Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blind Artists (a brief postscript)

Follow Up to Other Posts

Thank you to those of you who told me about using the video link in class, as the story of the blind photographer and the New Orleans band and all of that is very touching to me.

I am in Chicago, doing work for a journalism lesson, and have been trying to let that sensibility inform my own visual notes. Listening to a mix of rain and snow and hail play against the glass of my hotel window, I tried to capture that dislocated sense of mixed up weather by shooting through the thinnest part of the curtains. It is not great, but I am glad to be trying to listen to the world differently.

And inside the Art Institute of Chicago, they have a gallery for sight impaired visitors, where the "wall text" is in Braille and one can freely touch the art. How wonderful!

Several people may have responses about our notes on Kindle versus books: the iPad side of the block is ready to enlarge the dialogue. Something about that may come shortly. Last, at the same museum, their entrance steps have this text-based artwork installed into them, and I am not sure what it means, but I sure do want one for the stairs inside my house!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is Kindle an Agent of the Devil?

Thoughts on e-Readers and the Decline of the Book

Although I own more books than just about anybody I know and although the tactile pleasure of a well-printed, well-designed book still thrills me, I also am an advocate for Kindles and other e-book devices. Is this wrong? Am I agreeing to set fire to very church that I want to worship in?

My reactions are complicated by the fact that textbooks soon will be predominantly online (or will they? see below) and in using a e-book, one gives up a lot, including just the pleasure of the paper pages and the ease of making notes and sharing xeroxes of favorite passages.

Former AVC Writing Tutor Abbey Fitting was considering buying an e-reader as the platform for all of her required textbooks next term at CSU Bakersfield. As a lit major, many of her assigned books are available as e-book downloads. She wondered, should she make the switch? After all, the very prestigious WW Norton company has just released their latest writers’ handbook in a mobile phone edition, and supposedly Kindle versions of books now outsell regular editions.

Did she want to spend the money and switch over? The rest of this blog is guest written by Abbey Fitting, as she shares her reasons for the decision she made.

To Kindle or Not (by Abbey Fitting)

For the book lover there is nothing more pure, more essential to life, than a good book. That arrangement of language, whether in poetry or novel or essay form, moves us to tears and to laughter. At times it can frustrate us with complexity while at other times it soothes our hot and angry souls. For some of us it is an escape into another place; for others an inspiration to be more than we are.

Books are a source both of love and of constant anxiety. I always fear that I will end up somewhere without something to read. I am never far from a book and I have them even in my car (just in case, you know). I pack obscene amounts of them on airplanes for fear I’ll finish one or more before we land.

On a recent cross-country road trip I practically installed an entire bookshelf in the back seat, clearly worried that I’d end up in some mysterious part of the country where they didn’t have books and I would finish mine and be left empty-handed.

If were to say to another book lover, “Here, I’ve found a way that you can take your entire library with you, always and forever, it’ll never be more than a few inches out of your reach,” I might have expected them to hug me and award me the bookish version of the Medal of Honor. Yet if I say the above and then hand them an e-reader (a Kindle or Nook or iPad), they will probably cast it to the ground and shun me from the clan of readers. Heretic, they will say. Apostate. Be gone!

But WHY? I imagine myself shouting to them. It’s all there! After all, for books, it seems that if everything I have listed above still exists if it is translated into a digital format. The power of the story to sweep us away, the joy of an excellently written poem—it’s all STILL THERE. And consider the possibilities! No more traveling with just five or six paperback books, you could instead travel with one slim Kindle and have inside, magically, 10,000 paperback books! And (almost) anywhere in the world you could order a new book in your native language.

Never. Ever. Be without something good to read ever again.

It sounds like a small version of paradise. Why shouldn’t we embrace the digital book as our savior?

The answer, of course, is not simple. But I think I’ve got it figured out.

It is because our books, or I should say, the printed artifact that we call a book, are so much more than the words they contain. If mothers save clippings of their children’s hair at certain ages, and some sailors collect vials of sand from the beaches they’ve visited, then most serious readers collect books. Our books are artifacts of our lives. They are souvenirs of our changing personalities and tastes. From the copy of Harry Potter that you bought hot-off-the-presses in 1997 to your copy of Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human that you bought in 2007 for a class, these books are the history of ourselves. And not just a visible, tangible way to see the person-you-were vs. the-person-you-are, but also of the places—the physical geography—where you experienced those books.

In December of last term I spent a few weeks in Botswana doing the safari thing with my husband and a pair of friends. For that trip I took with me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’d read it before, but since I’m starting a writing project centered at a place featured briefly (though prominently) in the novel, I was re-reading it for the sake of research and, also, because I just liked the story. Into the daypack it went.

What does the book look like now, after that? Between four twelve-hour flights from here to London to South Africa and back, in between six bush plane flights and five field camps, it took on quite the patina. A thick section of pages came loose after a thunderstorm made the air so humid you could have gone swimming in it. The cover has been bent in a number of places, the spine is so broken at this point that it can lay flat (not easy on a paperback this size), there’s a shoe-print on one of the pages, there’s a dead ant embedded in another, and a number of dead are gnats preserved too. It has a faintly mildewy scent about it (though by now, three months back in the arid desert climate, it is definitely dried out, creating that wavy, pleated look).

In some ways this beat-up novel has taken on a different story, one not written by the author but written by me: Abbey’s travels in Africa. I read this book and heard hippos fighting over territories. I read this book waiting for a bush plane to come pick me up. I read this book and looked up to discover a group of giraffes (young included) moving into the camp, browsing the leaves high over my head. I read this book and looked up to discover a group of vervet monkeys were sneaking closer to attempt to steal my snack. It can do this because it is just one book. This is the book that I chose to take with me; this is the book I read while traveling in Africa.

This is what an e-reader will never be to us. This is what we mourn when we give in and buy one; this is what we shun when we hold fast against the pressure to do so. A Kindle holds 10,000 books, it’s true. It could, potentially, hold all the books currently stacked around my office. But because of that, it will never take on the patina of being “The book I read when….”

It will get scratches, it’s true, but you won’t remember the how or why or where, because it will go so many mundane places with you. And when it breaks, you won’t fight with yourself about replacing the way I do when I consider buying a new copy of a book that I’ve just worn the spine out on completely, because it’s like buying a new cell phone or a laptop: You expect to need to replace it. You expect the battery to wear out. You expect technology to leap ahead and leave it behind.

This doesn’t happen with our physical books. We buy new books, sure, but we love them or we pass them on. We don’t consider our books outdated; we don’t need to upgrade them. If anything, we love them more as they get older. We love how the ideas that had been so commonplace suddenly become stranger and stranger. We love that odd smell they take on, or that weird yellow color.

I suppose ultimately what I’m trying to explain is not why you should avoid an e-reader— please, buy one. I wish Amazon no ill will, and I have spent many days at Barnes & Noble, looking at a Nook. But rather, what I am trying to explain is why it is so hard for us to give up our real books. Why we fight so hard to keep them, and why, in our hearts, no matter how good the story is on the e-reader, we will always know that it is not really a book.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

From Littlerock to Paradise in 20 Frames

What Blind Photographers Can Teach All of Us
As singer Leonard Cohen says (and poets like to repeat), everything has cracks—that’s what lets the light in.

We think of our world as flooded with light, and, in the Antelope Valley, there’s often so much sunlight that to hide from it we need sunglasses tinted as dark as welding goggles and deeply-canted parking awnings.

If some of us have too much light, what about our friends and neighbors whose eyesight is, in the literal sense, absent or deeply impaired?

I have been thinking about blind photographers lately, and that has made me reassess what it means to be an artist, what kinds of pity I too-quickly put onto people, and what assumptions I have been making about creativity. An passage adapted from the Bible reminds us that there are none so blind as those who will not see, and conversely, the true artist is she or he who sees more deeply, more wisely than any of the rest of us. Great art opens our eyes in many ways.

A video link proves this well, as it introduces us to the world of Peter Eckert, a blind photographer who does amazing work, and reveals the difference between sight and insight, between hope and despair. This blog will not usually embed many video clips or external links, but this is truly something beyond average that I think you will be glad to have seen. This four-minute video should help all of us think about labels, ability, and vision. It really is inspiring.

I had been aware of his work before, but had not paid attention to it closely enough. This is not to my credit—we should never be so busy or so prejudiced we can’t make a space in our hearts for the best that the world has to offer.

In case the video link didn’t work for you, here is a copy of something of his from a book called Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists.

This book documents a show that was hosted by UC Riverside’s California Center for Photography.

One of the artists profiled in the show (which is available for review online, as is the exhibit catalogue) uses braille typography to overprint his photographs: completely unsighted visitors may run their hands across the print and read it that way. Here is a photo from the book, of an image by Gerardo Nigenda, an artist from Oaxaca.

(Sorry about the distortion on this one: future blogs will be using a scanner not a camera to make reproductions and will have better quality images!)

The exhibit’s curator suggests that photography by sight-disabled artists often falls into three groupings. One group of these artists "constructs, maintains, and curates private, internal galleries of images. Then they use cameras to bring their inner visions into the world of the sighted. 'I photograph what I imagine,' writes Evgen Bavcar. ‘You could say I'm a bit like Don Quixote. The originals are inside my head.'"

This from an essay titled “Shooting Blind.” Douglas McCulloh goes on to say that a “second group deploys cameras to capture the outside world, but, being blind, operate free of sight-driven selection and self-censorship. Marcel Duchamp wrote of ‘non-retinal art,’ an art of the mind, of concept, of chance. These artists are engaged in non-retinal photography. The results are pure, unfiltered, and inherently conceptual. They operate beyond the logic of composition or the tyranny of the decisive moment.”

Last, McCulloh explains, “The third and smallest group is legally blind, but retain very limited, highly attenuated sight. Most photographers see to photograph. These artists photograph to see.” An example is Bruce Hall, from Irvine, California. Here is a portrait he has made of his autistic son enjoying the tactile pleasures of the bath. I don’t know about you, but I can’t match this with pictures of my own kids. The purity and innocence of the moment are perfectly served by the artistry of the print.

All of this inspired me to go out this morning and tree to see what it is I overlook daily. Yesterday I had come back from a wedding in San Diego in a great hurry, and while I didn’t get a speeding ticket, I blew through the towns along the 138 as if they were impediments or nuisances, not communities where people live, work, pray, or support my wage packet by attending AVC English classes. I went back this morning to see what things I had been missing. Quite a lot, apparently!

Here are a few things from today’s exploration of Littlerock.

Thank you to these other artists for making me confront my own blindnesses.

Son of Blog

Regular Feature Returns

Sorry for the delay: after Antarctica, AVC’s blog options began to divide and braid like glacial streams. Santi Tafarella will be helping with an accreditation blog and a pedagogy blog for the Basic Skills program, both of which will be available only to faculty, and Charles Hood (self portrait below: I am the tall shadow, not the fat dinosaur, though some would argue the reverse) will be doing the community blog, which is the one you are reading now.

Santi’s updates depend on program review schedules and faculty input, but this blog will change about once a week on average. Initial features in the next month will talk about blind photography, the amazing renaissance in children’s picture books, the aesthetics of sports, whether or not Kindle is an agent of the devil, and the relationship between the poet Walt Whitman and the AV Symphony. On average we won’t cover politics, offensive content, or immediate news items; other venues exist for those. We will though have guest bloggers and a variety of opinions. The first of the new, post-Antarctica posts will be up shortly.