I've never experienced total blackness before except when I was pot holing. " First year English A-level students from Highams Park College, Walthamstow, stumble into the light after experiencing BT's Dialogue in the Dark, a blacked-out, soundproofed installation created under London's South Bank which simulates everyday environments.
Set up with the Royal National Institute for the Blind as an international touring programme to promote understanding of the difficulties faced by the blind, the 50 minute journey is accompanied by a schools outreach programme of artist-led workshops, an education supplement and Dark Light, a collection of essays, poems and images.
Armed only with white sticks, in the reassuring charge of a blind guide, groups tapped and felt their way along seemingly labyrinthine corridors lined with cork, rubber, fur and braille maps, stepped over a pavement and bridge, passing a fountain to enter a mud-smelling park - "a frightening environment; at least indoors there's walls to cling onto" - where plants crowded into faces and water splashed fingers. Indecipherable road signs and a car blocking the pavement were potential hazards. Dave, the guide, said: "The most common danger is people moving signs and visually-impaired people ending up falling down holes". Negotiating payment for drinks relied heavily on trust: "Was that a Pounds 20 note I gave him?" Back in the light, responses tumbled out. "You hear sounds differently now you're in the light. They magnify in the dark." "You get a distorted sense of scale; it's impossible to judge distances or cross open spaces without familiar landmarks."
"Part of the difficulty of writing is selecting," says South Bank writer-in-residence Matthew Sweeney during a writing workshop with poet Jo Shapcott following the event. "Use specific, concrete sensations. It's the detail that makes a piece of writing yours." Fired by readings of poems chosen for their aural and sensual impact ("Smell, which can recreate the past, is said to be the most resonant of our senses") they built word pictures of an imagined environment without using the sense of sight. "Writing is a bit like coming to a series of crossroads. No one can tell you there's a right or wrong way. You have to pick one route and go forward."
After draft readings, Sweeney suggested collating writing, putting rooms of the "house" together, complete with swimming pool. "Every poem should have a surprise and sometimes the things that surprise you are under your nose. "
Guided tours until June 18; schools (0171 928 8800) weekdays am; public (0171 921 0632) pm, weekends 10am-6pm, half term May 29-June 2 10am-6pm. Education Dept: 0171 921 0908.