Exhibit of the week: Dialog in the Dark

Dialog in the Dark shows participants what it's like to navigate in the world as a blind person.

South Street Seaport Exhibition Center,

New York, through 2012

Nothing to see here, said Barbara Hoffman in the New York Post. But that’s precisely the point of “Dialog in the Dark,” an exhibition that purports to show participants what it’s like to navigate the world as a blind person. In its new incarnation in New York, as in still-running editions in Atlanta and many cities overseas, you’re handed a cane and shown how to use it before you journey through the space in darkness for the next 45 minutes, led by a vision-impaired guide. The experience simulates a sightseeing tour of the city “minus the sights.” Instead, visitors rely on other senses. “We smelled fresh-cut grass in the tiny darkened diorama of ‘Central Park.’” Later, we went grocery shopping, “squeezing the Charmin and manhandling the other goods” at a re-creation of the Upper West Side’s Fairway supermarket.

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I couldn’t wait for the tour to end, said Ralph Gardner Jr. in The Wall Street Journal. I was “scared out of my wits” during much of this haunted-house-style tour, and agitated for the remainder. The simulated landmarks were cheesy, and I was constantly apologizing for stumbling into fellow visitors or getting bonked in the shins by their children. Braver people might find it edifying to dabble in “total visual impairment,” but “I was too distracted counting down the minutes before my life and sight were returned to me.”

Yet there’s “genius” in how transforming this simple experiment can be, said Edward Rothstein in The New York Times. The most disorienting part was losing the simple capacity to anticipate a few seconds beyond the present moment. Sure, sound helps, “but in this strange, darkened space, even voices seem to float in a void. We don’t know what is about to happen; we aren’t sure where we have been.” I wouldn’t want all art exhibitions to become exercises in empathy, but “Dialog in the Dark” felt like an education of the best kind. We were being taught how to return to our “sunlit city” with new eyes.

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