A flashback to highschool: a momentary lesson in typhlology?

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Like many in the tristate area this week of tropical storm Isaias adding yet another challenge to our 2020 lives, did you have a spontaneous, necessary barbecue the night of Thursday, August 14, 2003? What do you remember doing during the great Northeastern blackout? Is it all coming back?

It was late afternoon. I was on a phone call, at work. The call died and the office went dark. Two floors below street level, my co-workers and I groped our way through the hallways to the stairwell, bypassed the elevator, to find out the whole museum had gone dark, and the whole of Brooklyn, and the whole of greater New York area, and yes, the entire Northeast, it turned out. We left work early. I rode my bike home, and picked up my daughter from school. She and I went hunting for a flashlight and candles. Darkened stores set up improvised counters in their doorways to sell flashlights, batteries, candles and matches. At home we warmed up leftovers from the dark fridge, on the stove—glad it ran on gas—enough to eat, not too much to get spoiled.
Subways weren’t running. My wife got stuck in the city. One of her co-workers knew of a friend who was on vacation, whose apartment was within walking distance. The two of them spent the night on the ninth floor, got there by elevator and watched TV, granted by the grace of the building’s own generator.

After dinner, my daughter and I sat on our stoop enjoying the neighborhood in the gray of dusk. It was a beautiful and comfortable summer evening—no wind, no rain. Homes were dark, but for the candles. Streetlights were off, and somehow there weren’t any cars coming down our street. It was peaceful. We enjoyed taking it all in. At some point the B67 passed in our peripheral vision, a delightful sight, a startling sight as the bus was awash with light. The brightness of the colors of the passengers’ clothes hurt my eyes, taking me back in time, to high school, flashing back to biology class, and learning of rods and cones, and why one sees the world in black and white for a split second upon waking.

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)

Typhlology: The scientific study of blindness.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1xA_XGPLoEWith the odd sense of familiarity have we clept these lenses,Marketed them as glass or sand or dust;To purport the sacrosanctity of our creations:Our running narratives.Every moment there is a brilliant sensory experience at the surface of the retina,A surface that may never fail to float behind the clouded atmosphere;In front of which passes on these artifacts,That are functions of preparation or at least precaution.But, by and by, we see enough to note the differences:Of rich, or pious, or proud, or poor.Enough to garnish no resistance,To clepe the lenses equal (behind the atmosphere) once more.

Blind in New York City

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTInyOHVbv0 typhlology

– nounthe medical study of the causes and treatment of blindness.

[Greek tuphlos, blind + -logy.]   I ultimately decided on the word “typhlology,” the medical study of blindness. Since coming to school in New York City, I have always been mystified and amazed when I see blind people effortlessly traverse the treacherous new york city streets. But what I really wanted to know, in a playful sort of way, was what these people imagined the city scape around them looking like. Everyone sees, understands and perceives the world around them differently, but what distorted visual perspective does someone without sight imagine New York to look like? Using 1957 film NY, NY: A Day in New York by Francis Thompson, which I found to be the perfect articulation of what I wanted to convey through a play on visual perspective, combined with a personal animated study of a blind man in New York City, I arrived at this…

Audiles unite unsilently

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A few hundred audiles braved the cold to unite at the Washington Square arch in the early evening of December 15, 2008 to help create Unsilent Night. In Phil Kline’s annual non-sectarian holiday happening, a cloud of people carries the recorded sounds of bells, thumb pianos and gamelan like audio in boomboxes on their shoulders, under their arms, into a moving soundplay.

I particularly experienced this audio walk from Washington Square to Tompkins Square, as a lesson in seeing space with ears. In the openness of park one hears the auditory beauty for what it is, becoming instantly aware that the movement of people within the cloud will add a texture not conceivable at the Met or most any other sound venue. Once this urban highland band of MP3s and cassettes enters the canyon of Washington Place the spatial awareness lesson #2 announces itself: the block had become boombox. We heard what we heard before with reverb. How I wish my clone could have walked on Waverly crossing Greene and Mercer. How I wonder if he’d heard Washington Place in stereo.

Broadway came, and added its honks and squeaks, St. Mark’s Place its vaudeville rumble, and all along there was the chatter of participants, punctuated by the silent awe of people just coming upon us.

The chatter stopped when Tompkins Square Park summoned to form a huddle for a culminant Grand Finale. And if cell phones were still used, it was to expand the audience.

After the crowd dissolved, the night was cold again, but I had received new eyes. At next year’s Unsilent Night, I may come blindfolded.   

typhlology: inverse blinking

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imagine a world in which your eyes are so sensitive to light that blinking refers to the moments during which your eyes actually open – sporadically and involuntarily. this inverse blinking offers just enough visual information for you to orient yourself before being plunged back into darkness.

this isn’t a world devoid of light.

and it isn’t blindness.

it is neither a place nor a condition with the calm and predictability to allow for adaptation.

for that, it is too interrupted, too jarring.

this world is a tease, offering you treasures only to withdraw them as you reach out your hand.  repeatedly.  thousands of times each day.

you are left, then, living out your life with a looming sense of uncertainty, instability and of things beyond your grasp and outside of your control.

in a disorienting world of inverse blinking, some of us respond by essentially blocking out all glimpses of what lies beyond our eyelids.  we take in only what we need to keep our balance, to avoid tripping over chairs or burning our hands on an open flame.

others of us fill in the blanks, connect the dots.  we take what we see in those momentary slivers of sight and build upon it. we extend a line or color in a corner of fabric.  we assemble our own narrative, hoping and sometimes believing that it actually corresponds to that which we cannot fully see.

Typhlology: Definition

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Typhlology (n.): Study of blindness.

* Definition from the Hutchinson Encyclopaedia ©. Helicon Publishing LTD 2007. All rights reserved.

Typhlology (n.): An obsolete term for the branch of science concerned with the causes and prevention of blindness, and the rehabilitation of those afflicted.

* Definition from the On-line Medical Dictionary, published at the Dept. of Medical Oncology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. © Copyright 1997-2005 – The CancerWEB Project. All Rights Reserved.

Segment producer: Ethan Mass