Long before a pandemic shifted the priorities of cultural institutions, immersion was already heralded as a vital cornerstone in visitor experience. After all, to transport audiences to a unique environment, delighting them sensorially and allowing them new ways to interact with a space or work, is exactly the stuff that engagement is made of. As Sandro Kereselidze, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of ARTECHOUSE, put it, “We are living in a wonderful time when all the art forms we know can come together with the help of technology to create new experiences for the 21st century public.”
Kereselidze was speaking on the occasion of The Lab: Making Sense of Immersion in 2021, a series of presentations spearheaded by We Are Museums that, from November 2020, gathered 11 players from the immersion industry to explore the centrality of collaboration, sustainability, and technological innovation in the field. ARTECHOUSE and other experiential studios such as Diversion Cinema and Marshmallow Laser Feast were represented, as were institutions from the Whitney Museum of American Art to Smithsonian American Art Museum that have tapped technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to recenter play and interactivity.
Lessons and insights from these sessions and followup workshops are now compiled in Making Sense of Immersion in 2021, a report that unpacks the myriad challenges and opportunities on the immersive front. In a post-pandemic climate, when immersive events and technologies are only growing in value for organizations looking to reengage visitors, it makes for timely reading. Here are four key learnings.
Defining the why
Any immersive exhibition necessarily begins with an organizer’s needs. “What do you want to achieve?” asked Camille Lopato, Founder of Diversion Cinema, a Parisian studio that has made its name on a host of VR experiences at the Panthéon and Musée Orsay. Addressing this why shapes the nature of the event: an immersive exhibition spotlighting a museum’s collection might call for a focus on transportive scenography, while a show hoping to attract new visitors might emphasize novelty. “All these questions will drive you to which technology to use,” says Lopato.
Technology has a tendency to be exclusionary: not everyone has access to a VR headset and not everyone is as tech-savvy as a teenager on Snapchat. None of that, though, should preclude participation in a digital or immersive exhibition. Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of Digital Art at the Whitney Museum, in highlighting the museum’s 2018 AR installation of Tamiko Thiel’s “Unexpected Growth,” noted how the piece could be experienced in the gallery, on downloadable mobile apps, or on iPads available onsite. The variety of entry points promised access for visitors across the board.
For VR-focused exhibitions, additional considerations are necessary to ensure engagement isn’t limited by a headset. To this, Mike Jones, Senior Producer with UK-based collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, suggested “tiers of immersion.” At We Live in an Ocean of Air, the studio’s 2018 VR exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, headsets were provided, but so were benches and beanbags that allowed visitors to sit back and experience other ongoing projections and soundscapes. “The best experience you can have is in the headset,” he said, “but what else can we do in that environment to create experiences for everybody?”
Tomorrow’s immersive tech
In addition to The Lab’s main sessions, representatives from major cultural institutions and immersive art studios participated in followup discussions to map the present and future of the immersive sector. A topic of interest? The immersive tech that’s just emerging on the horizon. Participants described promising movements in areas such as artificial intelligence, hologrammetry, and immersive sound that might come to shape tomorrow’s immersive experiences, but the technology that fueled optimism remains AR. Immediate and stable, the tech has matured enough to be easily adopted and widely accessible, and the past year’s many AR-centric digital initiatives have only burnished its popularity.
Keeping it human
Not to be lost among the talk of technology is the human component of the immersive exhibition. Such experiences should be social ones; Lopato likens VR showcases to traditional cinema experiences where visitors gather post-show to share impressions, thus building “a common sense of collectiveness.” She added, “Don’t underestimate the human side of technology. VR works better if you have people taking care of it and people making the connection with the audience.”
That means understanding how a show’s narrative journey and interactivity can contribute to a shared experience, aided and not hindered by technology. “We are at the beginning of this type of engagement,” Kereselidze said. “The most important part is human interaction with the technology and the imagination to use it.”