It’s become something of a cliche to talk about the ‘second screen’ regarding viewing habits. Even so, there’s no doubt touchscreen devices started a quiet revolution in the way we consume media. Increasingly, we experience, interact with and learn about concepts in ways that would have been much harder to get across using traditional television.
With Notes on Blindness, this is keenly felt as you immerse yourself in the decades-old recorded notes of John Hull, who finally fell blind in 1983, after years of steady deterioration. The six-part documentary is part diary-on-tape, part interactive experience as you listen to John’s words, and understand his experiences through being enveloped in a world primarily constructed from audio.
Lighting the darkness
It’s a disconcerting experience as you explore the darkness, which is punctuated only by pinpricks of light that ape the kind of echolocation effects seen in wildlife documentaries – and comic-book movies about visually impaired superheroes. Mostly, you learn how things appear and disappear without warning in this world. John talks of hearing a voice from a nearby lake: “Suddenly, my children are there. They were not there until they cried out.”
You become very aware of activity, and that, as John says, without activity there is no sound, which means that part of the world then ’dies’. The disconnect between the sighted and the blind is explored through weather – wind making for a nice day as far as John is concerned, through bringing noise and feeling, whereas a sighted person looks only for a clear blue sky.
Although keen to explore beauty – notably in a section about a choir – Notes on Blindness sometimes veers into darker territory. A piece on panic features an ominous, foreboding, claustrophobic soundtrack, which proves harrowing enough with an iPad in front of your face, let alone when using the app with Google Cardboard. Then, your own reference points disappear as your senses grapple with their new realities. The doubt and uncertainty in moving through a world with which you’ve lost a major connection is palpable.
From a production standpoint, the audio is exceptional, balancing John’s crackly recordings and lavishly created binaural audio environments. The visuals and some infrequent ‘gameish’ elements are, perhaps, less successful and sometimes a distraction. But they do provide an entry point for a wider audience.
Regardless, Notes on Blindness is an excellent showcase for how technology can immerse you in situations that help you comprehend circumstances you yourself may never naturally experience. “I think I’m starting to understand what it’s like to be blind,” muses John towards the end of the recording. On trying out this app, you might get an inkling yourself.