Here's what we like: YA DIG?
By Ramsey Nix
I recently visited an exhibition I couldn’t see. In a society as visually driven as our own, the idea of an exhibit you don’t see sounds preposterous. But that is the very perception that “Dialogue in the Dark” seeks to change– the idea that beholding beauty requires eyesight.
My best friend has always opened my eyes to new perspectives, so I wasn’t surprised when she took me to “Dialogue in the Dark” when I visited her recently in Atlanta. I’d heard commercials announcing the international touring exhibit on the radio, so I was intrigued, but also skeptical. “Why aren’t we going to the High to see China’s Terracotta Army or masterpieces from the Louvre?” I thought.
Instead, we drove to Atlantic Station, where we passed all the pretty storefront windows decorated for the holidays and the towering, sparkly Christmas tree standing in the center of the square– commerce in all its visual splendor.
We rode up the escalator, staring at passersby and making all those snap judgments you make about strangers based on ethnicity, clothing, color, and physical features. Ustairs, we waited in line at will-call, grabbed our tickets and stepped inside the exhibition hall.
Since a German journalist first conceived the idea in 1988, “Dialogue in the Dark” has toured more than 150 cities in Asia, the Middle East, America and Europe, drawing over six million visitors to experience the world without sight, if only for a short time. The traveling exhibit’s mission, according to the Website, is to “raise awareness and create tolerance for Otherness in the general public and thereby overcome barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Once inside, a greeter gave us walking canes and lined us up with a group of eight visitors. Inside the anteroom between the hall and the actual exhibit, we sat on brightly lit cubes, listening to instructions on how to safely proceed into a dark world. Once the cubes dimmed, we were left in a room of utter darkness.
Our group’s blind guide, Robert, introduced himself. The self-assured, confident tone of his voice steadied us as we tentatively took our first steps without sight. Robert is one of over 5,000 blind or partially sighted people who have been hired to work for “Dialogue” since it began. He warmly welcomed us into his world.
A light breeze blew, and the scent of grass led me to believe we had stepped outside. I tread gingerly across a bridge over babbling water and found a park bench on the other side. By then I knew we were exploring a park.
Robert held open a door for us as we crossed into the next experience. He encouraged us to feel around to figure out where we were. My hands fumbled through a shelf full of produce. In this simulated grocery store, I felt the cold air of an open freezer and smelled the potent scent of coffee beans.
I enjoyed most of my experiences inside the “Dialogue” exhibit, except for my encounter with a city street. Being careful to stay on the sidewalk as cars whizzed by was stressful, and I stuck close to Robert, the expert. Knowing that he and the rest of my group was there with me made each blind step easier to bear.
At the end of the exhibit, we sat in a booth, as if we were inside a pub, and got to know each other better. Robert explained that he had been going blind since he was diagnosed with macular degeneration at age 24. Now he is 40 and almost completely blind. And now, thanks to “Dialogue in the Dark,” millions of people can empathize with his condition, knowing there is much beauty in the world, and you don’t need eyes to see it.
When we left the exhibit and could see again, my friend and I decided the greatest thing about “Dialogue” had been our encounter with other people. It seemed that we got to know our group better without sight than we would have with it. We had trusted total strangers to help us maneuver through the darkness. I can only conclude that blindness is not an impediment to building relationships with other people. On the contrary, I now believe that sight may impede our ability to connect meaningfully with people different from ourselves. I hope I’ve learned to use my sight for less judgmental purposes and to behold all the beauty in this world that I am so fortunate to see.