Recently, I went to dinner at a restaurant called Dark Table in Vancouver, B.C. This restaurant offers a “blind dining” experience, that is, there is no light whatsoever. Not even a speck. The blackness is thick and complete. I may have seen a couple of static-electric sparks when I took off my jacket, but that was the extent of the light source for the next couple of hours. Dinner is served and eaten in complete darkness. The servers are literally blind. You’re led to and from your table by putting your hands on a blind escort’s shoulders and trusting them to lead you safely through the tables, patrons and staff.
The experience was incredible and unexpected. One of the first surprises for me was to touch the edge of our table and feel that it was shaped like an oddball curvy wedge. My companion and I kept saying, Why would this table be shaped so weirdly? We kept running our fingers along it and marveling at the shape.
Meanwhile, we ordered the Surprise entree and cocktail, because we wanted to try to parse the mystery dishes and really taste the ingredients. I tasted the coconut right away in our drinks, but we were both shocked by how long it took us to figure out what we were eating. Besides that, we had different opinions about what it was. There was a rich blend of crunchy vs. smooth textures, and even hot and cool temperatures mixed throughout the entree. After chewing and thinking for several minutes, I suggested beets were in the dish, but otherwise I had no idea. It was tasty and fresh, though.
My companion kept asking what color I thought our food was, how I was sitting in my chair, where my hands were, what I really thought about the table, if I had felt the food and the bowls (Disclosure: I touched my food with my fingers before my first bite). While I could hear the anxiety in her voice, I felt completely relaxed, even meditative. It was comforting to vaguely hear the other patrons and know I was in a crowd, but equally comforting to know that I didn’t have to worry about them, that they didn’t even know I was there. For once, I wasn’t interested in the color of something! When my companion kept insisting that something must be mustard yellow, I said it didn’t matter because we weren’t meant to see it; it didn’t have anything to do with our understanding of it today.
Back to sleuthing out what we were eating: after about ten minutes, my companion finally shouted “Risotto!”. I was shocked that it took us so long to realize such a familiar – and favorite – food. And at some point, she suggested we put our elbows on the corners of the table that were nearest to us, and then try to touch each others’ hands. We did this, and realized that our arms perfectly outlined the square edges of the table…it wasn’t wedge-shaped at all! That was a revelation we almost couldn’t believe. How could we have been tricked into thinking something so outlandish…who would have a wedge-shaped table with curlicue “corners” anyway? We were really so dependent on our vision and couldn’t rely on our other senses to give us correct information.
As we paid our bill, we asked about the ingredients, to check our answers. We got some of it (coconut cocktail, yes. risotto, yes. beets, yes.), but there were many things we hadn’t tasted at all. But that wasn’t all…we boxed a bit of our risotto that we didn’t finish. The next day, I opened the box and had an idea of what I’d see in there, even though I hadn’t looked at it the night before. I was expecting to see a pale, neutral-colored dish…pale like rice and cheese. Once we settled on the idea of eating risotto, that’s probably what I assumed, even though I wasn’t actively thinking about colors. But one look at this risotto made me gasp because it was the brightest red and green I’d ever seen!
So what does this have to do with art? It made me really think about my eyes, which I take for granted quite a bit. Because I had to use my other senses, I had to think about them more than I ever do. It was a good check-in about the power of variation in an artwork, just like the variety of textures and temperatures we were presented with. Most of all, it was one more reminder that our eyes, and our brains, thrust us into default mode more than we realize.