Last weekend, Door Into the Dark premiered at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. Its not a film; there are no screens to look at. In fact, you won’t be able to see anything for the duration of the piece because it will be completely dark.
Door into the Dark is the first answer we at ANAGRAM created in response to an issue that has been bothering us for a while. We love films. But, we love getting up; moving our bodies; being somewhere. A good film can, with its stocked emotional arsenal, have us crying like babies in the darkness. Could we leave the soporific sanctuary of the cinema and still be seduced by a story?
In Susan Sontag’s infamous 1996 New York Times article, The Decay of Cinema, she describes the cinematic experience as one of kidnap. “You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie, to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. To long for cinema was to long for ‘the experience of surrender to what was on the screen”. While she describes an experience that required a theatre full of strangers, Door into the Dark is a 45-minute abduction of one.
Blindfolded, shoeless and alone, you navigate a huge sensory set housed in an old disused warehouse. To begin, you cautiously follow a rope suspended from a doorway out into nothing – then suddenly, it ends. Increasingly disorientated, your guides become the voices of people who have been lost before you; through confronting blindness, treacherous mountains heights, and the solitude of madness. Instructional audio, triggered by your movements, helps you find concealed openings in the dark. Sometimes, however, you needn’t do anything, walls move, and all you need to do is go with them.
In Door into the Dark, participants’ eyes and ears are behind an all-encompassing enclosure, Inside, headphones play a vast binaural soundscape which augments the sensations felt by hands and feet. “The sense of sight implies exteriority, but sound creates an experience of interiority” writes Juhani Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin, I regard an object, but sound approaches me; the eye reaches, but the ear receives”.
The audience is brought into close proximity with the same sensory world as the characters, the darkness of a blind man listening out to rain, a climber trapped by the mist in the alps. One visceral experience of vulnerability informs the other. But at the heart of the work is a question participants have to ask themselves; how able are you to give up control?
The circumstances of the characters have forced them into a position of submission which changes them radically. They also face ostracisation in different ways by a society which prizes control and stability over all else. Technology offers us daily new means to mitigate risk, fill emptiness and assure us that we will not be surprised by what comes nest. It is enough to reflect on how map apps on smart phones have changed the way we see our towns and cities.
As we find more ways to know the answers to what was once benign mysteries, it is time to ask what do we lose when we no longer get lost? And not just a navigational lost. “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling” wrote Walter Benjamin.
We don’t have a city. Or a forest. But we do have a very large warehouse to make a set our story. Instead of a composer, we worked with designer Felicity Hickson, who most recently has been creating visually sumptuous sets for Ridley Scott. Architect Tabitha Pope ‘edited’ the physical space into sequences that evoke jump cuts. Hydraulic engineer and artist Aaron Robinson conceived the moving set, smoothing out the cinematic journey. Sound designer Jonas Jensen layered binaural soundscapes into the score. Director of Strategy at mobile software consultancy Calvium, Tom Melamed designed a unique and invisible bluetooth communications system allowing audio to be triggered in response to the position of the participant in the space. Everything possible to keep the experience unbroken and encourage you to trust the darkness.
Door Into the Dark is an experiment. Our chosen subject is getting lost, because ultimately we wanted to make an experience that you would lose yourself in. And as anyone who has lost themselves on the dance floor at the behest of a killer tune will know, matter – rather than minds – are much quicker conduits to surrender.
Door into the Dark, directed by Amy Rose and May Abdalla, is running at Sheffield International Documentary Festival until 12/06/14.