Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, Mutual Reality, offers guests the opportunity to interact with a variety of innovative works of art that feature cutting-edge computing and visual tracking technology.
The experiential art exhibition has become something of a summer tradition at SMoCA.
Two summers ago, the museum featured “Ocean of Light,” a dazzling immersive installation by the art collective Squidsoup, and last year visitors could step into “Infinity Room.”
According to “Mutual Reality” curator Julie Ganas, the installations have drawn impressive crowds, making each of the past three summers — a traditionally dead period in the Valley art community — SMoCA’s busiest season of the year.
“[Mutual Reality’s] opening was our biggest in a couple years, which was really exciting. We had upward of 800 people here,” Ganas said.
SMoCA’s recent affinity for these types of exhibitions reflects a larger cultural trend. A Los Angeles Times article from the year SMoCA first put on an exhibition of this type appeared with the headline: “The arts buzzword of 2016: immersive.”
Whatever you call it — immersive, experiential or interactive — this new category of art has exploded in popularity in the past few years.
Meow Wolf is an artist collective based in Sante Fe House that opened its first permanent exhibition, “House of Eternal Return,” in 2016 after securing more than $2.5 million in funding from “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin. Since then, they have announced future art facilities in Las Vegas, Denver and on Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row.
Another collective that focuses on immersive art installations, Wonderspaces, established their first permanent space in Scottsdale Fashion Square this past spring. Another facility, The Lavatory, which opened in Phoenix last November, calls itself a “theatrical venue” and offers an immersive museum and an adult-sized ball pit.
“Mutual Reality,” The Lavatory, and Mindpaces are each supremely photogenic environments that have generated many Instagram photos from those who have visited them, and this is a major part of their appeal.
Ganas said that by encouraging interaction and viewer photography, exhibitions of this type are challenging popularly held conceptions of art.
“As a contemporary art museum it’s our responsibility to push the boundaries,” Ganas said. “It’s important for us to be able to show people what’s happening in art and expand their view of what art is.”
She also noted that while guest engagement is a forward thinking and positive thing, SMoCA does acknowledge that some of the traditionally held roles of the museum are important to maintain.
“We are first and foremost a museum and educational institution, so we’re trying to marry these two things,” Ganas said. “We don’t want it to be a place to just come and take pictures, but we do want people to feel comfortable taking pictures here.”
Ganas believes that while some people may come with a primary intention of taking photos, they could end up learning something new in the process.
The piece, “Classification.01” by Mimi Onuoha, is at first glance an illuminated set of brackets, with a camera in the center.
Viewers are invited to stand in front of the camera with a partner and see if the work’s mysterious classification parameters — known only to the artist herself — deem the pair before it as a match. If so, the bracket’s lights shut off.
“What happens are these unexpected things where you’re standing there accidentally next to someone you think looks nothing like you and it goes off,” Ganas said. “You get to thinking, ‘Okay, how could we be classified as similar? We look nothing alike, we have totally different backgrounds, our facial structures are different.’
“It gets you to think about this process of classification and how we are often unfairly classified and we don’t know what the parameters are.”
Another piece, “Aquarium,” by the Polish artist Marpi occupies an entire room and allows visitors to interact with it either physically by standing before a movement tracking camera or digitally through an app designed by the artist himself.
Scottsdale resident Jimmy Radzik said “Aquarium” provided him an intense, multisensory experience.
“It was really cool, like a mini out of body experience. I felt like my own avatar, the crunchiness of the sounds almost gave the illusion of feeling,” Radzik said.
Ultimately, Ganas feels like the experiences these exhibitions are offering and the audiences they are drawing are positive signs of a growing and deepening relationship between the public and art.
“People are looking for experiences they can engage and connect with on multiple levels,” Ganas said. “I think that with the growing technology and culture today, it feels good to have artists adapting these new technologies and experiences to be able to relate to and engage with audiences. I think it makes art more accessible to people.”