A hip-hop artist who incorporates sign language into his shows, an award-winning deaf dancer, and a visual and tactile sound system: The first-ever Northwest Deaf Arts Festival kicks off this Saturday, June 16, and it's going to be a high-tech, multi-disciplinary show. The new event, centered on accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) community, takes place at Mississippi Studios and features artists including Sean Forbes (a hip-hop artist who incorporates ASL into his performances), deaf poet Raymond Luczak, and award-wining deaf dancer Antoine Hunter.
Not only is it the fest’s first year, it’s also the first event of its kind in Portland history—a surprising fact, considering the more than 180,000 Oregonians who have difficulty hearing.
The event is organized by CymaSpace, a local, volunteer-based arts and technology incubator. The nonprofit is dedicated to making cultural events more accessible to the DHH community by translating sound into visual and tactile experiences.
One example of the high-tech fun features you’ll see is the “Cymatic Star,” a wall-sized, star-shaped arrangement of LED lights that glow in waves corresponding to whatever sounds are present. The low frequencies are represented by shades of blue, and the highs by reds.
“I wanted to use the electromagnetic spectrum to overlay where sound frequency and visual light frequency correspond,” explains Myles de Bastion, CymaSpace’s founder and lead technology developer (he'll also perform at the event). “You can’t really buy this stuff.”
De Bastion plans to provide tactile props—benches and vests that vibrate with the rhythm of the music—at the event as well. They’re kind of like wearable/sit-on-able, hypersensitive, vibrating video game controllers, designed to replicate the experience of standing directly next to a speaker or subwoofer at full volume.
Open-captioning technology, with all spoken and signed words displayed in real-time on a screen for all to see, will accompany the performances as well. This is newer technology for CymaSpace, and de Bastian is excited about it.
“We are strong proponents of open-source hardware and software,” he says. “All of our technology has been developed with the aim of freely sharing the software so that others may benefit from it and in turn lower the costs/barriers that might prevent event organizers from making their events accessible.”
Though the event is geared toward the DHH community, de Bastion stresses that the hearing community is welcome as well. In fact, bringing the two communities together is one of his goals.
“It’s about nurturing the two communities,” he says. “It’s so rare for events to bring both deaf and hearing communities together. But there is value in both different outlooks on life.”
2 p.m. (family matinee) and 5 p.m. (21+) Sat, June 16, Mississippi Studios, $25–100