Tuesday 2.2.10

Blind Poet, Images by Sean Airhart/NBBJ

I went to the pharmacy to get dark glasses. I wanted the kind a person with impaired vision might wear. The pharmacist sent me to The Eye Clinic. I explained that I was an artist planning to explore acoustics at an architectural firm as part of a poetry residency and that I needed dark glasses for a day. Dennis, the optician on duty at Olympic View Optical, gave me a loaner pair. Bring 'em back when you’re done. Who knew opticians were such an understanding bunch? The glasses were perfect! They were wide, tall and dark, but they weren't quite dark enough. I filled the lenses and side windows in with black construction paper. Then, I really couldn’t see.

Ample Warning

A few years ago, I spent a season volunteering with Ski-for-All where I worked with disabled skiers. Those with sight and hearing impairments wore bright orange vests with their disability spelled out: “Blind Skier,” “Deaf Skier.” This communicated to others that their normal visual and audio signals might not work and that they should give a wide berth to avoid the unexpected. And so, for this project, I bought a black t-shirt and white iron-on letters and made myself a “Blind Poet” shirt, which of course I saw as humorous, but also as a way of invoking the audio space around us. And, of course, there’s this reference to the wise, unseeing soul and to our own hidden intuition the to the ways in which we rely on one another, especially to see and communicate our experiences in this world.

Capturing Sound

My self-assigned task was to spend the day writing the audio-architecture of NBBJ. I had a clipboard, legal pad and pen. To start, I positioned myself on the little wooden bleachers in Village Vanguard, near a coffee bar. I was struck right away with how loud the space was, how busy the hallways leading into it. After a half hour, I was moved to a studio on the 2nd floor. Over the course of the day, I listened to 12 different spaces and took 38 pages of widely spaced notes. I was basically writing in the dark, so my lines go up and down and cross paths sometimes, but the writing is, for the most part, legible. I'd spend the next few days making sense of my notes and keying them into a computer.

What Did I Hear?
O, I heard many things! I heard a humming so vigorous the rooms were vibrating. I heard paper in hands moving through space, a hummingbird in a book searching for facts, a dandelion holding its breath and a radar of conversations in concentric zones. I heard a place where humans are louder than machines and a place where the world is in tune with the building. I heard the pfft of a soda and the crushing of paper, a beginning and an end. I had in mind, while listening, the fairness of the spaces and their potential for collaboration. My conclusion, based on this cursory exercise, is that collaboration is like anything, it's quality verses quantity. Coffee bars offer lots of collaboration, but the quality is low and the duration short. Spaces like the materials department offer quality collaboration, but the chances you'll run into a dozen of people from ten different departments is slim. Where so many of the spaces dwarf the human voice with vents & clicks & clacks & hums & drones, the materials department seemed capable of holding it. People seemed to be able to have longer, deeper discussions in the materials department because of it. The conversations in the vicinity of the coffee bars, nooks and worktables were just interludes, the noses and tails of things. The conversation in the materials department, separated from the noise, traffic and machines of the open work spaces, was more relaxed, in-depth, more of a heart than a tail.

A Time to Chide

Over the course of the day, people joked with me, surprised me, played tricks on me, made silly sounds, offered me food and even drummed up conversation for me to hear. When no one was available to move me and I was finished with a space, I moved myself. When I moved from the model shop to the work table, I saw someone had surrounded me with sharks. I made tea twice during the day and lifted my glasses to do so. This elicited a good chiding from those around. What, you can just leave your disability behind when you want to?! Blind Poet was both a practice and a performance. I'd put myself out to be seen. Being seen with a temporary disability gave people an opportunity to approach, to open, to chide. This sort of play allowed a new kind of community. No doubt, it made me more friendly and approachable. I am imagining the heads of companies taking the opportunity to put themselves in such a position, once a year, allowing their employees to relate to them in this way, in play, like the elementary school principal in the dunk tank at a school fair, how would that work to change the dynamics in a firm?

Blind Poet Paradigm

Bob ran into me at the corner and questioned me. Was there a blind poet paradigm, a reference, I was working with? It started with Duane’s comment about hearing the architecture, in the two-dimensional drawings in his floppy books. I was fascinated with the idea that architects might be working with an unseen rendering of sounds. It added a complexity I hadn't considered before. I started wondering about the ways in which we experience space. I’d been thinking about emotions, how we experience spaces, emotionally, and what we do with those responses. I was then specifically requested by a worker to write about sounds and that sealed it. Listening was at the top of my list.

Bob told me about a blind poet in a story by Ismail Kadare. I confessed I didn’t have a specific book or poet or character in mind. I’d read about the experiences of those who lost their eyesight and how the brain works to retain or let go of their stored visual information. I’ve read essays about people who have gained the ability to see after being born blind and how, if this happens after a certain age, they are unable to distinguish female from male faces and how they test distances by throwing things. One of my favorite authors, Max Frisch, wrote a book called Gantenbein about a man who loses his sight in a car accident and then regains it, but doesn’t tell anyone he’s regained it. He goes on pretending while seeing what others think he cannot see. It’s about what people show us and what they tell us and how far these things are from the truth. And there are, of course, those famous blind poets, Homer and Milton and Borges. Here someone has made a list of blind poets.

Touch Reliance Collaboration

Unless you’re working in the healing arts, it’s usual to touch or be touched at work, but touch was such a necessary part of this project. In order to be moved from place to place, I had to be taken by the arm or take the arm of a guide. This required trust, communication and cooperation. We walked slowly, talking, but rarely about work. To keep from tripping, I peeked under my glasses when we were approached the steps, but on the flat surfaces I trusted my guides to lead me safely around.

What Is Forgotten

Interestingly, only one person introduced herself by name all day. Not surprisingly, it was someone who’d had an experience with sight impairment. I didn’t ask of the others who they were. I allowed them to remain anonymous. I recognized a few voices, but mostly not. When people were addressing me, it wasn’t always clear to me as they didn’t use my name. It wasn’t clear, either, when they were finished addressing me, as they didn’t say I’m going or Goodbye. I had to figure it out through the extended silences that marked their parting. Strange how much we rely on sight to begin and end things, how little we put into words.


In reflection, at 6pm when the project was complete, I was touched to think of the collaboration required to make the day happen. Six people had moved me around, many others attended to me, gave me food, talked to me, put headphones on me, asked if I needed anything, said goodbye, joked with me. I’d put myself in the care of the community at NBBJ and so many stepped forward to care for me. I’m not one to ask for help, even when I need it. I pride myself on self-sufficiency. I know this causes difficulty for those in my life who would like to care for me. People have a need to be needed, I know. The art of giving is a skill I have learned. The art of receiving is one I am still perfecting. A day like the one I just experienced is truly heart-warming, the kind that makes one believe in people and in community, a reaffirming kind of day.

1 comment:

Laura Gamache said...

Blind Skier, Blind Poet, oh god what a practice it would be for each of us to write our real disabilities in block letters on our shirts.

Beautiful work!