It's a rather unusual request to ask museum visitors to leave behind their bags, cameras, mobiles, watches, glasses, keys, and anything that may be lost on a tour through darkness. But as visitors to Dialogue in the Dark find out shortly after complying with the request, it's a reasonable one. After we climbed up to the second floor we were handed a cane and received a short briefing on how to hold and use it. Shortly thereafter we entered a pitch black room, fumbling around to try to find our bearings without the aid of our vision. It was a relief to figure out how to coordinate with the help of the others in our group and most importantly, our blind guide—in our case, a bilingual named Jerry, who for the following 60 to 90 minutes became our "eye" through the black on a tour of everyday life situations in Chengdu.
Without the help of vision we relied on our other senses, slowly learning to "see" with our hands by touching everything, our ears absorbing sounds while we made hesitant steps, each one a painstaking effort. Simultaneously we began to acknowledge and trust our guide's capabilities more than our own senses, our admiration growing with every step. This clever switch of roles was the idea exhibition founder Andreas Heinecke had in mind when he set up Dialogue in the Dark.
In the 1980s, the German journalist and documentarian accepted a tricky work task—rehabilitating a colleague who had lost his eyesight in an accident. Heinecke was able to understand his colleague's daily challenges only after he started to put himself in the position of a visually impaired person. This approach proved to be successful and eventually led Heinecke to the opening of a social enterprise that now houses franchised exhibitions and workshops in cities around the world as well as new events (most prominently, Dinner in the Dark), and has since branched out to other fields with Dialogue in Silence (simulating a deaf experience) and Dialogue in Time (showing the challenges of aging).
The exhibition in Chengdu follows the success of Chinese workshops and exhibitions in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Though still in its infancy, it's safe to say it will help to improve the situation of visually impaired and open new career paths for blind off the beaten massage track.
It's remarkable how the exhibition concepts of transforming a personal experience to a mutual understanding, while never pointing fingers or calling for pity. Finally it's rare for an exhibition to leave the visitor with such an extremely strong unforgettable personal impression (in Chengdu anyway) and that one could recommend it blindly to anyone. Dialogue in the Dark is one.
Chengdu Dialogue in the Dark directions, opening time & entrance
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 67.
Photos by Dan Sandoval.