The Sightseers


Sound (36 minutes 22 seconds)

This work was commissioned by the Edinburgh art organisation, Collective, as part of their Observer’s Walks programme, for which artists develop alternative audio guides to Calton Hill, the historic site where Collective is located. The Sighseers is based on two small asides mentioned in the biographies of the first Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Thomas Henderson (1798–1844) and Thomas Anderson (1853–1932), an amateur astronomer who discovered an undocumented temporary star when looking at the sky from his bedroom window in 1892. Both men had problems with their eyes, Anderson having given up his job as a minister as he couldn’t see well enough to read his sermons, and Henderson suffering from bouts of near blindness. Furthermore, another amateur astronomer in Edinburgh, James Gall, founded a printing-press specialising in astronomy and in books for the blind, written in a pre-Braille raised typeface designed by his father.

On the back of these stories, Collective and I approached the RNIB (Royal National Institute for Blind People), which has a community centre at the foot of Calton Hill, and developed a project with help from The Lothian Blind Ramblers, a walking group for visually-impaired people. The Lothian Blind Ramblers go on excursions around the Scottish countryside, moving around in pairs made up of a visually-impaired person and their sighted guide. The conversations within the pairs are highly layered, consisting of – for instance – information that is immediately relevant (such as practical descriptions of the terrain or warnings of hazards), information that is tangentially relevant (such as aesthetic observations about the landscape and its contents), and information drawn from outwith the immediate situation (such as stories and anecdotes, or discussions of politics, memories, hobbies and so on). These essentially function as a foreground, a middle ground and a background, and those who go on such walks regularly are extremely adept at moving seamlessly between the layers as if each one is a different sense operating simultaneously with the others.

For The Sightseers, I recorded the conversations of four pairs of ramblers as they undertook walks around Calton Hill, and a subsequent conversation between the whole group back at the gallery. These conversations were then broken down into small parts and partially reconstructed as a play to be performed by two actors – one playing a visually-impaired rambler and the other a guide. The play utilised the many layers of spoken communication to generate an audio-guide for Calton Hill as part of Collective’s Observer’s Walks programme. The play can be listened to here, or on an iPod borrowed at Collective’s reception desk.

The walkers were Victor Aitken, Gail Donald, Elizabeth Douglas, Paddy Dresser, John Howie, Jimmy Milhench, Chris Morris and Dennis Wilson. The sound was recorded by Jack Coghill and Dougie Fairgrieve, and the actors who performed the play were Eliza Langland and Simon Tait.

Exhibited in:

Rumours of a New Planet

Collective, Edinburgh (24 Nov 2018 → 31 Mar 2019)

Permanently available at Collective's reception

24 Nov 2018 → ongoing