Life Lived in Colour.

Please listen with headphones – recording uses binaural stereo microphones which require headphone playback to achieve their full effect

This project is an attempt to understand some of the huge changes that take place in the life of one woman, Soozie, who after suffering from profound hearing loss for over 20 years, has had a good level of hearing restored through undergoing cochlear implant (CI) surgery. A CI is a device that is implanted inside the recipient’s head and consists of a series of electrodes that are attached directly to the aural nerves in the brain. These electrodes are then electronically stimulated via an external microphone/processor unit, essentially allowing for the damaged portions of a person’s ear to be bypassed.

Through spending time with Soozie, it is clear that the CI process not only transformed her sense of perception, but also profoundly transformed her sense of self and her relation to the world. A key focus of this work then becomes about addressing the existential value of hearing – a hearing that is about life, not just sound – and the ways that the CI process for Soozie not only greatly increased her ability to hear, but also opened up new possibilities for her life in general. When we begin to explore the CI process as an event with the capacity to produce a radical reorientation to the world – on a sensorial, as well as existential, social and imaginative level – we are presented with a problem ethnographically speaking, namely, how we might actually begin to apprehend, understand and represent these kinds of elusive, internal (emotional and imaginative) shifts in self-understanding. In this particular case, photography, painting and sound recording during fieldwork became a key site for opening up a provisional space where some of these issues could be made tangible, explored on a sensuous level, and be brought into dialogue with more traditional aspects of the research encounter.

When I met Soozie, she was engaged in creating paintings and photographs for an art exhibition in order to try and express some of the impact that her CI has had in her life. For her, a shift from darkness, to a world of bright, expressive colour became a key metaphor to help understand and express – both to herself, and to and others – some of these profound existential changes. The bright colours, swirls and sheer vibrancy of Soozie’s current artistic production, stand in stark contrast to the types of dark, troubled images that she has created in the past; and in this reawakening back into a world of ‘colour’, a trajectory through her struggles with deafness and subsequent re-integration back into social life as a vital space of possibility is opened up. The written part of the work (my MA thesis) presents a number of these images and discusses how creatively engaging with such expressive visual languages can contribute towards developing an anthropology that is more willing (and better equipped) to engage with people’s imaginative and interior worlds.

In the sound piece also presented here, we hear aspects of Soozie’s story alongside some of the sounds that have been important to her in her immediate acoustic environment. The sounds are taken mainly from soundwalks that we conducted together as a way of exploring her emotional relations to the world of sound around her. On these walks, I also gave her a much more powerful microphone that could be plugged directly into her CI processor, giving her a much more acute sensitivity to sound than usual. This interruption of her normal listening practice attempts to (re)dramatise, and partially bring back to life something of the state of wonder and extremely heightened relation to sound that she felt in the initial weeks and months after her CI was switched on. Thus through the unique dynamics of the sound recording encounter, we gain an insight into some of the simple, yet profound moments that unfold as part of the process of learning to more fully relate to the world of sound once again. Sounds are also chosen for their metaphorical resonances, with running water, footsteps, wind and other sounds used for their evocation of movement and change – sounds that when considered in dialogue with Soozie’s biography – work to further evoke and explore the idea of the horizons and possibilities of her life “opening up”.

  • Lee Gallagher
  • 2011