This post includes:
What is Perceptual Archaeology?: A message from blind artist Alex Bulmer.
1996 - Toronto to Los Angeles: A travel essay by Alex Bulmer. Contains an audio player 3 minutes and 47 seconds in length, with accompanying text.
Figuring Things Out in the Digi-Space: A conversation between Alex Bulmer and Leah Cherniak. Contains and audio player 7 minutes and 42 seconds in length, with accompanying downloadable transcript (Word doc).
Links: A list of external articles and references.
What is Perceptual Archaeology?
A concept. A digital space. A theatre show.
A message from blind writer and performer Alex Bulmer.
In 1987, I was diagnosed with a genetic condition (Retinitis Pigmentosa) which results in a partial or total loss of sight. The speed of the degeneration is different in everyone - could take 50 years, could take 15.
My sight loss didn’t waste any time. Ten years after my diagnosis, I had traded my motorcycle for a white cane, was no longer reading, couldn’t buy food in a store on my own, and could only see pieces of myself in the mirror.
My world was disappearing, and I seemed to be disappearing within it.
So…. something happened. It had to.
I called an airport hotel in Los Angeles, and booked myself a room.
I felt trapped. I needed to go - somewhere, anywhere...
I needed to travel – on my own, while blind.
Los Angeles wasn't completely random; my best friend from high school lived there, in case I decided to reach out for help.
Days later I was wearing a bathing suit, in sunny L.A., and tapping my cane around a hotel to find the outdoor pool.
Over the next hour I entered into a gradual process of perception, assembling an understanding of my world through sound, smell and the fragments of information received by my hands, ears and body.
Time. Sounds. Textures. Smells.
It occurred to me that I was not just experiencing loss, I was experiencing a becoming – becoming a sensory mathematician, a perceptual archaeologist.
From that moment in the pool, I wanted to travel, through unknown spaces, and write about it. Years later, I wrote a series of blind travel essays, and recorded them for the BBC.
Perceptual Archaeology (or How To Travel Blind) is now the title of a theatre show, based on those essays, created by me, Alex Bulmer with Leah Cherniak and a team of artists. If you live nearby, or want to travel, we hope you'll check it out next June 2023 at Crow's Theatre in Toronto, Canada.
What is Perceptual Archaeology: A Blind-led Digital Space?
Leah and I went digging around the themes and ideas of the show. We found intriguing articles, had unexpected conversations, and played around with sound. This digital space is a home for some great stuff we discovered and want to share and also some bits and excerpts from the show itself.
- Alex Bulmer
1996 – Toronto to Los Angeles
Our first digital offering is based on Alex's original travel essays and is in the opening section of the theatre show.
Listen here to Alex speaking it, with sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne:
And here it is in its original written form:
On my first day in L.A. I asked the hotel staff for some instructions to get to the outdoor pool. Once outside, I used my cane to feel for the end of hard and the beginning of liquid. My hand reached to confirm I had found – water.
Putting my cane aside, I sat on the edge and lowered myself into the pool.
Once in it, I realized I had no idea of its size, shape, or depth.
Reaching out, I felt for the pool wall –
And started to swim.
I traced the wall with my hand.
Swimming – around... and around...
I found cracks in the concrete, chunks missing…
I discovered filters and flaps.
I noticed the lap slap of water against the pool edge –
It shifted to a hollow sound by
I heard a lap echo slap beneath the diving board.
Around… and around…
I came to understand…
The pool shape,
of a kidney bean.
Round at one end and more narrow at the other.
I discovered the pool.
Gathering pieces that, with the immediacy of sight, would have been eclipsed by the whole.
I bobbed in the water – making waves.
And listened as they slapped against the edge of the pool.
And over there.
And I am here.
And over there.
And I am here.
Here in this particular collection of sounds and textures, this pool.
A shape of place emerged,
And I became present.
When place exists, I exist within it.
Going blind – from that moment these two words held new meaning.
Going blind had been a fraying rope, a loss of presence and awareness.
Now, in this pool, this going blind felt like potential, a becoming – becoming a sensory mathematician, a perceptual archaeologist.
I bobbed in the water,
And decided that one day I would be a blind travel writer.
Figuring Things Out in the Digi-Space
Stimuli. Questions. Conversations.
We started digging through the ideas and themes connected to the play and went off on tangents (like all good travellers do) into science, nature, psychology, neurology, and music.
For instance, here's a recording - a little teaser - of some of the articles we read. (If you want to read any articles in full, there are links to them at the end of the post).
Play Sound Creatures with Us
We are nearing the end of our first digital post!
We hope you are intrigued by this, a companion piece to our show: Perceptual Archaeology (or How To Travel Blind) by Alex Bulmer - playing at Crow's Theatre in Toronto, Canada in June 2023. We will be sending out a second post in April.
And since you've made it this far, how about a moment of creative play?
The idea of "perceptual archaeology" came to Alex while swimming, as she collected pieces of information to form an impression of a pool.
Now we offer you this game, or challenge - to make meaning from sounds and form an impression of what you hear.
Here's how it works:
Listen to the audio player below for the Sound Creature.
Bring the creature to life using words (a day in the life, a biography, a list, a poem), or bring the creature to life two or three dimensionally (a drawing, a painting, a puppet, knitting, sculpture).
And then, send them to us!
Definition of "creature" - a living being, something that has been created, animate or inanimate, a creature of the imagination.
Here are things you might think about as you listen and imagine:
What is its name?
What does it like to do?
How does it move?
Where does it live?
And now, listen here to the Sound Creature:
Please send us your imaginings of the Sound Creature via email. We'd love to get them! Whether you spent a minute, an hour, a day a week - we're excited to get them and will respond to all your creatures!
We're hoping to include a few on our next post!
If we choose yours, we'll get in touch to seek your permission to post them. You can say, "yay" or "nay".
Email your creatures to: email@example.com
An alphabetical list of articles and references mentioned in the post.
Laurie Anderson Has a Message for Us Humans by Sam Anderson, The New York Times, 6 October 2021.
Medicine Nobel Prize Goes to Temperature and Touch Discoveries by Jordana Cepelewicz, Quanta Magazine, 4 October 2021.
Silence Like Scouring Sand by Kathleen Dean Moore, Orion Magazine, 21 October 2008.
The Art of Irritation by Ayla Samli, Orion Magazine, 22 November 2021.
What Slime Knows by Lacy M. Johnson, Orion Magazine, 19 August 2021.