Wednesday, November 17, 2010

See what you can discover in the dark

Sensory tour invites exploration of another world


At “Dialogue in the Dark,” people take a 90-minute trip in total darkness, during which they experience everyday things like crossing the street or visiting a park. After its premiere in Korea in 2007, the exhibition has finally found a new home in Sinchon, central Seoul.Provided by the organizer

Darkness is often associated with danger and insecurity. Even though I’m an adult, and over 30 no less, thinking about being cooped up in total darkness for 90 minutes was enough to make me nervous.

That was the first thought I had about “Dialogue in the Dark,” an exhibition in Sinchon, central Seoul. In this highly interactive tour, people do everyday things like cross the street or sip juice. The kick is that they do it in total darkness, only with the aid of a guide.

Dialogue in the Dark made it to Seoul in 2007 and has been revived on and off since then. But starting this year, the exhibition will have a permanent home here. It is sponsored by N-Visions, a company launched by NHN, operator of Naver, the nation’s biggest Web portal.

Since it premiered in Germany in 1988, Dialogue in the Dark has been experienced by more than six million people in 25 countries.

And now, I am one of them.

With a combination of fear and anticipation welling up in the pit of my stomach, I put all my belongings into a locker outside the dark room on the ninth floor of Vertigo Tower. And like the seven others in my group, I was given a cane to help me find my way. Then we were introduced to our guide, who said in a high-pitched voice that he was our “road master.” After his instructions, we began our journey.

Growing up in Seoul, where the lights never seem to go out, this was my first encounter with such total darkness. During the tour it doesn’t matter whether you open or close your eyes, it’s always pitch black.

In the 90 minutes we were given to explore our environment, we were advised to experience things with our four senses. The texture of the floors and walls kept changing between destinations, which stimulated our other senses.

Throughout the tour, the road master kept asking us questions like “How does it feel?” and “Guess what this is.”

The first destination was a park, where we could smell the fragrance of trees. But without our sight, the simple task of sitting on a bench was a hard thing to do. The journey continued with a street, market, bar and a boat trip.

When we crossed the street, we were encouraged to notice the smells around us and to touch the products displayed in the marketplace stalls. On the motorboat ride, water splashed my cheeks and the wind made my hair fly up. (It still remains a mystery to me whether we were actually on a boat. When we asked, the road master told us it depended on each person’s imagination.) After the boat ride, we entered a cafe where there were two waitresses working. There, each person received a canned beverage and we were given time to guess what it was.

For me, the boat trip and the bar were the highlights of the tour. But it was at the cafe where I started thinking about my own perceptions of people who are blind and why I had thought they were so different from me. The tour gave me time to examine my own biases.

I also had a good time laughing and bonding with my fellow tourmates. It was a new experience to judge someone not by the way they look but by the way they sound and act. Some came across as sincere, some sounded perky and some sounded affable.

The organizers have two main goals - raising awareness about our differences with our neighbors and providing job opportunities for the blind. It succeeds on both counts.

“There are 14 employees [at N-Visions] and 80 percent of them are blind,” said Kim Hyun-ji, an NHN staffer.

In a nation where the only career for the blind is a masseur, this interactive tour could provide the impetus for more inspired career choices. It was a also an interesting way to try to understand others.

I only have two complaints. For an event that invites an exploration of all the senses, the road master’s near constant intrusions were a real distraction. He kept asking questions and urging us to use our other senses. It would have been better if we had more time to think about the experience on our own.

In addition, the scents of soil, wood and coffee at the park and cafe seemed artificial, and it would have been nice if they had used the real thing to produce the smells, especially considering the hefty admission price.

Still, the exhibition has been extremely popular here, which is why the organizers believe they can sustain it in the long run.

One of the people in my group even told me she had come all the way from Daegu with her friends, a nearly four-hour drive by car, so her friends could experience the exhibit, too.

“Dialogue in the Dark” is held at Vertigo Tower in Sinchon, central Seoul. Admission is 30,000 won ($27) for adults and 20,000 won for teenagers. Hours are from 12 to 8:30 p.m. from Tuesdays to Fridays and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. Tickets can be purchased at http://ticket.interpark.com. Once the ticket is purchased, ticketholders must reserve a spot by calling (02) 313-9977. Tours are available in Korean and English. For details, visit www.dialogueinthedark.co.kr.

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