This special issue is an exploration of blindness arts, a term we put forward in contrast with and as a companion to 'visual arts.' In the essays collected here, we explore the creative potential of blindness and offer new perspectives on the relationship between blindness, creativity, performance and access. We also explore the creative potential of accessibility tools, such as audio description, touch tours and braille, as means of enriching the cultural experiences of both blind and non-blind people. Taken together, the essays in this issue argue for the value of non-visual relationships with the world and, in doing so, explore the potential of blindness gain, a form of gain generated by blind experiences of environments and of culture. In exploring blindness gain, we build on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of "disability gain" and on Georgina Kleege's reflections on "gaining blindness" (61). Hannah Thompson has explored the benefits of blindness gain for both blind and non-blind people in her most recent book (55) and we continue, in collaboration with our authors, that work here.
Defining blind people as active subjects rather than passive objects of medical and societal curiosity, this issue also rejects pathologizing myths and stereotypes of blindness to explore instead blind people's experiences as active cultural creators, consumers and critics. In doing so, the issue seeks to recast blindness as a multifaceted aesthetic position. In a related rejection of medical investment in degrees and kinds of visual disability, we use the term 'blindness' broadly to signal a range of visual disabilities and non-normative ways of (not) seeing. Similarly, we use 'blind person' throughout the issue to refer to anyone who has a lived experience of blindness and/or who relates to the world primarily in non-visual ways. In our discussions of creative and critical responses to works of art, we have also opted, following contributor Aaron McPeake, to make use of the embodied connotations of the term 'beholder' to signal consumers of performances, screenings and other works of art, this in place of the more conventional, and visual, term 'spectator.'
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.
Michalko and Titchkosky's theme of travelling blind evokes the journeys into new ways of engaging with blindness proposed by articles in this volume. Their theme also echoes the literal journeys documented by Dokumaci in her video about accessibility, the journey of art pieces between Grond and Johnson, and our own journeys to work together as co-editors of this special issue. Their conversational mode of writing is a connection to other conversations in this special issue, in particular the co-written pieces by Grond and Johnson and by d'Evie and Kleege. Their dialogue also evokes for us our own collaboration, a dialogue between a blind person and a sighted person and between blind and sighted perspectives. Finally, the conversation between Michalko and Titchkosky echoes the collaborative nature of the volume as a whole, in which we have been in productive dialogue not only with each other but also with the authors whose essays are collected here.
Some of the conversations shared in this special issue began at the Blind Creations conference, which we co-hosted at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2015. This three-day conference and micro-arts festival welcomed more than one hundred delegates and showcased interventions from blind and non-blind academics, accessibility practitioners, activists, creative writers and artists. Alongside plenary talks by Georgina Kleege and Zina Weygand, the conference featured an immersive theatre workshop by the British theatre group Extant (whom Fryer mentions in her essay); a multisensory art-making workshop; installations of accessible artworks by seven artists, including Florian Grond, David Johnson, and Aaron McPeake; a creative writers round-table featuring Rod Michalko, and an audio-described film screening that is discussed by Hannah Thompson in her essay. We direct interested readers to the audio archive of the conference (blindcreations.blogspot.com/p/audio-archive.html) where recordings of the research presentations, plenary talks and special events of Blind Creations are collected.
We are grateful to the community who gathered at Blind Creations for the research, creative work and collegiality they shared. That gathering was a prompt to this special issue. We wish also to thank all those who responded to our Call for Papers for this issue. We acknowledge with gratitude the work of the many careful readers who peer-reviewed submissions for this issue. Thank you to Kim E. Nielsen and Ally Day for the opportunity to edit this issue and for their support. A special thank you goes to doctoral candidate Sabrina Mark for her patient and painstaking proofreading work as the first reader of this issue.
As we invite readers of DSQ to enjoy this special issue, we are pleased to note the coming together for this project of academics, artists, creative writers and accessibility experts from North America, Europe, and Australia. We are also pleased to note the pairing of blind and sighted perspectives, with eight of our contributors identifying as blind people and eight identifying as sighted people. It was our hope in undertaking this project that we would have the privilege of learning more about new work being done on blindness and the arts. We are grateful to our authors for allowing us to do precisely that. We are excited to share their, and our own, research and personal reflections on a range of genres: on film, theatre, dance, vocal performance, book design, sculpture, photography, painting and public art. We welcome comments and we look forward to continuing to work with a community of people who share our commitments to the critical study of blindness, to the creative lives of blind people and to the ongoing exploration of blindness gain.
- Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Disability Gain." Avoidance and the Academy Conference, Sept. 2013, Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool.
- Kleege, Georgina. "Blind Faith." The Yale Review, vol. 98, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 57-67. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9736.2010.00623.x
- Thompson, Hannah. Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction, 1789–2013. Palgrave, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-43511-8