A Dark Room Inside Other Rooms

To write this text, I stuck my index finger inside my mouth and kept it there for a while.

At first, I would stroke the inside of my cheeks. They felt bouncy; I could easily push them outward. I imagined a trampoline and the brown rubber of an elastic band.

As you read this, I suggest you do the same. Don’t mind other people. You can have this moment.

I run my finger over my molars. They feel odd—large and full of strange, uneven edges. Isn’t it a strange area where the molar and the skin meet? Knowing that the tooth continues downward. I imagine the roots of my teeth firmly anchored into the bone, and an image of the roots of a tree comes to mind.

Let your tongue hug the finger and glide around it. Isn’t it surprising how the pattern on your fingertips has a subtle coarseness, but the pattern is too small to detect. How smooth is the surface of the nail?

Go on; keep your finger there for a while, in your small, dark room.


The dark room
Dark spaces are central to the history and technology of the photographic medium, from the camera obscura to the small space of the camera body. A dark room within other rooms.

In a colour darkroom, darkness is a familiar working condition, as the paper is sensitive to the entire spectrum of light. To move inside a dark room, the body needs to be managed differently than in lit spaces. The relationship between vision and tactility feels skewed. You have to rely on the tacid knowledge of surfaces lodged in your skin and keep a mental image of the space to navigate it. The body slows down, and the friction between the senses and the environment intensifies. Touch provides information where sight would otherwise have been a primary.

I shut off all light from the enlarger, pull out the paper, and place it on the table. After softly tapping the paper with my fingertips all around the edge of the masking easel, I expose. For some seconds, I look at the negative image on the paper. The darkness returns, and the fumbling, slow journey to feed the paper into the developing machine begins.

What is present is not simply ‘darkness’, but a strange environment that meets the body in a different way than other spaces. I touch the walls and get to the light trap to exit.

Now comes a few minutes of impatiently waiting as the paper passes through the machine before it is finally pushed out. I check my phone. I have a sip of water. I wait, bored and excited at the same time. I am dying to see the resulting image because it will inform my next ‘dive’ into the darkroom.

The experience of working in the darkroom reminds me of works by the Danish artist John Olsen. He made a series of drawings in his sauna called “Svedetegninger” (“Sweat Drawings,”  my translation). He would work for hours, sweat dripping onto paper and chalk. The drawings are abstract, though sometimes a wing, the shape of a skull, and other such shapes appear. Round organisms out of context, whether animal or human, like a form in motion, taking shape.

I look at these images and imagine the body of the artist moving over them, sweat dripping on the paper in the relative darkness. What dark space for image-making was the sauna for him? What was he able to attain under these conditions that other spaces did not provide?

Darkness and inderminacy
We define eyesight as the ability of the eyes to channel visual stimuli into the brain. Another word, vision, however, is a concept that can never fully be substituted by eyesight. Vision is how we bring past experiences, our senses, and our imagination together. It relies on play and the desire for an image just out of reach. The experience of vision is only partly visual. It is an ambiguous, transgressive energy connected to dreams, memories, experience, and intuition. A vision, ideally, is as much felt as it is seen. Like a finger in one’s mouth, an image created from a tactile experience, a translation of energy from one realm to another. Though to some, this will sound almost spiritual, it is not that in my experience. It is more of a lived experience of a changed relationship between space and body, in which our imagination serves as a medium where unexpected experiences and images can come from.

Philosopher and scholar of new media and film Laura U. Marks, in her book Touch [1], explores how, for spectators of film images, vision can call upon our tactile and visceral experience. In describing ‘haptic visuality’, she emphasizes a perception of a represented space as a composite experience of all senses. The experience of ‘haptic visuality’ pertains to images, moving or still, that feel too physically close to the body to focus and see the entirety of the motif. Rather, the spectator is immersed in an exploration of surfaces. Her words on haptic images and haptic visuality feel apt to come close to what I am trying to come near in this text, which is the relationship between the body and the environment around the body in relation to image production:

“Haptic images invite the viewer to dissolve his or her subjectivity in the close and bodily contact with the image. The oscillation between the two creates an erotic relationship, a shifting between distance and closeness. (…) By interacting up close with an image, close enough that figure and ground commingle, the viewer gives up her own sense of separateness from the image.” [2]

Going from the eye-image relationship I wonder if there are similar relationships between the body and the space around it? It is clear that haptic visuality is a property of human perception, a mode of relating to images – or other visual phenomena. I wonder how this erotic relationship to image spaces can be directed to think about the spaces in which images are made. What does it mean to give up a sense of separateness and to be in an environment where visual control is partly given over to a more immersed experience? How is the connection between the image-maker and the image made possible by the surroundings? Though sight feels central to image-making, perhaps there is something about environments or situations where sight is pushed down in the hierarchy of senses that stimulates a different kind of visuality. I am interested in the body’s ability to connect to an environment and to materials in an imaginative way: a form of erotic relationship, though not sexual, based on a broad sense of desire. In this, I shift my words from image-making to image-producing, because the latter feels less like hands crafting and more like abstract and ambiguous processes. To describe visual erotics, Marks writes:

“Eroticism is an encounter with an other that delights in the fact of its alterity, rather than an attempt to know it. Visual erotics allows the thing seen to maintain its unknowability, delighting in playing at the boundary of that knowability.” [3]

What precedes the actual image is a state of mind where we feel connected to our environment in a dynamic way, whether it is a sense of safety and isolation or a heightened sense of connection and exchange. There is not one such environment that conditions image production: The key aspect, I think, is the shift from the everyday and into ‘something else’. A displacement of the hierarchy of senses that connects us to our surroundings in a different way than usual through an element of inderteminacy.

Under the right circumstances, the moment of waking up can be a time where we seem to exist in two spaces at once: the mental inner space of the sleep-state and the room holding our sleeping body. This threshold can expand into such a pleasurable space: The body heavy, reluctant to perform. Senses slow, slightly decoupled from thinking.

I love this state; coming back from sleep over and over again, drowsiness catching me, and making my body motionless—almost to the point where I no longer feel my own demarcation. I could be the bed, I could be the floor, I have sunk into my surroundings, melted out onto them. Sight in this state seems dispersed, decentralized, unprioritized. It is rather connected to one’s inner imagery, to vision. Sometimes visual remnants from a dream linger in this state. As I seep back into sleep, it feels like the dream images are still with me, vaguely, in glimpses, just out of my reach.

This state of mind, the half-asleep, half-awake state, marks a transition between the outer and the inner visuality. It testifies to an experience where these two spaces, the inner and the outer, are not perfectly separate and that we are either in one or the other. It is possible to somehow expand this transition to be a space in itself, and perhaps this is what I am trying to get to with the metaphor of the dark spaces of photography, the camera body, and the darkroom—even the finger in the mouth, which I am sure felt like an uncomfortable request on my behalf. This condition—space, state, environment, whatever the metaphor—is more like a pocket in reality that can open into something separate.

Our daily lives seem to hold plenty of potential for these liminal experiences, with no real separation from other activities. The body and the imagination are able to respond immediately and willingly to a shift in environment and play along. Dark rooms are all around us, like snooze sessions, saunas, and the small, small space inside our mouth.


[1] Marks: Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media

[2] Marks: Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, p. 13.

[3] Marks: Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, p. 18.



Marks, Laura U.: Touch: Sensuous theory and multisensory media, University of Minnesota Press, 2002