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Audiovisual display about cochlear implant sounds launches at Victoria and Albert Museum

12 October 2018

An artist and composer has created Tonotopia, an audiovisual display at the V&A exploring people’s experiences hearing different sounds and music through their cochlear implants (CI).

Two years in the making, Dr Tom Tlalim collaborated with national charity Action on Hearing Loss and the V&A to explore the experiences of six CI users before and after their implant surgery, and following the pivotal moment when their devices were switched on.

The interviews are shown on a panoramic video installation, alongside objects provided by the participants, and sound artworks created by Tom in response to the fascinating stories and his research.

Tom, who also lectures at The University of Winchester, said: “Being a composer and artist, I am always interested in how the conditions of listening affect what we can and cannot hear. I became really fascinated by the fact that a piece of digital technology can literally bypass the whole mechanism of the ear and directly stimulate the hearing nerve.”

“The six participants I interviewed had such unique personal stories to tell about the ways their special hearing affects their daily lives. It was also fun (and slightly awkward) to listen and produce sounds together. Some participants brought instruments and sound-making objects. We tried vocal exercises, meditating, and listening to audio recordings on tape and vinyl, phones and online. It was interesting to discover how important language and visual images are for the participants as they learn to recognise and enjoy different sounds.

One of the CI users, Ed Rex, told me about the first time he had heard a cricket which sounded like a Morse code of beeps, but after he was told what it was by a friend, the sound kind of registered in his mind and clicked into place.”

A cochlear implant is a small digital device that provides a sensation of hearing to people who have severe to profound deafness and do not get adequate benefit from the most powerful hearing aids.

This means that they may be able to hear some sounds, but not all. Cochlear implants can never do as good a job as a natural cochlea. Users of the implants often cannot hear musical pitch or highly dynamic sounds as accurately as users of other hearing aids.

However, most adults experience an improvement in their ability to hear speech, music and everyday sounds. Action on Hearing Loss is currently funding research to improve the technology for cochlear implants and to make sure more people benefit from them.

Participant Sarah Smith, who has a cochlear implant, said the experience of working with Tom reacquainted her with her love of music.

She said: “Before I became deaf my favourite types of music involved traditional orchestral instruments and choral music. As I became deafer this became harder and I had to ‘fill in the blanks’ as I could not hear many pitches. After I got my CI it became impossible despite a great deal of dedicated practice as the CI has a squashing effect on sound.

Tom challenged me to think of four pieces I had enjoyed before the implant and four since. This was an excellent exercise. I have been able to find ways of listening to singing, and even getting the confidence to sing again, and I have found a broadening delight in rhythm for example the music of ‘Stomp’.”

Sarah added that having a CI made a huge difference to her life, allowing her to join in conversations again, and hear the small things like footsteps, waves, leaves, the cooker, train doors bleeping, and all the things that connect her to the world.

At the V&A Tom curated a space not only for CI users but for all forms of hearing. All video content and sound works have closed captions along with dedicated headphones and an iLoop device for those with hearing aids.

Tom said: “As part of the installation we designed and built a special ‘listening booth’ where sounds are played aurally, but also through direct physical vibration, so visitors can literally touch the sound. We worked with Action on Hearing Loss’ SpeakEasy campaign and with Ecophon, who provided us with acoustic solutions to reduce echo and reverb in the space.”

Leanne Manfredi, Programme Manager Co-design and Participation said: “This has been a long- term engagement project with the V&A Adult Communities team, artist and composer Tom Tlalim, and national charity Action on Hearing Loss. Working directly with users of Cochlear Implants, the display explores a wide range of listener experiences before and after receiving the implant. Co-design is central to community projects at the V&A and Tonotopia has highlighted the value of partnership working and the contribution of participants to the design process.”

Ralph Holme, Director of Research at Action on Hearing Loss, said: “Cochlear implants have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, allowing deaf adults and children to hear. But, the quality of sound they provide can be limited particularly when there is a lot of background noise or listening to music. That is why we need to fund more research into making tomorrow’s implants even better.”

The display is free and now open to the public in the V&A Museum’s Sackler Centre.

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Notes to editors

RNID is the national charity helping people living with deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss to live the life they choose. RNID enables them to take control of their lives and remove the barriers in their way, giving people support and care, developing technology and treatments, and campaigning for equality.

Artist and composer Tom Tlalim is available for interview. Participants with cochlear implants are available for interviews. Ralph Holme, Director of Research at Action on Hearing Loss is available for interview.

Video of interviews with the artist Tom is available upon request. Pictures of the display, CI users and Tom are available upon request.

To read more about Tom Tlalim’s Tonotopia project, visit www.tonotopia.org

Learn more about CIs