A fair amount of trepidation ripples through the fair-sized crowd gathering outside Galapagos. “I’ve really never done anything like this before,” admits 30-year-old attorney Ramin Taheri, “at least not on this scale.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be really confused” echoes 22-year-old Kate Croft. “I’ve been thinking about how I use vision to prioritize the rest of my senses.”
The Dark Dining Project, a participatory event directed by Bessie-winning choreographer and multidisciplinary artist Dana Salisbury, generates such thoughts long before the blindfolds are distributed to guests. One of Salisbury’s goals is for dinner guests to experience “whole-body seeing” through the accentuation and titillation of their other senses.
Salisbury’s fascination with sensory awareness began with an article by neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but the Dark Dining Project was inspired by an orange.
“It seemed incredibly exotic to be involved with the world in such a different way,” says Salisbury. “When I peeled that orange with my eyes closed, I realized that we could have that exotic experience right here, right now, that the art could be the experience itself.”
Usually held in fine restaurants, with an equivalently fine ticket price, the Dark Dining Project has come to provide Salisbury with a livelihood that’s not contingent on grant money and satisfies her love of art. The high prices usually make it prohibitive for most of the population, but tonight is different: a one-time installment in a forward-thinking art space, priced for artists, friends, and lotus-eaters like me.
“Dana’s work has always had this really sensual element to it, an experience really worth participating in,” says visual artist and first-time Dark Diner Noah Baen. “This is our chance.”
We jostle against each other in Galapagos’s crowded back entrance hall, trying to stay grouped with our companions as we lower our blindfolds and reach for the shoulders of our guides. Like a cobbled-together conga line, we shuffle through the crowd, stepping on one another’s heels and brushing against people inappropriately. For a moment, the tumult feels overwhelming, but suddenly the space opens up. There is a severe drop in temperature and a seeming emptiness. My guide puts my hand on a chair and I sit, gingerly feeling for my place setting.
“This is fucking insane!” exclaims someone behind my shoulder.
The volume in the room swells, and for a minute I think people are shouting, only to realize that I am, in fact, whispering.
Our first course is soup: A sprig of explosive mint and an earthy legume. Uttlerly delicious. It might be lentil, but guesses of potato, pea, spinach, and kale volley along the table. The sound of delicate rain fills the room, gaining in force until it is pummeling unseen rooftops with the force of golf balls. I learn later that this is a field recording of an actual Brooklyn rainstorm. At the end of the “storm,” two women begin singing “Miss Mary Mack” while playing patty-cake, and the refrain “with silver buttons all down her back” circulates among the other tables while the main course is served—herb-brushed chicken for my companions and something resembling a corn cake with black beans for me. But it is the cherry tomatoes that delight us all—tiny, smooth, and round on the tongue, exploding with tangy sweetness.
In the course of two more dishes, our remaining senses are treated to a light mist of rose water, the sudden collapse of a serving tray of hammers, a tap-dancing percussionist who plays his entire body, the delicate fingering of a clavichord, a whisper of breath across our cheeks, some random fingers in our hair, and laughter at every place setting.
When we emerge, the dim hallway seems glaringly bright, but everyone is grinning, seemingly relaxed, relieved, and totally elated.
“I bit into a tomato thinking it was a grape,” reports Croft. “I couldn’t figure out what it was without seeing it. So strange.”
“It was disorienting at first,” says 38-year-old clothing designer Nelle Gretzinger. “I mean, this is New York, right? You just don’t trust people like that. . . . But it was so great. I let myself do all kinds of things I wouldn’t do if people could see me.” Like reacting with a squeal and a jump to the crash of hammers. Like doing a full yogic prayer in the middle of dinner.”
“There was a hesitancy that was wonderful,” says 31-year-old Jonathan M. “Paying attention to the way the hand slowly met the glass, the way the food slowly took on shape and identity in the mouth. It was such a wonderful exercise in being in the moment.”
“Words cheapen the experience. How can you describe the indescribable?” says Sam Zeiger, proprietor of Blue Light Flotation. “You don’t want to create an expectation for a float. If you have an expectation, it’s almost guaranteed not to happen.”
The doorman for Zeiger’s building smiles when I ask to be announced. “What’s it like up there?” he asks. “People always come back looking so different—so relaxed.”
Much of Zeiger’s Chelsea loft is dedicated to his flotation tank and an infrared sauna, both of which operate six days a week. The rest of his place is lined with books and photo-realistic pencil drawings by Zeiger of, among others, Gurdjieff, the Dalai Lama, John C. Lilly, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, the building’s former janitor, and Zeiger’s father.
“If I float at night I can’t sleep,” says Zeiger. “Which is interesting since you come out feeling like you could go right to sleep.”
His tank is actually a spacious, soundproof, light-tight float “room” with over 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in 10 inches of body-temperature water. Structurally, it is a far cry from the eerie chambers designed by counterculture psychoanalyst Lilly or the capsule-like tank in Altered States, the movie inspired by Lilly’s research. But the promises are still grand: reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, accelerated healing, enhanced learning, whole-brain integration, heightened creativity.
Zeiger closes off his living quarters, and I slip into the float room, slowly lowering myself into heavy, aquamarine water before switching off the light. I blink. Nothing but the sound of my eyelids blinking. Click, click. I hear my heart. More strangely, I feel it beating, in my back not in my chest. I hear blood pumping at my temples. I blink again. Click, click. I listen to the saliva sliding down my throat. It tinkles like crushed ice. I try to relax, to allow the salt to hold my head above the waterline, and I wait. Neuroscientists speak of sensory filler, phantom noises, lights, touches. During the Dark Dining Project, I experienced a blur of movement out of the corner of one eye, but when I moved my arm in the same place, I could see nothing at all. Here, the first sensations arrive as sounds: distant laughter, a muffled television, the acceleration of a car, the scribbling of pencil on paper. After the sounds cycle through once, there is nothing. I watch the blackness, listen to my breath, and wait for my brain. Soon, I feel pressure and warmth on my arm. I think I might be touching the wall, so I spread out my fingers, into nothing. Complete blackness. I start to lose perspective of the size of the tank. It seems massive. Moving my fingers makes me feel like I’m rotating slowly. Then I begin to see swirling shapes, like a kaleidoscope of geometric shadows. No color. Only swirling, refracting shades of gray. When the music starts up to let me know that my hour is over, I feel like I have been sleeping, but there is no waking-up moment. I only know that I want to stay for at least another hour.