Notes on Blindness
James H. Hull was film profiles writer and theologian who turned blind after a long process of deteriorating eyesight. He documented his thoughts and observations of the process with cassette recordings that form the soundtrack and narrative of the VR experience, as well as the documentary.
The project won the Storyscapes Award at Tribeca Film Festival and the Alternate Realities VR Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
The experience opens in darkness. A few trembling (animated) lines indicate a sense of space; some trees, a field of grass, a bench. I hear the recorded voice of James Hull and realise I am ´with him´ in a park, seated on a bench. Slowly, contours of objects and people tremble into sight as the calm, reflective voice of mister Hull explains how his hearing has now taken over his eyesight´s former task of mapping and perceiving the outside world.
“Sitting in the park with the children, I hear the footsteps of people walking past me, rustling with a newspaper, murmur of conversation. The myriad of voices and sounds create a panorama of music and information… Where there is no activity, there´s no sound, and then that part of the world dies.”
The bell of a bicycle is heard, and the contours of the bike light up as it passes through my field of view. I hear children playing and they come into sight as well, but only briefly, lighting up as simple sketches against the impenetrable darkness; no detail or realistic colour. They are marked in space, located by sound only.
The sober, somewhat detached voice of James Hull continues, struggling to describe, or maybe understand, how his perception is changing. He recounts of his first encounter with panic, on a day in December after heavy snowfall. Leaving his house, unprepared, he found himself in a muffled, disorientating world, where every sound was absorbed and withheld by the environment, causing him to lose all sense of direction and distance.
A subtle interactive element is introduced, as I am invited to take steps in the snow. My footsteps light up in the darkness, hesitant and slowly. I feel the sense of being lost in an environment that gives me no clues, no point of orientation.
The voice goes on to describe how he has come to love the rain, because the raindrops draw the landscape with sound, like particles of light bouncing against its surface. He says he wishes there could be something like rain inside, and a silent, interactive sequence follows:
Inside a house, wherever my gaze is directed by the sound of falling rain, an object manifests out of darkness. A vase, a fruitbowl, a plate and a cup. It is a touching sequence that communicates a longing for something impossible and paradoxical; rain inside, in order to ´see´ the familiar, everyday objects in one´s home.
As the experience draws to an end, the voice reflects on how he is coming to terms with his blindness. A fragment at a church concert follows, and I see how the choir lights up in different places as the alternating voices take their turn, as a visual-spatial representation of the music.
In an epilogue, the backdrop of heavy darkness finally gives way to a warmer and more brightly coloured world, as the narrator wonders if his life had necessarily been better, if he had been able to see? He asks, rhetorically it seems, if he had known his children any better, if he had been able to see them?
Notes on Blindness is a moving and intelligently designed experience contemplating the nature of perception and human resilience.
The sense of presence in the strange world is used effectively as I, halfway through the piece, begin to feel trapped in the darkness. A sense of knowing what it can be like, to wake up, morning after morning, engulfed in this darkness, is conveyed to me on a deep, emotional level, distinctly different from in the full-length documentary.
By focussing on this one feature, the shift from visual orientation to auditive, the VR experience manages to show in part, what the whole must be like. To me this illustrates an important storytelling principle; the more specific a starting point, the more chance of extending towards universality.
The brightness at the end releases a longed for feeling of redemption and growth, creating a subtle story arch. It is the psychological change in the narrator that induces the brightness, an alteration and rearranging of his premises for a good life. Again, an example of a classic, storytelling principle effectively integrated in a new medium.
“I think I am beginning to understand what it´s like to be blind,” Hull concludes towards the end of the experience. As a viewer as well, I feel as if I have been given a glimpse of understanding I could not have attained otherwise.