Someone was there and has seen me
By Erling Moestue Bugge
Blindness is a central theme in problems related to the essence and limitations of visual experience. By forcing the audience to confront the fragility of sight, admitting to how a slight incision can forever impair seeing – the dominant position of sight as a sense is challenged. Also, blindness emphasizes the existence of the dual directions of sight, the inner and outer gaze, which in turn problematizes the representation of both.
This hub of tension is the starting point for Lisa Karlsson and Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s video work, portraying the life of the eighteen year old visually impaired girl, Kathrine Liuum. In the film she relates incidents in her daily life, such as her experience of traveling by train. The train ride releases a trail of memories in associative directions, where she is guided by other senses; taste, scent, hearing, touch. Subsequently, reality is experienced from a different frontier, and the senses opened towards an alternative version of meaning.
Anticipating meaning, a broad sensory apparatus is mobilized during Kathrine’s train voyage. She is struck by how the ”carnival of the senses” ties together an emotional whole. She associates the scents with ”the smell of slides projected”, something sweet and warm, like the smell of her child’s head. It is especially smell that is associated with ”something she likes”, she says that it evokes a different kind of expectation than what could be expected by the eyes. Her experience of smell – evocative of the taste of Marcel Proust’s Madeleine cake – becomes a nostalgic and poetic awakening, a reminder of the unity of soul and belonging.
In an historical perspective, blindness occurs in particular with religious connotations. A blind girl becomes an allusion to a promise of inner enlightenment given by God. The blind person renounces the superficial illusion of this world and ”sees the light”. The perception of blindness as a paradoxal blessing is a hypothesis with long historical roots. Calvin, for example, argues that physical blindness forces the blind to hear ”God’s voice” and that the condition could be of spiritual value. In ancient Greece, clairvoyants were often portrayed as blind, certain philosophers are supposed to have blinded themselves – Democrit amongst others – in order to focus better on abstract problems.
Thiis-Evensen/Karlsson’s work stands in a tradition where the blind girl theme represents the displacement between to worldviews. The blindness can symbolize how a world that is in itself meaningful, becomes an open and legible text, equivalent of the “book of nature”. The opposite of a rationalized, modern world in which reality and its objects are observed by the eye, while the objects themselves remain meaningless. Only when they become part of the individual’s specific conceptualization of reality, do they give any meaning. In the writings of Michel Foucault this can be read as the alternation between two historical episteme: The Middle Ages and modern times. Roland Barthes, in his eagerness to dethrone the status of the gaze, writes in his essay about Ignatius Loyola – founder of the Jesuit order – that “the historians tell us that in the Middle Ages hearing was regarded as the most refined sense, the perspective par excellence, that established the richest contact with the outer world.” Seeing was ranked as number three, after touch. In the 1600 and 1700s the hierarchy of the senses was altered and the eye became the primary organ for perception (the highly visual Baroque arts is evidence of this change).
Barthes was only one of a number of French philosophers who regarded eyesight with suspicion. Central to this cultural critique is a frontal attack on the lacking sense of reality we find in the spectacular, or a society bombarded by mediated, visual stimuli. Guy Debord writes about this: The Spectacle, has a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be privileged send which the sense of touch was for other epochs: the abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present-day society.
In such a society the condition of blindness might even provoke a sentiment of envy, because impaired seeing could enhance the impression of everyday living. For those who see, everyday life is no longer accessible as anything but a description, a prop and a performance void of active participation. In the consumer society the whole world is on offer, but only at a distance, observed with a cold, emotionless gaze.
In a sequence composed of 15-second loops Kathrine is subjected to this frosty gaze. She is seated at a table, pouring milk into a glass, but the milk overflows, and in response she gasps. Following this event, the camera zooms in and shows only her face. In this instant a boundary of intimacy is transgressed under the eye of the camera, which in turn triggers a sentiment of embarrassment, or perhaps shame. In this moment, a blind zone – when the world is momentarily invisible – the girl sees herself from the outside. She sees herself because somebody is observing her, and at the moment she gasps, she recognizes herself as the object of a judgmental Other.
According to Jean Paul Sartre such a feeling of awkwardness and shame entails something far more serious: the eye’s supervision undermines the freedom of the individual. Because Kathrine experiences the look of the Other, and the camera’s eye as central to her own action, a simultaneous concretization and alienation of her expression takes place. The gaze overshadows the possibility for transgression, or: overflowing can no longer be justified, on account of her expression being alienated in the eye of the Other. (The camera or video-eye’s potential for a certain bodily discipline ultimately becomes part of a broader discussion concerning reality and the documentary genre, which I chose not to go into here). Under the supervision of the Other, the body becomes a “fallen” object; the original meaning of the shamefulness of being seen naked. Submitted to the objectivizing gaze of the Other, Kathrine, as a blind woman, is unable to return the gaze, robbed of her original “innocence” or position as subject.
Perhaps the codes of the eye are inscribed on the body, whether one is blind or not. As a woman, in addition to being visually impaired, Kathrine is probably especially susceptible to such a threat. This power is something several feminist critics have pointed out as a male privilege. Seeing is, in particular, regarded as a superior sense in the sexuality of men, whereas women, supposing, take more pleasure from touch. In Karlsson/Thiis-Evensens’s work we encounter problems concerning power, sexuality and gender, when Kathrine’s role as a woman and blind is paired with the voyeurism of the camera’s eye. Traveling on the train Kathrine experiences a sensory flow, which is somehow echoed in the overflowing of the milk. According to Luce Irigaray is it possible for such a feminine flow to escape the masculine, outreaching and objectifying gaze.
The fluid can become an efficient tool in the resistance of a masculine scopic regime: ”Only a ”mechanics” of fluid rather than solids can avoid the reduction of female difference into male sameness... We would thus escape from dominant scopic economy...we would be to greater extent in an economy of flow.” Irigaray was wary of a development where the world lies open for a seeing subject; a visual hegemony submitted to a reality of manipulating and static “mechanics”. The prioritizing of the eye’s vulnerable, essential qualities, suppresses sensitivity with strong ties to a fundamental matter. But if everyday life is defined by a limitless flow of visual, digital and abstract forms – excluding alternatives to the vulnerable Eye, Thiis-Evensen/Karlsson are on the track of a sensory stream, firmly anchored in the body.
Barthes 1976, fra Martin Jay, Dowcast eyes. The Denigration og Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, London, Univ. Of Calif. Press, 1993
Debord 1985, fra Spectacular Optical, katalog for utstillingen Spectacular Optical, Thread Waxing Space, N.Y.1998.s38.
Irigaray, 1985, fra Jay s 536.