This past Thursday, a stylish woman in a fur vest and high-heeled boots escorted a man in sunglasses to the center of the small gallery space inside the UofC’s Logan Center. The man took his seat behind a keyboard and ran his hands across the keys. He then picked up a Braille script from the table beside him, and in a somber tone, read aloud an Edgar Allan Poe poem. A cello played through the overhead speakers.
The woman in boots, Minouk Lim, was behind the event–a Korean performance and video artist who just completed a month-long residency at the Hyde Park Art Center. The show was her fourth installation of FireCliffe, a series of collaborative performances. This performance drew inspiration from Diderot’s “Letter on the Blind.” In this essay, Diderot contemplates perception, and proposes that a concept of god comes from color, line, and form–a definition challenged by those who cannot see. The man at the keyboard, Chicago-based organist Chris Foreman, is blind.
When the lights in the Logan Center came back on, Foreman looked up at the audience and broke into a smile. He welcomed the crowd, asking how they were not once, but three times. On its third response, the audience finally gained enough confidence to yell back with what Foreman deemed sufficient volume.
Foreman began his speech by talking about learning to play the piano, a lifelong passion that he dates back to age six, but which his parents tell him began when he was barely 18 months old. He talked about his admiration for incidental music–known to most of us as background music. For those with sight, incidental music usually conjures up imagery. But for Foreman, this background music colors the sonic landscape of his world. As an example, Foreman described many of the scenes he associates with organ music: Sunday mass, old-fashioned ice skating rinks, sports games.
After telling his story, the lights dimmed again, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech began to play overhead, intermingled with bright piano music. Dreams are visual experiences–so how are they perceived by someone who cannot see? King’s speech is rife with visual cues–from the red hills of Georgia to the snowcapped mountains in Colorado–but the overlaid music suggested the potency of auditory perception. As the music faded, Foreman, who is African American, continued to read the speech aloud, eventually returning to his keyboard as King’s voice faded back in.