Deborah Caulfield just about found her way to New Bucks University, High Wycombe on 16 March 2012, for Zoe Partington's 'First Impressions' - a film installation about accessing the urban environment, from a blind person's perspective
First rule of reviewing: Don't write about your journey to the event. Second rule: Don’t put too much of yourself in it.
So we've set off with our map, me and my friend. We're late. I'm driving; she knows High Wycombe like the back of beyond.
After several circuits round the crazy one-way system, we're in the grounds of New Bucks University. I drive straight past the permitted parking place, slotting into a blue badge spot, which causes my friend to have to make an exhausting trek to the reception area where the Private View is happening.
In a windswept paved area, eight or nine people dressed all in white are lined up in front of a large white plastic cube onto which is projected a jerky image of a map of high Wycombe.
My friend is unable to walk or stand for more than a couple of minutes without fighting for breath so I grab an empty seat-like object, one of the concrete boulders that are dotted around, more for decoration than function. They’re shaped to deter social conviviality. This space is not for gathering.
The press release says:
‘First Impressions provides a platform for Zoe Partington's observations of disabled people's interaction with environments, enabling her to adopt a creative process for highlighting and sharing another impression and another perspective.’
I missed the introduction, so I'm guessing here that the white-clad performers are the students and members of the Signdance Collective who have been working with Zoe, exploring issues around the built environment, sharing experiences of disabled people's journeys’ through life and public spaces.
The performance, lasting 20 minutes or so, is at once hectic, vibrant, graceful, fraught, and lyrical. Here is alienation and fear; a yearning to be part of it, whatever, however.
My friend goes inside because she's cold. I'm feeling bad. I'd told her this was Art. She’d imagined paintings on a wall indoors, somewhere warm.
Within the cube (holds six people max) a looped film is projected on to one of the walls. The film is of a visually impaired man walking, a camera strapped to his forehead. All we see is his feet and the roads, streets and pavements zipping past. The man commentates, narrating his journey, with subtitles.
The press release says: ‘the film is intended to highlight the correlation between disabled people's journeys and the impact that the design of the environment in urban spaces makes on a person's stress levels.’
Watching the film is an uncomfortable experience. I struggle to stand without something or someone solid to lean on. Pain is a great purloiner of participation and pleasure.
However, the point of the installation is not lost on me. The sense of tedium and boredom while watching the film is as profound as the dissonance conveyed by the walker’s description of the disorienting effect of wall-to-wall, hard-on-hard, surfaces inside a shopping mall.
On and on he walks, the ground an abstract blur of texture and line. There’s nothing to see, nothing for the eye to latch on to, which is what I’m used to, what I need.
How am I supposed to feel? Signage is poor along this particular journey. Yet the narrator’s moment of near-panic is audible, as a vehicle passes by. How close was that? I wonder, adding ‘Are we nearly there yet'?