Katie Goh chats with Niroshini Thambar, Kirsty Biff Nicolson, and Sonia Allori about the work they’re doing as part of the Sensory Collective project.
In the creative arts, time can be a problem. “We’re so used to everything being done very quickly: get in, work at pace, and then get out,” says Niroshini Thambar, a musician, composer and sound designer. “It runs the risk of not being as human centred as it could be.”
As a member of the Sensory Collective – a group of six artists who create work with people who face multiple barriers to accessing mainstream arts – Niroshini has been co-facilitating participatory music sessions with groups of people living with dementia in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s been an opportunity to centre the very human needs of participatory groups over prolonged periods of time.
“I don’t go into the sessions with preconceived ideas, other than maybe an overarching concept but I want the group to be into that,” explains Niroshini. “It’s about finding out what individuals are interested in and providing a selection of instruments or musical activities that can cover a range of ways to connect musically.. It’s about guiding rather than me ‘doing art’ at the participants. And that takes time to figure out.”
Part of Niroshini’s work in the Sensory Collective has been facilitating one-to-one sessions with a participant living with complex disabilities. “They are music-led sessions, exploring listening and playing with ThumbJam, an app on the iPad. I’m interested in using digital technologies to facilitate music making because not everyone plays an acoustic instrument. It’s open-ended and participant-led. I’m going in as a musician to try and create spaces based in sound that allow people to explore and take ownership of what they’re experiencing.”
Niroshini has also been collaborating with another Sensory Collective artist, Joanna Young, on her project, delivering sessions with a community group of people living with dementia in Govanhill. While Joanna leads the sessions with her movement practices, Niroshini responds with live music from her violin and facilitates moments of music making with the group members. “It’s been lovely to collaborate with other artists in the Collective,” says Niroshini. “Joanna and I share an interest and connection with nature so the sessions have been very nature-led. It’s been a very collaborative and creative exchange.”
Another Sensory Collective artist who has been collaborating with Niroshini and Joanna has been Kirsty Biff Nicolson, who has been supporting and co-creating the sessions alongside the participants and exploring voice work and songs. Kirsty Biff has worked in the arts as a performance maker, drag artist and clown, and also in care as a support worker, since they were a teenager. “I’m a queer performer; I work in cabarets and I support queer disabled artists with their practice,” they say.
Like what many artists experienced, the beginning of the pandemic saw artistic projects fall through for Kirsty Biff. “It was a stressful time,” they reflect. “I saw the Sensory Collective callout as an opportunity to bring different parts of my experience and skills together. Often when you’re working on a project you have a short timeline and a finished product at the end like a performance. It felt like there was a lot of possibility in this call out and invitation, and it felt like the right moment in my practice.”
Research and development was a priority for Kirsty Biff at the start of the Sensory Collective. “I wanted to think about working with people with complex sensory needs, maybe people I haven’t worked with before,” they explain. “I wanted to learn from people I admire who do really interesting sensory work, taking time to communicate with the people I want to work alongside and their carers, read books and try ideas. What I arrived at was that I wanted to start with playful flexible sessions that have a focus on embodiment and seeing where things go.”
As well as collaborating with Niroshini and Joanna, Kirsty Biff has been working with a group of young people at a school in Edinburgh, where most of the students are non-speaking. “I set up a space with changeable lighting, different soundscapes and objects that might be curious to a person. I spend quite a long time in the classroom and being with the children in their day-to-day classes to see what might interest them. The children are then invited into the space and I try to build and expand on what they’re excited by and what interests them.”
Kirsty Biff’s work with the Sensory Collective is supported by an access support collaborator. “I’m neurodivergent, and part of the challenge of the Sensory Collective for me has been trying to generate structure for myself. I’ve never experienced being supported like this before, I’m usually the one in this role! Having an opportunity to have my access needs met has been really significant for me and I hope this will feed into my future practice and projects.”
For Sonia Allori, an electroacoustic composer, performer, researcher and community music therapist, the beginning of the Sensory Collective also coincided with a time of reevaluation and flux in her own artistic practice.
“When the Sensory Collective first started, we were half-way through the main part of the pandemic,” Sonia says. “So, my practice had already started to change. I was working completely online and using creative captioning as a tool for connection and collaboration. I have also experienced increasing disability which has coincided with the Sensory Collective project, and which has caused me to completely re-evaluate my practice.”
Sonia has previously worked with Independent Arts Projects as a cast member of Ellie Griffiths’ Sound Symphony (2019), when she experienced sensory theatre for the first time. During her time with the Sensory Collective, Sonia did a second tour of Sound Symphony and continued to explore sensory theatre, while also doing commissioned composition, performance, research and community music therapy sessions through live creative captioning which, since 2020, has become integral to her artistic practice and continuing artistic collaborations.
The Sensory Collective has been a space for Sonia to explore new and different ways of working. “Since part-way through 2022 I have been working in person again but still with lots happening online,” she adds. The changes in Sonia’s artistic practice that coincided with the Sensory Collective has given her, like Kirsty Biff and Niroshini, time to reflect on how she wants to continue her artistic practice past the Collective finishing in the summer.
“I’ve learned to take my time! I’ve learned to rethink time and deadlines and how I work, collaborate, connect and interact,” Sonia says about her time in the Collective. “I’ve slowed everything down in so many ways and this has strengthened my thinking and about the quality of the work and what I’m trying to say and how I connect.”
Katie Goh is a writer and editor based in Edinburgh. Katie is the Non-Fiction editor at Extra Teeth and contributes to publications like the Guardian, Prospect, i-D and Huck. Katie’s writing has been shortlisted for the Kavya Prize, the Anne Brown Jassy Prize and PPA Scotland’s Young Journalist of the Year. Her essay-length book, The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters is out now with 404 Ink and her debut non-fiction book Foreign Fruit will be published by Canongate in 2025.