Abstract

This essay constitutes a methodological inquiry into standard approaches to interacting around art with people who are blind or have low vision. Critical reflection upon Verbal Imaging and close-looking techniques yields learning environments in which visitors to the museum have opportunities for increased independence, leadership roles and sense of community.


We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.—Anais Nin

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.—John Berger

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.—Pablo Picasso


Several years ago I introduced a group of visitors with low vision and blindness to an art work by the contemporary artist, Angela Bulloch. Her Firmamental Night Sky: Oculus.12 (2008) is composed of a round framework about twenty five feet in diameter, fitted with LEDs to simulate a night sky. The piece was installed in the glass dome of the Guggenheim Museum, some ninety feet above where we were standing. After I described the work, the group engaged in lively dialogue about other details and their own observations. A new visitor, who had been blind from birth, was quiet during this interaction, so eventually I turned to her and asked what she thought. She said, "I think this is the first time I've ever seen the night sky."

This exchange took place early in my development of the Mind's Eye program at the Guggenheim Museum and it affirmed the core tenet of the program: we all see, if differently. 1 Nurturing this position has afforded a tremendous opportunity to more fully enable visitors with an understanding of their abilities through critical reassessment of the tools, strategies and goals that steer the program. Addressing the physiological mechanisms of sight is critical to the choices made to generate meaningful interactions with Mind's Eye visitors. It has been equally valuable to recognize and embrace other approaches to questions of sight in order to devise different methodological tools for enriching visitor experience. 2

This essay recounts the history and development of the Mind's Eye program through a survey of how verbal imaging description and close looking — two standard teaching tools — have been reconsidered and newly exercised through the particular and complex experience of Mind's Eye visitors.

Sight, vision, seeing and looking are studied in many fields and from many points of view. In the above quotes, Anais Nin considers subjective vision, John Berger the profoundly complex relationship between seeing and knowing, and Pablo Picasso the non-privileging of sight as the primary mechanism for making and creativity. In the natural sciences, looking may be observed as the process of light passing through the eye, as distinct from seeing, which refers to the brain's processing of information; whereas fields of psychology or philosophy may approach looking and seeing from perspectives regarding subjectivity, experience or belief. Thinkers in areas of art, cultural studies and art history have delved into these matters from myriad angles, embracing ideas from across disciplines to explore the complex history, mechanisms and dimensions of looking and seeing, sight and vision. Identity, gender, race, privilege and a whole host of other factors have been considered as part and parcel of what it means to look and see. 3

In the free on-line dictionary, these terms have dual significations as derived from more physiological as well as more cognitive or experiential domains of inquiry. To look is defined as employing one's sight on, as well as turning one's attention to, a given object. To see is defined as perceiving with the eye, as well as apprehending as if with the eye. Vision is defined as the faculty of sight, but also the way that one conceives something. Sight is defined as the ability to see, but also a mental perception or consideration. In short, neither looking nor seeing, sight nor vision are solely determined by physiology. Visitors may be without certain neurological mechanisms of visual perception, but there are many other factors which determine the ability to see. 4

Verbal Imaging

Mind's Eye began as a program offering interactive tours. My approach to verbal imaging description, an essential component of tours for visitors who are partially sighted or blind, was one of the first to be revised after more fully recognizing, through interactions with the visitors, the different ways those visitors were experiencing — were seeing — works of art.

Verbal imaging descriptions are verbal constructions of visual imagery that enable visitors to create a mental picture in their mind's eye. Visual information is carefully layered with regards to subject matter, medium, color, composition and other elements to facilitate mental processing. The verbal imaging description is customarily the first interaction to take place with a group of visitors in front of a work of art, to ensure equal access to the visual information and provide ground for further exploration. Taking my cue from the wishes of a visitor, I used to approach verbal imaging descriptions with the aim of describing a work of art exactly as I — someone with 20/20 vision — saw it; to "precisely" reveal the work situated before the group. I prepared meticulously detailed descriptions, and sought to master descriptive choices and language.

One day, a different visitor said that the amount of detail in my descriptions was deterring his ability to see, preempting the power of his own imagination to configure the details of the work. I flashed on the experience of seeing the movie after reading the book, and a number of thoughts and questions filled my head. Everyone, regardless of ability, filters information through the imagination and other dimensions of personal experience; whereas my goal had been to describe the work in front of the group, I had actually been describing the work of art in front of me. Perhaps useful for some visitors, this strategy was clearly not useful for all visitors. The objective of precisely revealing the work of art revealed itself as veritably Cartesian, fraught with questions of subjectivity, including subjective vision; in a world where everyone sees differently, how was it even possible to precisely reveal the work through the lens of a single viewer? Why was my sight on the object being privileged from the start? How was presenting a work through such a model enabling visitors to recognize and develop their own abilities to see? Verbal imaging was demanding a more collaborative approach.

My solution has been to provide a carefully considered but bare-bones description of a work, followed directly by the question: "What else can I describe to help create a more complete picture?" The visitors themselves unpack the details of the description through their questions about further details and their observations about what has been described. The verbal imaging description itself becomes a platform for collective participation where everyone's imagination and abilities are given space to unfold. Depending on their comfort level, visitors are invited to initiate the verbal imaging description of a work (after a few other stops), while I join other visitors in asking questions about what we see. No one point of view is privileged over another, the idea that we all see if differently is reinforced, and visitors gain greater understanding of their own abilities. It is remarkable how much I have learned from Mind's Eye visitors about the perception and experience of art, which I not only formalize into teaching strategies, but also regularly share with sighted visitors.

Due to visitor interest, the Mind's Eye program has expanded over the years to include workshops led by an increasingly diverse range of arts practitioners including artists, scholars and educators. The lessons learned from a more collaborative approach to verbal imaging have played significant roles in the planning and development of the workshops. The following offers a few examples for consideration.

For one workshop, Mind's Eye participants worked in small groups to create mini-installations, install them wherever they wished within the multi-space education center in which we were working and present them to the other groups through verbal imaging description. As one participant commented, they had the opportunity to enact every component of a museum visit: art making, installation, description and discussion. Having devised their descriptions through faculties other than those related primarily to sight, I learned a great deal about different approaches to verbal imaging.

For another workshop, interactive artist Sofia Paraskeva presented a work-in-progress that captures body movement (via a Kinect motion sensor) and transcribes it into bright rainbow colors and sound. Mind's Eye participants moved as they felt so inspired as individuals or in groups. As one participant commented, she and the others were literally creating the work of art itself. This keen observation about the collaborative nature of the piece was distilled for the rest of the participants when the artist asked for their feedback, to be worked into the next iteration of the piece. The group was vocal, and the artist took copious notes, implemented changes and will be re-presenting the work to the group. The piece is a true collaboration between artist and Mind's Eye participants.

Perhaps most importantly, workshops are being led by Mind's Eye participants themselves (for which they are paid the same as any program facilitator). The participant conceives and leads the workshop while I offer feedback and support. Each of the participants has been "flabbergasted" by the invitation and initially reluctant to agree, and each of them has had a transformational experience (one participant who initially and vocally expressed that he "wasn't a teacher" ended up teaching classes at his studio). Other program participants have been surprised, delighted and mobilized by the creative pursuits of their fellow program participants. I use what I learn during the workshops to further develop the Mind's Eye program.

Recently, Wayde Harrison, a Mind's Eye participant with Retinitis Pigmentosa, led a photography workshop. A lifelong photographer, Harrison has altered his practice to reflect the changing nature of his sight. Viewing the world in narrow slivers of visual information, he constructs panoramic images of his subjects with dozens of photographs of their parts. Harrison began the workshop by showing and describing works by artists with low or no vision, as well as works that reflect, through their style, different ways of perceiving and constructing the world (Picasso and Cubism, Cezanne and "patches of color," De Kooning and the play between representation and abstraction, etc.). He talked about how his practice had evolved through his visual impairment, then discussed with participants ways to consider their own visual experience as sources of creativity. Each individual posed for a photo portrait and took a photo for someone else's portrait. Taken on an iPad, the photos were manipulated in Photoshop to reflect the creative impulses — the ways of seeing — of each individual participant. The photos were collectively curated by the group on a blown-up photo of the Guggenheim, taken by Harrison in 2008, and the finished work was photographed for everyone to take a copy home.

These examples demonstrate a variety of ways in which Mind's Eye interaction and programming strategies have been developed through the different optical and other layered channels of experience of the Mind's Eye visitors themselves.

Close Looking

Most museum visitors spend very little time actually looking at individual works of art. Many museum visitors are unsure about how to look at a work of art. 5 To encourage visitors to spend time in front of a work, to focus on it in a sustained fashion, to visually unpack and verbally articulate its physical and interpretive components, is to facilitate unprecedented moments of engagement and learning. A toolkit of close-looking skills is something a visitor can take out into the world, to engage independently with other works of art as well as the objects and events that make up their daily lives. Within a group, close looking also serves to create a leveled participatory environment where the artwork is the one piece of information immediately available to everyone within the group. Close looking is a method widely and creatively utilized by art education (and other) practitioners.

What role does close looking play with visitors with low vision or who are blind? When it comes to serving visitors who "cannot see," close looking as a considered teaching method tends to be dismissed. But taking the position that we all see, if differently, close looking can enhance the experience of all visitors regardless of ability.

Given the opportunity, people with low vision will get as close to an art work as possible, the proximity enabling them to make out details unclear or not visible from a distance. This is a viewing strategy regularly practiced by this audience not in spite of, but rather because of visual impairment. 6 Visitors who are blind are not as inclined to take a close look but inviting them to do so may yield positive results. Some will take the invitation, becoming mobilized by their initiative as well as their contribution to a heightened dynamic of group interaction. While close to a work, a visitor who is blind may hear comments by other visitors who are also looking closely, aiding in the initial shaping of the perception of the artwork by the visitor who is blind. The mere action of moving one's body closer to an art object and other closely observing visitors enhances the sense of interaction, communication and experience around a work of art. Who has not felt the thrill of getting physically close to an artwork?

But close looking is about more than just physical proximity to an object; the deeper goal is to unlock one's visual and perceptual sensibilities through sustained observation, whether six inches or six feet from a work. This means constructive processing of visual information.

Mind's Eye visitors are invited to describe their observations when looking closely, and that information becomes integral to the unfolding reading and discussion of the work. As with verbal imaging, the visitors play an equal role in generating visual and interpretive content and no one point of view is privileged over another. The educator ensures that visitors are thoroughly aware of the central role of their contributions by pointedly rearticulating — and asking visitors to rearticulate — their points of view within broader contextualizing discussions. The educator is a collaborator, one of a collective group of equal voices offering their knowledge and experience in the observation, consideration and analysis of a work of art. The educator is also a learner who logs what is learned from differently sighted visitors in order to formalize that learning into teaching tools for other groups.

A question regularly arises when I discuss these strategies with other people: When everyone's voice has equal weight, how does one maintain rigor with regards to the "facts" surrounding an artist or their work? As one of a collective group of voices, the educator — like everyone else in a group — brings their knowledge and experience to the table. Their contributions serve to dialog with the contributions of others, to suggest alternative ideas or readings, to coordinate the shaping of observations within contexts derived from bodies of knowledge surrounding an artist or an artwork (of course, visitors often do the same thing). The educator does not command the discussion but is skilled in organizing ideas into coherent and cohesive constructs that include information based on their knowledge of art, artists and history. The discussion becomes a weave of different observations and perspectives accommodating different visitor interests and abilities.

The Mind's Eye program initiated a first step in creating a more inclusive environment at the Guggenheim Museum. The program has generated a wide range of other access initiatives involving other departments including visitor services, security, exhibition design, website, development, curatorial and others. In a very real sense, the Mind's Eye visitors have contributed to these developments through their participation in a program that has served as a laboratory for experimentation, observation, development and tracking. The Mind's Eye visitors have served as a source for understanding that access is not just about education, but rather the participation of all constituents within an institution in critical reflection upon the specifics of their practices with regards to the needs, desires and abilities of a diverse range of audiences. In my work, there is a strong sense of things coming full circle.

I have begun experimenting with a tour for sighted visitors called "The Mind's Eye." It is based entirely in my experiences with visitors with low vision or who are blind. The tour focuses on sensitizing visitors to the many dimensions of sight, vision, looking and seeing. The goal is to offer visitors an expanded toolkit through which to observe and experience works of art. During a recent tour, a visitor clamped his hands around his head with a look of bewilderment on his face, saying that he was aware of seeing something new but could not quite explain it. I smiled and did not say a word; it's a first step.

Georgia Krantz is Senior Education Manager, Adult and Access Programs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City. She launched its Mind's Eye program for visitors with low vision or blindness in 2008. She also is a Gallery Lecturer for Adult and Academic Programs at NYC's Museum of Modern Art, is on the steering committee of the NYC Museum Access Consortium, and is Adjunct Associate Professor of Communications for graduate studies in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.

Endnotes

  1. The Mind's Eye program was launched at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in March of 2008 to serve visitors who are partially sighted, blind or deaf.
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  2. In an environment that encourages multi-modal, differentiated learning, it is of primary importance to remain cognizant of, and work actively through the many permutations and possibilities for visitor experience. Doing so has ensured not only the richest possible takeaway for Mind's Eye visitors, but also the most effective possible enhancements to program.
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  3. As a few examples from a vast literature: art historians Jonathan Crary, Amelia Jones and David Freedberg; artists Robert Irwin, Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell; early philosophers Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley; psychologists Richard Gregory and James Gibson.
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  4. As a friend who is blind always reminds me, we see through our brains, not our eyes. The eye is only one, if the primary, of our multiple senses sending information to the brain for cognitive processing. It is interesting to note that my friend does not consider himself to be blind.
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  5. I will never forget my first art history class when the professor asked me to describe the Annunciation on the screen; I was dumbfounded, realizing that I had no idea how to do that, or even what he was asking me to do. Describe what about the image, I asked myself. Where do I start? What language do I use?
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  6. In my experience, it is in educational settings where visitors are directed to sit first and listen to an educator that they are less inclined to take an initial close look.
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