Immersive Experiences in Museums - 1
May 2, 2022
Assembly, Rashaad Newsome’s powerful immersive experience recently shown at the Park Avenue Armory, is a dramatic contrast with the Immersive Van Gogh event we attended last summer (see our previous blog post).
The comparison highlights the differences between an immersive experience created as original artwork, and one based on a transformation of art that was made to be seen under entirely different circumstances.
Assembly is a work of art composed of original imagery and computer graphics specifically designed to offer a coherent experience. Van Gogh is a digital collage of fragments of artworks all created by the same artist, greatly magnified and occasionally animated, but stripped of all reference points, context and meaning.
Assembly was expressly created for visitors to explore ideas about Black cultural production - African dance, traditional hairstyling, textiles, sculpture, vogue dancing and Queer culture. Immersive Van Gogh is bereft of ideas, telling visitors nothing about the artist and the genesis of his art, reducing Van Gogh’s emotionally rich paintings to flat animated wallpaper.
In addition to visuals, sound also figures into both experiences. Assembly’s visitors are immersed in an original sound bath of aphorisms and affirmations directly related to the goals of the experience. These are spoken by the star and host of the experience, an AI generated character Newsome refers to as his child, called Being. Van Gogh’s visitors are surrounded by a loud, pulsing soundtrack of public domain classical music that bears no relationship to his paintings.
Assembly also had a structured interactive component, where visitors could participate in workshops that combine critical pedagogy, dance, storytelling and meditation, taught by Being.
While I overwhelmingly prefer Assembly, for the reasons listed above, there’s no denying that the Immersive Van Gogh / Klimt / Picasso types of experiences succeed at entertaining throngs of visitors who may never enter a museum - which is why museums can’t ignore their success.
Companies like Atelier des Lumieres, the originator of immersive Klimt and Paul Klee environments, are more interested in providing a “sensory” experience than an intellectual one*. Their goal is to entertain, while museums are mission bound to guide visitors to understand and appreciate the works in their collections. Yet, as the Akron Art Museum's Deputy Director and Chief Experience Officer, Seema Rao, tweeted recently, "The general public doesn't value authenticity as much as they value experience."
So, what’s a museum to do? One option is to follow the model of Newfields in Indianapolis and convert an entire floor to display this new type of blockbuster. Another is to ignore them entirely. Is this all or nothing stance the only option for museums? Certainly not!
Look at the model of traveling exhibitions about scientific subjects, historical events, people and places, which often involve large scale immersive projections accompanying physical exhibits, with costs defrayed by collaborating museums and additional rental fees. You can peruse TEO Exhibitions for many such examples.
Some art museums have large scale touch walls, like ArtLens at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where visitors can immerse themselves in a wall of digital images of the collection.
Other institutions already co-curate exhibitions and could co-commission and share the cost of producing work by contemporary artists to create and market immersive installations like Assembly.
Then there’s Virtual Reality – nothing beats VR for a fully immersive experience! It’s possible to create an entire exhibition to visit in a headset, or to extend a physical installation with virtual one, for example, a visit to the Lascaux Caves.This provides both a solo and a social experience, which makes possible the social media interaction that is de rigeur for any of the Immersive Van Gogh type experiences.
Visitors will expect to encounter immersive experiences instead of or in addition to more traditional exhibitions, no matter which approach museums choose. Those that are designed to delight AND also offer visitors new perspectives and a way to interact with each other and the art – Assembly is just one example – will be an important way museums can maintain their place as both unique destinations and valuable members of their communities, for audiences of all ages.
• As quoted in https://blooloop.com/museum/in-depth/immersive-experiences/