On the Western Sensory Framework and New Avenues

Since last season, the Kaaitheater has been looking for ways to make the aesthetic experience of dance accessible for the blind and visually impaired. For example, some performances are accompanied by audio description or a touch tour beforehand. Others have been created inclusively for both the sighted and visually impaired. Piet De Vos – who has been blind since he was five – is an author and specialized in sensory research. He dismantles the Western sensory framework and opens up new avenues for exploration: ‘There is more to the senses than their physical dimension.’

More than ever, our society is oriented to the visual. We constantly pump Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat full of photos and selfies. Everyone has a smartphone and exchanges images with other people non-stop. It is not the experience itself, but the visual communication of that experience that now predominates. What is your perspective on this evolution?

Visual dominance is not new: the rise of television in the 1960s made our society very image-oriented. But I do feel as though that visual culture is gradually becoming even more dominant. Travel is a good example of this evolution: the most important has become that you share a picture of yourself next to the Statue of Liberty on Facebook. The need for Wi-Fi, has thus becoming a central part of traveling. But images have also become the most important component of the news: people have to have seen something to believe that it really happened.

This photographic culture is much less important to people who are blind or visually impaired. This does not mean, however, that they know nothing about social media and new technologies. On the contrary, they are also active users. Integrative or inclusive technology has allowed various target audiences to use the same devices. For example, there are not only settings for the visually impaired, but also for spastic or deaf people. This has created many new possibilities.

Does our visual culture make the world less accessible to you or does new technology redress the imbalance?

Accessibility is relative. Concerning access to information, the situation has improved, not only thanks to devices like iPhones, but also thanks to the internet. The internet is very important because everything that used to printed had to be translated into braille or recorded as audio for it to be accessible to the visually impaired. Human translation is no longer necessary. Every digital text is legible for us. Depending on your needs, you can connect something to your laptop: a braille terminal, letter enlargement, or a voice synthesizer. Instead of people, the software can translate the text, and this has drastically increased the accessibility of information.

Throughout history, sight has always been the most important sense in the West. This is related to the fact that sight and hearing are distance senses; you do not engage in direct physical contact with the object that you observe. This model, in which sight is the most important sense, is a result of Greek philosophy. During the Enlightenment, sight was even equated with rationality. The idea being that it is only through visual observation that you can create an objective image of the world. In other words, seeing is believing.

We often think that the senses are simply a part of our body. Some people have four, others have five. But the senses are much more than merely physical attributes. The way we perceive things is determined by what you say about them and the perspective of your culture. These are unwritten codes that influence you from infancy. In Europe, children are taught that the visual is incredibly important from a very early age. For example, we have a very visual vocabulary. A question that blind or visually impaired will certainly have heard while traveling is ‘What’s the point of traveling if you can’t see anything anyway?’ If you don’t reflect on ideas like this, visual culture can be extremely difficult.

Touch is by no means self-evident. Including for the blind and visually impaired. Choreographer Vera Tussing, who uses a lot of touch in her productions, was told during a try-out: ‘It’s not because I’m blind that I want to be touched.’

That is a fine example of the effect of visual culture. Touch, but also smell and taste, are much more physical. They are all considered more primitive, instinctive, and impure. Touch is very ethically charged and we easily associate it with eroticism and violence. Who can touch what, when, and how is highly regulated. This is also profoundly linked to our Christian culture. So it is certainly not a bad thing to voice dissenting opinions.

A current example of such dissent is the popularity of podcasts. Are there other forms of counter culture?

Radio is a medium that is still very popular among the visually impaired, and the podcast is a wonderful addition. Radio plays have also made a comeback recently. They were very popular in the sixties and seventies, but they disappeared from the radio waves in the decades afterwards. Fortunately, that is changing, especially among public broadcasters like the BBC, and that is partly because sighted people are showing increasing interest.

The contemporary alternative to seeing is predominantly hearing. Audio tours in museums are another great development. Many blind people think they are fantastic because they are so inclusive. Both the sighted and the visually impaired enjoy them as well. Occasionally there is even greater attention to the blind or visually impaired. For example, some museums in Spain provide historical background in audio tours, and there is also an option for audio description. There are many opportunities here, especially for permanent collections.

The sense of touch is much more sensitive. I just mentioned that we prefer to observe at a distance so that we don’t have to make physical contact. A further element is that we don’t want to ‘contaminate’ objects through our touch. We live in a don’t-touch culture. Just look at our museums. Touch continues to be thought of as something that is dirty and makes you dirty. The funny thing, especially with respect to sculpture, is that many sculptors think that their art should be touched because creating it was such a tactile experience for them. Anthropologist David Howes, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Sensory Senses, has been making the argument for multi-sensory ethnographic museums for years. By displaying implements in glass cases, you deprive people of more than half the information about the object and the lives of those who used the object. It would be much more interesting to experience how to use these objects. In other words, we still have a long way to go to bridge the gap between art and its audiences.

Whenever the focus is on sensory experience, the critical power of the artwork is always questioned. Why is that?

Our entire system of knowledge is based on visualization to an incredible extent. I have been conducting research into this subject for years and I am still amazed by it. Take the fact that we systematically map things out, for example. The maps that we make of the world are always visual. This feels so logical to us that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps it would be interesting to make a sound map of a city. Or to plan a route by smell. To take another example, data always has to be presented in graphs. In protest, somebody at the Centre for Sensory Studies illustrated his PhD through dance rather than graphs.

The reactions to initiatives like this are still generally very pitying, which is primarily due to our almost complete unfamiliarity with non-visual models of knowledge. These models exist, but they are not well-known and children are hardly ever exposed to them. Our classic education system is very audio-visual, despite the fact that all educational reformers – Steiner or Montessori, for example – campaigned to teach children to use all their senses. We are taught to recognize plants based on their visual characteristics, but we could also do that via touch or smell. Examples such as these illustrate how deeply rooted visual culture is in our mentality.

The sense of touch is also charged affectively. To touch also implies being touched. When someone touches you during a performance, it is different from watching someone move 20 metres away. When you focus more on the direct senses, your aesthetic experience changes, and is perhaps more emotional in the moment itself. But touch can also be aesthetic. It makes you think and stimulates your senses.

So there is a future in touch?

The sense of touch as a source of knowledge is very valuable. Philosophers have even developed theories about it. Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote beautiful things about how you discover the world through touch and movement, and how helpful they are to developing a growing familiarity with your environment. Many people are able to move around their house easily even when the light is switched off: you know where everything is and you are familiar with your surroundings. We do many things without looking at them. For example, people often ask me how I am able to type. But there are numerous sighted people who touch type. We all do so many things through movement, touch, and automatism. Blind and visually impaired people are simply more conscious of these aspects of life because they are more explicitly present: exploring space with a stick, identifying objects through touch.


Piet De Vos in conversation with Katleen Van Langendonck, Hilde Peeters & Eva Decaesstecker (Kaaitheater, 2017). Within the framework of The Humane Body, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.