The darkness is total. Mundane gestures suddenly become complicated. How do you find the door to your room, cook a meal or cross the road?
The Invisible Exhibition in the Polish capital, Warsaw, offers an opportunity to understand what it is like to be sightless, as blind guides steer visitors round in blacked-out rooms.
“The visitors take on the role of the blind,” exhibition curator Malgorzara Szumowska told reporters. “Thanks to a series of sense-based installations, you experience what it is to live in the dark.”
The hour-long tour requires a healthy imagination, as the sighted learn how smell, hearing, taste and touch work differently in this unknown world.
“There are six rooms, all in utter darkness. Each one replicates a scene from daily life: an apartment, a street, a museum and so on,” Szumowska said.
The noise seems overwhelming in the street scene, where visitors must dodge cars and lampposts. Smells are a delight in a forest chalet, as is the sound of a stream under a small wooden bridge. The last stop is a loud cafe where the blind guide takes on the role of the barman.
Along with the dark side, the exhibition has a section with light that offers educational games to stimulate the senses and demonstrates tools the blind use in their daily lives, such as braille.
“Our goal is to show that the invisible world is beautiful and sumptuous, and that the blind have a sense of humor, with a life and passions,” Szumowska said. “Fate doesn’t exclude them from society.”
The idea for the exhibition came from Hungary, where a woman blacked out her apartment to understand and share the experience of her husband, who was blinded in an accident. Her experiment led to an exhibition-cum-social project in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. It caught on, and was followed by a version in the Czech capital of Prague and another one in Warsaw, which opened a year ago.
About 30,000 people have visited the Niewidzialna Wystawa, as the exhibition is called in Polish.
“It’s very powerful,” Warsaw student Aleksandra said. “At first I was terrified. I didn’t know what was going on around me. I felt lost, but luckily there was a blind guide.”
The guides are paid, a boost in a labor market where options for the blind are often limited.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” guide Pawel Kozlowski said.
It is also a challenge, said 31-year-old Pawel Orabczuk, a graduate in teaching and social work as well as a sound engineer and drummer in a heavy metal band who has been blind since birth.
“The main thing for we guides is to ensure that everything feels fine and safe,” he said. “You not only have to help visitors tap their four remaining senses, but you must do so only through words, because they can’t see your gestures in the dark.”
“If only one visitor in 10 realizes that you should consider the blind as an ordinary person, that’s a success,” he added.
“We can still say: ‘See you soon,’” Orabczuk said at the exit. “How else can you put it?”