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There’s a lot of buzz around “immersive” experiences in art, theater and entertainment. But is it art?

Value of installations like Natura Obscura and Meow Wolf is in the beholder’s eye. But they’re popular enough that DCPA Off-Center is looking for permanent space for temporary shows

Colorful imagery surrounds Colorado Sun freelance writer Joanne Ostrow as she sit in silhouette inside the "sound gallery" installation, led by Mickey Houlihan, featured in the Natura Obscura immersive art exhibit at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

From escape rooms to Meow Wolf’s debut in Denver next year, from Natura Obscura, running through April at MOA in Englewood, to an upcoming food/performance mashup by The Catamounts and Savory Cuisines, and including two projects on tap for DCPA’s Off-Center, “immersive” is everywhere — including the commode.

“Immersive is a buzzword that has now officially infiltrated every corner of American culture and commerce,” said Charlie Miller, curator and co-creator of the Denver Center’s Off-Center programming. “This week, I saw Kohler has this immersive toilet experience. It’s not a joke anymore, it has literally made its way into the bathroom.”

Around town, creatives and makers are launching so-called immersive experiences with varying degrees of seriousness and artistry. If it’s interactive, participatory or experiential, digitally enhanced, augmented or virtual reality, it’s likely billed as “immersive.”

“Those of us who spend lot of time thinking about the qualities of Immersive with a capital “I” struggle with how it’s used in so many ways,” Miller said. “It now means everything and nothing.”

But is it art?

Carly Howard, center, and Autumn Eggleton, right, both of Lafayette, experience a thundercloud-like portion of the Natura Obscura immersive art exhibit at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Evolution of the experience economy

“We are now in the experience economy,” artist Lonnie Hanzon told attendees at the inaugural Denver Immersive Summit at the University of Colorado. “People want to buy experiences, not things.”

Eric Jaenike of Prismajic, which collaborated with MOA (formerly the Museum of Outdoor Art)  on the Natura Obscura exhibit, has a grander theory. He thinks the rage for immersive experiences reflects a microcosm of what’s happening in society. He references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory: As we’ve met our basic needs (food, shelter…) we are looking for more meaningful experiences in our lives. “We’ve transcended the material,” Jaenike said. “Younger people are born into a philosophy of the hollowness of materialism.”

Besides, Jaenike added, “Now we can do things digitally that you can’t do physically. The cellphone is interactive. Kids who grew up on that expect it from the world.”

Some so-called immersive ventures aspire to art, others aim for theme-park style amusement. Some seem geared to stoners. How to distinguish the fun-house entertainments from the true art happenings? The answer may be in the eye of the beholder.

Ask Jennifer Mosquera, co-founder of Prismajic with Jaenike, whether Natura Obscura can be classified as fine art and she answers the question with a question. “Who’s to define fine art?”

Hint: Natura Obscura is more fun than fine.

“It’s more than trippy/funky, although that’s fine, too,” Mosquera said.

The line between art and amusement, high and low, has always been porous if not impossible to pin down. Now, “the boundaries are blurring in some really exciting and complicated ways,” Miller said.

Colorado Sun freelance writer Joanne Ostrow experiments with an interactive audio-visual display, Synthetic Nature created by Tiffany Matheson, Travis Powell and Ian Wagner, featured in the Natura Obscura immersive art exhibit at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood on Jan. 9 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

So, define it?

In general, “immersive” is usually intended to mean that you might lose yourself in the experience. (It’s unclear, however, if Kohler had that in mind.)

For Prismajic, which evolved through corporate event design, it means experiences combining physical art installations with the latest in digital technologies.

For Off-Center, “You are transported, taken inside a new world or new story that changes the way you see the world around you,” Miller said. “It is very hard to achieve.” And it requires more than high-tech. “Using VR doesn’t guarantee immersive, building a 360-degree set doesn’t guarantee immersive, having food…none of that guarantees immersive. The artist’s toolkit is expanding with technology. The challenge for immersive creators is how to harness that technology to tell the story.”

A quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson greets visitors at the entrance to the Natura Obscura immersive art exhibit at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The high point for Denver in terms of immersive theater, so far, was “Sweet & Lucky,” a project from DCPA’s Off-Center in collaboration with Third Rail Projects that took over a Denver warehouse in 2016. Visitors were led through a number of engaging sets and scenes, following a narrative thread and solving puzzles while interacting with actors. It was wildly successful  — artistically and financially.

The challenge is to replicate that achievement. A planned spring immersive hip-hop theatrical project by Off-Center has been postponed, Miller said, due to trouble locating a venue. But Off-Center now hopes to find a space for large-scale experimental pieces.

“We started thinking about how to do large-scale immersive work more sustainably over time. ‘Sweet & Lucky’ was such a huge success that we recognize people want something that is that complete of an experience. We’re dabbling in real estate… there’s a lot of stuff swirling.”

Finding a space in this tight real estate market that meets Off-Center’s specific needs is tough. Plus, Miller said, “our idea of a long-term lease is their idea of a short-term lease.”

Similarly, Prismajic is putting out the word that they’re seeking partners for a large immersive space of their own. We’ll stay tuned.

For now, two Off-Center projects aimed at giving audience members more agency in storytelling are in the works, to be announced this spring. One will have no actors, but will be a group-dynamic activity involving 16 audience members, something akin to an escape room, but highly produced.

The other is a series of “incredibly intimate experiences” between one performer and one or two audience members, “you and an actor for an hour and 20 minutes,” Miller said, in public spaces, focused on conversation.

A particularly colorful segment of the Natura Obscura immersive art exhibit is photographed at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood on Jan. 9 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Trippy, funky fun

Fine art or not, it may be enough that immersive ventures are attracting newcomers to galleries and theaters. Judging by the sold-out opening weekend, MOA’s director of programs Tim Vacca said, Natura Obscura is bringing in “an early- to late-20s crowd, young families, which is great.”

It’s all about discovery as sensors trigger sounds, lights, scents and smoke in the various environments. Download the app and anime characters pop up as each is discovered, with a loaner flashlight, in the virtual woods.

Some of the sculptures within Natura Obscura are beautifully textured and painted odes to natural elements. Others are digitally rigged ideas — Puffs of smoke! Simulated weather activated by sitting on a swing! An animatronic owl! An array of tuning forks offering the sounds of the universe! — that may be more clever than evocative or artful.

Among the most successful pieces is Scott Soffa’s “Time Machine,” an unpretentious, deeply involving work with a steampunk vibe.

Natura Obscura is as deep as the visitor makes it: quotations throughout the exhibit from poets, authors and philosophers suggest profundity; an accompanying book details spiritual and religious symbolism baked into the experience.

Mosquera said she hopes it adds up to something meaningful.

At the very least, the show will raise MOA’s profile and lower its average audience demographic. The museum is decades old, previously known for outdoor sculpture. It has operated quietly, free of charge and without much marketing until now. Suddenly, online via Natura Obscura, it has an “augmented reality gift shop.”

Entry fee to MOA’s Natura Obscura: $10 online and $15 at the door Tuesday and Wednesday; $15 online and $20 at the door Thursday through Sunday; $20 online and $25 at the door for tickets that don’t require a reservation time.

 

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