Bob Dylan, in his infinite, prescient wisdom was spot on: the times they are a changin’. For our January 16, 2020 Inside Denver Twitter chat with Blake Communications, we wrangled seven artsy-smartsy types to give us the inside scoop on immersive experiences.
While immersive may be a recent buzzy word in the 21st century, its origin dates back to Middle English and takes shape from theLatin immerses, a past participle of immergere: im meaning into, in, on, upon and mergere meaning to merge. It’s no wonder then that our experts define immersive as something that “completely envelopes the viewer” and is “multi-layered, often including sight, sound, touch, smell, interaction” as defined by the Museum of Outdoors’ Tim Vacca. The audience and the art/experience integrate to become one.
Though the idea of immersive art has some baggage regarding seriousness or even legitimacy. Cortney Lane Stell, Executive Director and Chief Curator at Black Cube, a nomadic contemporary art museum, says she sees “it more in line with entertainment” and less contemporary art. Cole Huling, Artistic Director of Handsome Little Devils, a vaudeville/circus-inspired interactive experiences company, agrees immersive art “is like the punk-rock sister to traditional fine art.”
Insight #1: What art is let alone what constitutes good art have bedeviled philosophers and art historians for eons. The likelihood of solving these questions within the confinement of 280 characters? Unlikely.
As Meow Wolf, an early adopter and now dominate player in the immersive arts scene, said, the popularity of immersive coincides with a larger societal shift “Likely related to the rise of the experience economy, which has seen major growth in the 21st century, prioritizing enriching experiences over material goods.” But as Vacca points out, the trend has roots in pre-Revolutionary France and King Louis XIV’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Stell sees the trend towards immersion as an element of escape from climate change or political turmoil while Hull sees it as a way to “getaway from screens.”
Insight #2: IRL experiences are here to stay—at least until virtual reality and reality reality are indistinguishable from one another.
Jenny Filipetti and David Thomas, both co-founders of Denver Immersive Summit and Assistant Professors at CU Denver, said “when you get creators into a room together, what they’re talking about is transformative experience and presence.” Transformation remains paramount whether it’s turning a bathtub into a performance platform or open space into a set or creating a unique experience for each audience member. The very idea of immersive art will also transform with “more segmentation and more language defining different types of experiences” according to Prismajic. Technology will inevitably influence when, where, and how these transformations occur. At its heart, immersive experiences aim to democratize art, “Striving" as Meow Wolf says, "to make art that’s available to all people, regardless of income bracket.”
Insight #3: Change expectations or the rules, just be sure to change hearts and minds.
From fire codes to frequent damage, immersive art presents a host of challenges: increased funding demands, finding the right audience, and defining how it fits into contemporary art to name a few. But artists and arts organizations continually prove the power of creativity and strategic thinking by working with the local fire department, designing with durability in mind, and understanding the impact on an audience upfront.
Insight #4: Developing immersive arts experiences catapults creative problem solving into hyperdrive.
Virtual and augmented reality, not to mention social media, will not only break boundaries but become increasingly synonymous with immersive art if not ubiquitous. Cross-sector collaboration and connection will flourish as the immersive arts witness more growth and develop richer experiences. Immersive art could, as Meow Wolf says, “break free of buildings” and help “reimagine sections of cities.” But, as Stell says immersive art—whether digital or analog— isn’t just for the fun of it, viewers should also “Experience it openly and critically.”
Insight #5: What’s old is new again when it comes to good art whether immersive or not: make them think—the harder the better.