Dialogue in the dark
Briefly in Hamburg, travelling back from the 3rd Bremen Conference on Multimodality last week. I spent the day visiting museums in Hamburg's Speicherstadt, including the Dialog im Dunkeln attraction where, according to my tourist leaflet, there would be the chance to 'embark on a journey into total darkness' in order to 'learn the experience of everyday situations in life, without your sense of sight'. Although uncertain whether my absence of German language ability made this a good proposition, I paid the €21 entry fee: after all, it seemed to neatly fit some of the ideas we had recently been exploring in Bremen.
I needn't have worried about my lack of language skills as the tour was expertly delivered in German and English by Bjorn, our guide. As Bjorn would explain during the journey, he has been blind since birth "because of a problem during incubation" and therefore has no sense of what it would be like to live with sight. He is a 29-year old music student, works part-time in Dialog im Dunkeln and has a wicked sense of humour.
After a brief introduction where we were provided with white canes and a very brief outline of what would follow, our party of eight (comprising two German families and myself) entered a world of complete darkness for the following 90 minutes (even if we had no sense of time, having been asked to place mobile phones and "any other shiny items" in lockers before hand). We moved through a curtain and made slow, awkward steps into a world of black. For the first while I wasn't sure whether to keep my eyes open and found myself instinctively looking around as I tried to get a sense of my surroundings.
In the absence of sight we used Bjorn's voice - its assumed location and his clear instructions - to guide our path through a range of different environments. In each part of the tour the absence of sight drew attention to the way that we - and permanently blind members of our society - use other of the senses to understand their surroundings. Birdsong and the softness of the ground beneath our feet suggested our location within a park; gentle sideways rocking and the lapping sound of water accompanied our short tour around Hamburg's harbour, with Bjorn as the captain of our boat 'The Blindfish'; we used the sloping kerb and distinctive sonic-clicking of a pedestrian crossing to navigate a safe path through traffic.
The only part of the journey that didn't work for me was when we stopped to listen to an 8-minute piece of music that was accompanied by an invitation to focus on the images that it conjured. This appealed much less than thinking about how I had already been creating vivid pictures during our journey as I drew on on my existing life experiences to picture what was in the different spaces. This in turn led me to consider how the journey through darkness resonated with some of the ideas that had been put forward within our discussions around multimodality in Bremen. During the multimodal walking excursion that Michael Gallagher and I had delivered in place of a conventional conference paper, participants were asked to spend a few minutes without speaking to their fellow group members. This short exercise adapted the 'clean ear' games of the acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, that seek to emphasise the variety of heard phenomena we encounter, for instance by closing our eyes and attempting to foreground the aural. The activity presented by Michael and I differed in the respect that, by temporarily silencing spoken conversation, we wanted participants to recognise the broad range of meaning making phenomena that shape how we make sense of our surroundings (rather than focusing on the aural character of the street in particular). As a participant in Bjorn's exercise, I now recognised how my own meaning-making-without-sight was shaped by sound, movement, touch, smell and other sensory phenomena.
A basic principle of multimodality is an openness to all the resources that have the potential to convey meaning. A second conceptual assumption is that all communicational and representational acts depend on more than one form of semiotic resource or 'mode'. Third, multimodality depends on the belief that the way we construct meaning is shaped by the way that these different resources come together in the moment. Continuing to ignore the ambient-folk soundtrack, I recognised how in each of the different settings - including those described above - I had made sense of my surroundings through a combination of sensory material. This was perhaps most evident when our journey visited a market and we sought to identify the wares on sale through touch combined with the distinctive aroma of particular fruit and vegetables: apples, oranges, cauliflower (I think).
Although I didn't think about it at the time, looking back over the subject matter of the Bremen multimodality conference, there was a strong emphasis upon what is seen within multimodal resources and representation. This would seem to make natural sense in what is described as an increasingly visually-mediated world. At the same time though, Dialog im Dunkeln makes a strong case that we shouldn't neglect the other material that helps us to make make sense of our world, whether it can be seen or not.
This being Germany, our tour concluded in a bar where (still in entire darkness) we drank coffee, coke or beer and reflected on our experiences. Before that though there was the practical and sensory challenge of attempting to judge the value of the coins in our pockets through weight, shape and size, before passing them to Bjorn, now in the guise of barman. As we stood at the bar Bjorn told us that he had recently returned from Birmingham where he had been delivering a training workshop for teachers working in a blind school. In reply I told Bjorn that each day I pass Edinburgh's own blind school, and that I was glad to now have a better appreciation of how the students there make sense of a world that we share, but they cannot see. In more ways than one, this journey into darkness had been enlightening.
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I am a Lecturer in Digital Education (Education Futures), within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.