The total art experience: Hope or hype?

The expression “immersive” comes from the world of computer games. But more and more artists and curators are making an effort to create immersive experiences. They want the audience to immerse themselves in a separate, interactive, virtual reality. But aren’t we in danger of being satisfied by superficial spectacle? Haven’t great artworks, like the Sistine Chapel, always been immersive?

Franziska Nori
Director, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt am Main, © Frankfurter Kunstverein
Franziska Nori

Virtual reality is still a young medium in art and is developing parallel to our viewing habits. Many artists are using this new technology to discover their limits and potential. The most obvious thing to do is to try to overwhelm the viewer and exhaust all of the mechanisms that the medium enables: eliciting fear, creating illusions, and forcing emotional reactions, because immersion pretends to overcome distance. So many VR works are quite manipulative. More differentiated and complex narration is still lacking. At the Frankfurter Kunstverein, we presented Perception is Reality, an exhibition in which we can experience visitors’ reactions directly in immersive image worlds. Anyone who puts on the glasses immediately loses touch with the real outside world and is overwhelmed by the artificial scenarios. This is what we should investigate further so as not to give commercial companies sovereignty over this air space.

Valeska Soares
Artist, New York, Photo: Vicente de Paulo
Valeska Soares

Immersive is just another word for art that has been happening for centuries now. Installation, relational, experiential are all words for modes of experimentation in art that can be used to describe art from the Sistine Chapel and Dada experiments to contemporary virtual reality environments.

All of these modes can be used as marketing tools depending on the context in which they are presented. As an artist, I can always choose to be aware of how my work is going to be presented.

As far as technology is concerned, it can be used as tool to achieve experience or it can be used for its own sake, the latter of which I don’t find that interesting.

Mark Davy
Futurecity and Future\Pace, London, Courtesy Mark Davy
Mark Davy

Immersive is a reference to being sensorially surrounded in such a way that the viewer is part of the work itself. Yes, it can be digital or analogue, but it does require that one steps into an alternative reality as a main part of the composition itself. It is not the sole high expression; however, it does speak to our time, when we spend our lives walking between mixed realities of live and virtual/screen experiences. Artists have always appropriated their contemporary media as new tools, so it should not seem odd that the Japanese “ultratechnology” collective teamLab recently announced that they are planning to open a digital-only museum in Tokyo. Their practice evolves from one of the greatest innovations of the later twentieth century—when artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Walter De Maria used light, space, and landscape to explore our shared experience of the universe.

Many of these innovative technologies and this interactivity also explore the engagement with new audiences through spaces outside the gallery context, often spilling into the urban realm. As with handheld screens, we now take our homes or offices with us, and it seems only natural that our artistic expression will mimic this. This is an exciting time for our global cities as artists continue to take advantage of new opportunities to reimagine the urban landscape as well as our collective perception of art.

Lisa Marei Schmidt
Director, Brücke-Museum, Berlin, Photo: David von Becker
Lisa Marei Schmidt

Artists have always been interested in new technologies that they can use to realize their works. So it is only natural that today many digital technologies, including virtual reality, are being used artistically. “Immersion” is the personal experience of users and viewers rather than an objective description of a new technology. We also have immersive experiences every day when we remember, daydream, read—or when we view a painting. It is mainly about enhanced selective capturing of attention, and with the latest VR technology the result can be very impressive.

In my experience, and especially based on talks with Ed Atkins during the preparations for his exhibition Old Food, many artists are actually interested in disrupting the impression of immersion. Many work against the black box of the new technology, take it to the limits, incorporate “mistakes” and interruptions into their works. Commercial programmers who create almost perfect virtual worlds are not their benchmark. They are concerned with making people aware of perception processes rather than enabling users to get lost in these second realities, isolate themselves, relinquish control, and thus become a little disenfranchised.

I’m very eager to see how artists will work with these techniques and concepts in the future. We are only at the beginning of this development.

Hannes Koch & Florian Ortkrass
Random International, London, Photo: Mark Davis
Koch & Florian Ortkrass

The worst thing is when trend categorizations like “immersive” or “interactive” push perception of the quality of a work completely into the background. Today, every fair is an “experience.” Such terms primarily help those who exploit art, as decoratively camouflaged PR that turns art into a brand, as a social media magnet, or simply to impress friends or visitors.

The ones who are currently most in danger of falling prey to spectacles and self-satisfaction through superficial stimuli are advertising agencies and marketing strategists, including those who work for public institutions. Because they have noticed that art can reach people on an instinctive and emotional level and thus satisfy their narcissism. Trend words do not constitute their own art forms. On the contrary, we at Random see ourselves and many other artists in our generation as working “very normally,” artists who (like most of us) make use of experimental and sometimes cutting-edge tools to ask questions about “life in this world.” Cameras, pigments, silicon, and water. Similar but different. Does one sometimes have to work more loudly in order to penetrate over-digitalized viewers? Perhaps.

Conversely, art is ultimately in the same boat as good old craftsmen: Don’t blame the tools (or the technology!), or: Don’t worry about your swimming suit when the goal is to learn to swim.

Mainstream society’s attitude toward technology—which pervades all areas of life in ever more diverse ways and ever more deeply—should be addressed more urgently, particularly by artists.

In the face of the automation all around us, we are not only in danger of becoming mentally enfeebled and obtuse. We as a society are in danger of losing our general overview, and then losing our overview completely, and as a result, slowly but surely losing control. Technology and systems are developing, but people are not developing any more in this sense, or if they are, then not fast enough.

We can’t leave it up to business, marketing, academics, and a handful of people in the technology sector to determine the framework here. It’s high time that we developed social competence. Otherwise, we will soon crash into the data wall like driverless cars with no GPS or destination entries.

Alicja Kwade
Artist, Berlin, Photo: © Luise Müller-Hofstege
Alicja Kwade

The concept of “immersive art” is not “new.” In dramatic art it has existed since antiquity. And art per se is “immersive” as soon as it is visibly exhibited for audiences.

But the concept is on everybody’s lips right now, because “immersive” is often used in connection with digital—“immersing” oneself in illusory digital worlds as a possible substitute for reality. Since this is currently in vogue, marketing cannot be completely denied using it.

And more and more museums have to create “realms of experience” in order to generate high visitor numbers due to a lack of government funding. “Art” is increasingly becoming an entertainment factor. This becomes dangerous when hardly anything can endure or receive funding if the “mainstream” doesn’t like it. We must not relinquish our claim to quality on account of this demand for quantity, and must continue to cater to the singular.

       Courtesy teamLab, Künstlergruppe, Tokio

teamLab aims to explore a new relationship between humans and the world through art. Digital technology has allowed us to liberate art from the physical and transcend boundaries. We see no boundary between ourselves and the world; one is in the other and the other in one. Everything exists in a long, fragile yet miraculous continuity of life.

In the mind, there are no boundaries between ideas and concepts. They are inherently ambiguous, and influence and interact with each other. For ideas and concepts to be expressed in the real world it is necessary to have a physical material through which they are mediated. And when ideas and concepts are materialized in the real world, boundaries are created.

In pursuit of a borderless relationship between humans and the world, teamLab has been creating artworks based on a concept called Body Immersive.
Digital art, which has been released from material substance, allows our bodies to become more immersed in the artwork than ever before. The medium can be transformative and the behavior of people can cause visual changes in the artwork. With immersion of the body into the artwork, the boundary between the self and the work becomes ambiguous. Through that experience, the boundary between the self and the world begins to disappear. Because our presence and the presence of others can cause changes in the shared world of the artwork, we feel as if the self and others meld with the world and become one body.