Eyeglasses are both ubiquitous and essential, forming a glossy barrier through which 60% of the global population should ideally interpret their surrounding environment. While glasses are associated with fashion and consumer culture, they are, on the most basic level, essential for the utilitarian necessity of sight. Internationally speaking, an estimated 500-million to 1-billion vision-impaired people either can’t afford eyeglasses, or don’t have access to optometrists to outfit them. Even in countries where eye-wear is easily attainable, it’s fascinating to consider the everyday effects this technology has on our collective vision.
Eyeglasses are a literal filter through which we see the world around us. If eyes are “windows to the soul,” how do lenses revise our vision of the world around us? What presences are evoked by thousands of human objects, especially materials so tied to mechanisms of sight? Do our former accessories carry faint ghosts of those who used them?
When imagining a new work for Pera Museum in Istanbul, we considered our first impulse: escapism. This city is already so full, vibrant, multifaceted, and overwhelming, that pockets of respite hold a particularly valuable place for temporary and permanent residents alike. When designing an outdoor, public work for Pera District, we observed the people utilizing the space on a daily basis, their relationship with the street, and surrounding infrastructure. We sat in front of the museum for many long hours, intuiting the feeling of the place as best we could.
At that time, a fresh influx of Syrian refugees were coursing through the streets of Istanbul, bereft and placeless. At night, some would sleep tucked into corners on the street outside the museum, just out of sight of the authorities and tourists, coursing back and fourth between hotels and the bar district. During daylight hours, street vendors collect on the street to sell traditional Turkish breads and rice-stuffed mussels, squeezed with lemon. Elderly women pedal flowers, organized by texture, appealing to passersby with grandmotherly glances and perfumed arrangements. Cars roll by in varying states of desperation, bottlenecked by parkades and laissez faire urban planning. Street dogs and cats melt into the sidewalks, clinging to thin lines of afternoon shade. People beg. Some sit in the sun, drinking chai. Taxis honk their horns. And so it goes…
sea/see/saw was born from our interest in building a moment of escape, coupled with an urge to ground escapism back into reality through utilitarian objects and subtle, site-specific, environmental reactions. We proposed the work as a temporary kinetic sculpture constructed from 14,000 re-appropriated eyeglass lenses, mounted as a sheer watery surface on the façade of Pera Museum. Intended to mirror the dynamic and shimmering surface of the Bosphorus below, the piece introduces chaotic movement to the otherwise static structure, as drawn by the wind. Built from incremental, readily available elements (glasses) that merge to create a simple, geometric form (a perfect circle), sea/see/saw invites viewers to engage in a momentary shift of perspective.
Once we’d determined the materiality of the installation (we’ll have more to say about the politics of these objects later) came the next big question: where were we going to find 7,000 pairs of used eyeglasses?
We considered launching an “Eyeglasses Drive” in the same way that we crowd-sourced burnt out light bulbs for CLOUD through a Light Bulb Drive. However, this brought up an ethical dilemma: because there are already humanitarian organizations collecting prescription glasses to send to developing nations, would a Drive sourcing glasses for a public artwork be problematic? Would it create a weird, competitive scenario? We don’t want to hinder these groups in any way. We support their aims and efforts.
We decided to reach out to several of international vision organizations, asking if there were opportunities for exchange or partnership. Were any of the second-hand eyeglasses they received too damaged to use for practical purposes? Could we trade a donation? Were there other opportunities for collaboration that might be mutually beneficial?
We sent these messages with no expectations, but the hope that we could at least discuss our sculpture. A week later, we were contacted by the Calgary Lions Eyeglass Recycling Centre, one of 17 facilities for vision through the Lions Club in the world. It turns out that one of their main warehouses is located in Calgary – with over a million spectacles onsite and counting. Not only were they willing to share thoughts and resources, but there were thousands of donated glasses that they couldn’t re-use for one reason or another, and they would love to discuss a trade.
In the end, CLERC was the source for almost all the eyeglasses used for sea/see/saw. The donated eyeglasses they aren’t able to re-use are mostly specialty bifocals and prescriptions that adjust for stigmatism (they’re too hard to match). These unusable glasses are still beneficial to CLERC – normally they’re shipped to California, where they’re ground up and melted down to salvage the raw materials. In exchange, CLERC receives $1/lb, which they re-direct into the considerable costs of their international vision programs. We were happy to surpass this rate with a donation, and CLERC offered not only 7,000+ pairs of glasses, but a dose of healthy perspective.
The Calgary Lions Eyeglass Recycling Centre aids 79 countries internationally, from Belize to Zimbabwe. They ship new and used reading, single vision, bifocal, children’s, safety, and sun glasses, sometimes alongside a full vision team capable of outfitting the glasses directly. Since 2003, they’ve contributed over 2.5-million eyeglasses to aid vision impaired people around the world. Their team and resources are growing daily, and they recently began a smaller but equally valuable initiative to distribute hearing aids. CLERC is primarily operated by volunteers, many of whom are based out of Calgary, Canada. To send used eyeglasses or donations to the organization, please see their website for details.
The work done by organizations like CLERC is inspiring and essential. Although we already had some awareness of these initiatives, it was a privilege to further understand the workings of one of these groups from the inside.
From this point forward, our next step was quite divergent from theirs – while they aim to refurbish prescription glasses for future use, our next step was to break them down into their most essential parts… with help from 33 Calgary-based friends and volunteers. More about that soon.