A New Wave of Interactive Art Is Taking Over San Francisco


Recently, I found myself in conversation with a mirror. A “Magic Mirror,” actually. As I sat in a dark, closet-sized room alone, the screen — about the size of a desktop monitor — began asking me a series of questions in flashing white font.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your sign?”
“Who is your best friend?”

Should I respond to the questions out loud, I wondered? Should I take a photo of the screen and post it to Instagram, along with a snarky caption about the creepy Snow White moment I’m having? Unsure of what to do — and with no guide there to tell me — it was all very unnerving, which feels like it might have been the point.
Created by local San Francisco artist StevePi, this installation was one of a dozen or so featured in the Artist Showcase hosted by Gray Area, a nonprofit housed in Mission’s Grand Theater that offers space and resources to help local artists.

After confronting the mirror, I stepped into another exhibit — this one using augmented reality to place me in the middle of a deadly shipyard explosion on the Gulf Coast. Through headphones, I heard disembodied voices of crew members shouting to one another over the smoldering wreckage. The whole effect was disorienting and slightly terrifying — a small window into what the crew must have felt.

These sort of immersive art experiences are cropping up all over the Bay Area, building on a trend that caught mainstream attention with “millennial museums” like the famous Museum of Ice Cream. I found myself at the sprinkle-filled gallery a couple of weeks after the Artist Showcase, downing ice cream sandwiches and gleefully snapping selfies.

“People are interested in immersive environments because of a need to be reacquainted with what it’s like to be a being-in-the-world — we’re looking at things through phones so much that our minds get divorced from experience,” said Barry Threw, Executive Director of Gray Area, which has an incubator program supporting twelve artists and designers tackling our relationship to the environment through experiential art.

The resulting exhibition, THE END OF YOU — launching February 7 — uses visual projections, meditative spaces and other tools to allow people to explore Earth as a living ecosystem and reimagine our connection to it.

When it comes to what qualifies as immersive, audience agency is key, says Noah Nelson. Nelson is the founder of No Proscenium, an online publication and podcast about the immersive arts and entertainment industry.
“You can’t just put a canvas on a wall and a rope in front of it and say ‘look’,” Nelson says. “You must invite the audience to engage with the work actively.”
But what does active engagement mean? Does taking selfies against an ice cream cone backdrop count? Questionable.

“The Museum of Ice Cream is barely immersive — it’s more set design,” said Threw.
But that set offers high Instagram potential, and basically grants permission for visitors to escape adult life via its rideable plastic unicorn, ornament-making station, and abundance of sweet treats. There’s even a large pool filled with sprinkles, which guests can slide into while encouraging staff members to snap their photo.

Unsurprisingly, these qualities have made the Museum of Ice Cream and others like it among the most popular kind of immersive art experiences. Tickets for the Museum of Ice Cream’s initial 2017 run in San Francisco sold out in just 30 minutes, right on the heels of a similarly successful debut by the Color Factory, which featured rooms themed around the concept of color and proved so popular that it extended its initial four-week run by eight months.

While these get the most attention, many other kinds have cropped up in the Bay Area recently — ranging from theater to pop-up art installations and other experiences — that invite audience members to engage at depths far greater than a pool of plastic sprinkles behind an Insta filter. And often, they eschew social media altogether.
Take theatre spectacles Bohemia and Speakeasy, which invited participants to turn off their phones, dress up, and enter worlds staged to look like Belle Epoque Paris and the Roaring ’20s, respectively. Each featured a narrative that participants could follow as they make their way through the set’s many rooms, à la New York City’s wildly popular theatre noir Sleep No More. Audience members are invited to be part of the action — walking into Speakeasy, for example, I was asked to join a casino game by a sharply dressed man in a bowler hat, while ragtime music played in the background
Sadly, Speakeasy recently closed — a result that many artists said is likely a result of the high price of doing business in the Bay Area that makes it essential to profit often off of these artistic experiences.

“Consumerism has found a way to grab onto installation art because it’s profitable,” says Robin Birdd of MACRO WAVES, an Oakland-based design collective of multidisciplinary artists of color, which is important given how difficult it can be for artists — especially artists of color — to secure funding and resources for their work in the Bay Area.

Yet in spite of the challenges, Birdd and other immersive artists are working to create art that helps us contemplate heavy subjects like mental health, climate change, and income inequality — a far cry from the Museum of Ice Cream’s mission to help us escape the responsibilities and seriousness of adult life.

One such installation is Val-U-Mart, an exhibition based out of the Pro Arts Gallery & Commons in Oakland that features a convenience store setting as its backdrop to share messages about capitalism’s dark side. The artificial intelligence shopping experience involves taking a personality test that dictates the price of items. Several artists collaborated on the exhibit’s interactive installations and performances, which are meant to help visitors “examine their relationship to money and how it intertwines with power, self-worth, and how we spend our time.” It runs through January 18.
The Museum of the Hidden City takes the concept of immersive experiences even further, using entire neighborhoods to educate audiences about San Francisco’s history of affordable housing. To experience the museum, users download an augmented reality app on their phone, and then follow the lead of two narrators on a historical walk through the Fillmore District — a neighborhood with a particularly rich history of multiculturalism, commerce, and resistance to urban renewal. With the app, users can hear personal stories from residents and see sketches of buildings that once stood on their tour route. Future Hidden City episodes are planned for the Tenderloin, Mid-Market and Bayview.

“People learn in different ways, and immersive art gives you the tools to tap into other ways of learning,” says Birdd. Last April, MACRO WAVES partnered with the San Francisco Arts Commission to feature “Shikata Ga Nai: But It Can Be Helped,” an installation about intergenerational trauma based on the experiences of collective member Tina Kashiwagi and her great-aunt Christine Umeda, who spent time in a Japanese internment camp.

Instead of merely recording and playing audio interviews, the exhibit showcased video animations, journals, and photographs in two bedrooms staged to look like the ones belonging to each woman. Audiences walked through the immersive interview installation and engaged at their own pace to understand each woman’s own and shared experience.
When I ask about the etiquette of taking out your phone at these kinds of experiences, Birdd says it’s best to ask first. “Some artists might find it disrespectful to record their work,” she explains.
Sometimes getting away from your phone is actually the point. A few weeks ago, I attended the premiere of Audium 11, a sound composition that takes place in total darkness. Sitting in the 49-seat Audium Theatre on Bush Street, where founder Stan Shaff has performed his unique compositions since 1976, I felt entirely engulfed by sound — thanks to 176 strategically placed speakers. Ranging from electronic riffs to train whistles to chatter in a bustling diner, the sounds conjured images of places I’d been as they ricocheted around me.

“At Audium, the main idea is to get people to think with their ears. To remember that there are other senses besides sight, which we rely on so heavily, and become aware of the world around us,” says Audium’s general manager and Stan’s son, Dave Shaff.
Yet for all the challenges, there are seemingly unlimited possibilities for what immersive spaces can do when it comes to engaging with (or escaping) our reality. To fully appreciate them, Birdd recommends putting down the phone, at least for a while.
This is what I ended up doing at Gray Area’s Artist Showcase, in front of StevePi’s Magic Mirror. Instead of snapping a photo or sharing the experience, I decided to face it alone and be present — and find out what it might be trying to tell me behind all the flashing questions.

Where to go for immersive art

Gray Area: 2665 Mission Street
Sound Meditation San Francisco: (Multiple locations)
Audium Theatre of Sound Sculptured Space: 1616 Bush Street
Envelop SF:: 900 Marin Street
Museum of the Hidden City: Recommended starting point is St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough Street
Museum of Ice Cream: 1 Grant Avenue
Epic Immersive: (Multiple locations)