wait until dark

In Games
June 20, 2010

Here’s something people don’t know about me: I’m a bit afraid of the dark. Not very afraid, not afraid like I really think there are monsters under the bed or in the wardrobe, not like I freak out if I’m in a tube train and the lights go off for a bit. But just, unsettled. Like a lot of people who grew up in the city, who’ve lived all their lives in the city, I find total darkness intimidating. Better if there’s just a bit of light.

But somehow I don’t like feeling like that. And so when I heard about a project that involved wandering round in pitch-darkness, I wanted to experience it for myself. Rather appropriately (or inappropriately?) for the longest days of the year, this weekend I visited The Question, a demonstration of what the organisers hope will become a larger project, open to the public. I hope it will too, it was magical.

The technological aspect is interesting – and I hope to write more about it – you’re guided around the space by a mechanical lotus flower which opens and closes depending on how near you are to a ‘zone of interest’ – in these zones there are things to touch, and the headphones you’re wearing play music or snippets of dialogue. But talking about the technology doesn’t really get to the heart of the experience.

Here’s what it’s like. First of all, I felt nervous. A small group of us walked through the ‘light lock’. The door closed behind us. The space really was black. It made no difference whether my eyes were open or closed, so I closed them. I shuffled forward. I had no idea of the size of room I was in, where the other people were or where I was. I held on tightly to the wall. I realised, comfortingly, that my hand was quite a good enough guide to lead me around the room. I became bolder. I walked a little more. I started to realise that I could hear things: other people, the faint hum of electronic devices, and feel things: the wall, the sensation of the floor, the lotus buzzing in my hand, and smell things: cologne, perfume. I realised that no one could see me – that there was nothing to be embarrassed about in my  slow exploration, because no one was watching. My hands started to feel like eyes, mapping out the space, finding familiar and unfamiliar objects. I’m not sure I can quite convey how, over the half-hour ‘performance’, I began to understand the incredible richness of what we can sense without sight.

Yesterday evening, I began to get impatient for it to get dark. I wanted to turn off the lights, close the blackout curtains, and navigate my flat by the faint glimmer of light from the street, and touch, and sound. Darkness suddenly felt comforting, safe, less distracting than the gaudy day.

Another thing I noticed, from this altered perspective: as a culture we’re afraid of the dark. Characters in movies and TV who go into dark rooms have horrible things happen to them. Our entertainment mostly takes the form of glowing backlit screens. We expend vast resources ensuring that our streets are never dark, that we can banish darkness at a touch of a button. I wonder if this is connected to a kind of superficiality, a constant obsession with what things look like. I close my eyes and the world feels more peaceful, more friendly. A bit of a revelation.

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