‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is an outsider’.
As an artist I was led by my interest in the relationship of words to visual images to look for a “language” which could be incorporated
into a painting without overpowering it with meaning or privileging one linguistic group over another. The search took me to Braille which is a code
that can (and is) applied to many languages to make them available to the blind or sight-impaired.
That it is possible, by the attention given to the signals, to construct a rich perceptual system in the absence of light. Thus those
who lack sight, come to interpret sounds in all their various aspects-volume, direction, distance, echoes from buildings, the effects of doors and windows
(open or closed) as funnels and sounding boards, all with a degree of precision and a depth of informational extraction that is remarkable and at times
appears to border on the prescient. Touch too, plays an extended role not only with direct contact between hand and surface, cane and ground, but also
indirectly, interpreting air currents flowing round small and large objects and deriving useful navigational information from temperature gradients felt
on the face. In the brain itself, the areas usually reserved for visual activity are, at least in part, re-assigned to reception and processing of sensual
information from non-visual sources. And this, as Oliver Sachs points out, reminds us of a critical point: ‘One does not see, or sense, or perceive
in isolation - perception is always linked to behaviour and movement, to reaching out and exploring the world. It is insufficient to see; one must look
as well.’ He is emphasising learning and attention. Our visual learning process takes place from birth on and because of that not a conscious experience.
So, while we may be able to imagine what it might be like to be blind we cannot imagine the problems involved in a blind person becoming
sighted. We can perhaps imagine the feat of understanding involved in Nicholas Saunderson, an eighteenth century Newtonian who, although blind from birth,
understood theoretical optics well enough to deliver lectures on the subject, apart from being a famous mathematician but we might be forgiven for not
realising that seeing in perspective, judging distance and the like is the product of learning. Thus to tell a dog from a cat visually when you have
only known them through touch and sound is, initially at least, a feat of learning.
In a society which is so biased towards the visual and used to shading, changing, interpreting and even
perverting visual images by means of words-captions, voice-overs-sounds and music, any other system of perceptual priorities which de-emphasises the
centrality of the visual (with the other senses as modifiers) appears aberrant and difficult to imagine. Researching further, both in relation to the
text-image relationship (mediation of meaning) and visual perception (interpretation of sensory data), it was a surprise for me to discover that in constructing
a perceptual system the brain does not differentiate where it gets the information from or which sense provides it.