Meeting Blindness: When visual art enters the life-worlds of blind people

zaterdag 27 april 2019

Note: This is a slightly revised version of an essay I wrote as a foreword to Kristina’s Steinbock’s catalogue Selected Works on Blindness: Solo Exhibition at Roundtower, Copenhagen November 2018. Kristina Steinbock is a visual artist from Denmark who has long been fascinated by the sensory world of blind people. She describes herself as ‘a voyeur with a flair for the aesthetic and staged universe’.

Sinful seers and beggars: the fear of blindness

Like every disability or reality that people fear, blindness has been burdened with prejudices, clichés and stereotypical imagery from times immemorial. In our Western society, where vision has equalled knowledge and faith since antiquity, blindness was tantamount to the pitiful darkness of ignorance. In the Bible, for instance, the main function of the blind was to symbolize unbelief. In general, the loss of a person’s eyesight was considered to be the worst fate imaginable or the punishment for hidden sins, even if such a miserable life in the dark was compensated by an exceptional talent. This is what we may learn, for example, from the tragic myth of Tiresias who was blinded after peeping at Athena in her bath, but to whom the merciful goddess also granted the ability to see the future. Hopefully, poor Tiresias found some comfort when he thus foresaw that, thousands of years later, new generations of blind people would stand up and speak for ourselves, as if to finally contradict all the nonsense that has been projected onto us. Perhaps Tiresias would have been even more pleased when leafing through the present catalogue of Kristina Steinbock’s artwork, which demonstrates that a visual artist can also make a great effort to put all preconceived notions aside and engage with blindness as a truly lived experience.

A medical problem or a mode of being?

Indeed, much has changed since the days of Ancient Greek seers and the blind beggars from scripture. Having gone blind at the age of five in the late 1980s, I was among the first group of visually impaired youngsters in Belgium who got the opportunity to go to a regular school. Around the same period, similar programs to stimulate the social integration of the blind were being set up in most parts of Europe, Canada and the United States. As a consequence, our active participation in social life has notably increased over the last decades. A crucial impetus for this development also came from new technologies such as computers equipped with Braille displays, magnifying software and speech synthesizers, which ensured that we could partake equally in the digital revolution. The result is that, nowadays, more visually impaired people than ever before are able to study and choose the job of their preference (in contrast to the limited number of typical ‘blind employments’ from the past like masseur or piano tuner), to travel, to do all kinds of sports or to visit cultural events - in short, to lead fulfilling lives.

However, in spite of this overall positive trend towards inclusion, the dream of a society where bodily and mental diversity is broadly accepted is far from having been realized. Blind and partially sighted people still frequently run up against practical barriers, discriminatory regulations and – the most fundamental problem of all – walls of incomprehension. Many of us will recognize the painful encounter which Sören, one of the blind participants in Kristina’s video piece ‘Space before Sleep’, has with a lady in a bus who asked him: ‘Isn’t it awful to be blind?’ And as Sören sadly comments: ‘I do understand her feelings, but it is quite violent to be attacked like that, especially if you are having a bad day.’ Yes, we understand this lady’s anxiety, as she basically reiterates the old, deeply ingrained prejudices regarding blindness. True, in the twenty-first century, most people won’t interpret blindness as a divine punishment any more, but to the ill-informed, sightlessness still represents the horrifying nightmare of total isolation and loss of control.

This is because modern citizens, so deeply obsessed with individual autonomy and productivity, are haunted by their own, self-created chimaera of bodily perfection. Put differently, most people tend to conceive of their body (and mind) as an adjustable tool which should allow them to become successful and productive members of society. Accordingly, their body always has to be fit, healthy, attractive and completely functional, so whenever the darn thing fails – and it does fail all the time! – they pin all their hopes on medicine, cosmetics, diets or assistive aids to fix it. It is quite logical, then, that disabilities or chronic illnesses exemplify the worst-case scenario of permanent failure and dependence on others. ‘Don’t you wish doctors would be able to restore your eyesight one day?’ is another very revealing question that strangers often ask me. It should not come as a surprise, in view of the predominant belief in the body’s malleability. But I always have to disappoint them and say: ‘No, not at all! Because I don’t see my blindness as the medical problem it appears to be for you.’

Because, for blind people like Sören and me, blindness is just a part of who we are. It colours our daily activities and the spaces we inhabit, just as any other aspect of our identity constantly does, such as our gender, sexual orientation, cultural or social background. Blindness is a mode of being, an alternative way of perceiving and interacting with the world. Yet how can we disclose our experiences to others?

Visual art and blind phenomenology

At first, it may seem almost impossible for a sighted person to enter a life-world that is so different, but as a writer I have always strongly believed in the power of art as an intersubjective mediator. All the works included in this catalogue, which all arose from Kristina’s close collaboration with blind people, will serve as eloquent examples of what I mean. Because these installations, audio plays and video pieces enable the audience to see, hear, smell and feel the sensuous realities of the blind participants. Let us return to Sören who, in ‘Space before Sleep’, rejects the biblical cliché of the ignorant blind and describes his own form of spirituality as ‘a fully sensory experience, instead of believing only’. While the video shows Sören discovering a church haptically, dancing and whistling in the crypt underneath, his voiceover goes on to explain: ‘I often walk or run to explore the world, a spiritual way of concurring or making it mine.’ The viewer is gradually drawn into Sören’s subjective perspective, growing more familiar with the blind man’s sensory practices and habits.

This is the outcome of what I would call Kristina’s phenomenological approach: by temporarily bracketing her own sightedness, so to speak, the artist tries to open up herself to how the world presents itself to a blind person’s consciousness. No doubt this is a very delicate exercise, which can only yield its fruits after long-standing, close contacts with the blind subjects she works with. This phenomenological approach is also clearly reflected in the composition of the works. That is to say, not only do Kristina’s blind informants become active participants or even actors within the performances; the detailed phenomenological descriptions they provide are also integrated into various pieces, for example by means of a voiceover. But the varied, sensuous worlds of the blind even inform the use of expressive means at a more intrinsic level. Take the second story from ‘Space before Sleep’: while Nina is sharing intimate secrets with us about her sexual pleasures and uncertainties, the camera eye is turned into an eroticizing touch that is almost stroking the young woman’s wet hair and skin, or the textile of her alluring underwear and dress.

Nonetheless, one may wonder whether blind phenomenology and the visual media Kristina tends to rely on do not exclude each other. After all, a blind person’s lived reality may be very rich in sensory terms, but in their heads it will always remain pitch dark, right? No! That is the last idée fixe the sighted urgently need to dispense with. First of all, quite a lot of the people who are officially said to be ‘legally blind’, still have some vision left; depending on the disease, they might see silhouettes, fragmentary shapes or smudgy colors. For others like me, who have lost their eyesight completely, it is often the case that they keep on thinking very visually. Even after thirty years of physical blindness, spontaneous images have never ceased to pop up in my mind; wherever I am or whoever I meet, all my experiences evoke mental pictures without any conscious effort from my side.

But even when, with blindness, all visual memories gradually slip away – as happened to John Hull according to his famous autobiography Touching the Rock – or when someone has been blind from birth, then it should still be taken into account that this person has grown up within a visual culture. We, as blind people, are very much aware of being surrounded by the sighted, of being looked at and being judged on our appearance. This awareness influences the way we move and we interact with others, the way we speak and execute our daily tasks so as not to deviate too much from what the sighted majority expects. It might play a key part in the game of seduction as well, as Nina recalls from an online dating session with K, for whom she was slowly stripping naked: ‘He noticed that I tend to fidget a lot (bite my lips, wiggle my hands around, and rock back and forth) when I'm particularly aroused, which I think is indicative of my brain struggling with how to utilize the arousal and turn it into something vividly sexual, especially when someone else is watching.’

Subverting the rules of normalcy

Kristina’s artwork thus subtly disrupts many old stereotypes surrounding blindness, by foregrounding the sensory and social practices that make up everyday life with a visual impairment. In doing so, her work breaks long-lasting taboos. The participants can freely discuss emotive themes like sexual desire and parenthood, which have long since been unmentionable in relation to disability (with the notorious exception of eugenic discourse). Lymke, for example, the third storyteller in ‘Space before Sleep’, proudly introduces herself as ‘a woman, someone’s wife, somebody’s judo opponent and someone’s mother’. All such unique stories remind us, for instance, of the fact that no-one is just blind, but that a person’s visual impairment needs to be understood within the context of the many roles they adopt. Meanwhile, as an artist, Kristina acknowledges the immense richness these people have to offer, not in spite of their blindness but thanks to it. Sure enough, being blind in a resolutely sight-oriented society is not always easy or fun. Yet, accounts like the ones we have heard from Sören, Nina and Lymke prove that this uncommon experience incessantly feeds their resilience and creativity.

Living with a disability is comparable to making art in the sense that they both force us to subvert collective rules, to shake off stifling norms and reinvent our means of expression time and again. Similarly, they both resist the illusory myth of the body’s malleability, by uncovering the unpredictable fragility of the human condition. In short, it is a very hopeful sign whenever, like in this catalogue, disability and authentic art meet.

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Eerst zien, dan geloven?: interview over dans en inclusie

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