Taking the World Apart:
Some reflections on Touch
If I want to describe my living room at home, I first have to re-collect a mental image. I imagine the dining table covered with its cloth; I picture the Victoriana china cabinet against the wall, topped with a haphazard arrangement of candles, some in glass jars, some in tins, a Swarovski crystal hedgehog, an antique-looking candle snuffer whose purchase seemed like a good idea at the time. The mental image solidifies as I add the Kawai digital piano, the hi-fi system supported on the wooden cabinet that is now almost 40 years old and looking it, and the assortment of CDs and records on the turntable lid that Ill tidy up some day.
For me as a person who is blind, the world of out thereness takes shape through the interplay of sound and smell and taste and touch. It is not a world of sensory impoverishment or deficit, but its form and texture become most real and permanent when my various senses collide and combine to produce, phoenix-like, a multi-layered and new experience. I dont live in a world of Platonic forms. My world is not one of pure sounds, or pure fragrances. When I imagine a donut, I imagine the sugar coating on my fingers and the texture on my tongue as much as the warm oily aroma. When I want to replay the memory of a Chanel fragrance, I imagine the bottle that contains it as much as the perfume itself. And if you tell me that a character is sitting in a chair, the scene remains vague and blurry until I can relate this particular chair to other chairs that Ive touched.
Sound, smell and taste reveal my world with its infinite nuances and tones, but touch is the duct tape that holds it all together. Without touch, the world for me as a person who is blind would be much less three-dimensional, much more intangible and forgettable.
Without touch, the world for me would, in fact, be largely a world apart touch is, more than any other sense, my entrée into the world the vehicle that brings the world up close and helps me feel a part of it. If I were to lose the capacity to touch or make meaning out of those touches, the world would, in a very real and irrevocable way, be taken apart. Touch also seems to be necessary for memories to stay sharp. Im sure Ive spent time in dozens, probably hundreds of living rooms, but the only ones I can pluck from the web of neuronal connections now are the ones whose walls and furniture I have touched, whose carpet Ive felt under my bare feet. Ive been to the Sydney Opera House many times, but because Ive really only touched the seats and café tables, the mental image of it that I can call to mind is much less distinct and well-formed than the image I have of the paper recycling room in my apartment block. I know in my head that the Opera House is a harbinger of culture and an icon of human achievement, but because Ive touched so little of it, I dont know it in my heart.
Touch is important for people who are sighted, of course. Its the most impulsive of our senses thats why there are signs in our galleries and museums commanding us not to touch. Those signs arent installed to ward off roaming blind people (unless theyre in braille we cant read them even if we suspect that they are there). Without the signs it would be sighted people who would do most of the touching.
Several years ago I was involved in an art project during which we coated the streetfront windows of a Sydney gallery with sheets of braille writing. Almost every person who walked past that gallery (and it was on a busy street) stopped to touch the braille they couldnt read it, but they were impelled compelled to touch it they were seduced by its tactility, not its visuality. Western, increasingly visual, culture has done its best to suppress that impulse to touch, especially in the presence of art. A gaze (even a downcast one) is thought to do less damage to an artwork than the most fleeting feather-touch, even though the artwork was almost certainly touched incessantly during its creation.
When I attend a theatre performance, I can listen to the dialogue. Increasingly, I can also benefit from audio description, which gives me real-time information about the visual aspects of the performance. I recently attended a performance of the Sydney Festivals Semele Walk (more-or-less based on the Handel opera Semele but featuring models in sequined costumes parading on a catwalk, and other post-Baroque touches). For those of us who are blind, the Festival arranged an audio tour prior to the performance, and this was useful. But what really made that performance come alive for me, and what I remember now, was the tactile tour that the Festival provided of the costumes. Its one thing to be told that the performers are wearing sequined costumes, but its another thing entirely to actually touch those costumes and really know what a sequined costume is. The tactile tour brought the performers up close: it caused my world to intersect with the world of the performance in a way that audio description alone cannot do; I felt a part of the world of that performance rather than being apart from it. And in keeping with the co-creative process of art-making, I believe that it felt a part of my world too.
As you read the opening paragraph of these reflections, you would have inevitably formed a mental image of my living room. Did you imagine a circular dining table, or a rectangular one? Its actually oval. Did you know what a Kawai digital piano actually looks like, with its sloping wooden organ-style lid and music stand? Did you notice that some of the CDs on the turntable lid arent in their jewel cases? And did your image of the china cabinet include the leadlight on the front glass, or the key in the lock? If I had attached a photograph you would have been able to flesh out those details. Without the photo you have to rely on the same audio (or in this case written) description as I do. If my living room were the set for a theatre performance, there wouldnt be much time to provide an audio description, so only the most important details could be described, and by the time the play had ended, you would have forgotten most of the description anyway. But if you had a tactile tour of my living room, youd have, like me, a much richer image of it. You would be able to connect with the performance rather than feeling like a distant spectator. Touching an object gives you different information from listening to a description of it a fingerful is not the same as an earful.
Ive always enjoyed live theatre and other arts-related events. However, as a blind person, Ive almost always felt like that distant spectator. The addition of audio description is certainly reducing the tyranny of that distance. But what really allows me to take that world apart and make it mine is the inclusion of touch.