Every Wall is a Door
On ViewSuperblue Miami
May 20, 2021 – Ongoing
In 1966, new media pioneer Stan VanDerBeek wrote an essay for the journal Film Culture outlining his utopian vision of intermedia “experience machines,” computational, spatialized moving images. Technological innovation, he felt, had outpaced the human capacity to digest its effects. To cope with our quickly changing world, a new, shared vocabulary was necessary and artistically cultivated experience would be instrumental to the process.
VanDerBeek’s program incorporated ideas borrowed from the relatively nascent disciplines of ecology and cybernetics. To this, he added his own interest in immersive experience, collective authorship, and the possibility of creative agency in the audience’s experience. While VanDerBeek was not the first to envision experience as a medium proper, his realm of inquiry nevertheless established themes which remain vibrant in new media’s discursive landscape.
teamLab is an interdisciplinary collective of over 400 “ultra-technologists” formed in Tokyo in 2001. It’s tempting to frame them as heirs apparent to VanDerBeek’s vision. Relying on devices familiar to cinema and theater such as darkened rooms, outsized projection, and spectacle, teamLab aims to make visitors’ participation integral to the fruition of their artworks in the service of “democratizing” art. Their monumental interactive digital installation at Superblue Miami is titled, with precision, Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together - Transcending Boundaries, A Whole Year per Hour (2017), and merges with a second installation, Universe of Water Particles, Transcending Boundaries (2017). A wall-length mirror reflects the space upon itself, enveloping visitors in a visually sensuous, expansive playground of illusion. Everything moves. Flower petals blossom and accumulate or languidly drift away, responding in real-time to participants’ motions. Larger-than-life luminous, stylized flora scale the walls. Glowing, flowing streams swirl underfoot, receding into darkness. A dreamy instrumental soundtrack shimmers through the speakers.
teamLab’s populist mission is not lost on its audience. Selfies are snapped among some guests, while others sit back to observe how their presence evolves the scenery. The seductive mise en scène induces a potent forgetfulness that the lush surroundings are actually a giant, technologically enhanced black-box.
The installation is part of a group show, Every Wall is a Door, Superblue Miami’s inaugural exhibition. A massive new venue, Superblue considers itself a next-generation art space that aims to pay overdue homage—and resources—to large-scale, immersive artwork. The exhibition follows a preset route allowing guests to linger and explore (for the most part), but not return or skip ahead to other installations. While this might seem restrictive, the progression is an effective curatorial means of introducing an assortment of experiential poetics.
A counterpoint to teamLab’s sensory saturation is James Turrell’s (b. 1943) AKHU (2021). Those acquainted with Turrell’s output might recognize the sedate white chamber as an iteration of his “Ganzfeld” series, environments which utilize high-chroma light to distort the viewer’s visual perception. With an LED-halo color-cycling so gradually that it approaches stillness, even space and time are rendered ambiguous. An aperture onto AKHU’s antechamber, viewed from within, is no less captivating. Although drenched in static white light, it appears to subtly shift tonalities. The illusion is our mind’s creation, bypassing conscious will; our lack of perceptual agency is not a shortcoming but a central component of the work and fascinating in its own right.
The last piece in the exhibition’s sequence is the London-based stage designer Es Devlin’s (b. 1971) installation Forest of Us (2021). Before entering, visitors first gather in a vestibule for a short video montage. A voiceover describes the movement of air through bronchial passageways. Alternately majestic and frenetic imagery draws parallels between instances of fractal branching in nature. The message seems to be that we are both part and reflection of nature, a fact that we ought to remember. Just beyond the screening room, Devlin’s recursive, curvilinear mirror-maze awaits. Winding corridors, stairwells, and super-bright white lights infinitely reflect one another in countless directions. Cinematic sci-fi synths drift throughout the space, accompanied by the icy resonance of slow, deep breaths. Once viewers engage, the maze’s thematic relationship to the introductory film becomes more tenuous, if not forgettable. However, Devlin’s pristine execution makes up for the disconnect. To date, the majority of Devlin’s projects have been in the realm of theatrical design, working collaboratively with high profile clients like Louis Vuitton, U2, the London Olympics, Kanye West, and Beyoncé. Forest benefits from Devlin’s show-stopping eye for image-making, attention to spatial choreography, and exquisite production value.
Stan VanDerBeek’s “experience machines” would attempt to resolve some of the tensions of our era by establishing a new collective memory. Superblue, too, positions itself as a catalyst for change. With the goal of provoking “new and transformative ways of understanding ourselves and our relationship to the world,” Superblue offers alternative modes of art making and experience. Ranging from high-tech razzle-dazzle to fully analog immersion, the installations in Every Wall is a Door walk a tightrope between illusion and reality, memory and forgetting, will and surrender. The true test of Superblue will ultimately rest not in the artworks, but with the viewer. While “immersive art experiences” are more popular and accessible than ever, the continuum of phenomenal encounters doesn’t end in the white cube or the halls of a museum. If Superblue’s patrons leave with the realization that any kind of art (or even the world of everyday life), is no less immersive, then Superblue will have succeeded in elevating its visitors’ awareness to new heights of aesthetic sensitivity.