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Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Blindness Arts: a Disability Studies Quarterly Special Issue

Co-organizing the 2015 Blind Creations conference with Vanessa Warne was one of the highlights of my academic career. As this post written in the conference's aftermath shows, the event was memorable above all for the sense of celebratory community it created. Almost as soon as the conference was over, Vanessa and I began making plans to continue the many productive conversations which started during those few summer days in Egham. We did not want or need to produce a traditional 'conference proceedings': our wonderful audio archive means that all the papers delivered at the conference are still available. Instead we wanted to extend the legacy of Blind Creations by publishing new work which responds to questions raised by our speakers in 2015. Just over three years after the conference, we are pleased and proud to announce the publication of a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly which we have called 'Blindness Arts'. In our co-authored Introduction we explain that this title functions "in contrast with and as a companion to ‘visual arts'". This extract from later in the Introduction gives a flavour of the intersections between blindness, creativity, performance and access which the issue explores:
In the first section of our issue, we share a set of essays that explore methods for accessing cultural works. These essays take up a range of media, namely sculpture, film, theatre and the comic book, all of which have traditionally been understood as visual forms. The authors in this section challenge this overly narrow perception and share experiments with both audio description and the role of touch. As Fayen d’Evie’s and Georgina Kleege’s individual contributions to blindness studies are noted by other authors throughout our issue, it is fitting that we begin with their co-authored essay, in which they share their work on tactile interpretations of the collections at the KADIST Art Foundation, and call for new opportunities and methods for touching art. Like d’Evie and Kleege, Hannah Thompson also calls for a collaborative approach to blind access. In her essay on audio description (AD) in cinema, she engages with four films with blind protagonists in order to compare extradiegetic and intradiegetic approaches to AD and to argue for its creative potential. Louise Fryer also explores the possibilities and challenges of integrated AD by sharing her experiences as an audio describer who, in a break with traditional models of objectivity and neutrality, took an active role in a play written and performed by a blind theatre group. Arseli Dokumaci shares a video project and essay that together use an exploration of the everyday travel strategies of two disabled people to propose an AD practice shaped by crip time. The final essay in this section, Brandon Christopher’s comparative study of an audio version of a conventional comic and of Philipp Meyer’s tactile comic Life, explores audio and tactile access questions raised in other essays in this section and extends our issue’s exploration of blindness arts to include the comic book genre. Remaining attentive to questions of access, we turn in the next section to the experiences of artists and to works of art that comment on blindness, either explicitly or through their use of design elements associated with blindness. Sculptor Aaron McPeake opens this section by reflecting on the making, exhibition and reception of his works in bronze, offering insight into the role of sound and touch in experiences of them. The role of touch is also important to the art made by Florian Grond and David Johnson. In the issue’s second co-authored piece, they share their experiences as artists collaborating at a distance and they reflect on the central role of blindness in their creation of accessible art. As blind artists, both McPeake and Johnson have encountered sighted misunderstandings of their practices. In an essay that responds to the misrepresentation of blind artists and their working lives, Catalin Brylla proposes filmmaking methods that challenge supercrip narratives and make possible nuanced depictions of the creative lives of artists who are blind. In an essay on the contemporary proliferation of braille as a design element in creative works, including public art installations, made by and for sighted people, Vanessa Warne explores the appropriation of braille as a visual code. Heather Tilley offers an historical perspective on the visual depiction of blind people, analyzing nineteenth-century images of blind people reading by touch and messages about blindness that the visual record shares. A pair of essays in our final section explores different kinds of performances that have been shaped by blindness. Piet Devos analyzes two non-visual contemporary dance pieces and his experiences of them. He also discusses the practice of blind dancer Saïd Gharbi. Offering a personal reflection on her own vocal practice, Emily K. Michael moves between sacred and secular spaces to map the relationship between blindness, vocal performance and persistent myths of compensatory ability. We close the volume with a co-authored essay by Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky that uses a trans-Atlantic journey and a dialogue between the authors to explore the theme of travelling blind and the ways that blindness transforms sighted understandings of the world when it enters into dialogue with them. The presence in this final essay of a series of ‘excurses’ functions as a kind of crip time, similar to the audio description method proposed by Dokumaci. In both cases, the contents of the narrative are translated into a different format so that an ableist timeframe is replaced with space for creative reflection. 
Unlike much academic writing, this volume is free, open access and accessible. Please read, enjoy, respond and share widely.

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