Everything #10
May 1 & 2, until it fades
The Dig Cunt
May 7–13
Five Ballerinas in Manhattan
May 27–June 2
NYC Walk with Creative Time
Plumbing pipe ...1...2...3:Props Unplugged
May 21–25
Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See
Fall 2007

Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See


Mark Beasley: Why did you choose to work specifically with the parable of the blind men and the elephant? For those unfamiliar with the parable, it describes the experience of six blind people who touch different parts of an elephant and describe very different experiences—in essence, it questions the validity of single-perspective truths.

Javier Téllez: For a long time I have wanted to address the subject of blindness in my work. As is the case with my continued interest with mental illness, personal biographic factors brought me to the subject. Being the son of two psychiatrists, I was in daily contact with mental patients and psychiatric institutions from the time when I was a child. I experienced the condition of blindness through my mother, who was blind throughout the last ten years of her life. It was this intimate experience with “difference” that made me think about those who are stigmatized by their condition. I made several early attempts to address the subject of blindness before this film. For instance, during the last blackout in New York City, I went out to the streets with my camera and interviewed New Yorkers who were blind about their experience of the electric failure. I read Diderot’s classic book on blindness, Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, that I quote in the film’s title, and then recalled the ancient parable. These led me to make a film based on both texts. I think that the film is about blindness and not about the parable per say; the parable functions just as a sort of MacGuffin object—the term Hitchcock used to describe a plot device that functions only to motivate the narrative.

So in essence the elephant and the parable were devices that allowed you to pursue your real concerns. In terms of the filming of the event, we talked at length about making it public. Ultimately we decided against this and looked instead to the film to tell the tale. Can you talk me through your thoughts on this?

JT: There are two elements in the event: a group of six people who are blind, and an elephant. An image is produced by their encounter. I thought of the participants as the primary spectators of the event—the action of touching, smelling, and listening to a real elephant. Further spectators were not required. Then the question was how to present this encounter to other people. The event was filmed and recorded as the best possible way to “translate” the different points of view of those who were directly involved with the experience. It was also interesting for me to conceal the “real” presence of the elephant and the people touching them to an audience who we could define as “those who see” or the sighted—a play on notions of visibility.

Since film as a medium can only convey partial versions of events, the experience of the spectator looking at the film mirrors the parable.

MB: Do you feel that film is a form that is analogous to public space? Given that in many respects our relationship to the public sphere is a controlled one. That is to say, we as viewers cannot alter our relationship to film—we are fixed in its gaze, and in a similar sense to the relations one has to a city that demands certain responses and behavior from its citizens.

JT: We could conceive of cinema as a tool for the creation of new relations between people and spaces. Perhaps what has to be done is to challenge the apparatus, the “institutional mode of representation” that presupposes a passive mode of spectatorship. Viewers could potentially alter film, the same way that a reader could alter a given text by their reading. Video made it possible to rewind, fast-forward, stop, or repeat moving images like the way you could flip to the pages of a book. Many people in the world could make a video now and show it to unknown people on the web (which perhaps is still a less restricted public space than the city)…. With the popularization of digital video cameras and the download of video from the web, the moving image is becoming the new epistolary genre. That in a way was Alexandre Astruc’s dream when he coined the term caméra-stylo, or the camera as a pen. Then we should still define cinema today as the moving image, but also as something that could potentially expand its definition and should not be predetermined by traditional notions of spectatorship.

MB: Do you feel that your film could be described as a “right to reply,” in this case to the fable of the blind men and the elephant?

JT: Certainly that could be one way to read it, as the critical relation with the original story and its allegorical representation of blindness. But I think in the end, the experience in and of itself for the participants was more important than the impulse to contest the myth. The real encounter of the people with an elephant for the first time in their lives brought a sense of epiphany to the film that was not present in the ancient parable. I think the recording of their perceptions was the best reply to the parable, which misrepresented those who are blind as a tool to convey allegorical meanings.

MB: The film is an interesting one in relation to the recent proliferation of artists’ projects that consider the remade and the restaged. Firstly it seeks to stage the as-yet unrealized. It steps—as do the actors—into the unknown, into the grey area of perceived truths. In many ways it suggests a counter and critical relation to history—rather than simply replaying, it interrogates history.

JT: The story has an inherent power as an image that transcended the particular narratives that surrounded the reading of the primary image: an elephant and the blind people. The image of six blind humans touching an elephant is for us much more interesting than the different allegorical readings storytellers have attached to it. You could also say that it is somehow restaged each time the story is told. In this case I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the blind. That is to say, to allow multiple voices to articulate the narrative, rather than a single point of view that could lead to a moral.

MB: There was a lengthy selection process in terms of actors. What were the deciding factors for you in terms of selection?

JT: Casting is always complicated. In general terms I try to be democratic about that, as was the case in One Flew Over the Void (2005), where all of the inpatients of the psychiatric hospital were invited to take part in the event. I try to privilege those with little or no experience with the arts since I prefer to cast the outcast, but it depends on each situation. In this instance, it resulted from conversations with everyone who responded to an open call addressed to people who are blind. It is always a matter of elective affinities.

MB: The film has much in common with those techniques employed in cinéma vérité (roughly translated from the French as “cinema of truth”) or the 1960s “direct cinema” in North America. It employs documentary techniques such as the staged set-up and the use of the camera to provoke reaction. Is this something you are critically engaged with?

JT: There is a lot of confusion with the term cinéma vérité, especially when the term applies historically to both the European school and its American counterpart that is much more dogmatic and less interesting. The documentary filmmaker of the time who interests me most is Jean Rouch, for he was never an advocate of the alleged objectivity of the recording of reality; on the contrary, the filmmaker’s intervention of reality was always present in his films and made evident through the process of collaboration with his subjects. I do not believe in a clear distinction between documentary and fiction, since it is all a matter of representation. Film and video (unless they are completely abstract) are always documentary in the sense that they are evidence of the real; but at the same time, a fictional element is inevitable in any visual representation that pretends to be pure documentary. For me, it is very important to work in collaboration with nonprofessional actors, or models—as Bresson called them—because their lack of representational skills make the evidence of the real more visible. We could describe my practice as the documentation of fictional rehearsals rather than something that could fit within the rigid categories of either fiction or documentary.
Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See is a continuous part of my body of work in collaboration with people who are marginalized by society because of their difference. This particular work raised a question from the beginning: is it possible to make a film in collaboration with people who cannot see, with people who have never experienced vision in their lives? The answer was to incorporate their voices, which became a very important element on the film. We used the voiceover as one of the main devices to convey the experience of those who are blind. We also constantly used the acousmetre—a sound or a voice that is heard without its cause or source being seen. (It is interesting to note that this French word derives from the disciples of Pythagoras, who spent years in silence listening to their master speaking behind a curtain.) The acousmetres in the film are composed of the voices of the six participants commenting on blindness, and are accompanied by shots of the elephant skin filling the entire screen—a veil that conceals the image that corresponds to the speaking voice.

Most of the cinema we see today, including most mainstream film or video art, is still founded on the primary identification of the spectator with the actors through the recourse of the subjective camera, fetishizing the visual. Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See privileges other sensorial approaches to reality.

Click here to view photos from the action.