Enter Hell in a Robotic Exoskeleton, at Gray Area Festival


The Museum of Ice Cream, like other selfie palaces, is a place of harmless fun. Only a genuine spoilsport could watch people jump into a sprinkle pool and murmur about cultural decline. But some pools are shallower than others, and immersive art doesn’t necessarily have to be about appealing to our vanity while standing next to a rainbow unicorn. It can be a bit more cerebral, as with Meow Wolf. But as the tech advances, experiential art doesn’t merely blow our minds with top-tier audiovisual installations, either. It can help us make better sense of the merger of human with machine amid the vortex of gadget-mediated culture.

Gray Area Festival (Thursday-Sunday, July 25-28, at various venues) takes on a world where more and more of us have functionally fused with our smartphones. For its fifth year, curator Barry Threw organized discussions by leading technologists, educators, and experiential performers about virtual reality, augmented reality, and other pressing topics. But the most visually stunning components of this year’s fest are two installations that each make their U.S. debut: ISM Hexadome and Inferno. The Hexadome is a 360-degree cinematic experience at Pier 70 that includes two 90-minute sets by pairs of artists each evening, with work by Thom Yorke and Tarik Barri, Lara Sarkissian and Jemma Woolmore, and many others. (Notably, the Grammy-nominated composer Suzanne Ciani presents the world premiere of her newest composition, Under the Electric Sea, on Friday, July 26.)

If you caught Ragnar Kjartansson’s multiscreen The Visitors at SFMOMA or “Isaac Julien: Playtime” at Fort Mason, the Hexadome is in a similar vein, only with a greater emphasis on surround-sound from the six screens and 52 speakers.

The 10 performances that comprise Inferno, meanwhile, are considerably more unsettling. Through the use of a robotic exoskeleton, it blurs the line between spectator and performer by conscripting people’s bodies into the show. You move as the machine moves you, almost as if you’ve been assimilated by a Borg-like sentient cyborg, in a retelling of a scene from one of Dante’s circles of hell. (Not everyone is damned, of course; you can simply watch the show without becoming a semi-voluntary performer.)

As Threw describes it, it’s a bit terrifying — in a thrilling way, of course.

“Inferno puts the audience directly into the performer and participant roles,” he tells SF Weekly. “And the work itself is pretty visceral. It’s very industrial, with strobe lights and some fog, and you have these audience members sort of entrapped in this exoskeletons and sort of compelled to become performers for the rest of the group. There’s one special exoskeleton in the middle, which is kind of a leader for the audience group, who directs the movements for the rest of the audience. In terms of hierarchies of control, and the way machines and people interact, there’s a lot in this piece that we think will be very compelling.”

Indeed, the participants look like prisoners forced to mine rare elements on some penal asteroid. All this comes from a sea change in the way that art-goers perceive the role of museums and festivals, but rather than simply surf that trend and sell some tickets, Gray Area Festival wants to look at its epistemological foundations, too.

“We started this year-long programming arc researching the trend in experiential spaces,” Threw says. “There’s a kind of movement toward being people interested in immersion and worlds, as opposed to looking at a room full of objects.”

The fascinating thing, Threw notes, is that all this isn’t entirely new. It’s actually a return to a very ancient way of regarding art, as something more imbued with ritual than merely a static, decontextualized object in a vitrine or against a wall in an all-white gallery. Referring to the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, he notes that it was by necessity an all-encompassing experience, with the walls of the caves painted in ways that made use of their pitch-black surroundings and the fires that had to be brought in to view them.

“These spiritual places where art was initially created had to be site-specific,” Threw says, speculating that in addition to fire and music there was almost certainly an olfactory component, possibly something as simple as sage.

But now that humans comprehend astrophysics and the water cycle — some humans, anyway — that level of enchantment with the world has abated. Indeed, the present crisis now is not “How do we appease the gods so that the harvest is plentiful?” but “How can we harness the power of technology in time to avoid ecological calamity and the erosion of human freedom?”

Consequently, Gray Area Festival doesn’t simply want to entertain, but to question the symbiosis Homo sapiens has begun to undergo with devices and the internet. The ramifications are many and the stakes are high. For instance, some of the speakers Threw and Gray Area booked to present have noted parallels between radio and the rise of fascism in the 1930s with the increasingly corporatized internet and right-wing populism. Others, like virtual-reality pioneers Jaron Lanier and Brenda Laurel, have written book after book on the evolution of the human psyche as we cede more and more power to corporate algorithms that reduce more and more of our experience to mere data points. But in the meantime, festival-goers can enjoy the vicarious thrill of losing even more control, in a metal suit that brings them far below the caves of Lascaux, to hell itself.