We start in a foyer, where we’re asked to identify various substances, sight unseen. Something soft and gentle in a tissue box. Something rattling in a postal tube. Then we walk down a hall into pitch black, get handed a cane, and we’re blind for an hour.
“Kate, just so you’re aware,” says one member of our tour to our guide. “I’m feeling pretty uncomfortable.” The voice is earnest and frank, but the discomfort is clear. “A bit scared, actually. Just want you to know.”
Our guide, Kate Stephens, is reassuring: we’ll adapt. This is Dialogue in the Dark, a new permanent attraction that is part playground, part social education tool. Stephens is completely blind, and has been for several decades. Over the next hour, Stephens introduces us to her Melbourne, or at least a simulation of it. We’ll bump into walls, get lost, and learn to use our other senses. Afterwards, visitors are invited to sit down with Stephens and ask frank questions about her day-to-day experiences.
“The most interesting thing for me is that people actually find darkness scary,” Stephens tells me. “I have to make it not scary. But most of the time that fright goes away.”
Exploring without sight is illuminating. After an initial stage of bumping into strangers and whacking people in the shins with my cane, I feel the solid concrete underfoot give way to grass, and a breeze sets in. I clutch a tree in the park and learn the texture of the bark. There are challenges – finding a tram seat and trying to work out which direction you're facing, and trying to cross the road – but after a while I start to listen for queues, and orientate myself by sound.
This is the 42nd Dialogue in the Dark, and the first in Australia after successful versions everywhere from Hamburg to Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. Each is unique, recreating its home city. The Melbourne version simulates catching a tram, and wandering Birrarung Marr and Queen Victoria Market, all simulated inside a space of indeterminate size in Docklands (they’d rather you didn’t know how big it is – they don’t want you to be able to get your bearings).
It’s been two years in the making, in consultation with Guide Dogs Australia and Dialogue’s founders in Germany. The result is a compelling look at how vision-impaired people move through the world, but also a look at how sighted people engage with their senses.
“We’ve had people come out in tears,” says Guide Dogs Australia’s Peter Collins. “We’ve had people want to hug their guide at the end. The people you come out with, you’ve formed a relationship with them. A bond. It’s educational, but it’s fun.”
Tickets for Dialogue in the Dark are available through Ticketmaster here.