The slow but inevitable tyranny of “immersive experiences” is back.

Yes, we’ve seen it coming. No, it’s not the end of the world. But it can be confusing. And insulting. And boring.

There’s a bandwagonesque quality to it (with apologies to Teenage Fanclub, which coined the term). Blindfolded dinners and secret bars full of wasted twentysomethings are easy to mock. But what of the half-dozen “immersive” Vincent van Gogh installations in the works nationally, including a dueling pair that announced Denver dates this spring?

There are no original van Gogh paintings or prints in these 360-degree digital environments. Tickets start around $50.

To be fair, there’s hardly anything physical in a VR exhibition such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Carne y Arena,” which began its U.S. tour in Aurora last year. But the content was wholly original, masterfully rendered and available nowhere else. You weren’t paying to see reproduced images, as you would at for-profit walkthroughs of the Sistine Chapel or Michelangelo’s inventions, which have visited Denver in the past. All were marketed as immersive.

I love reproduced images. I love contrived spaces — theme parks, escape rooms, game boards. Movies, one of the original immersive experiences, get an eternal pass. And, truly, combining imaginative play with digital technology in the art world has made us rethink notions of value. Digital auctions for NFTs (non-fungible tokens, or digital certificates of ownership) and virtual galleries are just the gateway.

But however it’s created, any ticketed event calling itself “immersive” should be viewed critically. Once a term of the vanguard art and theater scene, and heralded by visionaries such as Denver’s Lonnie Hanzon, it’s now a moth-eaten blanket, applied to mindless, boozy pop-up stunts that play 20 or 25 cities per year as much as million-dollar productions and low-budget experiments.

Some run fast and loose with copyrights to attract built-in audiences of film and literary franchises. Weirdly named candlelit experiences and cocktail pranks will likely return in droves this summer, along with themed brunches and other clickbait. Some have no local connection and hide behind publicists. They don’t announce ticket prices or locations until they’ve made sure they can turn a profit.

You can’t blame them. It’s expensive and complex to stage touring shows, even terrible ones. The music, film and theater industries also pre-sell products to the public, sight unseen. And done right, blatantly commercial shows can be transcendent. Especially if you’re a fan of what they’re selling.

Denverites like me embraced touring exhibitions based on global, corporate brands such as “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” (at Denver Art Museum) and the Lego-approved “The Art of the Brick” (Denver Museum of Nature & Science). Smart curators have inched away from high-and-low-art binaries, in turn bolstering revenue for their important nonprofits. They do a fine job of putting elaborate costumes and toy sculptures into context. As a pop-culture fan and collector, I also covet these artifacts as fetishized relics with a totemic value, to paraphrase Denver critic Walter Chaw.

Plus, it’s fun. “Star Wars” and Legos unlock our imaginations. Even as they’ve become modern-day religions to some, they’re colorful diversions by design.

It’s why Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe-based entertainment company, hires lots of progressive, honest-to-God artists and craftspeople to create their surreal environments. The quality is immediately apparent. The company’s Denver installation, which has no official name but which will open later this year, was preceded in February by Las Vegas’ Omega Mart. A trippy consumerist critique full of sculptures and interactive elements, Omega Mart costs $40-$45 for admission and could become one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.

Denver is more than ready for that. We’ve also broken ground with art-driven, socially distanced shows during the pandemic, some of which included apps and VR experiences. The erosion of physical and digital last year recalls some of the art world’s most sacred revolutions in form and content.

RELATED: An immersive van Gogh installation coming to Denver will make you feel like you’re standing inside “Starry Night”

But we’re still in a global pandemic. It takes something special to drag us out, and even before all of this, the competition for our entertainment dollars was fierce. We need to know what we’re getting into if we’re buying tickets to that new immersive art installation, at that venue they haven’t announced yet, which describes several dozen press releases I’ve gotten over the last year.

When crass marketers co-opt any term, it becomes a corn husk of itself. In that way, it’s easy, and wrong, to dismiss anything identifying itself as immersive as a trend-chaser (at best) or money-grab (at second-best). There’s a breathtaking amount of creativity and technical expertise in translating van Gogh’s work to digital settings, as there is in the emerging fields of LED art, 3-D projection-mapping and drone light-shows.

But intent matters. While van Gogh’s paintings are certainly art, commercial exhibitions of them don’t often benefit the city’s arts community. Museums and local cultural institutions are typically nonprofits — many in deep trouble following a year with little or no revenue. Artists are in even worse shape. Citywide galleries and experimental collectives, but also co-ops and grassroots pop-ups (such as Denver’s incredible Museum for Black Girls), will need to work overtime to keep their momentum going.

It’s tempting to think these things can coexist peacefully with middle-of-the-road shows like “Distortions Monster World,” a for-profit exhibition of movie monsters and spooky creations from Greeley’s Distortions Unlimited. The inaugural exhibition at Denver Pavilions earlier this year will make way for another location soon, Westword reported. But is it an “art installation,” as its website proclaims? Or is it just a Meow Wolf rip-off, minus the wink? A wax museum made of latex?

It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game when it comes to supporting local businesses or creatives. Fearless, pioneering shows from Prismajic (“Shiki Dreams,” “Natura Obscura”) and haunted houses that depict the terrors of the binary (“No Place to Go”) are doing fascinating things without big budgets, as are Control Group, Rainbow Militia and Buntport (and too many others to mention).

You can support those things, or not support them. It won’t make you a good or bad person. But when “immersion” is invoked, think carefully about what kind of experience you’re stepping into — and propagating.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.


Source: Read Full Article