Monday 28 August 2017

Art for the blind

Art is consumed through the eyes. This seems like an inescapable fact, reflected by the terminology used in the 'visual' arts.
Most attempts to make art accessible to non-sighted people thus range from ill-conceived to downright insulting. Allowing blind people to touch sculptures is a well-meaning gesture, but there is really no reason to assume a small Richard Deacon sculpture is more intricate to the touch than a well made beer bottle.
The topic becomes especially impertinent when it includes those who are legally blind. As they are often extremely aware of what they have lost or are losing, not making any distinction between the two groups can result in an 'exhibition for the blind' that includes nothing but extremely colourful paintings.

Having been confronted with these issues I understood that there must be a better way. A way that respects the experience a blind person has of the world, while also respecting the nondescript rules of the so-called visual arts.
What was essential to the matter was the difficulty in expressing the history of an object, in particular the history of its creation. A blind person can likely be made to feel the extreme precision in a specific object by Donald Judd, yet to explain why such high precision is difficult to attain would be nigh to impossible. A blind person lacks a complex and experiential understanding of fabrication.
If one understands art as object manipulation that is uncommon in daily life, even a basic encounter with art seems unlikely, irrespective of it being 'retinal'.

Three common attributes to recognise objects by through touch are size, weight and texture. Changes in size and texture are common factors in art of both past and present, but they don't necessarily mean much to a blind person. A seven meter high shuttlecock by Claes Oldenburg will feel nothing like the normal object, for example. The Venus de Milo will likewise make such a distinctly different impression on the fingertips that it could be recognised as a woman only through a very high level of abstraction.
The perception of weight on the other hand is less common in art, due to the strong emphasis on vision, but very much a part of everyday life.
Most commonly used objects have a specific range of weight it's assumed to possess and any deviation from this range is immediately noticeable when handled. At the same time, the perception of weight always follows the perception of size and texture and therefore the recognition of the object as a whole.

Thus to create a functional drinking cup with a lead-filled underside, increasing its weight to above a kilogram, can let art enter into the world view of a blind person in a meaningful way. Presented with the cup, a blind person first recognises the cup as such, before trying to lift it and realising that things are not as they appeared.
This experience is perhaps common to sighted people, whose vision betrays them often, but virtually non-existent for a blind person, to whom things are either completely unknown or extremely familiar.