Excerpts > Spring 2001
Retina Prints
Elizabeth Goldring

The Retina Prints are based on video captures of the retina (the back of the eye) looking at or absorbing visual information--faces, words, landscapes, etc. A Scanning Laser Ophthalmoscope (SLO) is a medical imaging instrument that delivers visual information to the retina and also records the retina looking. My impulse to make Retina Prints and to use the SLO as a "seeing machine" was precipitated by a remarkable experience. Several months after I became blind, with only light and shadow perception in both eyes, I was given a test to determine the degree of remaining retina function in each eye. The diagnostic tool used was the SLO which projected "stick figure" images onto selected areas of my retinas. When I discovered that I could actually SEE some of the test pictures I asked if I could try a word--the word "sun." I could see it too. It was the first word I had seen in a long time. For me, a writer who could no longer read and was beginning to forget the shape of words, this was truly an important moment. 

Almost since that day I have been experimenting with the SLO. I use it as a "seeing machine" for my right eye which still has residual retina function but no useful vision. In collaboration with the SLO inventor and physicians, scientists, engineers, artists and students at MIT and Harvard I am attempting to create visual experiences and poetry for people who have low vision or no vision at all. To avoid confusion and frustrating "white noise," I believe that visual communication for people with impaired eyesight should rely on principles of economy and intensity that guide many poets--saying a lot with as few strokes as possible.

In 1996, in my studio at MIT we figured out how to hook up an SLO to the Internet and the world of virtual reality. (I am hoping that adapting virtual environments to low vision needs will become a use of virtual reality unrelated to games.) My dream is that one day people who are blind will be able to enjoy internet access to distant landscapes, faces of loved ones as well as the words and glyphs of poetry.

The Retina Prints which I like to think of as visual poems are a by-product of my experiments with the SLO. The video output from the SLO captures what is seen through the SLO as it is being looked at--visual sequences of the "looking retina" that can be framed and printed. Each retina "illuminated" by the octopus-like tendrils of the optic nerve is as individual as a thumb print. The words and images projected onto my badly damaged retinas with the SLO retain an indelible "after-image" quality that I celebrate with the prints. (The SLO is a black and white/grey scale system, so the color is assigned.)

Although I have "low vision," what I see guides my writing and colors my poems. For me the retina prints are frozen traces of seeing turned into visual poems . . . the memory of words that move and flow into meaning like RAIN falling in 3D VR SLO space, in homage to Apollinaire. The images "sitting on my retina" are often only palpable through the SLO. Once seen and captured this way, they are always there in my mind's eye--and on the Retina Prints.

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