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First Impressions - Zoe Partington's Go Public commission

Posted by Colin Hambrook, Wednesday 21st March, 2012

three stills of the inside of a shopping centre and road with the words: the bane of a blind person's life; they get in the way

Zoe Partington launched her Go Public commission ‘First Impressions’ at the New Bucks University on Friday 17 March.

Save for Mark Ware’s art film ‘The Dog That Barked Like A Bird’ and Extant’s art/science project ‘The Question’, I don’t recall ever having seen an art installation that explored a visually impaired persons’ perspective on encountering the urban environment. Blind culture has lacked much creative input into the visual arts. So the idea of the work incorporating biomedical visual data to convey a blind person’s ‘journey’ was novel and intriguing.

Introducing the work at the Private View, Zoe went into how her starting point had been the idea of how new tactile feedback technologies could be employed to create better access for visually impaired people. In recent years we’ve seen a growing use of satnav technology in providing descriptions of how to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’. But what if these advances could be used to create interpretations of the actual environment in real-time? Could a device be used to aid better understanding of the terrain a VIP is likely to encounter in any given environment?

The ‘First Impressions’ installation explored an individual’s journey across a shopping centre; highlighting the problems someone with sight loss encounters in these spaces. The installation itself is a large white cube. A map of High Wycombe is projected onto the sides of the canvas structure. A red heat marker, moves across the map, describing the actual journey taken by a VIP. Here, there could have been more documentation made available. Using a busy public space with a stream of people persistently passing through, meant that the more subtle elements of the work were lost to much of the audience.

Inside the canvas installation itself, was space to fit half a dozen people, comfortably. The film is projected onto a back-lit wall and comprises of a journey across the blue pixilated floor surface of a shopping centre. The film allows us to look through the eyes of a visually impaired person, who is describing how he experiences the environment. His narrative includes comments that give insight into how he feels about the journey we are seeing: “Shopping is the bane of a blind person’s life.” He tells us that the marble floors and glass walls amplify the sound adding to his disorientation. He also talks about having to stay close to the walls: “Lose the walls and I can’t find my way out.”

We experience his stress, in the moment, as he orientates himself, watching the floor move below his feet. There is a persistent trepidation about tripping and falling added to the worry that he could be walking in a circle and not actually going where he intended at all. As viewer we get a sense of how we are looking for clues to navigate this journey; white lines that stick out as markers; car sounds that herald the proximity of roads.

‘First Impressions’ would sit well in a large gallery venue. Experiencing it on a cold night in a side-street annexing the university, wasn’t the best location for appreciating the film fully. It was great to see large print surtitles that relayed the speech, although there were gaps in how much of the narration was relayed in text. The citing of the installation was a noisy, echoey space, so I was reliant on the transcription to pick up the words.

As far as the aesthetic of the piece was concerned, ‘First Impressions’ could have incorporated a more naturalistic style. It’s hard to imagine that the partially sighted narrator, navigating through the space as an ordinary occurrence, wouldn’t have stopped to check out reference points; that from his point of view, we wouldn’t have seen other landmarks; changes in perspective; other people moving as blurs or shadows, into his limited field of vision.

However, the setting did afford an outing for the collaboration that has taken place between Signdance Collective and Zoe Partington. Signdance worked with performing arts students from New Bucks University to interpret ‘the journey’. Signdance do this kind of work so well – and conveyed an energetic sense of connection with what Zoe was trying to do.

In a twenty minute piece, all dressed in white, the performers described what the journey was like for them. They conveyed a host of feelings and associations, which occasionally had echoes of the blind narrator. One student, who really stood out, used repetitive words and movement to describe poetically, his sense of connection and disconnection as he made his way through the shopping centre, past seats that looked like sculptures and slippery floors.

What impressed me about this piece was the way it got the students to think about audio-description as an intuitive part of theatrical performance. It’s a subtle process, but so much writing for theatre could be revolutionised by incorporating description into the dialogue; allowing the audience to have a picture of what’s in the frame through hints implanted in the speech.

Several characters took the limelight during this performance. Their descriptions took on a mix of the inner and the outer world. They got into the spirit of ‘First Impressions’ and would be a great asset as a performative element to the work, wherever it is shown.

On a final note I should mention that 'First Impressions' was shortlisted for the 2011 Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary. Let's hope Zoe Partington gets other opportunities to develop this work.

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