Orienting through Blindness:

Blundering, Be-Holding, and Wayfinding as Artistic and Curatorial Methods

Handovers + Translations  BY FAYEN D’EVIE

The building that houses Gertrude Contemporary’s Glasshouse gallery was constructed during the early years of the colonial settlement of Melbourne, on swamplands that would later become the inner-city neighbourhood of Collingwood. The original glassworks— proclaimed as the first in Victoria—closed mysteriously after just a few years. The building was taken over by a candle-making factory, which did not last long either, forced out by local protests over the fumes of boiling, rancid fat. (The conflict attenuated in an 1856 newspaper editorial “The Right to Be a Nuisance” that pilloried the owners’ defence of their right to stench the neighbourhood.) The building was then repurposed as a tannery and boot-making factory, which survived for several decades, until the chain of industrial occupation was ultimately disrupted by gentrification, culminating in the architectural renovation of the ground floor Glasshouse gallery. This history of handovers from one venture to another, with shifting inflections in material transformation and recurring tensions over the politics of space, reverberated in a performative exhibition that I initiated in late 2016 at Glasshouse, titled [...]{…}[...].

The exhibition was conceived as an experiment proceeding from blindness, one that would begin with artists with experience of blindness, and then evolve through a sequence of handovers of a mutating installation, amongst a complex web of collaborators and an intermittent public audience. When the first group of collaborators convened for the inaugural working session, the space was near empty, other than a collection of steel joints and poles and a temporary water bath, where sculptor Sophie Takách was soaking kangaroo rawhides. Artist-writer Troy McConnell and I initiated the session by mapping

the gallery, describing our perceptions of the tactility of the architecture, and temperature shifts as we moved around the space. Through assisted clenching and unclenching of his hands, McConnell then dropped the “Prologue to Handling” bronzes onto a damp hide attached with S hooks to a steel armature. He also clenched and unclenched a smaller scrap of rawhide, stained with tread marks from his wheelchair that McConnell had directed be pushed back-and-forth over top at rapid speed. This smaller scrap of leather fell to rest, dangling, about a steel joint. Throughout the sculptural process, McConnell and I sustained a descriptive conversation, while Takách hovered nearby, tightening or torquing steel joints, twisting hides, testing tensions, wetting and wringing skins. As we worked, sound artist Bryan Phillips recorded vocal utterances and the vibrations of materials as they were prodded/pinged/squelched/dragged, while photographer Pippa Samaya documented ephemeral moments of touch and handling.

After our bodies had been removed from the gallery, Phillips composed a sound work from the vibrational recordings of our sculpting process, responding to my provocation that we retrieve audiodescription as a generative artistic medium, rather than a post facto accessibility service. We installed the sound work with spatialised dynamics, mounting the left and right speakers at opposite ends of the gallery. Recall that Forsythe had referred to Morin’s translation of his topological manipulations, not only into sculptural form, but also into “the universal yet somewhat hermetic language of mathematics” (2011, 91). Language —whether inscribed, vocalised or codified—introduces a third site for manifesting choreographic idea-logics, triangulating the choreographic object and a body-in-motion. Thus, Phillips’ sound work not only introduced more complex sensory reverberations into the evolving installation, but could also be understood as a provocation for movement improvisations and choreographic thinking.

Offering the sound work in this context, we passed the gallery over to Prue Lang who had worked closely with Forsythe as a dancer and as a choreographer. She inherited a sparse installation: the vibrational audiodescription work; the sculptural assemblage from the first session, with joints locked to prevent structural collapse; an assortment of steel rods, joints, and hooks that could be used to extend the existing assemblage or to construct new armatures; and an expanded inventory of wet and dry rawhides. Lang worked with three professional dancers over several private sessions, listening to the audiodescription work, investigating the sculptural forms, and developing choreographic scores. Intermittently, Sophie Takách and I would adjust the installation, adding or subtracting steel poles, rewetting hides, expanding or contracting the range of torque, locking or releasing steel joints to alter the responsiveness of the installation. Note that prior to our handover to Lang, we had removed the “Prologue to Handling” bronzes from the gallery, but their presence was still palpable within the installation. The weight of the bronzes had deformed the damp rawhides, imprinting the volume of each bronze through simultaneous negative and positive casting, since each textured shape could be encountered from either side of its host hide. Like Morin’s description of space-like imagination, both the interior and the exterior surfaces of the objects could be handled at the same time. Volumes had been translated—literally—into tactile interior/exterior skins.

Rawhide had been proposed by Takách as a sculptural material partly in response to the historic use of Glasshouse as a tannery, but also because the rawhide is able to transition from a supple material, which diverse bodies can manipulate through micro or macro movements, to a rigid sculptural document of the labour, exertion, and physicality of handling. The steel armatures similarly echoed the site’s industrial past and functioned as a mutable skeletal structure. References to handovers and translations amongst

industrial/animal/human bodies reverberated through the development of Lang’s choreographic scores. As she later recalled,

I had been exploring the metal parts of the structure like they were my own joints—twisting, rotating, manipulating them with the resistance they required from my muscles—then in turn allowing these structural articulations to inform my body’s organisation and folding/unfolding/re- organising strategies … I tried to wrap/curl/slide my arms and fingers around and along the metal framework. I began to explore the ‘infrathin,’ that heightened state where the suppleness, elasticity and warmth of my own skin/body seemed to ‘meld’ with the rigid, cold, surfaces of the metal. From here I made a careful transition from the metal hook to the animal hide. My fingers absorbed the texture of this new material pulling and pushing the thickness of this other skin, recognisably different from my own. This other skin was dead—losing its cellular elasticity in a slow process of hardening, becoming brittle. I wanted to bring it back to life; manipulate it, pull it and push it until it became more malleable, compliant with my body, but also empathetic and complicit.

By the official opening of the exhibition—which represented the third phase of handovers, now to a public audience— Lang had developed a 20-minute choreographic score for four dancers. She invited the gathered crowd to sit or stand anywhere in the gallery space. The looped audiodescription work played in parallel, but was muted for a five-minute period during one sequence of the performance. Amongst those in attendance was Troy McConnell, who had returned to experience the evolution of the installation and the choreographed performance. Photographer Pippa Samaya had also returned to document the occasion. Her contributions introduce the problematic of handling images through blindness. Whereas a binary conception of blindness might disavow visual documentation altogether, I suggest that a less clichéd understanding of oculardiversity, more attuned to the complexity of blindness, may generate new methods of witnessing and archiving performance. Interlacing the theories of Roland Barthes, James Elkins, and Susan Sontag, photographic records are always fugitive, partial, and hallucinatory.6 From blindness, I propose that we can resist the ocularcentric conspiracy that endorses discrete photographic images as the dominant archival memory of an ephemeral performance. Through an epistemology of hallucination, photographic images can be approached not as documentary evidence, but as conversational prompts that may activate a thicker description of an ephemeral performance, by allowing for multiplicities of descriptive memories, counter-memories, and embodied re-readings.

Within [...]{…}[...], I experimented with transfiguring image description —a conventional accessibility strategy for blind audiences—as a discursive method. Consider the following descriptive texts from Prue Lang and Troy McConnell, who each chose an image to describe from the opening performance, out of a set of documentary images of relational contact and interaction from throughout the Glasshouse experiment. McConnell’s description took the form of a conversation with disability support worker Terry Foley.

Caption for an absent image. An ephemeral moment in the opening performance of {…}[...]{…}.Image description by Prue Lang: “I instructed the performers to focus on the materiality of the space. The metal, hook, hide, wall, floor, fabric, skin, flesh, hair… While we sensed the spectators in the space, an interaction between the spectator and the performer would only occur if the performer decided to extend their material investigation into the spectator (surface of a shoe, brushing of clothes, texture of hair, tracing a chair, sharing of a wall surface, etc). I eliminated communicating with the spectator through a text, eye contact or body language … The spectator was simply a part of the materiality of the space in which our physical thinking transpired.”]//

Caption for an absent image. An ephemeral moment in the opening performance of {…}[...]{…}.Image conversation between Troy McConnell and Terry Foley: “Troy is on the left of the picture sitting with the hide on the frame. There is a male dancer in a long sleeve, white top, dancing and laying on the floor, with his right arm extended on the floor above his head pointing. He has his left hand on his hip. There is a woman sitting on the floor, with her elbow resting on her knee, half cross legged and looking upwards. There is a person sitting on a chair against the far wall, with legs crossed and one hand in their lap. The person has their chin in their hand while their elbow rests on their knee.” Troy’s comment: “There is a spectator who looks from the body language that they are deeply pondering or may be judging. I was experiencing it from two points of view, as the artist and as the spectator, as the dancers moved around me.”]//

As the image descriptions infer, from the sensory perspective of the dancers the choreographic score deprivileged spectators, directing a material equivalence between human bodies, sculptural objects, and architectural textures. Yet, as implicated in Troy McConnell’s remarks, from the sensory perspective of the audience the choreographic performance reasserted spectatorship, even for those with blindness. At times, a foot could be heard scraping across a floor, or the thud of a dancer slumping against a wall, and some within the audience received a fleeting touch from a dancer, or experienced proprioceptive awareness of near contact. However, most of the performative movements—like the Forsythe manifestations—could only be apprehended visually. Earlier I proposed an inversion of the concept of accessibility, shifting to models that activate attentiveness and extend the movement vocabularies more broadly. For sighted onlookers, the opening performance certainly offered a glimpse of the intricacy and intensity of tactile and haptic intervention possible when moving attentively within the exhibition topology. But in the wake of the opening, a question vexed me: how could performative movements of one person (or group) be experienced by a second person (or group) in ways that would more radically displace spectatorship? Although this question is yet to be resolved, some possible wayfinding principles would emerge as the durational exhibition unfolded.