When it comes to “The Experience: Imagine,” even the restrooms become part of the show.
“The Experience: Imagine,” ahha Tulsa’s second version of an immersive art installation that is becoming one of more popular trends in contemporary art, officially opened Friday at the organization’s Hardesty Arts Center.
The installation, made up of distinct creations by six Tulsa artists, fills the entirety of the facility’s second floor with multimedia works that blend light and sound, high-technology and human interaction, world-building and whimsy, to provide visitors with a unique escape from the world we know into imaginative constructions designed to spark the imagination.
“Each of the zones within the exhibit is an individual, immersive installation,” said Amber Litwack, ahha Tulsa’s director of education and exhibitions. “What was interesting this year was that, in the course of the exhibit coming together, we discovered these happy accidents that created a kind of thematic thread throughout the whole installation. That was something we didn’t anticipate, but embraced.”
That thread is most obvious with the first three installations, by Alton Markham, Emily Simonds and John White, which draw heavily on science-fiction themes.
“The science fiction element is really the only thing our installations have in common,” Simonds said. “But as we were working, we discovered these little ways to interconnect our installations. It’s nothing really obvious — just these little nods to the other’s work that are there if the viewer pays close attention.”
Even without the “Easter Eggs” that are scattered among the various installations, the six “zones” within “The Experience: Imagine” have to them a natural flow that leads the visitor through the installation that makes these very distinctive regions that showcase the individual artists’ visions while working together to create a surprisingly, and pleasingly, coherent whole.
INTO THE ZONES
When one enters “The Experience: Imagine” from the center’s elevator, one steps into the high-tech world of Alton Markham’s “The Data Miner,” a web of fiber-optics cables, pulsating lights and mirrored surfaces that are designed to draw the visitor to the small video screen in the center of the far wall.
“My starting point was thinking about our data collection processes, and how the data that these entities collect are used to build psychological profiles of people that then can be manipulated,” Markham said. “Social media is a good example, because it puts us in these echo chambers, where everyone is segmented into his or her own tribe.”
Visitors can manipulate the lights and sounds within the space with touchpads, which mimic the sense of their personal information being absorbed into the machine.
“The screen is the heart of the installation, which is where the artificial intelligence that is mining all this data is,” Markham said. “And the mirror is a visual representation of those echo chambers, that keep reflecting ourselves back at us.”
Markham’s installation extends to the alcove where the second-floor restrooms are located, which he has outfitted in ways to make visits to these particular rooms a continuation of the installation.
“It was kind of a playful addition,” he said. “There’s a sign that reads ‘Genetic Collection Center,’ and the idea is that every part of us is somehow being consumed for data.”
Simonds’ installation, “The Tempest’s Parallax,” puts the viewer in the middle of a space station that is the home of a character name Prota — a character who is never seen, but whose presence is made palpable by continuous changes within the space.
“Prota is there to investigate alien creatures, and all sorts of space adventures begin to unfold,” Simonds said.
The walls of the station are covered with metal doors that can be opened to reveal the various objects needed to sustain life in space. Originally, Simonds had planned for the objects to be held and manipulated by visitors, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, the objects are behind Plexiglas for the time being.
However, visitors can use the station’s communication system to learn more about Prota and the other characters in Simonds’ narrative-driven work, by reading their biographies, and even going through their galactic emails.
These characters will be part of a series of short films that will begin appearing on YouTube in the fall, and continue through the run of “The Experience: Imagine.”
“These are all puzzle pieces that the visitor can put together so they can get a sense of the scope of the story being told,” Simonds said.
White’s “Into the Wormhole” is in two sections: “The Eviction,” which is the name of the space ship that visitors can explore, and “The Black Hole,” which has drawn the Eviction into the titular wormhole.
The space ship, which set out on a mission to find new planets for exploration, is filled with interactive elements that allow the visitor to fly the ship; work the communications station, which comes equipped with such science-fiction staples as a Tesla coil and a Jacob’s ladder; create the perfect landscape through the terra-forming station; and more.
“I’m a teacher, so everything I do is designed to get young people to think about the future, the technology that we can develop, to imagine the possibilities,” White said. “When I was young, there wasn’t any real interest in space exploration, although it’s coming back now, with the missions to Mars, and the success of Space X. I just want to ignite imaginations.”
White is also not adverse to having fun – the Black Hole is a ball pit into which visitors may allow themselves to be “drawn into the unknown.”
“It’s pretty deep in there,” he said, chuckling.
Katherine Hair brings visitors back into something closer to the natural world with her installation “Grow,” a space dominated by an archway and a large moose-like creature. Both are constructed of sticks and branches. Sounds of insects, birds, rustling foliage, and wind fill the space, along with soft boulders and a painting station.
Visitors are encouraged to create their own piece of “lichen” that will be attached to the surfaces of the space, so that it will be continually changing, as does the lighting that mimics the coming of night and day.
From the natural world visitors step into the highly artificial world of “Woo,” Justice Gutierrez’s installation, which at first glance is like stepping into the dream bedroom of a young girl, full of saturated pastel colors and simple shapes.
“I wanted it to have the feel of an animated film, like a movie set one walks into and interacts with,” Gutierrez said.
The space’s soundscape is altered by moving various objects, all of which is metaphorically guided by the large brain located in the grid-lined walls of the “control room.”
“The brain is the symbol of the creator of the room you’re exploring,” Gutierrez said.
A logical conclusion to one’s trek through “The Experience: Imagine” is Andy Arkley’s “Together.” Four consoles each topped with four buttons are in the center of the brightly colored space. When pressed, each button activates a snippet of music and an animation on the main wall, which is covered with abstract shapes.
The buttons are spaced so that one person can operate a single console. But the idea, Arkley said, is that people work together to make music.
“And there’s one button that activates the rainbow on the back wall,” Arkley said. “It’s fun to watch people discover that one.”
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