In my BLIND ALPHABET installations, I try to get blind people to help sighted visitors to discover certain philosophical aspects of their vision/visionlessness. Most frequenters of art galleries are artists, art critics and art students, who are 'visually aware/literate' because they have received special training in visual appreciation. Blind people, on the other hand, need constant guidance and attention to cope with things that come easily to the sighted. Your average art gallery is not 'blind-friendly'. This work focuses on that state of affairs, and enables English-speaking blind people to reverse the pattern and guide the sighted in the privileged environment of the art gallery.
I am Afrikaans. Although my family history infused in me a revulsion for everything to do with the British, I decided in my twenties that I should seek reconciliation. I realised that it would help considerably if I acquired a good command of the English language. I studied at an English institution, and when I had qualified, I taught at English high schools and an English-medium Technikon. I read incessantly, and amassed a considerable library of books on philosophy, theology, art and music. I memorised the King James version of the New Testament, married an English girl and fathered two English-speaking children. I also improved my vocabulary by completing a cryptic English crossword puzzle daily, as I have done ever since. I wrote a dictionary of colour terms in 1977, and started compiling lists of thousands of plants in 1982, so 'dealing with (the) English' became both a challenge and a diversion.
But one can change only so far. I retained an Afrikaans-English accent, and suspected that some of my English-speaking colleagues at Parktown Boys' viewed this as a sure sign of stupidity. To earn their respect, I began to extend my English vocabulary in earnest by compiling lists of perplexing English words. I had a great love for language, especially Latin and Greek. I eventually collected about 10 000 difficult words by reading through all the dictionaries I could find (I now have over 200 dictionaries). Conversations in the school staff-room turned into great fun. I was constantly laying traps and pulling off verbal stunts. My colleagues tried to test me, but I was usually able to win those contests. I lost a few friends, but some of my fellow teachers began to realise that intellectual proficiency did not necessarily go hand in hand with accent, skin or nationality. This is a valuable lesson to learn if one wants to respect the inherent gifts and values of people one does not understand very well.
I wanted to extend my language game to other activities, including the artmaking process. Carrying on the theme of reversing expectations, I decided to make an art installation that would enable blind people to function as gifted experts instructing disenfranchised sighted people. In this way my crazy word-lists became the mother-lode for BLIND ALPHABET. I had realised that many of the words I collected had to do with form and texture, the basic constituents of sculpture; so I would use these obscure terms to prepare a morphological dictionary, illustrated by sculptures of the complex forms they described.
To put sighted people at a disadvantage I needed to impose upon them a sense of the disappointment blind people suffer when they are restricted. The way I 'blind' sighted visitors to the artwork is to hide the sculptures in small boxes, under wire mesh. The art gallery's signs reading 'Don't Touch' prevent them from opening the boxes, so that they are overcome by frustration. Furthermore, the lid on every box is inscribed with a text in Braille, which is foreign to most sighted people. Then, to cap everything, there are hundreds of these sculptures in row upon row, in close proximity. The sighted visitor feels denied, lost in a labyrinth that might lead nowhere. As one blind guest said: '... you had it all -- now it's our turn to have it all -- this is ours'.
When the blind visitor comes along, he or she does not know that there are hundreds of works. He or she becomes aware of the BLIND ALPHABET installation only when encountering a piece. Because the blind person is unable to see the art gallery sign forbidding touching, his or her uninhibited touch reveals first a familiar Braille text, then that it explains the sculptural object inside the box, and then the feel of that object. When he or she moves on to the next form, it is right beside the first: the blind don't get lost looking for the artworks or trying to make sense of them. When the befuddled sighted visitors see the blind people enjoying themselves, they are prompted to ask for an explanation. 'What have you got that I'm missing?' The blind visitors then begin to help the sighted people to experience the work.
My BLIND ALPHABET does not intend to patronise the blind. It is a challenge to their sense of social responsibility, asking them to rise to the occasion and use their special gift for reading Braille to do something significant for the sighted in the art galleries of South Africa. The texts are not easy to read: they follow the dry-as-dust academic language used in old-fashioned galleries, archives and museums. The writing is full of difficult words, botanical names and Latin and Greek derivatives. The blind have to struggle to explain them, but I have watched them giving admirable accounts. My blind friend Wellington Pike, who works as a proof-reader at Braille Services, is capable of checking seven languages. His ability to read faster than he can speak, and the abstruse nature of the text he is reading aloud, make him appear a prophet when he shares the strange things written on the sculptures with the bewildered people around him.
BLIND ALPHABET was the first offspring of my word-lists. After completing phase one of it I read through the 25 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary and wrote a 'user-friendly' entry for every difficult word I had found. This updated dictionary, which contains 18 000 words, was completed in 1999. I have made several language installations based on this undertaking. All of them prompt conversation between people who find it difficult to talk to each other. Like BLIND ALPHABET, they serve as ice-breakers, to encourage an exchange of ideas and sentiments. At the Rand Afrikaans University I installed KRING VAN KENNIS (Circle of Knowledge), 11 large boulders of granite bearing texts from the 11 official languages of South Africa. There someone who is a Tswana or Venda knows he or she has something speakers of other languages don't have. At the Havana Biennale 2000 I tried to discombobulate the predominantly 'European' intelligentsia by writing 'linguistic impossibilities from Africa' in the sand. These works create an environment in which it is possible to find the Zulu lady who sells fruit on the street corner explaining difficult English terms to the professor of English at a respected English university, or to the yuppie sophisticate during his or her lunch break outside the stock exchange in Sandton.