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Thursday, 28 January 2016

Making Space for Accessible Art

Yesterday I was delighted to welcome Blind Creations artist David Johnson back to Royal Holloway. David’s large-scale outdoor installation ‘Too Big to Feel’, which was commissioned for the Blind Creations conference held at Royal Holloway in June 2015, is now part of the College’s Art Collections.

This picture shows 'Too Big to Feel' by David Johnson on the grassy slope below the hockey pitch. The piece is made up of 18 concrete domes, 17 of which are painted white, and 1 of which is red. They look like giant Braille dots and spell out 'Seeing Red' in grade 2 (contracted) Braille. 

Yesterday David presented his work in the context of the College’s ‘Making Space for Art’ lecture series.

This picture shows David during his talk. He is standing in front of a screen on which we are shown an image of 'Too Big to Feel' in its first location in front of the Founder's Building. (Photo by Ruth Hemus)

I particularly like the way that ‘Too Big to Feel’ celebrates the creative potential of Braille whilst at the same time raising questions about the opacity of language and its meanings more generally. By making Braille both the subject and the medium of his work, David invites non-blind people to engage imaginatively with the techniques blind people use to read and write. Rather than being the reserve of a few, Braille becomes visible to, and touchable by, everyone. Blindness’s creative potential is thus celebrated and assistive technologies are consequently transformed into exciting and innovative ways of questioning our relationship with language and the senses.

This picture shows another of David’s Braille creations,  ‘Eggs’. Three casts of egg boxes sit on a table. Inside each nestle concrete eggs. The eggs are arranged to spell out 'egg' in grade 2 Braille. (Photo by Ruth Hemus)

David uses the screen-reading software JAWS to access his computer. By hooking his laptop up to the seminar room’s projector, we were able to see images of David’s works whilst at the same time hearing the computer’s audio prompts to him. This had the unintended consequence of demonstrating to non-blind members of the audience how screen reading technology works whilst simultaneously revealing its artistic potential. As he does with Braille, David uses JAWS in his artistic creations. His work ‘Rosie One’ is an audio installation in which the screen-reader’s response to a word document reveals both the arbitrary nature of language and the human brain’s ability to jump between two different interpretations of the same sounds.

You can listen to the whole of David's talk, including 'Rosie One' by clicking here.

As well as using various kinds of assistive technology in his work, David also works with friends and assistants in the creation of his art works.  David’s blindness means that there are times when he has to trust other people to make choices for him, particularly when he wants to include colour in his work.

This picture shows 'Citrus Corners': several black triangles, which have been made from casts of the inside of plastic bags, sit on a black perspex square on a table. The tips of these 'corners' have been painted yellow. David explained the process of communication involved when his assistant helps him decide which shade of yellow to use. (Photo by Ruth Hemus)

David’s collaborative art practices challenge the received notions that dependency on others is a sign of weakness, and that disabled people should strive for independence. During his talk, David asked each member to the audience to create a human figure out of plasticine.  At the end of the talk, he asked us to place these figures in a circle, facing inwards. The resulting artwork was a celebration of collaboration: on their own each figure meant nothing, but together they stood for the creative power of the group.

This picture shows the finished collaborate artwork. Fifteen green plasticine figures of various shapes and sizes stand or sit on a table. They are in a large circle and are all facing inwards, towards each other. (Photo by Ruth Hemus)

I am delighted that as a result of Blind Creations, my collaboration with David will continue. In February we travel to Boston to take part in a panel at the 2016 Transcultural Exchange Conference and David has also secured Arts Council funding to visit Art beyond Sight in New York and to present a pop-up exhibition in Montreal. We also hope to invite him back to campus later in the year to run more collaborative art-making workshops with our students.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

My cataract operation 2: what I see now

This time last week I was awaiting the first of two cataract operations. On Friday, medics removed a dense cataract from my right eye. Thanks to the magic of general anaesthetic, I was blissfully unaware of the whole procedure. And since I removed the bandages on Saturday morning, I have of course been trying to work out what difference this operation has made to my vision.

For the first 48 hours or so after the op I couldn't see much of anything out of my right eye. It felt very sensitive to light and I kept it closed most of the time. When I did open it for a few moments, everything was very blurry. But I could tell that the colour of the light I could see had changed. Instead of seeing everything through tinges of yellow and brown, I could definitely see white and blue again.

A few days later I am managing to keep my eye open most of the time and I have noticed three interesting things. Firstly, and not unexpectedly, my glasses no longer work. Because the new plastic lens is not exactly the same shape as the one that was destroyed along with the cataract, I'll need to get a new prescription. Apparently this will only happen around 8 weeks after the second operation. So I reckon I'm looking at at least three months of blurry. At the moment this isn't too much of an issue. I got used to life without my glasses when I broke them in November and I do my reading with my left eye so for now if I close my right eye I can more or less see as well (or as badly) as before my operation. This will of course change after the second op.

Secondly, things start getting very weird when I use both eyes for reading. This afternoon I was reading a text (appropriately enough, Kate Tunstall's translation of Diderot's Letter on the Blind) using the kindle app on my iphone:

This photo shows some text in the kindle app on my iphone. The text is enlarged so that there are 20 words on the screen. The words are white against a black background and towards the top of the screen a small blue footnote number (52) is visible. 

When I look at this screen with my right eye closed, the text is yellow and the footnote number is invisible. But if I use both my new cataract-free eye and my old cataract-obscured one, something very odd happens: two screens appear next to each other. The one on the right is the one I was looking at before. On the one on the left, the text is dazzlingly white and the footnote number is a beautiful, incandescent blue. It is pretty disorienting to see the same thing in two different ways. But it is also a useful way of measuring the difference the cataract operations will eventually make.

When I'm not reading, I've given up using my now redundant glasses. So, thirdly, everything is a lot more blurry than it was. But it is also much more colourful. I've discovered that my favourite grey cardigan is actually a lovely shade of navy blue and that I own a set of very brightly coloured plastic bowls. I'm still getting used to my new psychedelic world. I hope this post will give my friends a sense of how it is that at the moment my vision is both better and worse than it was before.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

My cataract operation

As Kate Tunstall shows in the Prologue to her important essay 'Blindness and Enlightenment' (2011), the cataract operation, or, more precisely, its triumphant post-operative illumination, is a familiar trope in the narrative of blindness. Three hundred years ago it was the focus of sustained philosophical interest; today it is used by international charities to construct sentimental stories which encourage western generosity. The operation to remove cataracts is a simple one; it takes around 20 minutes and is usually considered low risk, almost always resulting in improved vision. So why do I have such distinctly mixed feelings about this Friday's operation to remove a cataract from my right eye?

Cataracts are the most common cause of vision problems in people over forty. Their removal is a moment of joy and revelation as the world's blurriness is corrected and colours become vibrant once again. 'It is like being a child in a sweet shop' someone once told me. But my case is a little different. Even if my cataract operations go smoothly (something which is far from certain because of the shape and size of my eyes), I will still be registered blind. My underlying condition - retinal coloboma - won't change. What will happen is that I stop seeing the world as I do now. Instead I might see things more clearly, more colourfully, or I might no longer see anything at all.

For most people, the decision to have a cataract operation is a straightforward one driven by the understandable (although ocularnormative) desire to see as well as possible. But my decision to finally allow surgeons to remove the dense disks which cover both my eyes is more complicated. My ophthalmologist first noticed my cataracts 20 years ago and they have been growing, and thickening, ever since. They now prevent me from distinguishing colours and make reading difficult, even with my special glasses and my beloved kindle. I have always used sight where I can but increasingly I am finding that the flawed sight I have is more of a hindrance than a help. Sometimes I think that it would be easier to have no sight at all than to have this unpredictable, fallible sight which I can no longer rely on. And I have noticed that most people feel more comfortable relating to a totally blind person than to one who seems to be able to see some things but not others. Since I started properly exploring my blindness four years ago, I have learnt braille, become a more confident white cane user and discovered the pleasure and potential of the audio book. If the operations don't work, I am confident that I will be happy to live, love and work as a totally blind person.

I know that most of my friends and family are hoping that these forthcoming operations will lead to a marked improvement in my sight. I know that they are hoping for a cure of sorts and I know that they will be upset if I end up blinder than ever. I know that despite my best efforts, most people still think that sight is better than no sight, and that partial blindness is better than total blindness. And on one level they are right. We live in an ocularcentric world in which life is certainly less complicated with sight than without it. Of course I am hoping for some improvement in what I see. Believing that blindness is not a tragedy does not stop me from wanting to be able to read as I could five years ago. The fact that I have had some sight makes it impossible for me not to remember that I used to be able to see much better than I can now. But if the operations lead to total blindness - which is a distinct possibility - I don't think I'll be as upset as those around me.

Any operation performed under general anaesthetic is a little bit scary so whatever the outcome, I am looking forward to several days of enforced bed-rest, accompanied by Radio Four, my new audio book reading machine, regular cups of tea and copious amounts of flowers and chocolates.