Tangible Conversations: Permanent records of British Sign Language

The ‘Tangible Conversations’ project is a research collaboration between Bristol Robotics Lab, University of Bristol and members of the signing deaf community. It is funded by the Brigstow Institute via Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Impact Acceleration Award (IAA). 

In Antonia Tzemanaki’s talk for the Brigstow Institute she mentioned that part of the French Deafhood Principles (The Paris Banquets, 1830s) include that “those who cannot sign are unable to use all their senses’ and are, therefore, incomplete/sign-impaired”. During my brief and limited experience with the signing deaf community I have become more convinced that signers experience an enhanced version of the world. Our heard sound and speech is lazy in comparison to the rich nuances of sign language.

The project’s remit is not to translate Sign language (SL) into English or English into SL, but to thoughtfully and respectfully engage with Deaf academics and people from the deaf community in order to establish a foundation of knowledge on the ethics surrounding SL and technology. We will identify methods of converting the movements during a conversation into static or moving images or objects, making a permanent record of a transient moment. The project partners are:

  • Dr Antonia Tzemanaki (Bristol Robotics Lab, University of Bristol), Principal Investigator of the project, whose research on hand and body tracking will be the major technological focus for this project.
  • Dr Mike Gulliver (Department of History (Historical Studies)/School of Humanities), co-Investigator, who is a trustee of the Deaf Studies Trust, experienced in the ethics of co-production with the deaf community, and who is supporting us to engage directly with deaf people.
  • Dr Martin Garrad (Bristol Robotics Lab, University of Bristol), co-Investigator, who is a soft robotics specialist.
  • Miss Lisa Cole, a multi-disciplinary collaborative artist whose practice focuses on capturing the intangible and converting it into shapes or lines so they can be accessed by different senses to the norm.

I am not deaf. I realise I am at risk of offending or insulting people who are. Please reach out to me and let me know if I have written something that should be corrected. My email is info@lisa-cole.co.uk

Sign language is more than hands

I’ve tried to learn Sign Language and it is not easy for me. I’m not a natural linguist to start with and even learning the alphabet seems like a daunting task. Added to this is the fact that Sign Language is more than hands. I’ve learnt that conversations in Sign Language are seen peripherally as signers look into each other’s faces, reading signs in expression and in posture as well as the shapes of the hands. Conversations, particularly between native signers, are rich – sometimes more rich than hearing people (even those who sign) fully appreciate

Can you capture sign language?

Our first Tangible Conversations workshop was held in a light bright room and included 4 hearing non signers, 4 hearing signers (including 2 professional interpreters) and 2 members of the signing deaf community. My role was to design creative activities that could go some way towards capturing a feeling/word expressed with non verbal communication. I threw a series of clay cylinders and invited signers and non-signers to imprint them with signs.

You can click on any of the images to open up slideshows and see bigger versions.

After the workshop, I took the clay forms home to dry before firing. I cleaned them up just a little, retaining the marks of fingers and fingernails, which I would otherwise smooth away. I felt that these tiny marks are important and give a sense of connection to the maker. They remind me of the finger rilling marks that can be seen inside thrown Roman pots. They are proof of human interaction with the material.

As the clay shrinks a little on drying I’m noticing how much energy the forms have. The negative spaces, captured in clay, have retained a sense of the muscles used to make them. When you hold one of these pots the immediate response is to try to replicate the hand shapes that made them. I invited the participants to use the pots in any way they wanted; some are on their sides. The ‘potness’ of these forms is not important but I did choose a hollow shape in the hope we would see where fingers broke through the clay.









One non-signer made a shape that represented ‘Smile/Play’ without sign language. He said he wished he had put more thought into it but I think that for a first go, without the benefits of hand shapes with meaning it is a good and useful start. It would be interesting to see what meanings and emotions all the pots evoke to non participants.



Signs into lines

The second creative activity was an attempt to make marks from signs. To achieve this I taped paper around a large drum and made finger attachments to hold Sharpies. This was not as successful as the clay, it was clearly limiting movement and signs had to be carefully chosen to work in this way.

We tried holding the paper vertically so that the signer could draw on both sides at once but that didn’t have a great result.

The most successful drawings show incredible intricate movement and energy but this was not a great experiment. I’m glad we tried it and I’d like to see how it works in paint or ink but I decided that felt tip pens would be less messy.

Next steps

The ceramic forms will be ready for their first firing soon. After that I will consider enhancing finger marks with coloured underglaze. Whatever I do to them will be subtle because I do not want to detract from the musculature of the shapes. Each form invites tactile exploration and heavy glazes will homogenise the surface, limiting the sensory experience of holding them.

I may make wooden plinths for each form, the Deaf community deserves respect and I am humbled to have been able to engage with their rich and energetic language in this way.

For more information on the project and to keep up with all updates, visit www.dexterousrobotlab.com/tangible-conversations


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