The Future of Conceptual, Immersive Art Hasn’t Quite Arrived


From the smartphones audiences hold in their hands to the virtual reality headsets artists can use as their primary medium, technology is altering the way we create and consume art. Museums and institutions are tracking Instagram geotags and encouraging their curators to build shows that will boost social media metrics. The wonder of a Kusama Infinity Mirror room has shifted from the exceptional to the expectation. Gray Area Festival, a conference sponsored by the San Francisco–based non-profit Gray Area, this year focused on how immersive environments and the experience economy are changing art engagement. They brought together artists, technologists, scholars, engineers, and museum professionals to speak about the future of art in technologically immersive environments.

Gray Area Festival curator Barry Threw spoke about tackling one of the drawbacks of these new, spectacular experiences. While they are visually appealing and impressive technical achievements, conceptual rigor gets lost. Threw’s comments are in reference to pioneering pop-ups like the Museum of Ice Cream and the technological magic that made installations like the Rain Room possible. To show an alternative way art and technology could change how we experience art, Gray Area Festival presented two works that hint at this future: Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn’s Inferno, a performance centered around mechanical exoskeleton apparatuses that evokes themes from Dante’s Inferno, and the ISM Hexadome, a custom-built architectural audiovisual venue developed by the Institute for Sound and Music, Berlin.

Inferno fuses human and machine into one dancer, but only the robots know the choreography. Untrained audience members volunteer to be strapped to a mechanical exoskeleton, which will control their movements like puppeteer orchestrating a marionette. It is up to the volunteer to decide if they will try to resist or give in to the exoskeleton’s motion, and watching the visceral struggle becomes one of the most intriguing parts of the performance. The humans’ faces move through a gamut of expressions, conveying their discomfort, surprise, unease, nervousness, and eventually euphoria. Those who fully embrace the robots’ lead become graceful, energetic dancers; and those who don’t appear fraught and rigid, more robot than human.

In addition to the emotional journey, Inferno exerts a physical toll on the body. Demers and Vorn describe the experience as a workout, and volunteers tend to stay in exoskeleton for at least 30 minutes of the one-hour performance before they swap places with another person. During that time, the performer’s stamina is put to the test, and they gain a new perspective on their physical limits; but it’s not easy to tap out as soon as they feel they cannot go on anymore. The exoskeleton has no break in choreography, and the performer can’t unstrap themselves from the device. Even if it’s a short wait after they signal defeat, they must continue to dance until a stagehand can free them from their prison. This is where Inferno’s inspiration becomes most apparent. In hell, there is no personal autonomy and no way to escape.

The compelling interplay between human and machine gets lost, however, in Inferno’s production design. Scored live by Vorn’s industrial electronic music, the stage matches the soundscape with darkness interrupted by strobing lights and a rolling fog that often obscures the performers. The room feels like an underground rave, and given the rarity of fully mechanized robotic dancers, witnessing the spectacle does make you feel like you’re at the forefront of culture, previewing the future of entertainment. But in this symbiotic collaboration between people and exoskeletons, the idiosyncrasies of human behavior are subdued to make the engineering triumph stand out.

The other signature performances at Gray Area Festival took place in the ISM Hexadome, a multimedia environment with a state of the art sound system and six towering screens that encircle its audience. Most pieces, designed by collaborative musician and visual artist pairs that included Thom Yorke and Tarik Barri, Lara Sarkissian and Jemma Woolmore, and Peter Van Hoesen and Heleen Blanken, played experimental music illustrated by abstract visuals. Like Inferno, the Hexadome’s immersive, 360-degree platform was an impressive technical achievement, but the compositions felt like mesmerizing, media-player audio visualizations on a grander scale.

An exception to this was a piece created by Holly Herndon and Mathew Dryhurst, which instead broke down the screens into individual channels with confined narratives that interacted with one another, but could also stand alone. Some screens were devoted to scripted material, such as the sermonic chanting of a woman dressed like a humble nun and an angelic, robed woman draping her body across the steps of a Romanesque building. The others were meta references to the performance itself, like an aerial view of the audience standing inside the Hexadome (though I realized it was pre-recorded from a different performance), and another from a first-person angle, warped like the lens of a GoPro, of a panicked and confused person weaving through the same pre-recorded Hexadome crowd.

Herndon and Dryhurst take advantage of the multichannel format and let their characters communicate with one another, even if it could not be direct or, in the case of this specific performance, in real-time. It showed how the Hexadome could be an intriguing platform a museum could devote a gallery to, giving patrons a setting that demands more attention — the body spinning from screen to screen, an ear trained to different parts of the room — than the more passive, single-screen theaters that dominate media installations.

Inferno and the ISM Hexadome point to the future of conceptual, immersive environments that Gray Area Festival wanted to explore more thoroughly, but technology alone is not going to lead to it. The artists need to embrace the humanity of their audiences and push their unpredictability and emotional responses to their content. Otherwise, the art is too controlled, too familiar despite its innovative format.