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AI and increasing access for disabled artists

How AI could increase art world accessibility for disabled artists

Speaking to disabled artists, curators, and those working within the field, about the potential (and drawbacks) of the latest tech

What does the advancement of AI mean for the future of the arts, music, and fashion? Will robots come for our creative industries? Could a machine ever dream like a human can? This week on Dazed, with our new campaign AGE OF AI, we’re aiming to find out.

Artificial intelligence, just like all major technological developments before it, poses major questions for the meaning of art. AI has made art that has fooled the experts; critics still wrestle with the idea of an AI artist. But AI also has the potential to destabilise the ableist assumptions at the heart of the art world, supporting artists and audiences with disabilities in radical new ways. How will painting be reimaged by someone who has never had the use of their arms? How will photography be approached by the blind, or music by the deaf? By changing who can be an artist, artificial intelligence is changing art itself. But crucially, the promise of technology isn’t a remedy for the problems that artists with disabilities face.

“There are few opportunities for artists with disabilities,” Aidan Moseby tells me, an artist and curator whose work has included auditing arts organisations within a disability context. This is why they need to “create (their) own ecology. Show beyond galleries. Take the initiative. Subvert the power structures of the normative art world”. To do this, AI and other innovative technologies “can facilitate some of this subversion,” and even “change perceived deficits into positives”.

These are questions Moseby has explored in his work, including the Unfixed residency with Unlimited at Pervasive Media Studio Bristol and Adelaide’s ANAT. “But the question is also about access and discrimination,” he continues. Being physically or mentally unable to network in the same ways as other artists means that he risks becoming invisible to galleries and curators. “Ultimately, technology is not the panacea. Good ideas are the basis of good art, and technology doesn’t make good art by itself.”

“Ultimately, technology is not the panacea. Good ideas are the basis of good art, and technology doesn’t make good art by itself” – Aidan Moseby

Many technologies and tools that assist people with disabilities have existed for a long time. AI is promising to radically improve them. Often, users of prosthetics can experience a sense of reduced mobility, and frustration with the lack of easy, instinctual movement. But what if a prosthetic arm could see and understand what it is about to pick up? So much of our everyday movement is instinctual, not requiring conscious effort to decide how your fingers curl around a glass, or how your wrist bends with a paint brush. By fitting a bionic hand with a camera, biomedical engineers at Newcastle University are developing a prosthetic that can assess the shape and size of an object, automatically triggering fluid movement.

Dr. Kianoush Nazarpour led Intelligent Sensing, the project behind the bionic hand. The team’s approach to AI and disability is clear – in the world of bionics and prosthetics, artificial intelligence is “irrelevant if you lose out on native intelligence”. AI shouldn’t be about replacing or competing with the human body and brain, but working with it. Their research involves “slowing down” the process, so they are better able to monitor how the brain develops in response to the device. Users of their innovative technology often learn how to use this through playing games, like controlling a dot on their screen. After 20 or 30 minutes, the weirdness of the experience fades. Users have explained to Dr. Nazarpour that for them, an ability to easily control the device is the most important, otherwise, it’s “not part of me”.

The possibilities of this don’t end here. People who are non-verbal, and paralysed to the extent that they can only move their eyes, will be able to independently use a computer with an innovative technology called EagleEyes, developed at Boston College. By attaching small, surface electrodes to the person's head, this replaces the conventional mouse and keyboard interface. Depending on the person’s specific condition and extent of their mobility issues, the electrodes can require extensive adjustments and training to get right. But more intelligent systems will be able to address this by learning to adapt in response to a user’s activity. Photoshop, video editing, and a wide range of creative software will be far more accessible than ever before due to smarter, more inclusive interfaces.

Anna Berry has a lot to say about how artists with disabilities can destabilise ableist assumptions within the art world. “I’m trying to make a point of doing that myself,” Berry explains, and it will be a major point she’s hoping to make during Curated Conversation: Interrogating (in)visibility of disabled artists at Birmingham Mac in November. It’s something she’s experienced throughout her artistic career. While on a residency in New York, the curators she met were often dismissive of her disability, saying things like “I wouldn’t have known by looking at you”, paired with “I don’t think you need to mention that part”, or “I think you could leave that out”. The experience taught her a harsh lesson. As she wrote, it showed her that the curators think, “because I can pass for ‘normal’, I should. Why let the guise slip?”

People with invisible disabilities like Berry’s can often feel sidelined in discussions about technology and disability – especially when it comes to AI, as so much of the discussion revolves around physical problems and solutions. To address her memory issues, Berry relies extensively on post-it notes and apps like Evernote – these are all essential during the process of making art, so she doesn’t waste time having to re-familiarise herself with issues repeatedly and lose valuable time and energy. AI may be on the cusp of offering a solution to people like her. Researchers led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Michael Kahana are exploring a method of enhancing human memory through AI-guided pulses to the brain. Taking the concept in another direction, researchers at Google DeepMind in the UK are devising ways for AI memory to work in a more selective manner, similar to how the human mind works.

There’s a wide range of “fantastic technologies” available, but as someone who works in medical tech, artist Aaron McPeake says “every week I hear of a new ‘cure’”. He is an artist whose PhD was about what happens to artists who lose their sight, and he has worked in medical research with the European Medical Agency scientific advisory working party. The problems artists with disabilities face, as well as the potential solutions offered by tech, is an area he understands very well.

There is a big risk of AI’s potential to help disabled artists being over-hyped. While eye trackers – such as Eagle Eyes – are a perfect example of how AI can have a tremendous impact for a narrow range of people with acute conditions, McPeake argues that it’s important to remember there are “no generic characteristics” amongst people. But crucially, the tools and devices that artists with disabilities use aren’t that distinct from the tricks artists generally use to make work. “If it’s useful, you’ll use it.”

It’s important that the discussions about technology and disability aren’t led by the spectacle of innovation, and are instead driven by the needs of users. A classic example has been the repeated attempts to create a glove which can translate sign language into speech or text. This device “…has been a repeated phenomenon or fad”, Lance Forshay, who directs the ASL program at UW, told the Atlantic in 2017. It’s a fad driven by the expectations of able-bodied people, made on behalf of those with disabilities and typically without their input also.

“I'm sure AI will bring amazing developments in the future,” artist Kristina Veasey says. “But it's important to involve disabled people in the development of that if you want it to be relevant and impactful.” Her experimental piece, My Dirty Secret!, tells the story of a disabled person battling to keep up with housework. Clearly, her experiences have shaped her art, but also crucially, she is an artist placing accessibility at the heart of production rather than as an afterthought. A variety of technology was required to do this, including talking books, a sensor triggered telephone, and video that uses BSL and captions while providing audio description. She explained that “it was important to me that this was done at the R&D stage”, so that technological aided accessibility is “integral within the piece”.

Questions of diversity, inclusion, and disability are important for Dr Ann Millett-Gallant, an Art Historian who is congenitally physically disabled and the author of Disability and Art History and The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art. She stresses that “people with disabilities can be considered a social group that is quite diverse” and that “shares exclusion from certain public spaces and from mainstream attitudes”. But without question, “the work of artists with disabilities should be a part of any project that aims to be inclusive”.

If we listen to their voices, AI can change the lives of artists with disabilities. But these tools alone won’t create a progressive future – we have to be willing to change alongside this too.