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VocalEye Goes Virtual - Described Tour of Wanderings

One of the photographs from Wanderings by Anna DiahloDuring the May 31, 2020 VocalEye Goes Live virtual segment, Stephanie Bokenfohr, Public Programs Coordinator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, presented her described video tour of Anna Binta Diallo's Wanderings. This Capture Photography art installation is located on the lower level of Waterfront Station in Vancouver.

Now, I've walked through that coridoor on my way between train lines and dismissed anything on the walls as advertisements. Had I bothered to take a closer study of those seven photographs, I would have chalked my confusion up to me being legally blind.

That man does not have a world map for a head. There can't be snippets from an encyclopedia all over his shirt. Does that child really have birds' wings for arms?

On second thought, maybe sighted people would be mystified, too.

Each one of the images in Diallo's series of seven is a collage of other images – planets and stars, scraps of encyclopedia, military and aviary symbols. Stephanie began the described tour by reading information from a text panel at the start of the exhibit.

Those information cards are a sighted person's secret weapon, I tell you.

According to the text panel, the artwork examines how folk stories influence identity but avoids presenting a single interpretation so that viewers of the art can build their own understanding.

The room for interpretation, both on the literal and metaphorical plane, is huge.

Before one ventures into the metaphorical, in my opinion, it is essential that one knows what is literally there. Imagine being partially-sighted and trying to figure out exactly what you were seeing in just one – let alone seven – of Dialo's photographs. Never mind the fact that the art is displayed in a bustling thoroughfare at a transit hub where careful study is impossible and impractical.

I listen to Stephanie's detailed description of the first photograph. There are three different collages, each separated by blank white space. The tall figure on the right of the work has animal print on its pants, photos of men in uniform on its shirt, part of a map for a head and a night sky on its hat.

Nope, I definitely would not have trusted what I was seeing had I been looking at this figure on my own.

And that was only one of the three collages in this one photograph.

At this point, I want to express my sincere gratitude to Capture Photography for making this described video tour available on its website. I don't have the time or patience or computer space to describe every collage in all seven photographs. And thank you, VocalEye, for sharing such an artistic gem with people who are blind or low vision.

The hodgepodge of pictures in Wanderings made me think of the thumbnails that popped up on my computer monitor at the start of this VocalEye virtual art show. One by one the images popped up, heads and shoulders against photographic backgrounds, or framed by curtains, or wedged into chairs behind desks. Yellow dots stood in for those joining in by phone. Here and there, nondescript squares indicated a lack of video transmission.

On a side note, wouldn't it be fun to scramble the people and backgrounds? You know, make the guy munching on pizza have a yellow dot for a head, while the blank video square is superimposed against billowing drapes?

What if, let's say, the yellow dots were globes showing countries of the world? And that guy eating pizza? Boom, his boring plaid shirt could become a cape of stars.

Would that change your perception of the person behind that thumbnail?

I cannot make out every detail of those thumbnails. Every time I refocus my perception changes. For all I know, those thumbnails are scintillating slideshows.

Well, the yellow dots remain the same.

I think. Well, I assume they do.

Wait…are they yellow or some shade my eyes don't recognize? Are they dots or silhouettes of heads?

Bear with me, I have a point.

Before this pandemic brought live entertainment to a halt, my boyfriend Shawn and I frequented the described tours at the Vancouver Art Gallery and were going to at least one – most often more – live described theatre performances every month. Last summer, we enjoyed our very first Vancouver Pride Parade, thanks to VocalEye live description.

This pandemic, with its joys of social distancing, has made me realize how difficult it is for people to translate what they are literally seeing with their eyes into verbal language. I've witnessed more than one store employee panic when I asked for directions because pointing, or physically manipulating me, was out of the question.

So I applaud people like Stephanie who choose to implement their training in described tours to ensure that public art is within the reach of the blind. And I congratulate VocalEye for keeping up with their swimming lessons in these choppy, ever-changing waters.

Those thumbnails popping up on Zoom screens big and small form new and interesting collages in a world where interpretations and assumptions and reactions spread like wildfire. Let's remember to take a breath and recognize that no two people see the same image in the same way. Let's borrow a page from Anna Binta Diallo and accept that there is no one linear or true narrative.

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