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The art world can’t get enough of technology-driven immersive art installations, but are they an authentically radical cultural form or cynical shallow and corporate?
The new immersive art “reflects the rise of consumer digital technologies, and the behaviors and expectations that they cultivate,” writes Anna Wiener in an article exploring the trend for The New Yorker, but she is not a believer.
“The work looks commercial, because it is fundamentally about commerce,” she says.
Installation art is nothing new, but the adoption by artists of technologies from gene-editing to blockchains to create, display and monetize their work certainly is, as is the trend of tech companies operating as art patrons.
Wiener notes a 2020 report commissioned by London’s Serpentine Galleries titled “Future Art Ecosystems.” It advanced the idea of the “art stack” — a vertically integrated, artist-led system of production that operates at “unprecedented scale,” bypassing the art establishment through centralization.
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In software engineering, a “tech stack” usually refers to a system’s foundational software components, and a “full-stack” engineer is fluent in both front- and back-end development. A full-stack art studio would own the process from beginning to end, employing both artistic and technology teams and controlling its own revenue streams and gallery spaces.
Like movie studios, record labels, fashion houses, and video-game companies, studios that mastered the art stack could someday adopt an “industrialized” model, the report suggested; to monetize their offerings, they could broker corporate sponsorships, partner with real-estate developers, offer non-artistic technical services, or operate “like circuses and theme parks,” going direct-to-consumer with mass-market, ticketed experiences. There could be art-stack IPOs.
Weiner reports that a number of organizations and artists already operate in this mode. They include Studio Drift, which recently held an “immersive exhibition” of kinetic sculptures at the Shed, in Hudson Yards; and Refik Anadol Studio, which creates, among other things, “parametric data sculptures” — abstract data visualizations, displayed on massive LED screens.
However, no artist collective seems to embody the art-stack model as fully as teamLab. This is a Japanese group of six hundred “ultratechnologists” — artists, software engineers, animators, and architects. One of its exhibitions is at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, which includes projection-mapped animations and sweeping, cinematic music played, according to Wiener, who paid a visit.
Karin Oen, a curator at the museum, argues that teamLab’s work invites visitors to “go beyond passively observing,” instead making them “active protagonists in decentered narratives”; Toshiyuki Inoko, teamLab’s founder, has said that the organization aims to obliterate boundaries between the self and the environment.
Changing Museum Models
TeamLab’s “Bordlerless” exhibit in Tokyo employs hundreds of computers and laser projectors; a sister museum in Shanghai was sponsored by projector maker Epson; its SuperNature space in a luxury hotel is described as a “body immersive” art space. The group is represented by international art gallery Pace, which has launched Superblue, a set of “experiential art centers,” including one in Miami, which features a maze of mirrored and illuminated walls.
People are “hungry for transcendence,” Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace, told Weiner. “Churches are emptying [and] these artists are trying to fill that gap.”
Technology, he went on, has facilitated a movement toward “pop art,” which prioritizes the audience over the intelligentsia and seeks to skirt the entrenched art establishment.
Tech-driven exhibits like these arrive at a time when museums face pressure to diversify their collections and expand their audiences. As a result, thinks Weiner, museums have become more corporate.
According to Janet Kraynak, art historian and professor at Columbia University, museums now treat visitors as if they are the “users” of a consumer product, and thus cater to their preferences, creating “pleasurable, nonconfrontational” environments, and emphasizing interactivity. Kraynak suggests that, instead of striving to be places of pedagogy, museums are growing “indistinguishable from any number of cultural sites and experiences, as all become vehicles for the delivery of ‘content.’ ”
Old Masters Digitally Revisited
Projection technology is also being used to re-present the work of long-dead artists in what Weiner dubs “a rapturous technological context.”
Such shows and their taglines include “Frida: Immersive Dream” (“Immerse yourself in the art and life of Frida!”); “Immersive Klimt Revolution” (“Step inside his electrifying world and be swept away!”); “Imagine Picasso: The Immersive Exhibition” (“Literally step into the world and works of the master of modern art”); “Beyond Monet” (“Become one with his paintings”); and “Monet by the Water” (“Wander free in a world shaped by Claude Monet’s art”), as well as “Gaudí: the Architect of the Imaginary,” and “Dalí: The Endless Enigma,” which is synched to back-to-back albums by Pink Floyd.
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She counts five digital exhibitions showcasing van Gogh’s work, stationed in cities across the world including “Van Gogh Alive,” “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” and “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition.” The nomenclature brings to mind an Amazon search result, she notes.
“We live, supposedly, in the age of ‘experiences’; the term evokes the tired trope that millennials — the most indebted generation in history — value travel and ephemeral encounters over material goods.”
Displaying NFT Art
Grande Experiences, an Australian content-creation company, tells Weiner, “There could be certain displays that present NFT-based art, created by digital artists of today. It could be the digital equivalent, should we say, of Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, something like that, who would then have their own presentation of their art in a large-format environment.”
Grande just opened THE LUME Melbourne, which is touted as Australia’s first digital-art gallery.
In the future, it’s suggested, such generalist digital spaces might become fixtures of major cities — institutions on par with museums, art galleries, aquariums, and zoos.
Weiner is not a fan. She finds such installation art transparently venal and fake.
“The principle features of the art stack model — scalability, financialization, vertical integration — are financial. It seems inevitable that these values will infuse the work, in the same way that NFT art, born of a technological possibility, has its own visual culture, one that appears to emphasize algorithmic generation and proficiency in graphic-design and rendering software.”
She describes a visit to the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit earlier this year in San Francisco. On the way out, she is inevitably routed through the gift shop and notes that Lighthouse Immersive, the production company behind the show, has sold more than three million tickets, and has earned millions of dollars in gift-shop revenue since 2017. Her ticket, the cheapest available, had cost nearly fifty dollars; the most expensive option, a ninety-dollar VIP package, included a cushion and a poster.
“What we were paying for was proximity — not to the paintings themselves, but to the idea of them. The exhibit was a technology demo that traded on mythology. True immersion remains an unusual aesthetic achievement.”