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4 Feet Web Image

Image description

A red and white cane with legs walking among a black and grey background, with pink and black squiggle lines.

Review: 4 Feet in the Dark

"I am in a very loud, thrumming, reverberating chamber… I can't decide where."

  • Review: 4 Feet in the Dark
    Áine Kelly-Costello
  • The following review is of 4 Feet in the Dark, a new work by Ari Kerssens and Tash van Schaardenburg. The review is written by Áine Kelly-Costello. Ari is one of the artists featured as part of Deepen*, a collaboration between The D*List and Auckland Pride, and you can read more about Ari's arts practice here.

    I am in a very loud, thrumming, reverberating chamber… I can't decide where - a dark underground alleyway? A theme-park ride? An avant-garde orchestral pit?

    I am, for certain, sitting on a plastic chair in Auckland's Western Springs community Hall, in the dark, absorbing the soundwaves emanating from a surround-sound audio installation called 4 Feet in the Dark. A collaboration between blind artist ari Kerssens and Tash van Schaardenburg, the work takes field recordings of the pair walking and in Ari's case caning around Tāmaki Makaurau for eight months and sound engineers them till they undulate with an urgent heartbeat. They repeat, they intensify, they become largely unrecognisable.

  • However, at least for a cane user like me, the taps and sweeps of the white cane stand audibly as a central character in the cacophony.

  • That's a hell of an affirming statement for someone with low vision who found the reactions of the public and his own impostor syndrome so off-putting that using a cane at all was a big deal not so many years ago.

    Simultaneously, there's something gothic or haunting, again to me as a cane user, about how the cane sounds are integrated. They are disembodied. They don't allow one to imagine following the path of the tapping or sweeping cane for more than a few seconds, before they split off, multiply and vanish into a vortex. 

    The programme notes describe the intensity of the presented soundscape as "allegories of the ableism designed into our cities, an illusion to the discomfort and anxiety that we often experience while navigating through urban soundscapes".

    The sound here refuses to be systematised into anything cohesive like directional traffic or nearby road crossing signals or an arriving train/bus. An inability to systematise sound in the city, to make it linear in some way, verges on panic-inducing for many of us who, like me, are blind and have hearing which we rely heavily on for orientation. This soundscape bears little obvious resemblance to the daily sound of the streets of Tāmaki Makaurau I've experienced but full-on construction zones are not dissimilar.

    The "dark" mentioned in the title is emphasised by turning off the lights for the performance. I assume the use of literal dark is meant to be a cue for sighted listeners to deprioritise their sense of sight for a while. And it most likely holds resonance for those in a similar position to Ari of losing sight they previously had and the very real extent of the overwhelm that typically comes with that.

  • For me as a person who's always only had light perception, the theme of dark plays into a long-held fixation about placing a context of being in the dark around blind people - an incongruent image for those who actually see nothing at all - many of whom can't hold a visual concept of dark in the first place - and an even more incongruent one for those impacted by light sensitivity especially outdoors in the light pollution of cities.

  • I'd love sound installations like this one to evolve to explore a greater diversity of sonic representations of ableism in the city for blind folks - unplanned physical encounters with e-scooters, perhaps. Interactions with the "just want to help"s who don't listen the second and third times you decline their offer. The futility of waiting at a deserted bus stop by the curb and knowing the odds are high that your bus may drive right on past without you.

    The programme notes also invite the listener to discover the euphoria of embracing [...] difference of experience [...] "fac[ing] the closing doors and find[ing] new pathways between their frames". Reading the notes, I feel the joy in Ari's love of customising his cane, making it "a part of [him] and [his] self expression". I want to hear contrast and joy in the soundscape too: the unexpected meeting of friends, a park alive with birdsong, the uninterrupted flow of a white cane or guide dog team with a spring in their step.

    I hope that fellowships, like the Arts Access Fellowships, continue to prioritise funding teams of disabled artists like Ari and Tash. Blind and disabled joy is out there, waiting to be recorded.

    4 Feet in the Dark was made possible by Arts Access Aotearoa's Whakahoa Kaitoi Whanaketanga PAK'nSAVE Artist Fellowship.