Bodies in motion

Animator Simon McKeown's exhibition confronts conceptions of the body and the way disabilities are viewed

January 29, 2009

An IT expert at the University of Teesside is behind an exhibition that challenges notions of human imperfections, ranging from missing limbs to restricted growth.

Simon McKeown, reader in Teesside's School of Computing, is one of the UK's most experienced 3D animators, with 20 years' experience in the field. He has used the film technology that transformed actor Andy Serkis into the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films to capture the movement of people with disabilities.

The film-based exhibition, Motion Disabled, opens this week. It has been funded by a £30,000 grant from the Wellcome Trust and will run at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery until 25 April, followed by other venues. Mr McKeown will also present and discuss it at De Montfort University's Cultural Exchanges conference on 3 March.

Eight people with conditions including spina bifida, cerebral palsy and deformities induced by thalidomide wore black suits with reflectors on their joints, and were filmed by high-speed infrared digital cameras. Computers turned these data into a 3D record of how they moved. Mr McKeown, who has brittle bones, was a participant.

"This has allowed me to ask questions such as, do we value difference? How do disabled people's bodies fit into current notions of normality? Is physical diversity about to become virtual?" Mr McKeown said.

He believes that in an era of genetic breakthroughs and designer babies, we could see the eradication of many disabilities. He could be creating a record of differences for generations that may never see them in the flesh, but thinks such a world would be one of regrettable blandness.

"I think the different body forms we have here are amazing and what we have captured is unique. There is an intrinsic beauty and value in these motions," he said.

Initially, the avatars had clearly defined faces, but Mr McKeown found that people tended to focus on them rather than the movement, so he simplified the features.

"Most who are not disabled assume it must be terrible. For some it is, but for many it's part of their identity."

None of the individuals featured would change a thing, including Richard Hardesty, who lost his leg in a car accident. "He's a crazy mountain biker. I asked him if he'd like his leg back, and he said: 'No, it's who I am.'"

Another is Frank Letch, born without arms, who brought up five children after the death of his wife. He can peel potatoes, write, type and change nappies using his feet.

Mr McKeown said: "Generally, disabled people are disabled only because they're in an environment that doesn't allow them to function."

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