Redwood limits himself to increasing Deaf Awareness. Among many other projects, he is also working with START in Salford, a charity that involves art therapy with people with mental health problems. Initially a volunteer, the artist is now being commissioned to create a sensory garden where individual sound sculptures made by members can be joined up into one giant piece, like a jigsaw. Planning permission for this park remains elusive, but Colin Redwood remains boundless in his brainstorming capacity. Currently in his shed-cum-studio in Bolton is another work-in-progress - an ear-type structure threaded with wire across the frame like a harp.
I could easily make loads of sculptures right now, but there'd be no room to move in the shed.