Typhlology: 23rd Street, Manhattan (by Ethan Mass)

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When I was invited to contribute to this project, I was given perhaps a dozen words to choose from. This word was the most inspiring. Since most of my work is very literal, I really appreciated an opportunity to make something abstract and impressionistic. A short film whose starting point is “the study of blindness” was an inspiring springboard.

Walking along 23rd street and noticing the services and schools for the blind, I felt that I had found my . At the intersection of 6th avenue, an audio signal box beeps an alert tied into the streetlights; I knew I wanted to include this metronome.

The first idea that came to mind was to make a “video flipbook” composed of stills. When I started gathering the stills, I felt they were too clear, too legible. I wanted to recreate a sightless/partially sighted experience by making the stills unfocussed and blurred. As I began stringing the stills together I experimented with interrupting the image flow with dark sections– leading me to what became the motivator for the rest of my image gathering and editing: the overwhelming, unfocussable assault of visual stimulation that a 5-avenue stretch of Manhattan can become, and how moments of darkness can offer some respite. What if you could only see in bits and pieces? What if your eyes and mind weren’t fast enough to make logical connections between the racing images flying past?

I ultimately used nearly 700 stills. I walked across 23rd street several times, shaking my camera, looking like a tourist going home with the world’s worst collection of travel memories. I was looking for softness, color and dynamism. Some images I froze to allow a moment of closer study, only to be whisked away and replaced with a dozen more images.

I recorded the audio the same way, walking slowly and pausing near any interesting voices or words. I eventually used 4 different pieces of audio overlapped and mixed up and down to try to give an impression of conversations speeding by. The film is bookended with the sound of the signal from the 6th avenue crosswalk box.

When I watch it I like that the images move just fast enough that I always feel a step behind, trying to process the image that just passed while also registering the new one coming at me; the way the darkness allows me a moment to breathe and absorb just the sounds for a moment.  (Ethan Mass)

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