Eyes are opened to the life the blind experience at the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, writes Arja Salafranca
My name was reduced to three crystalline syllables. I said it into the dark, introducing myself to our blind guide. I stood there, first in line, holding a mobility cane, projecting my voice into the blackness. Usually the pronunciation of my name elicits comment – its pronunciation bears no relation to the way it’s spelled, and it’s a cause of confusion and puzzlement, especially once someone has read it on paper first.
But we were without sight here, my name reduced and, for the first time in my life, simplified. It was a taste of things to come – although I had no way of knowing that as I stood in the darkness.
As my friend was led away, and we waited for our guide to return, I wondered if I, too, was going to succumb to fear. I wasn’t comfortable, and had difficulty breathing, no matter how I tried. I was taking shallow breaths as though I were at a high on a mountain altitude and struggling to breathe.
With tiny steps I shuffled forward, unsure where I was going, which way to turn, or how to negotiate this world. The two men in our group were already rushing forward, eager to explore this strange new experience, less fearful, more adventurous. I wished I could be as daring – but I felt as though, in a sense, I’d been reborn, and my way of negotiating new experiences is a slower, more cautious way.
We were led over a small suspension bridge within a garden-like space. The two men had already dashed across it, and I heard the one commenting they had managed it; it had swayed slightly, but they were already exploring the trees and foliage on the other side. The bridge swayed. My fears were confirmed.
In the distance, there were noises of wind and what could have been waves. I was still too anxious to take in the sounds.
She politely explained she had met me outside – a deep, French-accented voice. I clung to her voice, to the nearness of her presence. Again, I couldn’t reconcile her voice to the slight, slim figure I had met outside – and it was too confusing to try. It was as though I were meeting her for the first time – and in a sense I was. Without benefit of sight, I found sight makes you judge a person by appearance – and there’s little judgement when you’re in the dark, clinging like a child.
Danielle took myself and my friend in hand, encouraging us to form a chain. We linked up, more than occasionally bumping into each other, digging a finger into a waist, a breast, proprietaries again cast aside.
“What’s this? asked Danielle, encouraging me to feel my way around the surrounding: from a tree, to its papery leaves, to the plastic moulded lid of a dustbin. Sometimes it was near impossible to say what I was feeling, sometimes the realisation came slowly as my other senses kicked in, memory of touch and feel somehow taking over as I couldn’t rely on my eyesight.
There was a sense of triumph as we figured out what we were touching, calling out the names of the objects excitedly, at one point I giggled to myself – this was like charades in the dark. It was apt – we were reduced to childhood in some ways – to a time when the world was new, experiences were novel, and we needed to be led around, guided, have the world explained as we explored.
Danielle led us into a city space next, again, we shuffled forward, cane ahead, encountering angles of the exhibition space, waiting patiently like children to be shown this strange new world. “What’s that?” asked Danielle as we listened to the sounds invading our senses – buses, trains, a busy transport concourse? Again we groped through memories, and again we leaned heavily on yet another sense, that of hearing, placing a heavier burden on hearing than we are used to in our sighted world.
Again, we eventually guessed correctly, calling out correctly as we crossed the noisy world of a modern city. My senses were starting to feel assaulted – noise, unfamiliar noises, the movement of bodies around me, and always the lifeline of Danielle’s strong, clear voice leading us forward, clutching it like a rope, a lifeline.