Rethinking Art and Accessibility
November 19, 2020
Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies, Digital Arts and Humanities theme
Creative and Critical Studies
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Visiting Graduate Student (Computational Media Studies), University of Calgary, 2018-19
Visiting Graduate Student (Philosophy and Art), Luzern University, Switzerland, 2018
PhD (Art Studies), University of Tehran, 2018
Master of Arts (Art Studies), Central Tehran, 2014
Bachelor of Arts, (Industrial Design), Iran University of Science and Technology, 2010
“As a doctoral student, I feel that my research and work should not only have a significant original contribution to knowledge, but it should also be unique.”
A VISUAL ARTIST, DESIGNER AND INSTRUCTOR, Ahlam Bavi’s work focuses on different design approaches including universal, inclusive and accessible design.
Originally from Tehran, Iran, Bavi first came to Canada in 2018 as a visiting graduate student in the University of Calgary’s visual art and computational media design program. After completing her time there, Bavi began searching for a doctoral program that would allow her to make connections between ideas and concepts across different disciplinary boundaries while also utilizing her vast expertise in digital design, visual art and art history.
“The digital art and humanities theme was exactly what I was looking for to continue my education,” she explains about UBCO’s interdisciplinary graduate studies (IGS) program. “The program has resources that will help me develop my research, which focuses on the remediation of artwork to make them more accessible for audiences.”
Remediation happens when the content of a work has been borrowed and is presented in new ways through the use of technology. For instance, Bavi is currently working with the SpokenWeb research team to apply 3D-printing technologies and other methods to sound recordings in the SpokenWeb archives. The result will be a series of touchable sonic sculptures.
“As a doctoral student, I feel that my research and work should not only have a significant original contribution to knowledge, but it should also be unique,” explains Bavi. “Thanks to a variety of first-year projects in my program, I was able to add new and unique points of view to my research.”
In addition to her work in the SpokenWeb project, Bavi is exploring audio, media and poetry studies—with particular focus on makerspace methods—in the AMP Lab, a research lab run by Associate Professor Karis Shearer.
As an AMP Lab Fellow, Bavi works with Shearer and other researchers to develop a full suite of self-paced micro-credentials for “Digital Badges” through the platform Badgr. Micro-credentials allow students, research assistants and community partners to gain skills in the digital humanities, media, and technology while also participating in large collaborative research projects.
Another lab project that Bavi has been fortunate to work on involves her PhD supervisor, Hussein Keshani; the project aims to collaborate with museums to explore how Islamic art collections can be made more accessible to low-vision visitors. Bavi has already developed a tactile toolkit that will serve as a starting point to address accessibility in museums. She is also working with Keshani on his 3D modelling project at the Digital Art History Research Collective (DARC) Lab—a unique opportunity given Keshani’s similar interdisciplinary background and his expertise in art history, architecture and design.
“I’m confident these research opportunities have given me a solid foundation for my future career in digital humanities,” Bavi says.
Shearer notes that Bavi is precisely the type of doctoral student the program had hoped to recruit to its first digital arts and humanities IGS theme cohort.
“As an award-winning digital artist with a background in industrial design and makerspace methods, and a deep grounding in critical theory, Ahlam brings both industry and academic experience to the program,” explains Shearer.
For Bavi, the nature of UBCO’s interdisciplinary program means she now has many more options to continue her research.
“The IGS program has allowed me to make connections between ideas and concepts across different disciplinary boundaries. Studying several topics thematically was one of the best ways to bring together my different ideas, resulting in more meaningful learning for my final PhD research.”
ACCESSIBILITY IN ART
Bavi originally began her studies in industrial design school, where she learned principles of designing for the masses.
But after an accident led Bavi to experience a temporary disability requiring her to use an assistive device for walking, she began thinking about accessibility in art and the extent to which design for able-bodied people outweighs design for people with physical disabilities. This issue has now influenced Bavi’s current doctoral research.
“With or without a disability, there are a number of barriers in the places where we live, work, learn and play. I realized that not all visual design is created equally for everyone. I want to work to change that and find more accessible ways of sharing art in our world.”
In her work with museums, Bavi is using digital technology to remediate the existing artwork into new content so it is more accessible for everyone. Remediation in design may include tactile 3D-printed reliefs of calligraphy and paintings, as well as tactile graphics and images, 3D-printed models and interactive descriptive audio.
“I’ve designed a 3D toolkit that incorporates a language of symbols to help low-vision people better comprehend 2D representations of 3D objects.”
The toolkit has the potential to provide tactile, verbal and oral information to make everything in a museum space more accessible, such as furniture, a display or even a puzzle piece in a game.
Bavi plans to focus her dissertation on the initial collaboration and finding opportunities to extend it if it proves successful. She emphasizes that museums and art galleries have come a long way in accommodating differently-abled guests and facilitating their experience of art.
“For example, wheelchair access has improved and signing tours are commonly offered for the deaf. Strategies for low-vision visitors, such as the development of tactile replicas of original artworks, have also been introduced.”
She goes on to explain that these improvements remain underdeveloped and there is much room for improvement, particularly when it comes to Islamic art collections.
“People who are blind or partially-sighted must rely on their other senses, like touch, to experience the world around them.”
Bavi hopes that her research might one day put dozens of accessible digital versions of artwork into workspaces, galleries and museums.
“It would be my big dream to find a way to develop this accessible and inclusive process, from artwork to technology, and even products.”