and writer Lemn Sissay MBE speaks during the Beyond Words conference (Picture: Lloyd Russell)

Poet and writer Lemn Sissay MBE speaks during the Beyond Words conference (Picture: Lloyd Russell)

More than 100 delegates including renowned artists and academics attended a conference at the University of Plymouth exploring how communication happens without the use of words.

The Beyond Words conference was part of a wider research collaboration of the same name between the University’s Institute of Education and Plymouth Music Zone.

One of eight national projects funded by the Arts Council England Research Grants programme, it has been running since May 2015 to explore how learning music helps people whose communication is non-verbal, such as those with dementia, autism and stroke.

Running over two days, the conference sought to expand on that theme and examine how those facing problems communicating with words are valued and included across communities.

And among the keynote speakers were poet and writer Lemn Sissay MBE; Norma Daykin, Professor of Arts in Health, UWE and University of Winchester; and Carol Taylor, Co-editor of Posthuman Research Practices in Education.

There was also a wide range of symposia, workshops and performances led by academics and practitioners based in Plymouth and beyond, with those sessions including:

  • A composer, musicologist and artist exploring how it feels to have dementia;
  • Academics and practitioners researching how the arts produce kindness;
  • An ethnobotanist working alongside families of children with disabilities to access creative activities in woodlands;
  • Lecturers in psychology introducing ‘contemplative seeing', reclaiming our mobile phones as cameras to celebrate the world around us;
  • A sound artist exploring what speech means for people with learning difficulties;
  • Academics using improvised choreography to research how body movements reveal gendered histories of young girls in ex-mining communities;
  • Exploring the transformative power of art objects for young survivors of child exploitation;
  • Researching how creative arts help children communicate what a safe space looks and feels like;
  • Using photographs, drawings and movements to explore journeys on the school bus;
  • A field of poppies created by prisoners expressing memories of departed loved ones;
  • Working with photographs with ex-offenders;
  • Researching the meaning of objects we keep from our children's childhood.

Professor Jocey Quinn, from the Plymouth Institute of Education, is leading the Beyond Words project. She said:

“The whole ethos of Beyond Words has been to find ways to give those who are regularly excluded from society a voice. This conference focussed on that goal, generating a creative and collaborative atmosphere that fostered a series of innovative ideas aimed at helping those people. There are millions of post-verbal people living in the UK, and we hope that developing a better understanding of how they communicate will have a positive impact on them and on society as a whole.”

Plymouth Music Zone's Executive Director Debbie Geraghty added:

"The Beyond Words conference was such a wonderful culmination of our two year Arts Council funded research project with our Plymouth University partners. It felt very fitting to have Plymouth Music Zone start and finish the conference with music sessions. It almost acted like 'musical bookends' being a perfect symbol of how we try to use the power of music to create and hold a safe space for people. The research has given a real insight into the way that music can cradle growth and creativity and encourage an immense sense of value by bringing so many different people together. In my mind, the legacy of the Beyond Words project will be in telling the world about the importance of truly understanding and connecting with those who struggle to communicate with words but, equally importantly, about the lessons they can teach us about the need to remain present and open to what we can all learn from each other."

Beyond Words

Our research partner, Plymouth Music Zone has produced a beautiful short film about the Beyond Words project, directed by award-winning film-maker Amanda Bluglass.

The Beyond Words Project research team

The Beyond Words Project research team

From left to right: Debbie Geraghty – Plymouth Music Zone Executive Director; Karen Abadie, visual artist; Professor Jocey Quinn, University of Plymouth Institute of Education; Anna Batson, Plymouth Music Zone, Training and Research Manager; Claudia Blandon, Research Assistant University of Plymouth. 
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