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Sensory overload

Emma Emma | 16:55 UK time, Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Dean dancing machine


Unlimited, a set of 29 disability related cultural Olympiad commissions, has taken over the Southbank Centre for the duration of the Paralympic Games. I'm visiting the most expensive and ambitious of all these projects, Dean Rodney Singers, which received £100,000 of funding from unlimited and a further £100,000 from other sources.

My surreal journey to the fourth floor in the Royal Festival Hall's famous singing lift, is space preparation for the explosion of sound and light which greets me on entering the space ordinarily occupied by the venue's Blue Bar.

Inside the vast interactive installation, my senses are overwhelmed by a wall of music, 80s computer arcade sounds, and flashing lights. Then suddenly, the recorded voice of a young man, Dean Rodney, can be heard over the din.

"Hey, how's it going," he booms. "Welcome to my world!"

Dean Rodney


Dean is a 23-year-old musician with autism. The "world" he mentions, is a fantasy universe which came to him in a dream when he was just 18.

In that famous dream, the Dean Rodney Singers universe is made up of seven dimensions and is brought to life by a global band of disabled and non-disabled musicians, dancers and singers, from seven different countries.

In the first room of the installation, we are given an opportunity to choose which of the seven dimensions to join. The UK Dimension is called Domino. Dean's dream was so specific, that it even included a cast of characters for each dimension.

Pick your dimention installation


Over the past year or so, Dean has been turning his dream of creating a global band in to a reality. He has travelled to the six non-UK countries represented in that famous dream, Brazil, Croatia, South Africa, Germany, China and Japan, and explained his vision to them. Again, the nature of his autism meant that Dean was ultra-specific about how many musicians, dancers and singers should be involved from each country. Anything between eight and 10 of course, with 72 participants altogether, creating 23 songs and videos.

Preferred dimension chosen, the next step in this interactive journey is to produce a music track. There are three arcade-style games to play with, all with very simple interfaces. I try my hand at the virtual turntable, which is a touchscreen device.

Entrance to installation


Technology was the key to making this project happen. Each participant from all the countries, disabled or not, received a tablet computer as payment for their work. Loaded on there were all the applications they would need to create their piece of the jigsaw. Producers of the project, Heart n Soul, tried to introduce methods like computer software, but found that the tablets were by far the most accessible way for everyone involved to do their bit. The results were uploaded to various mainstream music and video sharing services, where they still live.

Becky Bell from Heart n Soul believes that using the tablet computers has helped to unlock creativity in a number of the learning disabled people they work with. "One guy, Wayne Taylor, has produced 80 tracks on his iPad since the project began. He is unstoppable."

In The next part of the installation, dean's Dancing Machine, we are encouraged to create a dance video.

My faltering movements are tracked using sensors and my picture appears on screen, superimposed with the characters from my chosen dimension. Again, there is the option to feed in to the main Dean Rodney Singers project by uploading the result to YouTube.

Virtual turntable

The final room introduces us to each member of Dean's global band and to the characters in each of the seven dimensions. It is here we get a real insight into the atypical mind of a highly creative person with autism and at the same time, witness an entirely inclusive project at work.

As I come out in to the open again, slightly bewildered and with an extreme case of sensory overload, I am keen to hear what others made of the experience. Alan from Birmingham was positive about the lack of restraint shown by the piece.

"It totally encapsulates you as an experience, and that's even before you get to the interactives. They [the interactive elements] work and they are really easy to use. I made two songs, one with a synth and one with a vocoder."

Helen and 10-year-old Caitlin were buzzing having created and uploaded a dance video. They were surprised to find out afterwards that the installation had been masterminded by a person with a learning disability.

After it leaves the Royal Festival Hall, it is hoped that Dean Rodney Singers installation will visit each of the seven countries which took part, giving the disabled and non-disabled musicians a chance to take a highly stimulating trip through Dean's unique mind.


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