Museum Musings: What does it mean –Immersion and Digital

Museums have been part of my identity for what seems a long, long time. At one point, exhibition development was my métier; I was part of a team with two other developers. One had wonderful plans of immersion exhibits for the natural world exhibits under her charge. Visitors would be drawn through the varied landscapes of Oklahoma. It worked: the habitats and interactions of the fauna and flora came alive all around. Visitors were literally immersed.

This year at home in various states of isolation we have been captivated by many digital resources. Physical access to museums has been restricted, let’s face, prohibited as the world closed down. Many museums responded with a variety of zoom rooms, interactive and not, innovative and flat, informative and boring. It’s not been an easy challenge to meet.

Many avenues of our lives are now slowly reopening in stages. Museums in many nations are experimenting with various ways to welcome back their culture-starved lovers: timed tickets, floor markers to insure social distancing, not to forget the ubiquitous masks. The public is drawn to see the real thing.

Before we entered our personal Hotel Californias, a proliferation of so-called “instagram” museums began making a mark: Museum of Ice Cream, Museum of Illusions (see March 27, 2019 post). More seductive venues opened where people were invited to capture themselves in the midst of the often over-sized and interactive “exhibitions.”

Now, a deluge of immersion, digital exhibits are filling the horizon inviting us to partake in art in new ways at the same time that our museums are welcoming back visitors. And a proliferation of digital art is transforming the art market. Perhaps the movement reached its peak with the recent multi-million dollar sale of digital artworks (https://www.businessinsider.com/art-auction-nft-beeple-top-selling-most-expensive-sale-millions-2021-3). Who can say what’s next.

Digital art experiences are the name of the game at Artechouse (https://www.artechouse.com/) in our community (and NYC and Washington, DC). Offered is a place where the “transformative power of art, science, and technology” attracts both artists and visitors. Here, “a new generation of genre-pushing artists to create with technology” is inspired, “the public about the mediums” is educated, and more. Tati, the co-founder of Artechouse, characterizes this endeavor as a “constellation of spaces, people, platforms, ideas, products.” 

Immersive exhibitions using digital platforms are exploding across the landscape. At Aqueous at Artechouse, visitors are submerged in the “sights, sounds and sensations of Pantone Color of the Year,” some shade of blue. The promoters promise an immersive installation that through “a deep dive into our water-filled surroundings … seeks to soothe the spirit and inspire action to preserve this natural resource.”

Four current traveling shows combine immersive and digital with images of the work of Vincent van Gogh – Immersive Van Gogh; Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience; Van Gogh Alive; and Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience. Large-scale digital animations of the Dutch painter’s work are set to original music are feature in the first show. Visitors drawn into Van Gogh: Immersive Experience get “exquisite storytelling along with cutting-edge technology” as eight of his iconic works are projected over 360 degrees in a two-story space. The third exhibit features 3,000 van Gogh images including his most renowned paintings. The final “features voice-overs of van Gogh’s words set to a symphonic score” while progressing through 300 of his masterpieces. Each of the van Gogh shows are slated to travel across the US and worldwide.

Yet another immersive/digital exhibit on the horizon is Superblue, a visually spectacular and thought-provoking “multisensory journey.” In this case, the seven installations were created by innovative, contemporary artists including Es Devlin, teamLab, a Japan-based collective, and James Turrell. SuperBlue promises an opportunity for “art lovers to burst the traditional boundaries between artwork and viewer.” It differs from the previous mentioned shows in that the work of contemporary artists is presented; artists who create experiences, not the experiences being created by manipulating the art.

Spoiler alert! I have to admit that I have a weakness for James Turrell. I was introduced to his work in 2014 at the San Museum in Korea (https://www.museumsan.org/enewweb/) where four of his light sculptures are on display. I was thoroughly enthralled by their magic when I first saw/experienced them.

San Museum, Tadao Ando architect

Another artwork in Superblue is described as “a digital waterfall that cascades down two walls and onto the shiny floor” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/18/arts/design/superblue-miami-immersive-art.html). I experienced and was intrigued a similar artwork where visitors walk through a flowing river of light to go from one exhibit gallery to another at the Seosomun Shrine History Museum (https://wheretokim.com/seosomun-shrine-history-museum-seoul/) in Seoul last year.

Shrine History Museum

What is the place of these different types of immersive and digital displays/artworks? Are they simple outgrowths of the draw of the instagram? Are they simply merchandizing to a culture-starved public? What will their effect be upon museums that many see as staid and static? The museum profession has been grappling with how to define themselves for the past five or so years. What next?

As so many are chaffing to return to a world that was after a year of waiting out this pandemic, and which is still here despite the best (or worst) efforts I think we can continue to wait to see what is next.

Note: The Featured Photo is the other side of one of the James Turrell light sculptures at the San Museum

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