Drawing on the doctoral artistic research project Cidade Cega (Blind City) 2015 from Brazil, this contribution offers perspectives on working with somatic research practices to explore notions and consequences of visual impairment in relationship to a city body – that of Salvador, Bahia.1
1 The research was conducted at the Graduate Program of Performing Arts at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), under the supervision of Prof. Gláucio Machado Santos.
The project as a whole sought to offer a way of rethinking the structure of the city in a heightened sensorial and artistic way, especially drawing attention to the reality of many people who experience difficulties related to their right and access to the city. The work reflects upon how, in order to survive in a non-inclusive context, people with different degrees of blindness must adapt to many challenges on a daily basis. So, this artistic research aimed to develop a work that would expose and confront this critical situation. One key strategy was to adapt somatic practice to the needs and circumstances of blind people, who could then lead others through the city rather than being excluded from an environment which privileges vision over the other senses. Thus, the piece Cidade Cega subverted the power structures related to sight, dis/ability and modes of agency in the city.
The work is part of the Brazilian contemporary art scene and part of a shift in which artists with disabilities are now claiming a place, demanding equal opportunities and spaces of creation in the performing arts and fair access to the art market. This is relevant at universities too, where research projects, such as mine, have proposed activities for the creative exploration of difference and that implement alternative modes of performance and of performance-making.2
2 Elizabeth Motta Jacob (Rio de Janeiro, RJ), Edu Oliveira (Salvador, BA) and Felipe Henrique Monteiro Oliveira (Maceió, AL) are examples of Brazilian artists working in such a way.
This contribution intends to share the methods developed in this project, which explored individual and embodied perceptions of time and space, especially regarding the different gradations between blindness and non-blindness. Personal perceptions of time and space, and movement are shaped through our bodies and the way in which we experience a city and our moving body with/in a city differs both at an individual level and in terms of the dis/abilities we might have. For that reason, it became clear throughout the project that for it to be viable it was important to develop a differentiated perspective on bodily diversity, retaining an openness for movements and sensations beyond those that might be choreographed.
Prof. Ciane Fernandes’s Somatic-Performative Approach (2015) has deeply influenced this doctoral research, especially in regard to four of its twenty principles. These four selected principles are:
- Being guided by an inner impulse of movement (this principle is highly influenced by Authentic Movement, and it can be applied to different activities, such as improvising, teaching, walking on the streets, writing a text etc.);
- Somatic attunement and sensitivity (body as both matter and energy experienced from within and with/in the environment, in a dynamic and integrated whole of feeling, sensation, intention, attention, intuition, perception, and interaction);
- Association and sense created through sharing affection (e.g. interchange and overlapping of mover-witness roles) within collective connection and support;
- Participative openness and poetics of difference – the ability to dance is part of all beings, places, fields and contexts.
In the course of Cidade Cega, influenced by these four principles, five further moving principles emerged3 and, in what follows, I focus on one of them: the notion of ‘Blind Wanderers’.
3 Universal and inclusive accessibility; BodyCity; Blind Wanderers (Flâneurs); Somatic and sensorial images and Cultural production (Ferreira da Silva 2018).
In creating Blind City, I worked with a group of actors in the city of Salvador and later invited an audience to participate in an experience guided by actors with visual impairments. The registered/participants4 received a blindfold to experience this artistic practice in the urban space without their eyesight in order to enhance their other senses and to encourage them to expand their perception. The practice challenged the view that sighted people might need to guide blind people. Instead blind performers took on the role of guides, exploring with an audience member the underlying question: does everybody have a right to the city?
4 People interested in participating had to fill in a form on the internet, on Cidade Cega’s blog, where they could choose a day and a time to participate. The same procedure could be done in-person, 30 minutes before the beginning of the event. Cidade Cega had 20 places per session, and the rule was to wear a blindfold and be open to participate.
The work began in the practical research laboratory, which focused on stories about the city that were brought and told by the blind actors of the theatre group Noz Cego (Blind Walnut). The group is formed by Cláudio Marquês, Cristina Gonçalves, Gilson Coelho, Rutiara Santos, and Valmira Noia, together with the actor Milena Flick, who is not visually impaired. From our first contact a dialogue took place that involved sharing experiences of walking in the city with and without the use of the sense of sight. Most of the actors who took part in the urban event were not born blind but had acquired some kind of visual impairment later.
Although I had initially planned to work with blind people directly on the streets, exploring the physical environment where the performance would take place, I soon realised that we had to begin our work indoors. All the difficulties present in the non-inclusive environment meant the public space was not safe for the rehearsal and research process, and did not offer a comfortable place for somatic explorations. So, I had to change my plans and restart our laboratories in-doors.
Walking through a city like Salvador can be extremely challenging for visually impaired people, not because of blindness itself, but due to the lack of resources and infrastructure that would make a city accessible. The sidewalks, for example, have many holes; some signposts are on the sidewalks; and in some neighbourhoods there is no tactile trail for blind people. There are also no sound signals in the traffic lights throughout the city. Thus, in the practical research laboratory, a great part of the discussions was intended to think about what the city has become after growing in an anomalous and inflated way, exceeding the urban capacity in order to expand the peripheral areas and to surpass the imposed limits. However, a city like Salvador has an unequal pattern: the downtown area is wealthy and well-equipped, and the more one goes out into the outskirts, the greater the structural problems become.
For this text I have distilled three working practices that were developed over the course of this project. They emerged from the challenges encountered through the process, and intend to communicate possible guidelines to work with somatic practices in relation to visual impairment. However, one of the most significant practices for Cidade Cega was to understand the context of the people who participated: where they live, what they do, what they think about the city. Since only in that way the performers’ own history and experiences could shape and develop the work as a whole.
1 Working Process: Blind Wandering
As the project progressed we began to approach the participating actors as Blind Wanderers or Flâneurs. This allowed for a change of the logic in the process, since ‘eyesight’ became secondary, and ‘blindness’ the protagonist. From this perspective, the term Blind Wanderer stands for someone who is blind and who follows an individual rhythm of walking. Considering the lived realities of blind people, their forms of moving, relating and living in the city offer particular modes of perception of time and space, which contrast the dominant patterns and pace of the city.
Drawing upon Walter Benjamin’s notion of the flâneur (1989) the Blind Wanderer, like the flâneur, confronts the overall rhythm of the modern city. In the text The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, Benjamin considers the flâneur as a ‘panorama’ agent, since the created methods and walking procedures developed and practised by the flâneur lead to the re-signification of the ordinary manners to explore and ‘feel’ the city. Benjamin indicates that the perception exercised by the flâneur is not located only in the faculty of sight, but it is, above all, experienced and lived through the different faculties of the body.
In this light the concept of Blind Wanderers may then present an essential function within the idea of a contemporary city. A person with a visual impairment or with any other disability cannot be treated as a ‘problem’ for urban planning. On the contrary, the problem is the city structure, which excludes part of society. The idea of identifying a Blind Wanderer as a fragment of a current situation, of dispriviledge, invites all individuals to occupy the streets. Indeed in taking to the street, a visually impaired person interferes with and questions the chaos of the city.
The rationale for this artistic proposition was then to change the way of thinking about performativity through the perspective of being blind. As a somatic-performative urban event it invited the participants to explore their interior somatic perception and to experience forms of presence. With its Blind Wanderers, Cidade Cega accessed different layers of the city — occupying the city in sensorial and political ways. These interventions might be seen to reshape the structures of the body of the city, opening possibilities that an artistic experimentation can dialogue with the parameters that constitute our cities.
The performers come into the scene with their own autobiographies, affirming the presence of a Blind Wanderer not as a character, but as a person who wanders and knows the space where he or she walks, from the perspective of his/her own exploration and abilities. As such, an important starting point for me was to create a proposition that is ‘autobiographical, non-representational’ and non-linear, in terms of narrative, ‘opposing illusion, and based on the intense presence and moment of action; an event shared between artists and spectators’ (Araujo 2008, 253). Thus I sought to manifest real and lived experience, of here and now, through the senses, created through the somatic and sensuous exchanges between all participants, blind and non-blind, within the structures, constrictions and rhythm of the city.
2 The Body and the city
During the practical research laboratory of the Cidade Cega process, exercises with a visual characteristic, such as copying a warm-up movement, were reformulated and adapted to a more somatic approach, guided by touch or imagery, in addition to continuous audio-description. The use of blindfolds became obligatory for everyone involved in the process. Thus, while working with blind and non-blind persons, some procedures were rethought, so that actors could work within each activity. That was as valid for the rehearsal room as for the process on the streets, and every practice of the process as a whole needed audio-description. This facilitated the process of guiding the actors while the interventions on the street and the actors’ process took place.
‘Audio-description (AD) is a modality of intersemiotic translation created with the goal of making accessible to visually impaired people objects like movies, stage plays, dance performances, TV shows, etc. It consists in the transformation of image into words so that key information transmitted in an essentially visual way does not go unnoticed.’ (Silva 2018, 285).
In the project the sensory experience of working with blind and non-blind actors lasted 4 months, between the rehearsal room and the streets, where the participants could connect with themselves, with others and the city. Gradually, it was possible to develop, through audio-description and somatic approaches, a corporal work directed towards balance, weight, and support. In this way each person could perceive and work with his/her own potentials. Although touch is an important way of accessing information for blind people, it is obviously not the only one. ‘The kinesthetic system is one of the systems that provide information about spatial orientation, movement and balance, enabling the perception of position, wind direction, speed of movement and body orientation’ (Nunes and Lomônaco 2010, 57). Thus, every exercise needed to be presented and audio-described in detail whilst also having to be adapted to the conditions of blindness.
For example, one of our tools was Authentic Movement, but we could not rely on its original procedure of having a witness who is observing the mover. Both, movers and witnesses, were blind-folded and witnessing had to take other actions, such as touching the mover and sometimes even moving with him/her. After actors had enhanced their sensoperception through a series of exercises which stimulated sensoperception and inner attunement in relation to gravity, the partner(s) and space, they could better connect to their own bodies and impulses to move, as well as follow, respond and adapt to instructions for the urban intervention itself.
French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (2000, 32) proposes that reflections on the body should be developed through the body; i.e., he advocated for a way of approaching the body which does not imply thinking about it but doing with it instead. For the author, in the book Corpus, the potency and importance of the senses take place through the lived body. For some people, even, the manifestation of a particular sense itself becomes an experience. That is why the experience of the Blind Wanderers – the performers – of Cidade Cega had to take place in the city understood as a sensuous time-space, where the senses could be activated through their walking. For that reason, it was important that the flâneur in this process was approached as an individual of great sensitivity and curiousness, someone who is investigative and autonomous. All the work and methods undertaken throughout the process worked towards developing these attributes, with the performers in their interaction with others and with the city.
After decades of political struggle, diverse bodies now access roles and spaces which had been out of reach in past decades due to a non-inclusive environment. As part of our research a craving for autonomy and expression has surfaced, especially in regard to intimate experiences with the city, taking part in and challenging its physical and sensorial limits. The body is the basis for this dialogue, which poetically also includes scars due to persistent experiences of inaccessibility. The bodies of people with disabilities have to face numerous moving elements (people) and buildings that affect them in different ways. This is a situation that can be encountered in theatres, schools, and universities where there is no accessible infrastructure. This complex context requested a multi-layered creative process that could bring together different artistic possibilities, which would also address social and political implications. Therefore, in order to create the somatic-performative urban event, our practical artistic research laboratory built a connection between different artistic approaches; utilising perspectives from performance art, urban intervention, site-specific performance, theatre, and dance. The presence of different approaches worked as a melting pot of different languages whose mixing reinforced an expanded notion of ‘spectacle’. We combined ‘more and more visual arts, dance, music, and cinema’ (Araujo 2009, 253), as well as the intertwining of other political and social relations to devise the performance Cidade Cega.
3 Inclusive Dramaturgy
The third step towards the artistic proposition was to create stories/scripts/dramaturgy based on the experiences that emerged from our practice. Experiences from the performers’ daily life, which were told by the artists, as well as other references: such as theoretical texts, stage plays, and questions asked by the choreographer, the director, and the artists. The work as a whole was developed from the subject’s needs, from the disabled artist’s desire to be seen on the streets as an empowered person with equal rights and possibilities.
As for an understanding of the ‘somatic-performative’, according to Ciane Fernandes (2015), practice frees the actor/performer of the norm, of trying to present in an expected aesthetic way based on external models or structures. It is understood that in the scope of the somatic-performative urban event, the actor/performer connects with his or her roots and interests. There is a change of patterns that is revealed throughout the making-process, in such a way that the elements that build the performance become evident. In a processual manner, within the scope of the work, possibilities of dialogue between the different artistic languages seem to foster new potentials to engage with artistic research.
Particularly influenced by Pina Bausch’s dance theatre, somatic-performative research in this case is guided by questions, rather than specific instructions to be followed. In her laboratories, Fernandes twists Pina Bausch’s saying ‘I am not interested in how people move, but what moves them’ (Pina Bausch in Servos and Weigelt 1984, 15–16) into the question ‘How does what moves us move itself?’ (Fernandes 2012). This question instigates artists to move and be moved by their living and relational research, connecting researcher and research in affective and creative ways. Influenced by such processes, I have guided the experiments for Cidade Cega with questions, gradually building a dramaturgy based on personal needs, perspectives, feelings and requests. Questions used during the process of Cidade Cega include, for instance: ‘What moves us in this city?’; ‘What is mine/your history with the city?’; ‘Which are these memories that inhabit my/your body?’.
In the somatic-performative context, answers were not to be given in a merely cognitive manner, but rather to be explored and sensed with the whole person, with the body, engaging different levels of expression, from intimacy to social relationships. The actor through somatic-performative practice connects with his/her own movements, bringing forward a particular characteristic of his practice, identities, questions, difficulties, without generating a representational model, but instead developing a work that emerges from the somatic relationship between him/her, the partner, the city and the participants. All in a performative manner that constantly updates itself. The body can then feel the practice in its own conditions, interacting with the artistic/corporal performance, and with the theme proposed by the performance practice. In that way, notions of time and space were re-possessed through physical exploration, by employing theatrical games and improvisation to engage the group, as well as understanding the guidelines and devices that are important for the individual and collective work.
The performers who took part were integrating and experimenting with sensory states located on a threshold between theory and practice – while experiencing the city through their own bodies, theoretical research was being generated by applying information, notions, and studies about somatic practices to the process. The experiences of the artists needed to be tied to all senses, in order to intensify and explore actions beyond the sense of sight. At the same time, it was just as important to facilitate exposure to the city, to theatre, to dance, and to performance.
The three stages of the process that I exposed above intended: (i) to get to know the participating subjects, (ii) to develop methodologies that could meet the needs of the performers involved and (iii) to stimulate the thorough participation of those artists throughout the process. These are examples of possible actions to be implemented by artists, researchers, educators and/or cultural agents when working with participation in artistic research. In such an undertaking, it is initially necessary to present and contextualise the propositions in a way that enables the participants to grasp what is involved in the creation of a specific artwork. It is further fundamental that the participants have a sense of autonomy throughout the process. Thus, it is necessary to devise strategies that contemplate and involve participating artists in the process in a way that allows for ownership of a specific practice and that allows for decision making.
In Cidade Cega, the development of the project relied on the three steps shared above, since the proposition demanded that all that referred to dis/ability in the work had to have the contribution of the performers. For that reason, we followed the principle: ‘Nothing about us [should take place] without us’. By implementing this motto, we tried to develop a process where the thorough participation of the performers was present from the initial idea to the end result. This is not always the case as artistic groups also make pieces that feature people with disabilities without including them in the making-process. In Cidade Cega’s case, it became clear that the proposition only worked because the performers participated effectively, with opinions, suggestions, ideas, from the start.
Conclusively, at this current moment in time in Brazil, as well as in other countries, we don’t have fully accessible cities or inclusive art/art research communities. There are laws that regulate and legitimise the implementation of resources to citizens, in such a way that people can have the conditions to experience the city with autonomy and to participate in all sectors of life. However, the reality has a different face. Staying with the city of Salvador as a reality, but also a metaphor – it is a city built with structural problems and mechanisms of exclusion – Cidade Cega, beyond understanding and questioning this constraining condition, also emphasised the potentiality of other senses in a possible dialogue with the city. It became clear through the reports of the participants how conditioned people were into a particular structure that privileges, for example, sight and how, paradoxically, they then became blind to the sensorial potentials of their environments. However, participating in a city, as well as in any artistic (research) process, is the right of any citizen, regardless of their physical or sensorial condition. Cidade Cega tried to demonstrate that.
- The research was conducted at the Graduate Program of Performing Arts at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), under the supervision of Prof. Gláucio Machado Santos.
- Elizabeth Motta Jacob (Rio de Janeiro, RJ), Edu Oliveira (Salvador, BA) and Felipe Henrique Monteiro Oliveira (Maceió, AL) are examples of Brazilian artists working in such a way.
- Universal and inclusive accessibility; BodyCity; Blind Wanderers (Flâneurs); Somatic and sensorial images and Cultural production (Ferreira da Silva 2018).
- People interested in participating had to fill in a form on the internet, on Cidade Cega’s blog, where they could choose a day and a time to participate. The same procedure could be done in-person, 30 minutes before the beginning of the event. Cidade Cega had 20 places per session, and the rule was to wear a blindfold and be open to participate.
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This text was written with the concern of how to understand methodological practices to proceed during an artistic/creative process with visually impaired performers. The creative process is described in its somatic influences, especially Authentic Movement and somatic-performative research. From this perspective, aesthetic principles of the somatic-performative urban event Cidade Cega are exposed in the context of its practical research laboratory. The main theme of the urban event is the potential of the other senses (touch, hearing, smell, and taste), beyond sight, as means to perceive the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia, in Brazil, and empower the visually impaired as autonomous and able subjects who could guide others in a sensorial and collective exploration of the city.
Carlos Alberto Ferreira da Silva
Carlos Alberto Ferreira is a director, performer, actor and theatrical producer. He is currently a lecturer at Universidade do Estado da Bahia, UNEB (State University of Bahia). Between 2014 and 2016 he was a temporary lecturer at UFBA’s School of Theatre. (Bahia Federal University).
He has a Ph.D. in Performing Arts from UFBA and developed part of his Doctorate at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. He also has a Master’s degree from PPGAC-UFBA (2012–2014). He graduated in Performing Arts Degree and holds a Bachelor with an emphasis in Theater Directing and Acting, at UFOP (Federal University of Ouro Preto) in 2006–2011. He conducts theoretical/practical research as a director/actor in the area of contemporary literature. He works in the educational field, seeking to identify the relationship between contemporary art and inclusive education, contributing to the practice of thinking about people with disabilities.