Door Into the Dark (Anagram, 2014) premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2014, and I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience it at the festival. This is one of the most engaging and beguiling experiences I’ve had at a festival, and it continues to resonate. Recently a colleague asked me to describe the work, and so I wrote this post.
This installation is hard to categorize. However, it may be thought of as an augmented reality documentary installation that combines documentary storytelling and the embodied experience of walking in the dark holding on to a rope. You are welcomed by a caretaker and led through a door into a small room where you are asked to place your shoes and personal belongings in a locker, and the person leaves. Then someone enters the small room with a helmet contraption with headphones and asks you to put it on, and you then enter a mysterious, dark place with a rope.
You are blind, walking in socks, and suddenly alone in the space. If you veer off course, you feel a gentle push on your shoulder, encouraging you to stay on the path. In the soundtrack, you encounter several people who share their stories. At one point you reach the end of the rope, and you have to trust that you are safe as you walk towards a blinding light, and as you approach it, it goes off, you are back in the dark, sitting on a hay bale. Then you walk along a rocky crevice as you hear a story about being trapped in an avalanche and wondering if you’ll ever be rescued.
The binaural sound offers a sense of immersion not usually experienced in installation works, with the recordings triggered by your position in the space using iBeacon technology. My experience of any sense of where I was in the world felt utterly different afterward, especially since you are let back out onto a completely different part of town than you entered.
I remember four distinct voices, the first led me into the space telling me I’m in a labyrinth and to follow the rope. Then I hear a voice (who I later learned was John Hull, author of Touching the Rock who subsequently was the subject of the film and VR experience Notes on Blindness). He describes his experience of losing his sight, and how it transformed his relationship to sound and touch, I had a visceral response to his words as I walked in the dark holding on to the rope binding his words to my experience of the moment that remains unforgettable.
The next story was of a mountaineer (who I later learned was David Riley) who was once trapped in an avalanche, I’m hearing him recount his experience as I crawl along a rocky crevice, the sense of being embodied in the texture of the story on multiple levels was sublime. Eventually, I come upon a shag carpet wall, I’m asked to lean my back against it, and wow… what’s this? The barrier moves as I lean into the moving wall, and I end up flat on my back. And now the third story is delivered, the storyteller (who I later learn is Bryan Morrison) describes how he took to walking the streets at night to get lost and eventually ending up at a psychiatric hospital (at least that’s how I remember it).
I was enveloped in a series of first-person narratives through sound and touch in a way I’ve never experienced before. In my reflections on the experience, I’ve compared it to and made connections with the labyrinthian world of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and the alteration of my sense of time and place in Bruce Nauman’s Live/Taped Corridor installation at Dia:Beacon. I was also reminded of the immersive storytelling in William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time that I visited several times while it was installed at ICA/Boston. Later, during a visit to London, Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Voice (Case Study B) sound walk at Whitechapel Gallery in London resonated with this work. In all of these works, the spatial literacy of architecture and theatre fuses with storytelling and media technology to generate an expanded palette for human expression.
Door Into the Dark has left an indelible mark in my psyche, it’s among the most impactful and memorable documentary experiences I’ve encountered. It is a beguiling augmented reality experience (in many ways) that to this day is a vivid memory that changed the way I think about immersive experiences and the potential of augmented and virtual reality to tell new forms of a story beyond the linear flat-screen of cinema or the disembodied audio of radio documentaries and podcasts.
More on Door Into the Dark:
- Constructing Door into the Dark: an insight into the immersive documentary experience (i-docs)
- Interview with ANAGRAM at i-Docs 2014 (Vimeo)
- Enter the labyrinth: getting lost in Door into the Dark (The Verge)
- Door Into the Dark, trailer (Vimeo)
Photo source: Anagram.