Andy Slater, "Invisible Ink"
Updated: Sep 12, 2022
These three pieces can be experienced as alt text, using a screen reader, or by listening to the audio clips hyperlinked in the titles.
Landing Site, 6’ x 4’ ,oil on canvas, 2020
Witnesses, 6’ x 4’, oil on canvas, 2021
Who’s Day Is It? 4’ x 2.5’,mixed media on wood, 2019
"I would have a hard time talking about my blindness or treating the work as an example of disability justice if my cane or clicks were trimmed from each piece.(...) With this I define the proper etiquette for a blind sound walk and soundscape eavesdrop. Let the cane do its thing and appreciate it as you do the song of the mourning loon. (...) Since all of the sounds represented in this work were recorded out in a world full of referential material there is no shortage of ways to describe the passage/narrative/composition of the sound. But still, it is a challenge that I am still trying to stick a flag into."
–Andy Slater, unpublished comments
on his sound work Unseen Reheard
Andy Slater is a blind artist who makes sound art that is not limited to sound, audio work that endeavors to appeal to a range of senses to which his audience may or may not have full access. In an address this spring to my class on teaching art to disabled students, he spoke about how, despite art museums offering accessibility to visually impaired patrons through tools such as audio tours, "there was never work, as far as I was concerned, that a blind person could experience on their own terms." By paying adequate attention to sound works by artists, from foundational figures like Bill Fontana and Pauline Oliveros up to the present day, institutions could let blind people feel as if "we were allowed to consider this art," as opposed to occasionally offering tactile topographical renditions of canonical works, or patronizing gestures at ocular-centric forms of therapeutic creativity. Upon joining a community of fellow disabled artists in the mid-2010s, Andy encountered numerous peers who would freely and meaningfully describe their visual artwork to him, without prompt or request, which for him opened up the aesthetic possibilities of visual description as a form of expression. He rejects attempts to codify visual descriptions of artworks through standards, instead suggesting the untapped potential for verbally activating imaginary experiences-- as he puts it, "making the description part of the art."
For the piece Crypto Acoustic Auditory Non-Hallucination, created for a sound-centered October 2021 edition of the publication McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Slater contributed a 1967 recording by Dr. Janet Herman, a psychologist at Duke University who undertook a study exploring trans-dimensional auditory experiences related by blind people. The audio piece can be played online, which includes Herman recounting participants’ recollections, accompanied by clips of the sounds they heard. The printed elements of the report were reproduced for the McSweeney’s issue in a brown envelope. These included a memo from Slater, a photo of Herman in her laboratory, a diagram and description of the “transitory sound catcher” she developed, short quotes by specified study participants on individual pages, a letter from a lawyer representing one of the participants, a letter from a laboratory that analyzed Herman’s recordings, and Herman’s resignation from her department. Replete with uncanny sounds and compelling vignettes, the piece is a total fabrication. Andy created the script and the mysterious recordings, the straight-faced report was delivered by voice actor Lucy Newton, and the sound-catcher diagram was by illustrator Annie Dills.
In his memo, Slater refers to the belief that blind people are “supernatural,” which he describes as “a commonly held stereotype that prevails today.” Claiming to have verified Herman’s experiments through analyzing her tapes, he concludes, “I can’t say I haven’t wondered if this means blind people really are the wisdom-dispensing oracles as over-depicted in movies(.)” But this ancient notion of blindness offering access to alternate forms of perception runs counter to a common idea of blindness in the modern West as an all-purpose metaphor for ignorance. Addressing the legacy of English Enlightenment polymath and philosopher John Locke, Stacy Clifford Simplican notes that “Locke uses blindness to represent the absurdity of innate ideas, the inability to know real essences, the consequences of lazy thinking, and universal human vulnerability in relation to God.” Pity may be a more predictable response to blindness than reverence, but it should still be understood as informed by various conflicting archetypes.
Ignorance and prophecy are not the only tropes of blindness in the popular imagination. Blind people are also frequently encountered as poets and musicians. In her cultural history of blindness There Plant Eyes. Leona Godin quotes the writer Jorge Luis Borges in his essay reflecting on blindness, including his own visual impairment, in which Borges says, “We may believe that Homer never existed, but that the Greeks imagined him as blind in order to insist on the fact that poetry is, above all, music; that poetry is, above all, the lyre; that the visual can or cannot exist in a poet.” This sense of disability offering privileged access to expression extends also to deafness. Lennard J. Davis describes written language as a medium perfectly adapted to and permanently associated with deafness. Davis says, “By the deafened moment, I am speaking (writing) of a contextual position, a dialectical moment in the reading/ critical project, that is defined by the acknowledgement on the part of the reader/ writer/ critic that he or she is part of a process that does not involve speaking or hearing.” Extending this lack of sound to lack of speech, James Berger observes, in writing about mute characters in literature: “Utterance seems to mouth itself around the mute, even as every utterance takes its position in a synchronic and diachronic flux that, when forced to stay still, reveals the properties of a system.” While there is of course a shared cultural understanding of disability as lack, there is also a countervailing suspicion that our forms of communication are most fully representative of and embodied by certain perceptual and expressive impairments.
Media theorist Friedrich Kittler draws on the history of technological interventions into disability when he states that “Blindness and deafness, precisely when they affect speech or writing, yield what would precisely be beyond each: information on the human information machine. Whereupon its replacement by mechanics can begin.” Dominique Gracia reads Kittler in the tradition of ekphrasis, the poetic translation of images into language, by understanding communication media as processes of interpretation—and, inevitably, misinterpretation. Gracia asserts that
the technical failure of ekphrasis fully to ‘presence’ Achilles’s shield for the reader ‘prompts’, apparently
without human intervention, further recursions, further ekphrases that draw on those which have gone
before, as the same procedure is repeatedly applied to intermediary results. These further recursions bear
new ‘meanings’ that ‘flout the exactitudes claimed for them’, refusing merely to repeat, (perhaps)
incapable of ever doing so.
In translating perceptions into a coherent symbolic form that can be understood by someone who didn’t or can’t witness the phenomena being described, all communication technology, including language itself, provides access, and testifies to our shared ignorance, imperfection, misapprehension, and vulnerability.
In conjunction with his sound works, Slater has created text descriptions of sound, as well as translations of non-visible images into text and speech, as in the Invisible Ink pieces above (also available on Andy's site). His commitment to ekphrastic translation is grounded in disabled experience, which comes across in his response to a comment made by Christine Sun Kim, a deaf sound artist who has made multiple series of works that incorporate text captioning, American Sign Language, musical notation, and other visual representations of sound. In his comments on the Unseen Reheard, an album of sounds created for the Crypto Acoustic Auditory Non-Hallucination project, Andy says,
Christine Sun Kim, who is deaf, has stated that hearing people are all passive listeners. I would like to up
the ante and claim that sighted hearing people are the passive ones. Many of us blind folks are hyper-
active listeners, including yours truly.
It should be mentioned that, in his address to my class, Andy advocated offering descriptions of sound art to deaf and hard of hearing audiences, as he does in his series Waiting Rooms, and with his music descriptions in collaboration with Molly Joyce, Side by Side. But in extrapolating on Kim’s statement, Slater goes further, implying an ambitious reversal of received ableist ideas of disability. It seems possible to extend his valorization of disabled autonomy not only to other forms of sensory impairment, but also to orthopedic disability, and to a range of forms of neurodivergence and chronic illness.
The person who has been excluded and isolated by institutions designed for a default subject presumed to be “normal” performs extraordinary acts in order to survive, to remain socially viable, to connect with communities, and to approach joy and flourishing. This extra work of interpretation required by the disabled subject marks them not as dependent upon, but as independent by default necessity from inaccessible modes of communication, expression, and activity which non-disabled people have unconsciously taken for granted. In the case of Invisible Ink, while the piece directly addresses a visually impaired audience, the visual blankness of a non-visual artwork also merges the allegorical ignorance attributed to blindness with the widespread lack of self-awareness implicit in a non-disabled person's navigation of mundane reality. To quote Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, “It is by understanding how we become orientated in moments of disorientation that we learn what it might mean to be oriented in the first place.”
-- Bert Stabler