One of the best pieces of art ― categorised in terms of me being able to vividly remember it more than a decade after the event, is an exhibition I saw in London after 9/11.
Much like the scene below, captured by photographer Steve McCurry for a book I bought at the exhibition, it was a reenactment of the space that would have existed after the attack.
Media advice at the time was to take breaks from watching the news; to stop yourself from seeing the same images on repeat because the dust and debris and people stumbling around in a state of shock was a horrifying watch. I remember stopping on Cornmarket, Oxford’s main street, to watch a shop window of TVs all showing the twin towers engulfed in smoke. On my drive home the radio played only sad songs. No breaks. No talking. Just an excruciating sorrow.
Like most people, I struggled to make sense of what happened. Drawn to this exhibition, I moved through a reenactment of the 9/11 destruction, wading through smog, a heavy stench of anxiety in the air. It was noisy, I remember that. I’d guess now it was sirens and screams that would leave me feeling uneasy, yet I was the lucky one, knowing the scene I was witnessing wasn’t real.
It gave me a sense of what it might have felt like to live through it or, at least, a better sense than I had before. This suffocating experience breathed meaning into the true power of empathy.
Not being able to see your way out.
A deafening silence pierced only be fear.
Choking on dust and tears.
It stays with me.
I’d love to be able to tell you who this immersive exhibition was by, but I only remember how it made me feel, and we recognise that line in Maya Angelou’s famous quote about creativity:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”Maya Angelou
Pigments mixed with plant sap were ‘new media’
“17,000 years ago a Paleolithic tribe in southern France used vibrant mineral pigments to paint huge magical bulls, stags, horses, felines and other animals right across every wall and ceiling of their caves. Archaeologists believe that sandstone lamps and fireplaces were used to not only light the space, but also to create a flickering, moving effect; essentially animating these majestic creatures. Imagine being deep in that cave with those huge flickering mythic animals surrounding you. The Palaeolithic people may well have combined this with music and performance; a seriously immersive experience” ~ World History Encyclopaedia.
Fast forward to today and technology dominates. As the UK’s first permanent digital gallery, The Reel Store in Coventry hosted Refik Anadol’s Machine Memoirs for their opening exhibition. Standing in an odd-shaped room with colourful shapes and patterns swimming all around me, crushing against the walls and floor; being able to move in and around them, it was the very definition of immersive.
: providing, involving, or characterised by deep absorption or immersion in something (such as an activity or a real or artificial environment)
Watching the excitement of my children interacting with art on their hands and knees is my most vivid memory of the Reel Store’s follow-up exhibition, the Life and Work of Frida Kahlo. What a way to enjoy art and history; red arrows weaving their way between your feet and flowers blossoming where you sit.
Immersive Van Gogh and Dali exhibitions have bloomed as bright as a Kahlo dahlia, giving people direct access to an art world that might previously have felt detached or elite, or simply offering a new way to experience the classics; just plug in and lose yourself directly in the works. Quite possibly there’ll be a novelty cut off in this, though, with poor reviews of David Hockney’s “projections of old paintings“.
Taking technology as far as it can practically go
Further west in Bristol at Wake the Tiger, the first “amazement park” left me feeling exhilarated, spellbound and somehow bearing a complete sensory overload. Wandering through their staggering collection of dreamlike worlds, it unearthed distant memories of computer games, game shows and TV programmes that shaped our cultural history ― there are more subliminal influences I’d have to visit again to get my head around. Even more fascinating for me was seeing just how well they’ve been able to monetise the experience with people finding joy and value in their abstract creativity.
“I have absolutely no idea where I’ve been,” said one Wake the Tiger visitor slowly to his partner who questioned if they might have missed a bit, there’s so much to see. As we attempted to find our way out of an office with a literal well of books, pages of text stuck to every space of the ceiling, moving bookshelves and a hidden doorway, we giggled along with them at the bonkers-ness of it all.
It helped me see ‘immersive’ can mean many things. Mostly, it was encouraging to catch a glimpse of what can go on in our own fanciful heads in a real life environment. Wake the Tiger is the stuff of daydreams and the challenge to bring that to life for the pleasure of creatives and non-creatives alike is a solid achievement.
Immersive experiences are highly personal
I’m creating my own immersive experience with my children in mind. A way to let them know they’ve everything they need within them to wrestle down whatever life throws their way ― perhaps not unscathed, but out alive. It feels important the experience is more gentle than glaring. No flashing lights or distraction, but full absorption and space to digest your own physical and emotional responses.
Tactility is key too; exploring your environment directly with the touch of your own hands. I’m looking into all our seven senses ― and discovering more re balance and body awareness, because we can’t truly consider our surroundings without thinking about how it affects us in both a physical and emotional way.
Can you imagine the feeling of chancing across a piano in the street and feeling free to just sit down and play it? Or standing by and hearing that spontaneous sound erupt from nowhere?
I come back to the work of Luke Jerram often, the artist who created these street pianos as well as community water slides, giant planets you can walk up to and touch, and air balloons that play music.
People participation is key to his artworks and that’s something I want for my exhibition because we all arrive differently at a destination and what we take away with us is unique.
Looking inwards may only happen for some in hard times
One of the strongest voices I’ve found in the immersive arts space is Dorothy Di Stefano. On the NXTLVL Experience Design podcast she talks about being a former musician who also worked in marketing and graphic design among other things, who’s obsessed with finding beauty in nature and captivated by colour. Now, Dorothy is founder and director of Molten Immersive Art, bringing together artists from around the world to create immersive experiences; her LinkedIn feed is a treasure trove.
As a creative, I’m inherently introspective and often drawing on my own experiences, and the eclectic collection of professional experience Dorothy describes in her interview is something I feel deeply. I’m a copywriter working in conversational AI who was once a photographer who studied anthropomorphism after being an animal handler who started out in advertising ― a definite multipod with many interests. But as Dorothy says in the podcast, every new thing you do can be connected creatively and it all matters.
Every one of your experiences is relevant and useful.
Introspection happens along the way.
Close examination of your emotions is hard going at times, especially when you’re wired in such a way you can’t switch it off, but it’s ultimately uplifting. You become more concrete in who you are, what you stand for, and what you want to put out into the world. So when the worst times hit, as they undoubtedly will, immersing yourself in what it is to be you can give clear direction and hope.
My goal is to shine a light on that.
Image created using Midjourney