Sometimes being inside the ISM Hexadome is akin to seeing what it’s like behind someone else’s closed eyelids, hearing the errant buzzes and horns and throbs that sound between someone else’s ears.
It can be like riding an elevator to the heavens or descending a mine shaft beyond the earth’s bowels to some fantasy land. As you curl up on a carpet, flanked by six giant screens arranged in a hexagonal pattern, enveloped by 52 channels of surround sound, you might have the feeling you’ve sneaked into a slumber party in a planetarium.
But the immersive installation, part of the Gray Area Festival and staged at the Union Iron Works office building in Dogpatch’s Pier 70, can also make you feel like you’ve taken the trouble to get out of the house only to watch a very elaborate screensaver — a screensaver your fellow audience members then take photos and videos of with their tinier screens.
Accommodations are extremely uncomfortable. Forget about lumbar support. If age or disability means you can’t sit on the ground, you’ll likely feel pressured to peer into the Hexadome from the outside, lest you should block someone else’s view. And even if your joints can take the strain, the Thursday, July 25, opening was so packed, at least during the first of its four hours, that you couldn’t shift your weight or breathe too deeply without accidentally touching someone else’s butt.
The piece comes to the bay from Germany, in partnership with the Institute for Sound and Music Berlin, with additional tour stops in Montreal and two other North American cities to be announced. Artists hail from a range of disciplines. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke teams up with “audiovisual composer” Tarik Barri; other contributing artists are electronic music composers, animators, record label founders, filmmakers, photographers and DJs.
Some video projections are testaments to both the reach and the care of the human imagination. Stalagmites and stalactites morph into crystal-shaped islands that float in the sky. Craggy surfaces suggest coagulated mercury. Prisms melt into different bands of light. Each crinkle of a Mylar balloon sharpens into an incision-fine line, glistening in iridescent rainbow hues.
Still others are crude, evoking the 1979 video game “Asteroids,” the 1990s-era CGI cartoon “ReBoot,” the El Capitan desktop background on your Mac, a LaserDisc-era educational video on Euclidian geometry.
Sound, peppering you from different angles, can be as elusive as a will-o’-the-wisp and then blunt as a bludgeon. If you’re a Yorke fan, the Hexadome represents a chance not to just hear his voice but be submerged into and haunted by it, with speakers that make every “k” sound crack like a whip, that limn every grain of his desiccated timbre. His musical sensibility finds apt expression in the Hexadome medium, where he needn’t be constrained by the conventions of a single or album. With Barri, he creates less a song that courses forward than a sonic environment you walk into and hunker down inside as he introduces, builds on, riffs on a single phrase. You get the sense that it could last forever, just breathing in and out.
The piece’s other standout component comes from Holly Herndon and Mathew Dryhurst, in “Spawn Training Ceremony I: Deep Belief.” Five of the six screens depict five different people, the sixth footage of a crowd — a crowd that, you gradually discover, is the audience at another Hexadome showing. That crowd is looking at many of the same screens you’re looking at, and the way all six come to interact with each other, and with you, is so ingeniously thought through you might start to worry you’re the subject of an experiment, being observed behind a two-way mirror.
But for much of the rest of its four hours, the Hexadome pummels you with its audiovisuals. Blasts of light and throbs of subwoofers seem timed to stir your fight-or-flight response just when you’d started to turn into a vegetable. Each time the sound abates, you might feel your nerves unclench.