Dialogue in the Dark

I don’t have a single photograph to show of the most extraordinary exhibit I’ve ever experienced, because it took place in complete darkness.

Upon arrival at the exhibit today, our group were first asked to check any items we were carrying, particularly anything that might emit light (think phones, watches etc). As we waited, several screens illustrated how people with varying degrees of sight might see iconic New York landmarks. We were then given canes appropriate for our height and ushered into a small room for a brief introduction on how to work with our canes. Slowly, the lights lowered, and when the last glimmer of light gave way to pitch-black, our guide, Frank, a jazz musician who is certified blind, moved into the room and talked us through what we were going to experience.

The timbre of Frank’s voice was enough to allay any uneasiness at the disorienting loss of visual input. He was reassuring, in control, hysterically funny and yes, kind of sexy. We felt safe knowing he was there to help us find our way. Then it was time to stand up and move to the rail in the centre of the room, which everyone did promptly, except for me, because in my fervour to focus on the instructions, I’d failed to notice there was a rail at all. After a little bit of groping around and some rather fancy cane work, I reached the rail and we were on our way.

I’m not going to spoil it for you, but our journey took us through several well-known New York haunts, and it was surprising how we grew braver and more confident with every step we took. Our ears started to pick up sounds that would usually have been ignored, scent took on a whole new dimension and identifying objects by touch or environments by how they felt underfoot became easier with each attempt. The most unexpected sounds created hugely problematic distractions, whilst others provided cues and clues as to how to navigate. Frank was our guide supreme, able to tell if we even thought about going the wrong way by the direction of our voices. Another remarkable part of the experience was that the big city need for personal space and tendency towards stand-offishness disappeared along with the light. We were perfect strangers but we were in it together, giggling, teaming up, encouraging and helping each other as best we could.

An hour later, gathered around a table and still in the dark, Frank asked us if we had any questions. You bet we did. He answered everything we threw at him with humour, warmth and insight as the lights slowly started to fade in.

This exhibit was not on my radar until a friend of mine suggested it. I cannot thank her enough for the recommendation, and I am going to pass it on to everyone I know. “Dialogue in the Dark” is currently at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, and also has an exhibit running in Atlanta. If you are anywhere near either of those locations, or are planning to visit, put this right at the top of your to-do list.