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Art and British Library sound archive helps stroke survivors

Stroke survivors improved their ability to communicate and use their non-dominant hands thanks to creating artwork while listening to sounds from the British Library’s archive.

The Seeing Sound project brought together people with aphasia, a language impairment caused by damage to the left side of the brain, usually as a result of a stroke.

Over five sessions between November 2020 and February 2021, the 17 participants, clients at London charity the Free Space Project and Liverpool cause The Brain Charity, created dozens of artworks in response to sounds.

The clips, released as part of the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, included the songs of chaffinches and tawny owls, streams running through woodland, the babble of seaside piers and even the mating call of a male haddock.

People with aphasia have difficulties with reading, listening, speaking and typing or writing but through the project were able to find a sense of community, as for many Seeing Sound was the first time they had spoken to other people with aphasia. 

People who took part saw huge confidence and mental health boosts and said their spoken language and ability to find words improved.

A participant said:

I have fluent spoken speech but have difficulty with word retrieval, so often felt like a fraud.

Meeting other people through Seeing Sound allowed me to have open, honest and frank discussions so I could turn a corner and face my own problems.

The groups were sent art materials in the post before the Zoom-based sessions, in which they created artworks visualising the different sounds with the support of artist and speech and language therapist Cat Andrew.

The Liverpool workshops were overseen by arts producer and mental health campaigner Angela Samata, while Daniel Regan, artistic director of Free Space Project, managed the London sessions.

Cat said making work based on what the group could hear rather than see had huge benefits for the participants. She added:

Taking the pressure away to do a ‘good’ drawing by simply responding to the sound by making marks allowed people to really immerse themselves in the experience.

The amount of work produced in a short time, and the quality, was astonishing.

Listening to sounds without language meant that language processing, which is difficult for people with aphasia, was bypassed. 

Instead, they could attune their ears and respond with their eyes and enjoy a full sensory creative experience without feeling frustrated by their language difficulties.

The incredible collection of artworks will be exhibited at Kentish Town Health Centre from May 26th until July 20th, before being displayed in Liverpool this October as part of the Fabric District Arts Festival.

The interactive exhibition will see viewers able to scan QR codes next to the multi-media works to play the Sound Archive clips on their own devices as they view the works. 

The recordings selected for the project were drawn from the British Library’s vast archive of more than 260,000 wildlife and environmental sounds. 

To view the exhibition online, go to: https://www.freespaceproject.org/seeing-sound/ 

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