As a child living in a dilapidated seaside town, I enviously assumed that the sophisticated city kids I saw on telly were spending their Saturday nights in shiny Americana-style bowling alleys whilst I loitered in disused bus shelters and soggy parks. I’ve since learnt that many of them were also whiling away the hours in bus shelters (bowling being a more expensive hobby than I had realised). Even so, I can only blame the yearning for some semblance of excitement that these dull days gave me for why, on a too hot Sunday morning in July, we found ourselves with tickets for a ‘one-of-a-kind immersive art installation’ in southeast London.
The tickets were much sought after, but we should have known the minute they said ‘shoes off please.’ Nothing good happens when you are shoeless in a room with 20 strangers. The sensation of sock on concrete was alien to us as we entered, making us waddle in a strange flat-footed way. Contrary to my usual method – research fanatically to avoid ever being taken unawares by anything – I hadn’t read much about the experience; I just knew there would be lights and music. I imagined it would relax me, maybe enlighten me, lead me to some sort of revelation. But first things first, I was desperate for a wee, so we padded off to the loo. I felt unnerved to be sans shoes in a public toilet, but said nothing. The experience was designed to ‘blow our minds’, so whatever liquid my socks were soaking up was trivial.
We came back and sat patiently with the other attendees (a father and daughter, numerous couples, a few groups of friends), before they called us into the room, and a man who looked too young to be in charge explained the concept. I pondered what had led him to a former event space in the Docklands, giving an introduction to an immersive art experience that wasn’t suitable for those with epilepsy. I wondered how I had ended up here, and then remembered those nights in the bus shelter.
We sat swaddled in fleece blankets on plush recliner chairs. We could leave at any time if it all became too much for us, the young man explained as he guided us through a series of relaxing breathing exercises. I was suitably calm by the time the lights slowly started to dim. The concept was straightforward: You kept your eyes closed while white lights flashed and atmospheric music played. The colours and patterns you saw behind your closed eyes were up to the wonders of your own mind. As I settled into my seat, I pictured that feeling you get on a hot sunny day when you close your eyes and feel yourself engulfed by a warm orange glow. I was ready to have my life changed.
I saw an LSD-esque check pattern over and over again, at a speed that made me clench my jaw involuntarily. Then my vision was engulfed by a cavernous black hole, and I felt myself plummeting into the void. My head jolted. I tried to shut my eyes to escape it but I couldn’t, they were already closed. I panicked, gripping the armrest of the recliner. This was no revelatory experience.
I have always been partial to a bit of existential dread, and, despite my childish longing for adventure, 27 years’ worth of fear had, unsurprisingly, culminated in this. The wonders of my mind had betrayed me, guiding me directly into a figmental black hole. Down and down I went into the vertigo-inducing darkness, until the flashing light changed pace, the music stopped, and I was disoriented to find that 40 minutes had passed.
War-weary from the horror of immersive art, we had a debrief upon leaving the room. ‘What did you see?’ I asked cautiously. ‘Infinite bubbles,’ you muttered. I thought that sounded quite nice, cheery even, but your shell-shocked expression suggested otherwise. We declined the opportunity to mingle and share our experiences with the group, instead grabbing our shoes from the locker and exiting in a hurry. It felt rude to tell the chirpy organisers that they had ruined my day, if not my entire life, by leading me head-first into the abyss.
Perhaps the experience was a test-run for when the inevitable black hole does come and swallow me. Maybe if you book in advance, the horsemen will prepare you for the apocalypse with ambient music and breathing exercises.
Geena Erfurth-Roberts is a translator and writer. Originally from West Wales, she now lives in London. She won the Comedy Women in Print Flash Fiction prize in 2022 and her English translations of German fiction have been published in journals and online.
geengenie.substack.com, geenaerfurthroberts.com, Twitter: @GeenaErfurth