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Leading writers take up ‘darkness residencies’ for art project

Bernardine Evaristo, Max Porter and Raymond Antrobus rise to artist Sam Winston’s challenge in A Delicate Sight to submit to time in blackout

Wed 6 May 2020 14.51 BST

Last modified on Wed 6 May 2020 16.04 BST26

‘Once you settle down into it you realise you’re a lot more perceptive than you thought you were’ … Nothing Happens by Sam Winston.
‘Once you settle down into it you realise you’re a lot more perceptive than you thought you were’ … Nothing Happens by Sam Winston.

Some of the UK’s most acclaimed authors, from the Folio prize-winning poet Raymond Antrobus to the Booker-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo, have been searching for the light of inspiration in an unusual way: shutting themselves away for hours in complete darkness.

These “darkness residencies” are the brainchild of the artist and writer Sam Winston, part of his immersive project, A Delicate Sight. Winston asked Evaristo and Antrobus, as well as Don Paterson and Max Porter, to spend hours in blackout before writing something inspired by heightened senses, identity, imagination, sensory reduction and rest. The project launched online on Wednesday, with workshops, interviews and a film by the Bafta-winning documentary maker Anna Price. An exhibition at the National Writing Centre and the Barbican, as well as a book, are due to follow later this year.

Winston first started drawing without sight in 2015 after becoming interested in “how the mind makes images from what it can’t see”. Over the following years he spent long periods in the dark, culminating last year with a month spent living and making art works in darkness.

“I started looking at different ways of making work away from the screen and I guess the most extreme way of doing that was shutting my eyes,” Winston said. “Apart from feeling a bit goofy, once you settle down into it you realise you’re a lot more perceptive than you thought you were, so what happens is there’s a lot more subtlety to your experience.”

During his 672 hours in darkness, Winston created three large drawings, recording notes while he was working. After emerging into the light, he attempted to recreate the images he had imagined in the dark. Both versions of these drawings will be displayed as part of this year’s exhibition.

It was a privilege to offer an experience he found “deeply restorative” as well as creative to other writers, he said. “I really enjoyed saying to the authors, can I commission you to do nothing, to literally stop, give yourselves the space and time to wind down, don’t give yourself an agenda, and just see what happens. I know from my own experience that that’s exactly the time a new idea wants to pop its head out.”

Porter, author of the bestselling Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, said he began by “humming and chatting to the room as if I might offend it” but quickly found “you let go of any preconceived idea of achieving anything”.

“I have a busy, noisy home life so it was radically quiet,” he said. “Probably the only time in my whole adult life I have been on my own doing nothing. Not travelling, not parenting, not working, not even thinking on a subject. Just being in the room.”

Antrobus, who won the Ted Hughes and Folio prizes for The Perseverance, a collection of poems exploring his experience of deafness, said he went through a range of emotions during the five hours he spent in the dark. “It was very visceral at first,” he said, “lots of childhood memories came to me, including a memory of the first night as a child I slept in my bedroom without my sister (we used to share a bedroom as kids but then she got her own room when she was 10 and I was 6) and I remember thinking how much I felt her absence even in the dark.”

The poet also found his sense of taste was so heightened in the dark that when he drank a protein shake, “it brought on a strong craving for something real and hearty … like hummus and bread.”

Porter said the piece he has written explores the “disconnect between the person in the dark and the person emerged”, adding that the “weird, discombobulated feeling” of being in the dark has echoed strangely during the coronavirus lockdown.

The outbreak shares the “sense of seeing things incredibly clearly”, he explained, offering “a degree of weird clarity regarding systemic things, scale, sound, selfhood in relation to the world, family, time etc … combined with a very trapped, spectacularly blank, nothingness”.

For Winston, the darkness project offers parallels to our current situation. “Hopefully it is a good opportunity to listen,” he said, “to take stock of some of the habits we’re not having to do at the moment. Similar to this exercise, it is a good opportunity to drop down and see what priorities are interesting to you.”

A Delicate Sight – which takes its name from the eye’s increased sensitivity to light after spending time in darkness – is now inviting the general public to give the experience a try. “We often go looking for imagination within books or literature or music … why don’t we go looking for imagination inward-facing?” said Winston.

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