25in25: A Public Art Retrospective – Double Blind

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Double Blind, Antonia Hirsch’s large-scale artwork in the atrium of the north building on the Broadway Campus of Vancouver Community College (VCC) is not, at first glance, an easy read.

Antonia Hirsch - Double Blind - Image 01 - ~ Photo Technic

Double Blind, 2008 by Antonia Hirsch installed inside Vancouver Community College’s Broadway Campus. Photo by Photo Technic.

As a formal presence, it lacks the kind of heavy “materiality” expected from public work; the formal heft of iron, bronze or steel gives way here to a luminous collection of convex acrylic security mirrors that protrude, bubble-like, from concrete walls. The materials—the kind one might find in any number of security-conscious convenience stores— hint at the artist’s larger project: to make visible overarching systems of control and exclusion.

The work is a disjointed reflection. In descending layers, the mirrors spell out a four-storey Snellen eye chart—that familiar series of letters that many of us recognize from routine eye exams—as enormous braille letters. The domes present a formal conundrum—they remain unreadable for people without sight, and, for those that can see, the array at first appears as a random association of dots, vague punctuations unable to express. In the words of the artist, it is an “eye chart for the blind,” and this sensory inconsistency brings us to a far-reaching conclusion that the work refers to a more widespread cultural invisibility.

On a basic level, the work reveals the inaccessibility of mainstream communication for the blind and relates to VCC’s programming for visually impaired adults. Double Blind brings into relief cultural exclusions that most take for granted.

Antonia Hirsch - Double Blind - Image 03 - Photo Credit - Photo Technic

City of Vancouver Public Art Program – Double Blind, 2008 (didactic) by Antonia Hirsch

A plaque next to the sculpture explains in braille the concept behind the work, and while developing the piece, Hirsch had ongoing consultations with students, staff and faculty in VCC’s program for the visually impaired. The work “makes visible” the situation of not seeing—and the implications of exclusion in a place of higher learning, with its promises of knowledge, social interaction and professional advancement. The fact that students of VCC’s School of Health Sciences might learn about “double blind” medical trials during their studies makes an additional connection between Hirsch’s eye chart and the activities and pedagogies going on elsewhere in the building.

More generally, the work poses questions about “seeing” as a means of control. The convex security mirrors make an explicit reference to the links between sight and power; those who have the wider view preside over those who, in their visibility, might be “counted.”

Antonia Hirsch - Double Blind - Image 05 - Photo Credit - Photo Technic

Detail from Double Blind, 2008 by Antonia Hirsch. Photo: Photo Technic

One is reminded of Michel Foucault’s writing on the Panopticon—an architecture that allows for a seemingly all-seeing vantage point—as a tool to enforce power, and it seems fitting that these mirrors reflect the goings-on in an institutional hall of windows, balconies and open sight lines. Thus, Double Blind elevates the surface of the mirrors to a reflection of consciousness: our realization that we are watched, and that, as we ascend staircases and sit in classrooms, we are also watching.

In this way, Double Blind doubles back on itself, making systems of power visible through the obfuscation of clear meaning. With a series of sensory dead-ends, pointed cultural associations and a canny awareness of surrounding architecture, Hirsch has created a piece that reflects our own reality back to us—but with insights that do not sit on the surface to be seen.

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Antonia Hirsch complementary wearable work iteration of Double Blind (2008). Photo by Photo Technic.

Double Blind is accompanied by a T-shirt that is available at the VCC Broadway Campus Bookstore. The T-shirt echoes the installation’s conundrum with the Snellen chart rendered on the front in braille using reflective foil and again on the back using raised letters in the same colour as the T-shirt fabric.

By Vanessa Kwan – Kwan is a Vancouver-based artist, writer and contributor to the City of Vancouver Public Art collection.

 


About the Artist

Antonia Hirsch is a Vancouver-based artist whose practice has consistently engaged with systems—geographical, financial, architectural and social—that underwrite our most basic understandings of the world. Working in a variety of media, Hirsch’s work has often been sited publicly, and the artist has exhibited work at the Vancouver Public Library (Anthropometrics, Vol. I, 2006) and on the massive LED screens at Robson and Granville Streets in downtown Vancouver (Vox Pop, 2008). In these, as in her gallery-based practice, Hirsch questions the often invisible hierarchies of culture and knowledge by relating them to more familiar territory: the scale of one’s own embodied experiences. In previous works, she has reconfigured world maps to reflect statistics of annual rainfall, the metric system to the length of an arm, or mass spectacle to the function of a single audience member.

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The City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program celebrates 25 years of creating extraordinary artworks for public spaces. Every two weeks during 2016 we’ll share the story of a unique artwork created through the program. Over 260 pieces have been commissioned since 1991 through civic initiatives, community grants or private sector rezoning requirements. These are only a few of the key pieces that have helped to define Vancouver as a unique place and a world-class city for public art!

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