To see beyond the city

11

“The day started with a game to warm up, lead by Karina. Its name is “laugh without laughing”. The first person in the group just had to say “ha”. The next said it twice, and the third three times and so on. Of course some of the participants started to laugh immediately, for the game was all about laughing in the end.”

So without laughing one can laugh, a lot and more than others do. I see all the players laughing their face off, for it is funny just to be imagine the scene. This game opened the third day of the workshop The Visionary Europe”, which took place in Berlin in May 2013. With focus on visual impairment, on the challenges provided by cities to the visually impaired and on the suggestions that can be made to improve accessibility in cities, sixteen visually impaired people from all over Europe met in Berlin. They talked, they laughed and they worked together studying the city and its challenges, with the help and guide provided by the organizing team and by Dario, who conceived the project, developed it and reported about it on his website www.noisyvision.com. There he works since many years to gather, discuss and comment on information about visual perception, he spreads information and presents all sorts of instruments and help for the visually impaired.

Dario comes from Padua, he is thirty-four and lives in Berlin. But this is not yet another story of brain drain or real estate investments. Dario is different. “We all are different!”, he states with emphasis, talking with this slight venetian accent that makes me feel a little at home. And he takes me to cities and mountains, flatlands and deserts: Dario has in store some of the best travel stories I have ever heard. He wrote books, he lived on a boat. He talks like a beduin and like a sailor, and most of all like an expert in perception.

“When we talk about visual impairment, beside all the nonsense about a definition, may they want to call us challenged or handicapped”, says Dario, “most of the people just think about the blinds. About those who don’t see at all, they are always completely in the dark. They can just rely on their other four senses. The problems connected with visual impairment are rarely considered by those who meet us or build the cities we live in. So devices for blinds are built, and there’s no consideration of the fact that little changes in the design of things could make them perceivable by those who can see, but differently from others”.

What is visual impairment? Literally it means not being able to see very well. For Dario, and for who like him has Usher Syndrome or other diseases which impair sight, it means tunnel abd / or blurred vision, it means needing more light to see enough; it means the sun sets earlier than for the others, and you cannot distinguish weak contrasts, little details, grey steps on grey asphalt.

Dario moved to Berlin some years ago, and it’s the longest term he has ever spent in a same place. Berlin is like that, sometimes it grabs you and won’t let you go. But staying here doesn’t mean to stop. And one Dario you wouldn’t stop anyway: he wants to keep moving, keep telling, keep traveling while not leaving the city.

With The Visionary Europe project Dario moved a lot by staying in Berlin, and he made it possible for others to come here too, gather together, exchange their ideas and have fun by pursuing a common goal. The participants to The Visionary Europe gathered in Berlin for a six day experiment about visual impairment and the city. They were young adults from different countries in Europe; it was from Europe that Dario and his team received approval and financing for the project.

The idea for the workshop was conceived in 2011 by Dario Sorgato and Olga Gerstenberger, who immediately started putting it to action. They made the paperworks for the financing ready and contacted Karina Chupina, who worked with them along the whole project as a trainer for group activities. They found one association, ProRetina, to support and present the project, and the European financing which made it possible for them to send out the invitations and see the sixteen participants arrive to Berlin from all over Europe.

The main goal for Olga and Dario was to play, and involve visually impaired people in their game, which moves between irony and lightness, as well as with sharp focus on correct and precise information; it teaches to recognize causes and implications of the own limits, and therefore even their flexibility and their great value, and it most of all brings people to not ever take themselves too cruelly seriously. The main monsters to dare and defeat for Dario were the fear and shame of the visually impaired to show themselves and connect with others. Once having experienced the first problems with their sight, most people find it difficult to relate to others and the world as visually impaired.

“They hide”, Dario says, “Sometimes at home, maybe behind a avatar, and sometimes behind a white stick. To have that equals entering a space, provide a definition for oneself and close the door to doubt – therefore to estrangement too. If you don’t have a white stick and you stagger, or maybe you hit the coffee table of a bar because you haven’t seen it, everyone immediately thinks you are drunk. Because the blinds exist, but they have a white stick or are leaning on someone’s arm or are guided by a dog. We are not even considered, no one figures your sight could be troubled. Still the visually impaired are many in our cities, about 4% of the world population. There are those who suffer illnesses that inhibit the correct functioning of the sight organs, and those who are simply older and therefore see less. We above all wished to give them all the chance to gather together and do something, get out of their cosy prison, meet each other and most of all have fun.”

It also crucial to spread the word about all the shades there are between sight and blindness, between light and dark and between all the different ways we perceive them. “There is a lack of knowledge and terminological precision”, so Dario, “which maybe comes from the ignorance about what it means to find yourself on the edge between good sight and total blindness, and what this implicates for the emotional and social life of the visually impaired and of those who relate to them. We all see differently. If we think that’s not the case we are actually not thinking. Even two people who can see “normally” will in no case see the same when looking in the same direction. The sight is the most unique and untranslatable thing there is. Everyone is different”. So now Dario is taking us from aesthetics to metaphysics, and his story gets more and more intriguing.

“To approach such a vast theme as perception we started from the city – Berlin, and three categories we picked to have our gained data fall into: Visibility, Usability, Mobility. By visibility we meant: how many things do I see, how is the lighting in the places I cross, how long does it take me to gather the information I need. Usability is the simplicity index I encounter when performing different actions in the city – using the public places and transportation and interact with any device. With the concept of mobility we wanted to evaluate the quality of our movements inside the city in relation to the time we needed to reach from a to b, considering the number of people met on our way and the chaos index of the different places and situation we can find ourselves in.

The team of The visionary Europe chose four different areas of Berlin to explore, and divided the group in four teams. Each of them visited one or more of the suggested areas and noted down pro and contra of each in relation to the needs of the visually impaired. All the participants were visually impaired as a consequence of different pathologies. Berlin – which won the Accessibility Award for 2013, still managed to cause some trouble to the teams, showing that even in the “best” city there’s still space for improvement.

The group was stimulated and guided to pay attention to all perceptions and needs they had, learning what senses are responsible for what cognitive process and what connections there are between the senses, where is inside our brain that they meet and melt and help and excite each other. The city was the background for this research with its materials and sounds, surfaces, smells, lights and shadows.

From the concrete of the city the group went on to abstraction, considering the different sensorial aspects involved in any daily action and how the city responds to the different needs of people. In the second phase of the project the group brainstormed starting from their observations and ended up picturing the ideal city, the one where “everyone of them would like to live”. Here the visionary brains unchained every creative instinct to imagine orange sidewalks, rubber buildings, big and small details, realistic and utopian, to create a visually- impaired-friendly world. Reality and fantasy, the real and the ideal faced and confronted each other in The Visionary Europe, and in the third phase of the project the group gathered the whole material they had produced, the data and the utopias, and elaborated them into some concrete and makable proposals to be presented to different cities’ administrations. The game became serious, the imagination and engagement of a few people became politics.

The eyes of the group that observed Berlin in the six days of The Visionary Europeconfirmed something that Dario has known for a long time: the only way to see clearly is to accept our own limits, whatever they may be. More than that: go take a walk on our own borders, become our own limits, enhance them as the most authentic and special parts of us. Needless to say, nobody thinks that this is a easy task, neither Dario nor anyone. In the whole conversation I had with him, in his writings and in the material that The Visionary Europe produced there’s not a glimpse of denial or naïve delusion. There is the patience of learning to know oneself and the world using the instruments at disposal, throwing away the bad ones and make the best out of the good ones. To look for the definitions that help us find coordinates, to try to share our experiences and cooperate. To look for the help of others, may it be the arm of a friend to lean on or the cooperation for a project like The Visionary Europe.

There is even great inspiration for everyone, whatever the limit may be that we carry with us. And there’s the biggest lesson of all: in order to laugh, to see and to imagine one just has to get started.

from and article published in

BerlinAndOut
http://www.berlinandout.eu/

written and translated by Anna Motterle

Links
http://www.pro-retina.de/
http://www.noisyvision.com/workshop/?lang=en
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqI67YLi-m0

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[…] una bellissima cena. Noi, VIP d’Europa. Dodici ragazzi, sei nazionalità.  sette partecipanti di The Visionary Europe, tre trainer, due amici di Budapest che ci hanno aiutato durante il soggiorno. Ai numeri del gruppo […]