On Claustrophilia, Dark Tunnels and the Tactile Dome

It’s safe to assume that if you’re living in or around the San Francisco Bay Area you’ve either visited or heard of the Exploratorium. In its sleek new home on Pier 15 in the city, it draws children and adults alike with its interactive exhibits on everything from optical illusions to soil biology and its friendly, please-touch-the-glass attitude. Cultivating curiosity and encouraging free play, the Exploratorium has retained many of its original exhibit concepts from when it first opened in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts. One such exhibit is the Tactile Dome, a sizeable geodesic dome in the center of the building, which in 1971 was created by August Coppola, the father of actor Nicolas Cage and brother of famed director Francis Ford Coppola. The original press release for the Tactile dome reads,

“The purpose is to disorient the sensory world so that the only sense the visitor can rely on is touch. The sensation is so outside ordinary experience that a few people panic. An attendant in a control panel can reach every part of the ant-hill like maze almost instantly.

Pre-opening visitors have compared the experience to being born again, turning yourself inside out head first, being swallowed by a whale, and inevitably, being enfolded in a giant womb.”[1]

One of the original intentions of the tactile dome was to help people reconnect with the senses, such as touch, that often go underutilized in a world where sight is heavily favored above other types of perception. Furthering this sentiment, the Tactile Dome was part of a revolutionary form of immersive art in which the audience does not just view the art with their eyes, acting as a sort of receptacle for the artist’s message, but actually participates in the art and by doing so, becomes a part of it. After all, what better way to remind ourselves that art is meant to be felt than to ask an audience to literally feel it with their bodies?

For some, the effects of such sensory deprivation may go beyond just a cool experience to actually be therapeutic. My relationship with the Tactile Dome and with other dark, tunnel-like spaces is wholly positive. I have always been drawn to tunnels, mazes, and rabbit-holes for their ability to put me in a physical place where I am completely immersed in another world, whether it posses a creative narrative, like a dark ride at an amusement park, or be simply experiential, like the Tactile Dome. This immersion helps break down my rational mind and my ego, and engage with the space as if there is nothing separating us. Focus is increased, and unlike some, who feel a sense of panic when confined, I am calmer than ever when I am taken out of the stimulating and noisy external world. My creativity is heightened when the limits and judgments of the mind are gone, and I find it easy to slip into the world of play and make believe that is so essential for my own arts practice.

My interest in dark tunnels manifests in a slightly obsessive scouring of the Internet for the most interesting and immersive tunnels, caves, and experiences out there. It has led to a pilgrimage to the Netherlands to visit one of the oldest amusement parks in the world renowned for its dark rides, to a musical mechanical robotic experience in a basement in Berlin, to scuba diving freshwater caves in the Yucatan, to crawling down manholes to explore the strangely beautiful world of Bay Area storm drains. Yet when it comes to experiential tunnel projects that are affordable and accessible, options are few and far between.

Located beneath a bar in Berlin, the now-defunct Peristal Singum used rabbit holes, visual and audio effects, and sensory exploration to challenge visitors to embark on a journey of the unknown and to effect them in visceral ways. From their website,

“For some, Peristal provides opportunity for intrinsic reflection with one self and surrounding environment. For other, it is simply an amusing experience of something different.

The one who is open for a change will find it in here.”[2]

Part maze, part surreal art installation, the idea of the Peristal Singum was to both take participants completely out of their comfort zone and also ask them to reflect inwards, to trust themselves in a completely backwards and unfamiliar setting without relying on the common sense we use to navigate the above-ground world.

For those who are claustrophilic, for whom the idea of walking into pitch darkness to lose the sense of self does not trigger a sense of panic, I strongly advocate dark tunnels and immersive mazes as a part of creative therapy. It can be as simple as visiting the Tactile Dome in which there are no wrong turns and your experience is carefully monitored, or as adventurous as (safely) spelunking into caves. For those who are not physically able, blindfolding oneself as August Coppola did for weeks in preparation for writing his book about a character whose strongest sense is touch, can be an experience that creates deep and profound shifts in perspective and relationship to the self.

[1] http://www.exploratorium.edu/visit/west-gallery/tactile-dome/1971-press-release

[2] http://www.karmanoia.org/peristal


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