Dialogue in the Dark is an interesting exhibit/experience. I’m not sure what is included in the installations located in nations outside of the US – but I’m pretty sure the one in Chicago and Atlanta are essentially the same. The stories are true. It really is everything that those commercials make it out to be.
When the exhibit begins, you’re sitting on lighted cubes which start to dim until the room is completely dark. Much more dark than any other room you’ve probably been in over the last few years – especially for any extended period of time over five minutes. It’s an interesting feeling – of being in an open black space.
Like other descriptions of the experience have mentioned, you go through several rooms, all of them designed to be common spaces that blind people must live in and go through on a daily basis – like crossing the street or moving around your own apartment (but I’m trying not to give it all away so that you can experience the surprise for yourself when you go.)
As far as your other senses being ‘heightened’ – for myself, I know that I really had to use the obvious sense of sound to a larger degree, but also memory and spatial awareness – things we usually don’t have to deal with since with vision we instantly process the information right before we need to use it. With no light and only information available at the time of it’s use or circumstance – everything else has to be kept in your head, such as where you initially hit a wall, the path that it follows – once you step away from the wall you have to remember where it is – and this goes for the entire layout of the room – if you explore enough to map out the room in the short amount of time your group gets in each space.
Because you generally follow a path with some open spaces of probably around 6×6 – you don’t get to experience the vast open darkness as much as I would have liked – because you’ll quickly hit a wall. For myself, it was when I was in the middle of a room, without the security of a wall to follow – those were the times when I felt most uncomfortable. And I think realistically, these are the times when most people would also feel the most disoriented. Without that automatic frame of reference and degree of security, you’re truly left to rely on your other senses.
When you run your hand along a wall, even without sight you ‘see’ the wall and where it’s leading you in your mind’s eye, for those of us with vision it’s natural to continue to rely on our ‘sight’ even when we don’t see anything. Rather than relying on other senses in their own right, we’ll use touch, and sounds to help us create pictures so we can at least ‘see’ in our mind’s eye. The effect I’m describing is a bit like watching TV with the sound off – you’ll use visual cues to create the ‘sounds’ in your head – but for most people, sound is still connected to a visual memory. For those with sight, nearly every sense memory is tied to a visual memory. Smell a pizza and you automatically conjure up an image of a pizza or better, a memory of eating one. One might argue that even blind people create these visual images in their heads – but what about the ones who are born blind and have never really had visual inputs that resemble anything we know?
At the end of our tour, our guide told us of another one of the guides who had lost his sight when he was two years old and had forgotten colors – not only that, but when he dreamed, he dreamt in sound. I can hardly begin to imagine what that would be like.
Now, among the many goals of this exhibit one of them was also to give jobs to many blind people who otherwise cannot work. The unemployment rate among blind persons is around 70%. While it’s easy to say that obviously blind people cannot do many jobs because many jobs do in fact require sight – the fact is that all of us people who have our vision, have created a world where everything we do relies on vision. The many rooms you go through in Dialogue in the Dark really enables people to finally begin to experience what blind people have known all along and that none of us really could understand any other way – that there are many perspectives, views, and parts of this world and this life that we are missing out on because of how heavily we rely on our sight.
And I must admit, I didn’t realize that I thought any of what I just wrote until now. If you would have asked me yesterday what I thought soon after having finished the experience, I probably would have just said it was like walking around in the dark for an hour. It is so much more than that.
You should go to this and not only experience it, but also take the time to reflect on the experience afterwards at some point (days, or even a week later) and not let it slip away like we do with so much visual input that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis.
I’m better today.