The pandemic has driven innovations in digital forms and delivery of art, and also created pent-up demand for in-person experiences. Will those forces combine into a new boom for interactive and immersive engagements?

Investing in Experience

We’ve seen over the past several years that combining physical art installations with digital technologies allows artists to tell new types of stories that leave a lasting impressions on their audiences. Sure, some traditional gatekeepers of the art world have questioned whether artists are being recast as “entertainers” or if some of these installations and experiences are even “art” at all. But maybe can entertain at the same time as it edifies. And during the pandemic, we’ve all come to better appreciate creators who can deliver meaningful experiences within our newfound reality. Digital artists might have a leg up in such an environment, and inviting users into physical and digital spaces that allow a degree of social distancing has had a degree of staying power throughout the last year.

It’s easy to see how the pandemic might have obliterated immersive attractions, but experiential art is evolving, and as a result it might be thriving more than ever. The trend towards more immersive content for visitors both online and off has been going on for decades. But we might be on the cusp of a new growth spurt in digitally-driven creative experiences. Since last year, investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into immersive experiences at galleries and other artistic spaces despite the relative lack of audience due to the pandemic. It might seem like a strange time to invest in an industry that typically relies on tourism and in-person visitation, but we’re seeing money flowing into these spaces and plans to build them in more cities.

Just look at SuperBlue, Miami’s new high-concept art space. It had to push its late 2020 opening to Spring of 2021, but they’re on track to welcome visitors to a 50k-square-foot space (at reduced capacity, of course) and even open more experiential art centers in new cities. Las Vegas’ Area15 opened mid-pandemic, selling tickets to people who want to spend an afternoon replicating the experience of flying like a bird or explore anything from a prehistoric landscape to a psychedelic carnival funhouse, and are still planning new attractions. And Fotografiska, the largest photography museum in the world, has been doing double duty by selling tickets to its 4 locations while also creating a set-your-own-pace deep-dive into their exhibitions.

Immerse at Home

Museums, galleries, and Interactive art spaces have all hastened to digitize their collections and shows in the last year. But the transition will likely be easier for those that already support experiential art which breaks boundaries.

Google Arts & Culture has been broadening our horizons for years, not only digitizing the contents of 1200+ museums, but giving people a sense of what it’s like to be inside using technology originally developed for Google Street view to provide a 360-degree, walkable tour. Not only can you see works of art without having to peer around crowds, but you can zoom in on them for impeccable detail. Leaning that far in would get you a reprimand from a docent in real life.

Apps like Cuseum have been enhancing mobile experiences inside of galleries for years and are now using AR to let art-lovers view works in the public domain at home (and even see them on your own wall!) The company has also published research on how our brains perceive art and whether or not digital representations are processed as something inferior. They found that nothing about the aesthetic experience is lost when viewing digital art and that our brains process physical, tangible originals the same way they do digital representations.

Of course, online experiential art is more than just video tours and clickable photos. Beijing-based X Museum has made efforts to gamify its online experience. Immersive theater has also made innovations to turn observers into participants with interactive online and real-life events that thrill and challenge audiences. Pre-pandemic offerings included London’s The War of the Worlds AR/VR show that allowed guests to see what it would feel like to fend off aliens. But now you can get participate in adventures from home with offerings like The Mermaid’s Tongue, which lets teams work together to solve a mystery in a kind of interactive escape room.

Even more traditional theater has become interactive, allowing patrons to do more than livestream from their couches. The Geffen Playhouse in LA (now temporarily renamed the Geffen Stayhouse) just hosted Helder Guimarães’ The Future, which streamed over Zoom. A ticket to the show got you a box of items to be opened during the performance, allowing some of the illusions to happen right in your living room. There wasn’t just interaction between cast members and theatergoers (or theater-stayers), but the audience could remain visible and audible to one another as well, once again united in their gasps and applause.

Ten years ago, if you had asked whether or not viewing art online diminished the experience, the answer might have been yes. But now new technology allows for truly immersive experiences, adding another dimension entirely thanks to better graphics, smartphone-driven online experiences, and even surround sound. And while it may not be a substitute for seeing art in person, it is creating a larger audience of consumers.

Adapting On Site

But don’t mistake the current fervor for interactive art as solely a displaced activity. Immersive attractions are modifying both their art and architecture in order to open their doors again all over the world. The Museum of Ice Cream in New York has revised its interactive elements so that you can still choose your own adventure via “treasure maps” and earn treats along the way, but you can no longer jump into its pool of plastic (and potentially germ-filled) sprinkles. Currently, it’s operating at 20% capacity, but visitors are returning. And let’s remember that plenty of immersive art exhibits were limited to a handful of people at a time anyway.

People are also eager to get back into Sloomoo, an interactive playground devoted to slime, which reportedly has been selling out its 25% capacity every weekend. Handwashing stations and mask enforcement are part of the safety protocol, but so are individualized containers of slime (rather than the oversized vats that were once available to play with communally). “Slimetenders” dole out single servings of goo so people can still have a tactile experience. And you’d be mistaken to think this was only appealing to children – adult slimers are everywhere, squeezing slime for stress relief at home thanks to the “interactive playground’s” e-commerce site and the virtual events they’ve held to raise interest.

These experiences aren’t just fun and fascinating, they’re photogenic. Non-traditional art spaces are more likely to encourage pictures and selfies to help create social media buzz. The hashtag #MuseumFromHome has been in circulation on Instagram and Twitter since quarantine advisories started early last year, allowing both galleries and museums to give the homebound a way to enjoy their art and artifacts. In many ways, this makes them even more accessible, both to those who might not find their way to art spaces and anyone not willing to squint at a tiny placard while standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers just to learn about a piece. Now you can take your time to truly enjoy and genuinely immerse yourself in art.

Even spaces that haven’t changed their MO are still finding ways to give people an immersive experience. Houston’s Color Factory is enhancing its olfactory Chromaroma exhibit by boosting the 15 scents exhibited so that people can still partake with their masks on. MeowWolf may have temporarily closed its original Santa Fe location, but its Omega Mart experience at Las Vegas venue Area 51 is due to open in mid-February. It promises to be a trippy, interactive grocery store where you can choose your own adventure. You’ll need to stay socially distant, masked, and be encouraged to clean your hands, but you’ll also check in with a robot receptionist, take selfies on an alien landscape, or propel yourself down a slide larger than your average house.

The possibilities of immersing yourself in art safely seem endless when you see things like the Immersive Van Gogh Drive Thru in Toronto. Giant projections of Sunflowers and Starry Night allowed visitors to see brushstrokes either in a walk-through tour or as a drive-thru from the safety of their cars. Even social distancing circles on the floor appear to be part of the immersive art experience. And while it wasn’t originally designed to be viewed that way, curators adapted. Meanwhile, venues like the SPYSCAPE Museum in New York are embracing virtual experiences by developing companion apps that allow previously tangible experiences to remain interactive by putting them on your smartphone.

One of the most tech-infused of these spaces is NYC’s iteration of ARTECHOUSE, a multi-media space dedicated to pushing boundaries that aims to be “the most technologically advanced art platform in the world.” Barco-powered, 16K resolution, 150 megapixel, laser projection provides the largest seamless megapixel count for a cultural space and a digital platform with L’ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound gives artists the ability to experiment with “multidimensional sound experiences for live and recorded productions.” Its newest exhibit opens soon, and we’ll be sure to check it out since our office is right across the street.

At the end of the day, art has never been more accessible, immersive, and inviting. Sometimes, it’s even hard to avoid, since art – like dining – has been taken outside or installed in public places like train stations. Drive-By-Art exhibits in Long Island and Los Angeles, murals, and projections of art onto buildings, are also making art more inclusive, proving art is for everyone.

Art and Risk

The idea of “joy” has come up over and over again as a goal for immersive entertainment. But happiness and profit are two separate things, and someone needs to pay to keep the lights on and the staff employed. So we’re still left with a question regarding the issue I raised at the beginning – why are investors and entrepreneurs putting time and money into immersive experiences now, especially when it comes to physical spaces?

If you’ve been following my writing at all, you might already know the answer. Way back in July, I made the argument that physical experiences would be a good investment as we emerge from the pandemic. One day we will be able to come together again, but those who haven’t taken risks won’t reap the rewards when it comes to luring people back. The decreased competition we see now for physical spaces means that entrepreneurs and other visionaries can use the excess space and decreased rents to get a head start on creating in-person interactive engagements. We still value experiences over things, especially the younger generations, and we’ll be craving them more than ever once we can leave our homes without worry.

Building new physical spaces, developing new technologies to create post-pandemic immersive entertainment will take time, money, and creativity, but it will also require bold investment and future thinking. Those who seize the moment will get the best spaces, have the most time to develop them, and have the opportunity to snap up the best staff eager to get back to work.

Taking risks and pushing boundaries is always what art has been about.

Featured Image: Mori Digital Art Museum via Shutterstock