Pop-Up Exhibition at MCAD Offers Architectural Tour for the Visually Impaired

Art, for the most part, makes a very basic assumption: that people experiencing it have the ability to see. But what about the visually impaired? How can they access traditionally optical media? "Listen to This Building," a new addition at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design (MCAD), offers a tactile tour of Miami's design landscape, creating an installation that's accessible to everyone.  

A collaboration among Exile Books, MCAD, and Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, the installation is believed to be the first architectural exhibit to address accessibility for people with visual impairments. 

Amanda Keeley, founder of Exile Books, was approached by Ricardo Mor, the operations and programs manager at MCAD, to discuss the possibility of a collaboration. Together, they decided to do something nontraditional and considered a host of questions along the way, Keeley says. 

"How could we have printed matter collide with architecture and design to produce something new and innovative? How could we create a dynamic installation that would encourage the audience to engage with their surroundings in a fresh way, to generate a new kind of encounter with their environment?" Keeley postis. "What if we removed the language or text and thought purely about alternative ways one can perceive a building? What would this building convey to us? If one were to remove the visual components of an exhibition, how can you use the other senses to communicate information? If we have lost our ability to see, how would a person formulate a sense of place? It was then I realized how fertile and overlooked this other sensory material is. This was the 'aha moment' when the concept fell into place."

The resulting exhibition offers an architectural tour of Miami accessible to those with visual impairments. It includes four components: tactile relief works of selected downtown buildings with wall texts in Braille, on display in the MCAD gallery; an outdoor audio piece on the steps of MCAD that shares stories about the Old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (MCAD’s home) as well as other buildings; models of downtown buildings created by students from FIU’s College of Architecture + the Arts (CARTA) at Miami Beach Urban Studios using 3-D printing; and an artists' book with the architectural narratives from the outdoor audio piece transcribed in Braille.

"Basically, we made a selection of ten historic downtown Miami buildings, each with significant architectural stories. We conducted research on every location and talked with people who spend a lot of time inhabiting a particular structure. This helped formulate a relevant narrative while providing a sense of place. Audio tracks, tactile reliefs, and the text were translated into Braille to create a whole installation as part of Exile’s pop-up residence at MCAD," she explains. 

To offer a fully tactile experience, Keeley had to work to suspend her other senses. "Coming from a visual arts background, I had to force myself to remove all visual stimuli when conceiving of every component of the exhibition. In fact, I came to think of this as a way to retrain my mind. That by restraining one of our sensory outlets, the other senses become heightened, and it alters all perception. I now experience places in such a different way by keeping these new ideas in my head."

MCAD and Exile Books are also cohosting various events during the six-week exhibition to engage the public on issues of art, architecture, and accessibility. During Downtown Art Days September 12 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m, Exile will partner with Miami Lighthouse for the Blind to produce guided, blindfolded Orientation and Mobility Tours of the Old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse’s architecture. 

"This entire process has assembled an incredible team who are dedicated to bringing 'Listen to This Building' to fruition, who share in the passion of the mission to raise awareness for a greater understanding of accessibility within our community.

"I hope people who experience 'Listen to This Building' receive the exhibition in an emphatic way as they start to comprehend how someone who is blind or visually impaired experiences architecture," Keeley explains. "The installation should spark dialog on issues of accessibility in our community and also alter how we perceive our own surroundings as we start to understand how much material and information can be gained by deploying alternative sensory awareness."

The exhibition is on display September 3 through October 17 at MCAD, 100 NE First Ave. 
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