I HAVE A STRANGER by the elbow. His eyes are closed and we're squished together in a strangely intimate way in the middle of a gallery that's normally occupied by two statues of nude men, but tonight it's filled with teenage ballerinas and a crowd of onlookers. I explain the scene to my companion in a loud whisper that turns polite heads.
"A guy in a leaf-covered unitard just ran in. I think he's a nymph? They're jumping around now. Jumping, lots of jumping."
I'm a guide on the non-visual Portland Art Museum tour, one of the more than two-dozen Portland State University art-student projects created for the school's third annual museum takeover, dubbed Shine a Light. Roughly 2,400 people pass through the museum doors on the night of Friday, October 14, and artist Carmen Papalia has tasked me with asking visitors whether they'd like to tour the museum with their eyes closed.
Papalia's non-visual museum tours are one in a series of recent artistic-minded events in Portland that create a link between the sighted and the blind. I was curious about both the motivations and impact of this string of events where sighted people are, for a while, blinded.
The largest of these events is the Blind Café—a dinner and music show set up in the pitch dark, with customers served by vision-impaired people. That same weekend, café organizer Brian "Rosh" Rocheleau hosted the city's fourth installment of the event.
While all the servers he hires are vision impaired, café organizer Rocheleau himself is sighted. He was inspired to host the cafés in Portland and other cities after experiencing similar full-time dark cafés staffed by the blind in Iceland.
"One thing that's really clear is we're not replicating what it's like to be blind," says Rocheleau. "Being blind is such a more personal experience than just being in the dark or having a blindfold on. I see it as a community-building, artistic, and advocacy project."
People act differently with the lights off—some feel more comfortable asking questions, some burst into song, some steal desserts—and experience their other senses in a new way. Really, says Rocheleau, the Blind Café isn't about sight, it's about experiencing music and food in a more acute way.
Artist Catherine Miller, who recently staged a gallery show of disability-centric art ["Disarming Disability," Art, July 28], was a server at the Blind Café this weekend. She was also the artistic director for a similar event, Blind Date Tour, held earlier this month, but quit at the last minute because she felt the premise had become offensive.
"The blind part of the Blind Café is where I'm most comfortable," says Miller. "It's kind of like slipping into a hot bath for me—I'm more capable in that atmosphere than the other people. So it's a role reversal."
Miller quit the Blind Date Tour—which involved partners blindfolding each other on Waterfront Park—after she received several angry emails from friends in the disability-arts community irked by its impossible intention to mimic blindness and that it repeated the traditional roles of "sighted leading the vulnerable blind."
Meanwhile, back at the museum where I'm only desperately trying to steer temporarily sightless people clear of priceless vases, Papalia explains that, like the Blind Café, his work is about exploring new perspectives created by simply closing one's eyes.
"It's teaching people different methods for seeing. When someone is closing their eyes, they can create the artwork they really want to see in their imagination," says Papalia, who has been blind for eight years. "Instead of making the non-visual experience something that's relegated to a specific group, it's asking how that mode of seeing is relevant to people in general."