Space for the imagination

Door Into the Dark, a new immersive ‘walk-through documentary’, is brought to life through a mix of sensory deprivation and high tech

Blindfolded, shoeless, alone, and in the middle of a dark warehouse, the rope that has been guiding me abruptly comes to an end. The audio recording I’m listening to, which up until now was musing on the hippocampus and migratory behaviour of starlings, announces the fact right on cue and I’m encouraged to let go, in every sense, and step further into the darkness.

This is Door Into The Dark, a ‘walk-through documentary’ created by filmmakers and site-specific installation duo Anagram. Door Into The Dark is designed to evoke a sense of disorientation and, in a world of Google Maps and SatNav, to celebrate the lost art of being, well, lost. But while participants might struggle to pinpoint their exact location, the technology behind the experience couldn’t be more precise.

The headphones and translucent white blindfold that I’m wearing are attached to a helmet, in which is secreted a smartphone running a bespoke app created by mobile software company Calvium. The app works with iBeacons – highly accurate indoor geopositional devices which communicate with the phone using Bluetooth Low Energy – placed around the space to create a personalised audio experience. Depending on your trajectory, participants will hear different things and even be offered a choice of routes at points.

Aside from learning about starlings, during the time I spend exploring Door Into The Dark, I also hear from three other individuals who’ve all experienced disorientation in some form: a man who lost his sight describes the sense of having a roof imposed on his world; another tells of a near death experience during an arduous climb; and a third recounts navigating London while suffering from mental illness. The spaces that visitors hear these stories reflect the narrator’s experience sensorially – through light, texture or even temperature. The installation’s capacity to evoke empathy is striking.

“Door Into The Dark really came out of the question, ‘can you have an immersive experience which is also active?’,” Anagram director May Abdalla tells me. “You can have an immersive experience when you’re passively receiving something, like at the cinema. You just sit down, open your heart out to the world; cry when the bad shit happens, laugh when it’s great, until you really are ‘there’ in some strange way, collectively. But I also found with [experiences] which asked me to do things in the real world, whether that was immersive theatre or gaming, sometimes I was just ‘playing’ at being the participant. Or I was hyper-aware of the construct and never fell into the world in the same way I would with a film.”

Given reignited interest in virtual reality in gaming, entertainment and social sectors right now (Facebook recently invested $2bn in tech start-up Oculus to develop its Rift VR headset), Anagram’s work feels even more relevant. But while acknowledging the technology’s worth, Abdalla believes VR as it stands lacks the same potential for impact that sensory deprivation, rather than overload, offers.

“It gives space for imagination in a way that Oculus Rift doesn’t,” she says. “With [VR] you can’t help but see the disjuncture between what the real world is and the good/mediocre graphics of [the virtual space]. And yet a soundscape and a white fog can leave quite a lot of space for the imagination. You can have an immersive experience reading a very good book; it doesn’t need to be Oculus Rift to make you feel like you’re there.”

Door Into The Dark took place at the Watershed in Bristol and functioned as a prototype for both the idea and the implementation of the iBeacon technology. And while Anagram makes much of wanting to surprise its audience, Abdalla reveals that the event’s debut provided plenty of its own in return.

“As a work in progress, it’s a chance to see how people use the space,” she explains. “With a film, you are acutely directing somebody to what it is you want them to feel, be it visually, musically etc. And when you’re using a physical space, there is always room for choice and movement. But the amazing thing is that there really have been times when we’re watching people thinking, ‘this is not how we meant it to be’, but they’re having a really great time.”

Stepping out into the bright sunshine and bustle of Bristol’s harbourside was jarring after spending 30 minutes in the dark in the company of speakers sharing such intimate experiences. Abdalla’s point about interactive theatre proves a profound one; while my recollections of such events are vivid, none of them have left me with the kind of physical memories – the moment I realised I could navigate an open space by moving towards the colder air, the fear of falling as the space’s elevation changed – as Door Into The Dark.

At this early stage there are still some rough edges (despite the iBeacon technology, I still found myself ahead of the recording at points, and had to readjust the blindfold at times to block out my peripheral vision), but these are all things that can be improved in future iterations. As a demonstration of iBeacons’ potential, however, it’s a convincing one. But more importantly, Anagram’s use of the tech is emotive – and memorable. 1

Ben Maxwell is staff writer at Edge magazine, edge-online.com. Door Into The Dark was presented at the iDocs Conference at The Watershed in Bristol and will next appear in Sheffield from June 7 to 12. See i-docs.org and weareanagram.co.uk

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