Blinde und Kunst celebrates its 25th anniversary

By Siegfried Saerberg

I. Darkness as the womb of “Blinde und Kunst e.V.” (BuK)1

In the year 2018 the association “Blinde und Kunst” [BuK] - blind people and the arts - celebrates its 25th anniversary. BuK was founded in 1993 in Cologne as a nonprofit organization of blind, visually impaired and sighted artists, as well as blind or visually impaired people who are interested in the arts.

Leslie Ann Hewitt sings “Lilac Wine”, recorded 2013 in Cologne

© Blinde & Kunst.

BuK includes musicians, composers, writers, actors, sculptors and those who are just interested in culturally [de]constructing/presenting blindness in a new way. Its rise coincided with and inspired the beginning of the “darkness-movement” in Germany. By this term I mean activities such as “dialogue in the dark” and several dark restaurants and cafés presented and organized by blind people.2 Thus, guiding sighted people into the dark in order to get on equal terms with them was our initial aim.

We developed a dark show which we called “Black Out” including music, dance, theatre-play, literature, stand-up comedy and magic.

Niko Valentino presents his dark magic show, recorded 1996 in Hamburg
© Blinde & Kunst.

[DescriptionYou hear music from a violin and a guitar. Then Niko exclaims: “Good evening, I am the magician with the pony tail. I have dressed up for you – but I am not sure whether you have already realized this.”]

The dark show also contained everyday activities such as finding one’s seat, finding the washroom and the exit, ordering a drink and paying in an entirely dark social situation. In 1993 for the first time “Black Out” celebrated blindness together with sighted guests and blind and sighted artists in a little theatre in Hamburg called “foolsgarden”. By 2007, “Black out” had been hosted at more than 100 events all over Germany, Belgium and Austria.

II. Producing radio programs and exploring blind culture

In 1995, BuK started to produce an acoustic magazine first on cassette and then on CD that was only distributed among its members. It contained more than 30 samples with around 35 copies which were sent via mail to each member. Between 1997 and 2000, we worked together with a broadcasting company in the south-west part of Germany [SWR] with the idea of presenting radio plays in darkness. A radio play called “Café Finsternis” resulted from this project.

Tommy Ahrens and his guide dog Kelly singing the blues, recorded 1997 in Freiburg.
© Blinde & Kunst.

[DescriptionTommy talks to his dog Kelly, then he plays the harp, Kelly sings.]

In 2004, we started to produce radio programs on our own and we still do this today in a local radio station in Cologne called “Freier Bürgerfunk”. From 2010 to 2012, together with “Radiofabrik” in Salzburg [Austria] we took part in a European culture program called “Ohrenblicke” [Ear Glances] to develop our technical and journalistic skills. Such radio programs are intended to present elements of blind culture to a wider public.

III. BuK explores blind arts

Our next goal was to develop special expressions of art that could be appreciated in the dark in order to make it more accessible for blind and visually disabled people. Between 1995 and 1997, BuK conceptualized three exhibitions in total darkness in Bergisch-Gladbach, Hamburg and Cologne, together with local associations of artists and the local association of blind and visually impaired people. The exhibition was called “Sinnenfinsternis” [eclipse of the senses] which is a play on words of the German phrase “Sonnenfinsternis” [eclipse of the sun] – with a forthcoming cosmic event on 11th August 1999. Acoustic, tactual, olfactory and gustatory exhibits – and also ostensibly visual ones such as a colour-cabinet for the haptic sensation of colour – were presented in total darkness to a mostly sighted audience.

In 2010, BuK developed the exhibition “Blinde Flecken” [Blind Spots]. The exhibition featured 17 favourite places of blind or visually impaired narrators. Voices, sounds and other audible sources were tape recorded to create an auditory portrait. Visitors could listen to these voices and sounds in dark booths via headphones. These recorded sounds were also presented on CD. 

“3541 Miles” by Robbie Sandberg, published 2011.
© Blinde & Kunst.

[Description: You can hear a lot of different sounds. Then the author asks, what it is that drives a blind backpacker away from home. He answers that it is just the same thing that leads all backpackers into the world: To discover new things experience other people and different cultures and the lust for adventure. “Every city, every region has its own impact on the senses”, he says. Now you can hear several sounds of public travel like London Underground, San Francisco Cable Cars or Hamburg S-Bahn. Then you can hear a soundscape from India. The author concludes: “To experience with my own ears a sound that you normally only hear by watching an animal film tells me how far I am away from home”.]

In 2013, we transferred our concepts from dark environments to a lighted context now focusing on art exclusively produced by blind or visually impaired artists. Every work of art could be touched, was audio-described and a guiding system led through the exhibition.

“Tapestry I”. Fire screen, cutlery, gardening tools, 2012 by Marian Edwards for the exhibition “Art Blind” (17.5.2013 – 17.6.2013) im Stapelhaus, Cologne.

Photo: Victor Dahmen, © Blinde & Kunst 2013
[Description: The object is a Victorian fire screen, an article of daily use which is placed in front of an open fireplace to prevent sparks from flying into the room. Fixed to its surface are carelessly discarded gardening tools and rusty, tarnished, dented, and bent cutlery. The objects are arranged in a very symmetric pattern both next to and on top of each other. We find scissors, fish knives, a small rake, and a little shovel. Tea and tablespoons of different sizes are placed in a row. With two exceptions, their handles point upwards and their inner surfaces face us.
Those are items which remain behind when a house is emptied out or when the attic is cleaned. They are the remains which remind us of a bygone life.
The artist writes, "I am fascinated by the way the light falls onto these objects and how the colours of the tarnished silver and discarded metal change. How we deal with objects and how we combine losses and memories that way."]

These exhibitions attempt to conceptionalize art and exhibitions beyond the limitations of the eye. They are also examples of the ways in which art exhibitions, from their initial conception, can be designed to accommodate the cognitive and perceptual culture of blind and visually impaired people. And moreover, they also represent a new and different experience for sighted people as well: the beheld object is not necessarily a visual one. It might also be an acoustic, tactual or gustatory one. So beauty does not only lie in the eye of the beholder. It also lies in the cognitive, perceptive and habitual procedures of the beholder’s body and mind.

IV. Conquering the citadels of art

From 2015 to 2017, we worked together with four major museums in Germany in a project called “Pilot Inklusion”. Together with Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn we worked on three exhibitions: “Japans Liebe zum Impressionismus” discussing the relationship between European impressionism and traditional art in Japan; “Pina Bausch und das Tanztheater” exploring the work of this extraordinary German choreographer from a bodily perspective, and “Wetterbericht”, dealing with the very subjective experience of weather as well as with global climatic changes. Besides implementing many tools to make the exhibitions accessible we presented works of art created by people with disabilities as a part of the exhibition.

“Wolken, Textile, 2017 by Michael Gerdsmann, Die Schlumper (Hamburg) for the exhibition "Wetterbericht. Über Klimakultur und Klimawissenschaft" (7.10.2017 - 4.3.2018) in Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn.
Photo: David Ertl © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn

[Description: You can see a woman touching some crocheted clouds hanging in the air. The clouds are in different sizes and made out of wool. They vary in colour between white and black. Behind the woman you see her guide dog laying on the exhibition floor.]

“Welle im Auslauf” by Karla Faßbender for the exhibition "Wetterbericht. Über Klimakultur und Klimawissenschaft" (7.10.2017 - 4.3.2018) in Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn.
Photo: © Blinde & Kunst.

[Description: You can see a wave made out of alabaster. It is rather a smooth and soft wave than a big one. It feels like you lay your hand on the watery surface of the Northern Sea on a very calm morning.]

We also worked together with “KUNSTHAUS KAT18” in Cologne where many artists with learning disabilities produce their works. Widening our scope from blindness to disability in general, the project dealt with three major topics concerning the relationship between culture, arts and disability:
  • Accessibility: All arts must be made accessible to disabled people. Not a single kind of art may be excluded. This needs to be done in a process of transformation.
  • Multisensory [Tactile, acoustic and audio-descriptive] elements must be implemented
  • The permission to touch original sculptures
  • The availability of copies that are as close to the original in form, material and size
  • Multi-cognitive strategies [simple language, diverse languages] must be applied
  • Special guide services and guide systems should be available
  • Professionalization so that disabled co-workers will be hired in museum-contexts as volunteer work may not be the appropriate basis
  • Inclusion: The process of transformation should involve the communication of at least three groups: people with disabilities who should be the subject of transformation, the museum experts who know about the objects and their cultural context, and disabled artists who are best-equipped to encapsulate this process of transformation. This communication must be instituted within local, regional and national organisations: Every museum, every centre of arts should create a council to work together with groups and organizations within the disability community where this process of transformation can take place.
  • Participation: art and culture in a broader social context should be embedded into the work of disabled artists. The artistic and cultural expression of disabled people should be encouraged, promoted and supported. And because these belong to human heritage, it must be made accessible for the whole of society in museums and galleries.

Accessibility, inclusion and participation should not be added to exhibitions in a second or third remove, but seen as an inclusive making of culture in general. Disability approaches should be embedded already in the first steps of conceptualisation. This also means, that exhibitions should represent disabled people, their arts and their culture. This is, because it is society which makes people disabled. So it is also society which can enable us again. Furthermore, society is also obliged to do so, because society is the overriding factor which enables or disables all human beings in the first place. We are social beings with our own unique culture which yearns to be represented among other cultures in public places such as museums, theatres and galleries. And we as members, producers and recipients of disability culture and disability arts should in the future be able to make our presence felt in mainstream culture and the arts.


[1] I like to thank Leslie Ann Hewitt and Luke Hewitt for supporting the translation from German to English. Thanks also go to Eckhard Seltmann.
[2] Siegfried Saerberg [2007]: The dining in the dark phenomenon. In: Disability Studies Quarterly, vol 27 no 3, summer 2007.

Recommended Citation:
Siegfried Saerberg (2018): Blinde und Kunst celebrates its 25th anniversary. In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 9.

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