One reason Peter Zumthor’s design of a new flagship building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has drawn so much fire is that it forgoes galleries designed to group works of art by period and nation, in the classic style of the encyclopedic museum. Instead, the new LACMA will stage intimate encounters with art in an atmospheric space that appeals to gut feeling rather than historical knowledge. Zumthor hopes there won’t be labels. LACMA Director Michael Govan said he wanted “to create a museum that was big and public but with a very special and immersive quality.” It’s not just a new building, but a new vision, trading a discursive museum for an immersive one.
“Immersion,” like “engagement,” can seem like a loosely applied buzzword that museum spokespeople invoke to indicate an orientation toward accessibility for broader audiences. But it also describes an approach to exhibition design, or a genre of art that incorporates exhibition design in its totalizing transformation of space. Immersive art exceeds any one viewer’s field of vision. It often appeals to hearing, touch, and smell as well as sight. It’s not like a painting, an image bound by a frame, or a sculpture, a form open to contemplation from multiple angles but still fixed as an object of the viewer’s gaze. Instead, this 360-degree expansiveness connects physical immersion—as in popular works like Random International’s Rain Room, or Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return—to virtual reality, which drops the viewer in a world that stretches in all directions. Immersive art is bigger than you.
Maybe this diminishment of the viewer, and the dismissal of discourse that goes with it, is what makes the art world nervous about immersive art, and eager to reject it as nonart spectacle. But the rise of immersive art seems all but inevitable when considered as part of a broader cultural shift, linked to trends in marketing, entertainment, and social media. Look at the popular Netflix show “Emily in Paris.” In episode five, the heroine and two of her new French friends visit the Atelier des Lumières, where digital reproductions of famous paintings are projected on the walls of an old foundry. They wander through blown-up details of Van Gogh landscapes. “This is incredible,” Emily coos. “Starry Night—one of my favorites!” Tinted blue and brown by the digitized pigment, Emily takes a selfie. Van Gogh’s yellow whorls shimmer and wink in the projection, more like lamplight on a river than stars twinkling above. “I love sleeping under the stars,” says a Frenchman as he slumps against the wall. “This is incredible,” Emily chirps again. “I feel like I’m actually in the painting.”
Cut to the marketing firm where Emily works, for a pitch meeting with a Swedish bed company. “In London, Rome, and New York, huge crowds watched Tilda Swinton sleep in a box,” says Emily’s French boss, Sylvie. “The act of watching sleep is intoxicating.” Her proposal: put two models in a store window, sleeping on the bed. The client doesn’t love it. Emily has another idea: “Let’s harness the power of social media and ask people to come sleep with us,” she says. “Stage the bed in the most irresistibly Instagrammable spots in the city.” Emily wins, and toward the end of the episode, she shows the friend who brought her to the Atelier des Lumières her “social media installation.” “I call it Dormir à la belle étoile,” she says. “Sleep under the stars.”
Emily’s conflict with Sylvie drives the show, and this episode sharpens one aspect of the tension between them. Sylvie stands for classic marketing. She wants to craft an unattainable dream of glamour to compel aspirational spending. Emily advocates interactivity. She wants both the marketing and the product to become part of consumers’ lives, documented—like other parts of their lives—on Instagram. Two kinds of art emblematize the contrast: the Swinton performance and the van Gogh projections. One invites you to stare at a celebrity. The other is a background for a selfie. The plot point in “Emily in Paris” illustrates immersive art’s place in a new media regime, where it’s harder to conceive of artworks or advertisements apart from the audience’s experience of them, and how that experience is documented.
This issue of Art in America considers the phenomenon of immersive art from a variety of perspectives. Sophie Haigney profiles teamLab, the Tokyo-based collective that has achieved popular success and art world recognition by producing elaborate experiences, enabled by complex responsive technologies. If the simplest immersive experiences, like the one Emily and company enjoyed, aim to put the viewer “inside the painting,” teamLab makes it hard to separate inside and outside. They create venues where visual and sonic motifs accompany visitors as they move from one gallery to the next. Immersive art requires substantial resources and technical expertise to produce. Its process is inherently collaborative, and artists often partner with corporate R&D departments or well-funded nonprofits to realize their vision. Artist Petra Cortright shares a portfolio of work based on her collaborations with two such organizations: VR developers Float Land and the AR platform An Art. Samantha Culp writes on a range of these initiatives in the field of augmented reality art, and sees potential in artist-driven, hacker-style projects to go against the grain of immersive art’s big, glossy fun.
Art world gatekeepers have been slow to embrace immersive art because of its proximity to big tech, marketing, and entertainment. Rob Horning gets at the heart of this reticence by revisiting Michael Fried’s infamous dismissal of Minimalism as too “theatrical,” pandering to audiences instead of demanding the leap of faith that “serious” art does. Applying this critique to immersive experiences of the kind found at the Atelier des Lumières, Horning affirms the basic principles of Fried’s premise, but argues that the real problem is a contamination of art not by theater but by creeping consumerism—a condition exacerbated by ticketed experiences that commodify time.
In her genealogy of immersive media, Brooke Belisle shows how virtual reality is rooted in older curiosities and attractions. From eighteenth-century phantasmagorias to panoramic films that vied with early cinema for audiences’ attention, these spectacles used stereoscopic tricks to augment mediums found in fine art, from drawing to photography, but they’ve been excluded from art history. Museums today are embracing VR and other immersive media, spurred by the desire to reach broader audiences or by competition for grants earmarked for tech initiatives. Is that enough to make these new forms art? Projections of Renoir paintings are just a high-tech, oversize magic lantern. The overlap between experiential art and experiential marketing gives fodder to those who would dismiss immersive art altogether. But the best immersive work, like any good art, draws on historical traditions and contemporary vernaculars, melding different ways of looking and making. The new art is unlike last century’s art. That’s what makes it exciting.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 issue, pp. 26–27.