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An exploration into why immersive arts and theatre are rising in popularity, on The Table Read, the “Best Entertainment Celebrity Magazine in the UK.

Art is no longer confined to white walls, and theater these days is no longer limited to the stage. Whether you are walking into a commercial fine arts gallery or stepping into a theater, these days it is more common than not to find high tech additions to the usual artistic fare on display. Projections, 3D imaging, holograms, VR, AR, and even robotic scent-based installations are popping up left and right in major cities around the world. 

Art All Around Us: Why Immersive Arts and Theater Are On The Rise on The Table Read
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So why is it that immersive art installations and immersive theater productions are so increasingly popular? Let’s take a look at some examples of immersive fine arts and theater experiences, and what technological developments and audience desires are driving them. 

Visual Arts Immersive Installations

At the Tate Modern Museum in London, biomorphic robots float through the massive Turbine Hall exhibition space, dispensing carefully crafted scents into the air. The artist who has created this installation in motion, Anicka Yi, has stated that she wants viewers to understand that the medium of her sculpture is air; that air is the medium that we move through and that surrounds us all the time. By utilizing cutting edge technology to present an artwork that engages nearly all of our senses, Yi is challenging viewers to shift their perspective of not only what an art installation can look like, but also of the world that we inhabit every day. 

In the wildly popular traveling Immersive Van Gogh exhibition, viewers become participants in a highly interactive, playful world that recreates specific aspects of Van Gogh’s life and work through moving animations, video projections, and digital interfaces that offer educational activities. Since viewers get to touch and affect the art they are also seeing, they can feel like they are part of the narrative. 

The same can be said of the monumental installation currently on display at The Shed, a public art venue in New York, where Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno has crafted a larger than life art exhibit that bears a certain resemblance to a playground. The installation, “Particular Matter(s)”, features a 95-foot-wide net that visitors can climb upon, viewing the rest of the installation from far above. Immersed in near total darkness, visitors are invited to experience what it would be like to be a spider. Once again, art viewers have the opportunity to become active participants in a playful narrative scenario. 

Experiential Theater

Art All Around Us: Why Immersive Arts and Theater Are On The Rise on The Table Read
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The theater industry has seen a blossoming of immersive theater productions in recent years. These performances take a different approach to the notion of “immersive” experiences. With elaborate sets and costumes, carefully trained actors who embody their characters and masterfully improvise, and endless opportunities to explore, audience members who enter the world of immersive theater create their own experiences. Entering one of these performances is often akin to entering the detailed world pictured in a video game. The key difference? In a video game, any player is represented by an avatar. Here, you are part of the action, and it is your body that is moving through the space. 

One key example is the long-running immersive theater production based on Shakespeares’s Hamlet, Sleep No More. Crafted by the masterful theater production company Punchdrunk, Sleep No More challenges visitors to choose their own course of action. Visitors are clad in masks and instructed to remain silent as they journey through corridors, up and down stairs, following the myriad of storylines that are all taking place simultaneously. Exhilarating and challenging, Sleep No More allows viewers to play with the way the story unfolds for them personally. No two viewers have the same experience; there is always something more to witness in a room off to the side or up to another flight of stairs. 

In addition to offering audience members the freedom to choose their own narrative pathways, many immersive theater productions rely on multiple modes of experiencing the performance at the same time. Take, for example, the works of LA-based opera company The Industry. The Industry has staged a pop-up operatic production based on novelist Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities”. This surprise immersive performance took place in Los Angeles’s Grand Central train station, and viewers were offered headphones to experience the vocals. Many of the performers were dressed as civilians, so the performance created an element of surprise for unsuspecting train travelers. 

Another highly ambitious work by The Industry, Hopscotch, was a mobile opera that took place in twenty-four cars, featuring the work of six writers, six composers, and one hundred twenty-six artists. While some audience members participated by riding along in various cars to particular destinations with performing members of the cast, the broader public could view all the simultaneous streams of action taking place at the performance’s central hub. There, in a unique architectural structure, viewers could click through different animations and storylines on digital viewers, and also watch the live streams from each part of the performance on walls lined with video monitors. 

Art All Around Us: Why Immersive Arts and Theater Are On The Rise on The Table Read
Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Why? Digital Tech Evolution

The work of Anicka Yi, the artist working with scent and robotics mentioned above, challenges viewers to alter their perceptions of what reality can be. And in this regard, Yi is not alone. This concept provides a key insight into what viewers are hungry for when they go to check out the latest and greatest art installation. A painting on a wall or a sculpture in a gallery will no longer suffice; viewers now want to be stimulated by scent, touch, virtual and augmented reality, sound, video, robotics, AI. 

Technology is in our hands most of the time these days. The social media feeds, video and music streaming platforms, and gaming interfaces that people use everyday grant us a certain level of control over where and how we interact with content. We are accustomed to interacting with and influencing our forms of entertainment. So, viewers, today want to be able to interact with the art in a myriad of ways- and some of this stems from a simple desire to play. 

With digital technologies becoming more sophisticated, widely available, and less expensive, it is easier for artists and theater companies to incorporate digital elements into their installations and productions. And these digital elements can highlight world-building, interactivity, and playfulness which are often key elements of immersive theater and art. 

Final Thoughts

With so many people spending so much time immersed in the endless stimulation that the social media scroll provides, it can take a lot to spark enthusiasm in the world of material reality. Theater and arts are responding by making viewers not just viewers but active participants, part of the action that activates the story of space. 

Without the viewers, these installations, exhibitions, and theater performances just don’t work. So it gives audience members a sense that they are an intrinsic part of creating the performance and carrying on the story. With technological advancements taking immersive art to deeper levels of fantasy and imagination, audiences and viewers are clamoring for more. 

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