DYCP Award

Amazingly, somehow I’ve gotten one of the coveted DYCP grants from Arts Council England! I’m really pleased as this almost sorts out the rest of my year, and takes away a lot of question marks about what I will be doing next.

The grant is going to allow me to spend a few months developing my skills and knowledge on accessible design for web and games, as well as adapting my practice to Multiple Sclerosis.

The problem

In 2022 I acquired new disabilities impacting my vision, mobility, and cognition, and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. At the height of my MS attacks I was not able to play the fringe indie games that used to be the centre of gravity of my practice, because they tend not to have built in text-to-speech or voice acting. Real-world art spaces are now much harder for me to access, because in addition to mobility problems, MS causes severe fatigue, and the disease modifying treatment suppresses my immune system.

On top of that, the visual arts sector is extremely chaotic, perhaps even moreso than indie games festivals. As an artist in that space, you are often having to roll with the punches, pick up the slack, and pull a few all-nighters to make things happen at short notice. Frankly, doing that kind of thing when you have MS is a great way to get permanent brain damage. One thing I have going for me is an existing connection to online digital spaces – doubling down on that, and really investing in online culture, seems like the best way to protect my health while staying creative.

However, the digital arts world as a whole seems to be covered in a foul stink, as a lot of artists whom I used to admire have gleefully gotten their hands dirty in the NFT bubble. I generally try to turn this kind of feeling of frustration or disgust into a positive, by identifying what I want to turn my attention towards in the process of turning away from the thing I dislike. The low-tech web and small internet has been a huge source of inspiration and solace, and I was excited to learn some new skills in that area. This too became inaccessible to me during the months when my eyes were not working properly – I need to create working practices that will allow me to nourish this interest even when MS switches things up on me.

There are also a bunch of things making my work less accessible to others than it could be – for example, the Interactive Portraits project is fairly exclusionary to visually-impaired people because of the 8-bit Pico-8 font, while a lot of my written work suffers due to my irritating proclivity to become sesquipedalian when left unsupervised. It would be nice to have some sort of a handle on how to balance the creative joy of mess and ambiguity with the inclusive benefits of universal design.

The plan

I aim to spend time improving my skills by studying accessible web design and game design, and building relationships with people who have valuable perspectives on this issue. I also aim to make my practice more accessible to collaborators, peers, and audiences, by learning how to create plain language versions of my work. Working with some mentors whom I really admire, I intend to carry out audits and revisions to four of my prior projects in order to make them more accessible.

Text-to-speech will play an important role in making my work more accessible. However, no existing text-to-speech service is suitable for my work, because they are structured by normative assumptions of binary gender. It is possible to create custom voices, but they are resource-intensive and expensive due to their use of neural networks. I therefore hope to learn how to make a custom synthetic voice the old-fashioned way, which produces robot voices that sound less natural but that could probably run on a potato. This would be based on my own voice, which is (for better and for worse) fairly androgynous, and also has the benefit of representing me as the artist rather than being something that I’m imposing on the people my non-fiction work represents.

I want to share as much of what I learn and make as possible – one way that I plan to do this is by starting a new podcast, which will include interviews with mentors as well as reflections on what I’m learning as I go along.

I’ll finish this off by giving a massive thanks to Arts Council England for giving me a chance, and to everyone who helped me to put together the application for this grant. It’s almost a year to the day since my immune system crashed into my brain stem and sent a flurry of chaos my way, and it means everything to have an opportunity to explore the perspective offered by this weird disease.


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