Blind Imaginings (An Excerpt) by Alex Bulmer

A black and white photograph of Alex Bulmer, a white woman in her early 50s with short dirty-blonde hair wearing dark sunglasses and standing inside a streetcar.

With two suitcases and my guide dog, Zeus, I went back to Canada, to Toronto, for five months. It seemed the best place for me to reflect and rebuild confidence. Since my original diagnosis in 1987, Toronto had been my home for fourteen years, and remained visible, although not always through the process of fully seeing.

Three days in, I walked with anticipation out of my sublet into the crisp winter air and unmistakable sound of crunching snow underfoot. Within minutes Zeus and I turned off Howland Avenue onto Bloor Street, and the memories flooded back. Bloor Street was burned into my visual memory. I had my first Toronto apartment in 1988 just off Bloor, spent several years living in the neighbourhood, and frequently walked through it.

The memories were vivid and colourful, my expectation of engagement high. On that day, I walked, anticipating environmental clues to launch remembered images: a clue to shade in my mind the white and black colours of the stuffed cow at the front of the Cheese Dairy, something to suggest the swirling red lettering and painted chickens in the window of the By The Way Café, a hint to trigger the big bold letters atop the Brunswick House on the corner. But the clues were not there, the connection between present experience and visual memory did not happen, my home city had vanished.

On that third day, on that walk along Bloor, I felt a deepening connection to my blindness, somehow combining despair and relief at the same time. It was not London I could not see, it was not Freiburg, or the Rhine or Cologne, or Europe. It was everywhere. This seems an obvious truth, but the gravity of it landed that day, and I somehow felt a little more whole.

A colour photograph of Alex Bulmer, a white woman in her early 50s with short dirty-blonde hair dressed in a white t-shirt and red jean jacket, laughing and speaking into a microphone.

I remembered a story in James Holman’s writing about his use of sound in orientation. He wrote of a time his body was in need of exercise, so, using a long rope, he tethered himself to a horse-drawn coach and listened to the click clack of its wooden wheels as a guide for direction. My thoughts went to imagined sounds and smells in the 19th century, what they might have been, how they made an impact on the experience of moving through environments.

To a greater or lesser degree, many blind people rely on echolocation – essentially the act of listening for sounds to bounce off surface – as a technique to support mobility and orientation. Holman’s 19th century environment included wooden wheels, metal shoes, horses’ hooves, spaces of silence (no airplanes invading the listening space), whereas our 21st century offers traffic mayhem, horns honking, car radios blasting, people talking and shouting face down into their phones – an acoustic urban chaos assaulting the ears. What I’d concluded two months earlier to be a personal failure in the face of adversity, started to shift context from self-analysis to social relationship.

Over weeks in Toronto I wrote a daily journal and reflected on everything since the sudden halt of my travel ambitions. Reflected? Even my use of language is tied to seeing. So much, if not everything my brain practices, is connected to seeing. My memory is in pictures, even invented ones initiated and developed by voice and sound. When I dream, I see, often waking up to the jolting reminder that in reality I do not.

Living blind, going blind, I’m well aware of what this means from moment to moment and day to day. So how could I imagine I could travel through eight cities in just over two weeks? The answer is in the question. Not how could I, but how did I? I imagined in pictures, like a cinematographer with a long shot, I imagined what the cities might look like.

In this moment I realized an essential part of me, my imagination, was stuck in my sighted past. I needed to set it free. If I was ever going to travel again, I needed to practice imagining, blind imaginings, of where to go and what to do. By mid-May, I was back on a plane, not to follow James Holman through Europe, but to follow where my blind imaginings took me. I was off to the music belt of America.

With a background of clouds and a blue sky, Alex Bulmer stands mid-step in the clouds pulling a red and black rolling suitcase behind her. Alex is a white woman in her early 50s with short dirty-blonde hair. She wears an unbuttoned red canvas jacket over a white t-shirt, black jeans, and black boots. Below her feet in bold lettering reads Perceptual Archaeology [or How To Travel Blind]. Accessible for Blind and Sighted audiences. Below the text is hand-drawn images of landmarks from various international locations that have been meshed into a cohesive landscape. Images include cathedrals, a train station, a boat crossing a river and a large clock tower.

Alex Bulmer’s Perceptual Archaeology (Or How to Travel Blind), directed by Leah Cherniak and presented by Crow’s Theatre, runs from June 2 to 25 in Toronto.

Named one of the most influential disabled artists by UK’s Power Magazine, Alex Bulmer has over thirty professional years’ experience across theatre, film, radio and education. She is fueled by a curiosity of the improbable, dedicated to collaborative practice, and deeply informed by her experience of becoming blind. She is the co-founder of The Fire and Rescue Team, lead curator of CoMotionFestival 2022 with Harbourfront Centre, and former artistic director of Common Boots Theatre. She established the New Writing department with Graeae Theatre in the UK, and is the award-winning writer of multiple BBC radio dramas, the writer of Breathe which opened the London 2012 Olympics, the writer of the Dora and Chalmers nominated SMUDGE, and co-writer of the BAFTA-nominated television series Cast Offs.  Alex’s interdependent practice infuses blindness and seeing into the arts.