The premise is simple — remove the sense of sight, and how will your average New Yorker react? Dialogue in the Dark is an experiential installation at South Street Seaport that prompts visitors to experience the life of the blind, entirely without vision, for at least one hour. When visitors enter the exhibit they are given walking sticks, to realistically mimic the experience of the blind. They are also provided with a guide, who is either entirely blind or visually impaired, who will aid them in navigating the seemingly treacherous territory of the exhibit.
As you start the exhibit, it’s hard not to be apprehensive. Without sight, life is scary and requires a large commitment on the part of your other senses. As guide Frank Senior says, “Vision is 90% of our perception. We rarely invite other senses to the party.”
The first stop is a set that mimics the atmosphere of Central Park – entirely overwhelming in terms of sound and smell. With Frank’s guidance, we were able to distinguish sounds relevant to our personal task at hand. When you’re hungry, it’s amazing how your olfactory receptors can take over and guide you to the nearest hot dog vendor. This sensory skill set only grew stronger as we wandered through classic New York landmarks within the exhibit – Fairway supermarket, the Subway, and into the heart of Times Square. Relying increasingly on our senses, we gained confidence throughout the exhibit, learning that vision was only one part of our perceptional intake on a daily basis.
The exhibit at South Street Seaport was the brainchild of Lighthouse International — a leading non-profit dedicated to fighting vision loss through prevention, treatment and empowerment. It achieves this through clinical and rehabilitation services, education, research and advocacy – Dialogue in the Dark being a consumer-facing example of this work.
In the end, visitors learn that the visually impaired are aces at quite well equipped to navigate the world–using their non-visual senses in a much more comprehensive way than the rest of us realize we’re capable of.