Abstract

This essay examines the proliferation of enlarged braille as a design element in contemporary culture. Exploring the relationship between the enlargement of braille and the use of braille as a code, I explore the cultural appropriation of braille by sighted creators who are not interested in blind people's reading and writing experiences but who value instead the temporary obfuscation of written messages created for sighted people. The essay also discusses two art installations noteworthy for their tactical use of enlarged braille to critique the ocularcentrism of contemporary culture, a culture that is actively repurposing braille as a puzzle for sighted people to solve.


In Winnipeg, Canada, an unusually long metal picnic table shares messages about the value of the urban park in which it is located. Created by artists Eduardo Aquino and Karen Shanski in 2006 and titled Table of Contents, the table is covered with affirmative statements about the area's natural beauty, history, and strong sense of community. The words on the table were, the artists explain, "donated by the community" (qtd. in "Table of Contents"), whose cultural diversity is signaled by the use of different languages, including English, French, Tagalog, and Portuguese. While some phrases have been applied to the surface of the table, others are cut out of the table's surface. Interspersed between the inked and laser-cut messages are phrases written in braille, or more accurately, in a much-enlarged version of braille, in which each dot is scaled up to roughly the size of a shirt button.

Whereas the use of braille in this installation demonstrates its creators' recognition that the community's diversity is sensorial as well as cultural, unlike the inked and laser-cut messages, the embossed statements cannot be read by members of the minority group whose presence they signal. Sighted visitors, many of whom are literate in at least one of the languages used on the table, are invited to read and reflect on some of the messages, but visually disabled visitors cannot read the raised text that is intended to speak to, and also for, them. 1 Braille users are obliged instead to locate the dots, map their relation to one another, and find a resemblance between the configuration of dots on the table and those familiar to them on a much smaller scale. Sighted visitors to the park are similarly positioned as code breakers rather than readers, unable to read the braille but able to decipher its meaning by, for example, consulting one of dozens of images of braille alphabet guides available to sighted smartphone users. Encrypting the messages it shares, the enlarged braille in this public art installation makes decoding, versus reading, the shared task of blind and sighted people.

This essay examines the proliferation of enlarged braille as a design element in contemporary culture. Building on work by Georgina Kleege in her essay "Visible Braille/Invisible Blindness," it discusses creative uses of braille and explores the relationship between the enlargement of braille and the use of braille as a code. I argue that the enlargement of braille is emblematic of a cultural appropriation of braille by sighted creators who address sighted audiences and who are interested neither in blind people's reading and writing experiences nor in the perceived inscrutability of braille for sighted people but, instead, in a temporary obfuscation of written communication. Taking up a selection of creative works produced after 2005, I explore the appeal that decoding braille holds for sighted audiences and I examine the use of braille by artists to delay but not prevent comprehension. I conclude the essay with a discussion of two art installations noteworthy for their tactical use of enlarged braille to critique the ocularcentrism of contemporary culture, a culture that is, I will argue, actively repurposing braille as a pleasing puzzle for sighted people to solve.

As Kleege has noted, since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, braille has become more visible in public spaces. Her analysis of the 1999 Alabama state quarter, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, and Ann Hamilton's Venice Biennale project for 1999 reveals how braille has been used by sighted designers and artists "to refer to blindness rather than to aid blind people" ("Visible Braille" 209). Kleege explains that, in the case of contemporary art, "the use of braille serves as a visible gesture toward tolerance of difference but blind people who might derive meaning from it do not seem to be the intended audience" (209). Instead, she notes, braille is used "to send visible messages to sighted viewers" (216). In a reading of Hamilton's biennale piece, myien, which featured walls of enlarged braille versions of poems by Charles Reznikoff, Kleege critiques Hamilton's use of braille to distance written language from meaning, noting that "braille is used to suggest a coded meaning, something difficult to understand or absorb" (215). Kleege goes on to explain that Hamilton's piece, in which the visibility of the braille on the walls changed when red powder either caught on or fell from the walls' surface, imagined blindness as "something mysterious, mournful and tragic, an emblem of loss" (215). She concludes that, in the examples she explores, "braille is appropriated for sighed purposes, leaving blind people at the margins of society, out of sight and out of mind" (216).

Examples from the past ten years, from the realms of public art, television, and popular music, suggest that problems identified by Kleege concerning the illegibility of braille in contemporary culture persist and that little has changed in terms of the production of the kind of braille whose scale, often in combination with its location and medium, renders it illegible to braille literate people. What has changed, I would suggest, is the way in which braille is being offered to sighted audiences not to obscure meaning but instead for their decryption. The examples of enlarged braille that I turn to now demonstrate the extent to which sighted creators value and employ braille, a tactile transcription system, as a decipherable visual code. Whereas Hamilton's project, for example, used braille with the goal of making text incomprehensible to sighted people, the projects I examine invite sighted consumers to decode braille, a task facilitated by the size of the braille and the brevity of the messages and supported by the ubiquity of smartphones.

Take for example a 2008 mural in Pittsburgh by artist Lizzy DeVita. Titled Tags, the mural, no longer maintained, consisted of a short braille phrase on a black brick wall. Installed high on the wall, the braille was written with illuminated light bulbs. In her artist's statement, DeVita does not reveal the meaning of the ten large and brightly lit braille letters she shared, insisting that the text in the mural "because of its encoding was not able to be read using visual means" ("Tags"). She does, however, hint at the content of her braille-coded phrase when she observes that dots in another one of her installations of illuminated braille, located in an adjacent gallery space, were "about the size of a C-cup" ("Tags"). While the artist insists on the inscrutability of her braille message, the curious sighted viewer of the mural, or of photographs of it, can easily discover that the phrase, written in uncontracted braille, is "Tits and Ass," a titillating reward for their curiosity. Significantly, DeVita describes her braille as "playfully illuminated" and explains that, as light bulbs faded or went out, "the encoded meaning shifted arbitrarily over time" ("Tags"). Employed by DeVita as a code to both veil and share a provocative phrase, illuminated braille has the added benefit, she proposes, of random mutation, the message and the mystery sporadically refreshed by the dying out of dots.

Enlarged braille also plays a role in the 2016 Netflix series, The OA, where braille features in the exploration of the enigmatic disappearance and reappearance of the lead character, named OA, a woman who was blind as a child but is now sighted. Significantly, braille in the series, read by a blind child, is also used to share information with sighted audience members. In a scene from the seventh episode, set in an FBI office, the wall behind a reception desk is embossed with enlarged, uncontracted braille that spells 'Rachel,' the name of a minor character in the show. The characters who meet in the office make no mention of this text and do not seem to notice it. The braille is, instead, a visual clue that sighted audience members can use to make sense of a complicated plot involving illegal adoption, abduction, medical experimentation, and murder. Braille is also visible in the show in the unusual scarification of the faces of two characters, one of whom is the protagonist's father. These faces, covered with braille-like dots that are enlarged to ensure their visibility to sighted audience members, are studied by devotees of the show who confer in online chat groups, one viewer speculating, for example, that the braille on the face of a character named Khatun is a poem in German by Rainer Marie Rilke (U_Nomad_Bro). Braille in The OA, be it in the form of signs or scars, is a code and a clue for sighted people's decryption and use.

The album cover art for singer Rihanna's 2015 Anti also uses braille to code messages aimed at sighted audiences. The album was heralded by Rolling Stone as "the first album ever to be released entirely in Braille, without text or liner notes in the packaging" (Anas), a slightly misleading claim given that the CD has the title printed on it in black ink and an inked note in the booklet directs sighted readers to a website to read the credits. Braille is, however, a dominant design element of the album art, which features paintings by Roy Nachum, whose experiments with braille predate his collaboration with Rihanna, who, like Nachum, is a sighted person. The cover reproduces a large painting by Nachum of Rihanna as a child, blindfolded by a crown, the top half of the canvas, including the face of Rihanna, tinted by a veil of red paint. The original canvas, titled If They Let Us, Pt. 1, is textured, as are many of Nachum's paintings, with a version of braille dots formed by a pallet knife handle, which Nachum indents in wet paint on the canvas, creating a rough square with a raised perimeter and a flattened center. Much larger than a braille dot, closer in size and shape to a side of a die used in a board game, these squares are arranged to create enlarged braille letters that encrypt poems by Chloe Mitchell, Rihanna and Nachum himself. The creation of these braille-like squares on the canvas allows Nachum to layer poetry, with minimal visual interference and added visual interest, on the surface of his paintings. Undergoing Alice in Wonderland-like shifts in scale, the enlarged braille texturing of the original painting is shrunk down, like the painting itself though on a different scale, in the reproduction of the painting on the CD packaging, the distinctive paint-ridged squares replaced by braille of standard size and shape.

Inside the CD case, a booklet features photographs of a blindfolded adult Rihanna examining with both of her hands painted vertical surfaces textured with the same braille-like markings as the cover painting. Like the image of the girl with her eyes covered by a crown, these photographs evoke metaphoric meanings of blindness. A visual enactment of a pair of ocularcentric clichés, these photographs portray Rihanna 'blinded by ambition' and 'unable to read the writing on the wall.' While both Rihanna's blindfolding and her mimicry of a braille reader link blindness with limited perception and impeded access to knowledge, her touching of braille-like dots functions as a prompt for sighted consumers to derive meaning from the braille used throughout her album's packaging. Significantly, while blindness and braille are linked with ignorance, effort and frustration, the ease with which uncontracted braille can be decoded by sighted people frees them quickly from the struggle theatrically embodied by the blindfolded and photographed Rihanna. Like Rihanna, who is shown in sections of the CD booklet photographed with the blindfold removed, smiling and free of the struggle of using her sense of touch to access information, the sighted consumer's initial experience of frustrated curiosity changes, with minimal effort, to satisfaction. Soon after the launch event where Rihanna announced Nacham's painting would be the cover image for Anti, fans made and began to share transcriptions of the CD packaging's braille text online (Parker). An online article shared the poetry under the headline: "Rihanna's 'Anti' Album Poetry Translated From Braille for All to See: See the eye-opening poetry for yourself." A visual code to crack, understood as more easily understood by sight than touch, braille's inscrutability is, for sighted consumers, pleasingly temporary.

The case is different for blind consumers, a point made powerfully, though unintentionally, by a triptych reproduced in the interior of the three-sectioned folding cardboard cover of Anti. Titled Fire, Pt. 1, 2 and 3, it consists of three canvases, painted white and textured with Nachum's braille-like squares, each canvas surrounded by a burnt and blackened wooden frame. Two of these canvases have been touched and transformed by a blindfolded Rihanna. While the canvas on the left is a pristine white, the middle canvas is faintly marked with black ash and the third canvas is heavily blackened with marks left by Rihanna's two hands as she examined the braille-like squares, leaving fingerprints and heavy streaks that record her hands' movements. This triptych is a revival of Nachum's 2011 Fire series, a project understood by the artist as a collaboration between himself and a group of blind people he invited to touch and transform his canvases. A video of this collaboration documents blind people meeting with Nacham in a studio space; it opens with images of the gallery visitors' white canes and guide dogs and shows Nacham and other sighted people putting on blindfolds ("Roy Nachum"). In this project, braille, the transcription code used by blind people to read and write, is offered to blind people in an enlarged, squared and painted form by a sighted artist whose soot-covered canvases document not their reading but their struggle to read, not their literacy but the imposition of an experience of illiteracy. Obliged to decode braille that can no longer be read by touch, each dot larger than a reader's fingertip, Nacham's blind collaborators are shown touching and studying, but not reading, the braille on his canvases. Not surprisingly, Nacham's own website offers a different assessment of this project than my own, explaining that the blind participants left their "fingerprints as documentation of human contact" (Greenberg).

Reviving this project with a blindfolded Rihanna, Nacham produced a record of a sighted person's performance of a struggle to read by touch, of frustrated searching and unsuccessful decoding. Images of both the ashy canvases and Rihanna as she touches them, reproduced in the CD packaging for the visual pleasure of sighted consumers, record the searching movement that this art project imaginatively and inaccurately associates with the reading of braille. As with the larger Fire series, the smudging of ash does not show the left-to-right, linear movement of a fingertip over a compact line of text. Instead it captures the multidirectional movement of multiple fingers used to find the raised squares that are spread over the canvas, each braille letter's squared dots distributed over inches of space. It is in this sense that the ash on the canvas records the decoding, not the reading, of braille by blind, or in Rihanna's case, blindfolded, people.

My survey of recent uses of enlarged braille by sighted artists in different creative fields suggests their shared understanding and appreciation of braille as a code. While both blind and sighted consumers are obliged to decode rather than read the braille on offer, the experience of braille illiteracy is ironically more strongly associated with braille-literate people than braille-illiterate people. Braille functions as a tantalizing code, a puzzle to be solved by sight by a sighted majority, but the braille that sighted consumers can visually decode remains largely inaccessible to braille-literate people. Like the enlarged scale, the physical location (on a wall, on a screen actor's face) and the medium (light bulbs, make up, squares on a canvas) conspire to put braille out of reach, figuratively if not also literally, of blind people. Braille, made illegible to touch by enlargement, becomes, through the same process, more easily accessed by sight.

Braille consequently functions in contemporary visual culture as a delivery system for short-lived mysteries. In contrast to both the FDR Memorial and Hamilton's myien, where Kleege finds that the use of braille functions "as an abstract evocation of the despair and desolation presumed to be synonymous with blindness" ("Visible Blindness" 216), the examples I have shared link braille with sighted people's achievement, with the pleasure of code breaking and with an intellectually invigorating experience. Kleege's observation that braille in public spaces can be used "to send visible messages to sighted viewers" (216) applies fully to these projects. In addition, these projects reveal that enlarged braille is appealing to sighted creators because they perceive the tactile transcription system of visually disabled people not as inscrutable but instead as a convenient, readymade code for the sighted majority's use.

Sighted artists' repurposing of braille as code has implications for the perception not only of braille but also of braille readers. Braille, imaginatively associated with code, is distanced by repurposing from both its history and present-day use by visually disabled people as a highly legible system for reading and writing. The examples I share here also reinforce the perception that consuming written text is a fundamentally visual practice, the privilege and pleasure of sighted people, even when the text being read is in braille. While the use of enlarged braille raises awareness about braille and is an invitation to sighted people to become familiar with the braille alphabet, uses of braille in contemporary visual culture are removed from the daily realities of braille's use by blind people. The writing of grocery lists in braille, the reading of braille books, innovations such as refreshable braille, and declines in levels of braille education and braille literacy are realities that are decoupled from braille by the enlarged braille currently circulating in popular culture. These creative appropriations of braille exist at a distance from blind people: from their literacy, from the history of blind people's activism for braille's adoption as the universal transcription of blind people, and from the uncertain future of braille education.

There are, however, important exceptions to enlarged braille's distance from the lived experience of blindness and blind people's perspectives; one of them is Too Big to Feel, a 2015 art installation by David Johnson, an artist, blind person and braille user who is also a contributor to this special issue. The piece, which was installed on the campus of Royal Holloway University of London in England in 2015, consists of eighteen domes cast in concrete. Each of the domes is approximately two feet in diameter and visually evokes the profile of a braille dot. One dome is painted red; the others are painted white. These domes were installed outdoors, on a gentle slope of grass, and were carefully positioned to spell out, in contracted braille, the phrase "Seeing Red," the red dot located on the right side of the cell of the letter r.

Like the examples discussed above, Johnson's use of enlarged braille appeals to the curiosity of sighted people and cannot be read easily by blind people. Difficult for a sighted person to read by sight without that person either having knowledge of braille or referencing a braille guide, the installation's message is also difficult for a blind person to decode, its size obliging a blind visitor to move around and between the domes to locate them. In What Blindness Brings to Art, Kleege describes her experience "clambering around the individual dots, while using my cane to measure the distances between the characters" (56). What makes this piece different from uses of enlarged braille described earlier in this essay is that it shares a braille message with sighted audiences in engagement with, not in isolation from, braille literacy and blind people's perspectives. As the title of the piece signals, the enlargement of braille is not undertaken in this instance in ignorance of the impact that shifts in scale have on braille-literate people nor is it the result of an imposition of the scalability of ink-print text on braille. Instead, as the title signals, the use of braille that cannot be read with the fingers is the premise of the piece. This is, in other words, an informed enlargement of braille that stages and explores the inaccessibility of text in public spaces for blind readers, an inaccessibility that also holds true for the vast majority of art installations in public spaces. The piece also announces a kind of occupation of public spaces, the outlandishly huge braille literally writ large on the landscape. An expression of a braille reader's awareness of the sighted majority's visual preoccupation with, if not fetishization of, braille, the braille in use here is not a visual clue in a mystery for sighted audiences to solve and be entertained by. It is, instead, an expression of anger, the cliché "seeing red" both typifying and expressing frustration with the ocularcentrism of the English language. 2

Double Blind, a 2008 installation by Antonia Hirsch, on permanent display at Vancouver Community College, is similarly noteworthy for its use of enlarged braille in dialogue with, not in isolation from, blindness and the lived experience of blind people. Hirsch, a sighted artist, developed the piece in consultation with members of the visually disabled community, including students of the college. Its title references double-blind testing standards, in which neither the test subjects nor those conducting the experiments have information that could bias the results. The title also suggests a kind of doubling up or coexistence of different understandings of blindness, including literal and metaphoric meanings of the term. A four-story tall version of a Snellen eye chart, which Hirsch describes as an "eye chart for the blind" (Kwan), the piece consists of seventy-four reflective acrylic domes installed on the concrete wall of an atrium area. These domes form braille letters that are positioned in the same configuration as ink letters on an eye chart, the braille dots and letters decreasing in size with each line, the first line of the chart given over to one large letter, whose dots have a diameter of approximately two feet, and the sixth and final line containing six letters, their dots approximately two inches in diameter. Artist Vanessa Kwan has observed in an essay on Double Blind written for the City of Vancouver's Public Art Program that "the domes present a formal conundrum—they remain unreadable for people without sight, and, for those that can see, the array first appears as a random association of dots, vague punctuations unable to express meaning." While the piece is, Kwan notes, concerned with the "obfuscation of meaning," she stresses its political dimensions, noting that it explores "the implications of exclusion in a place of higher learning" and "reveals the inaccessibility of mainstream communication for the blind." A detailed description of the piece, shared with braille-literate people on a metal plaque on the wall adjacent to the installation, signals Hirsch's commitment to the accessibility of her art.

Like Too Big to Feel, Double Blind stands apart from creative work that uses braille to code messages unrelated to blindness for sighted audiences' consumption. Indeed, the enlarged braille letters in Hirsch's installation are not used to communicate a written message, coded or otherwise. Sighted people who opt to decode this braille will not be rewarded with a message but with a soup of letters. Like the inked letters on eye charts, Hirsch's braille letters do not form words but are instead shapes to be recognized and named. As such, the arrangement and changing size of the enlarged braille letters communicates far more than the letters themselves. The act of seeing and naming of ink letters in a Snellen chart identifies visual acuity with literacy but the legibility of this braille is not, of course, improved by enlargement, neither for blind nor sighted people, neither for braille literate nor for braille illiterate people. In this sense, the piece explores the connection between seeing and reading, decoupling them as sighted visitors see but cannot read the letters on the chart. A test of visual acuity, reimagined as a test for tactile acuity, the piece's substitution of braille for inked letters stages a failure; after all, this test of tactile acuity cannot be touched. In this sense, Double Blind explores the dominance of visual culture and the absurdity of the imposition of visual systems and values on visually disabled people. The piece, directed at sighted audiences, is visually arresting but its messages are not ocularcentric. Instead, Double Blind uses enlarged braille to explore the difference between braille and ink print as well as the difference between touch and sight. Like Too Big to Feel, it suggests that enlarged braille, addressed to sighted audiences, can communicate progressive and thoughtful messages about visual disability, sensory difference, literacy and accessibility, offering consumers an experience more challenging and more meaningful than the cracking of a readymade code.

Works Cited

Notes

  1. Tellingly, at the time of publication, in the Winnipeg Arts Council's online description of this installation, braille, listed alongside French and Tagalog, is referred to as a language rather than a transcription system. This misunderstanding, like the shift in the scale of braille, suggests the failure of both the artists and the funders of this project to consult with visually-disabled community members. (http://winnipegarts.ca/wac/artwork/table-of-contents)
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  2. For a different analysis of Johnson's Too Big to Feel, a reading that explores the frustration and anger signaled by the piece's title, consult Kleege's More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, 56-57.
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