As esthetic inquiry has been absorbed into social and economic history, which in turn has generated an academic industry, the question of the vernacular presents itself more urgently.  – Brian O’Doherty


The most talked about aesthetic experience in 2016 was by far the “immersive.”  The word is used in a multitude of ways for a variety of purposes.  It could be found in press releases from every aspect of the arts, from music, theater, cinema, museums, galleries etc. replacing 2015’s catchphrase “poetics of space” as the crème de la crème of artspeak.  It is not surprising given the encroachment of virtual reality on every aspect of our lives.  The need to cash in on its cultural currency has curators scrambling for next best immersive experience.  Our phones are already number one.

Starting today, The Met presents “The Museum Workout” where a select group of museum-goers can experience the galleries through constant movement, light stretching, and a disco soundtrack.  Tanya Bonakdar Gallery recently presented Ernesto Neto’s  “new body of finger-crocheted immersive sculptures . . . inviting the viewer into an all-encompassing sensorial experience.”

Installation view of Ernesto Neto’s The Serpent’s Energy Gave Birth to Humanity

A Hollywood reporter describes The Pearl, a documentary about transgender community in the Pacific Northwest,  as “immersive,” meaning that it attempts to fully engage the viewer in the lives of its subjects while providing no external narration, talking heads, etc.  Gladstone Gallery uses the descriptor for a recent Jim Hodges exhibition entitled, I dreamed a world and called it Love, where the artist used colored reflective glass to create a luminous panorama.

Installation view of Jim Hodge’s I dreamed a world and called it Love. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

The Whitney Museum’s exhibition Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016 places the buzzword in history, specifically exploring “the ways in which artists have used the moving image to articulate technology’s dramatic influence on how we see and experience the world.”  Concurrently, Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest at the New Museum gives us a sense of the evolution of technology, “ranging from the television monitor to the cinema screen, and from the intimacy of the smartphone to the communal experience of immersive images and soundscapes, this survey charts the ways in which Rist’s work fuses the biological with the electronic in the ecstasy of communication.”  These are just a few examples of surging circumstance called immersive.

Installation view of Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest at the New Museum

The drive in the new century to develop new ways of communicating in step with the advancements in technology is evident in all aspects of culture and society.  Our phones are now worn on our head in the form of goggles creating a fascinating landscape of possibilities and potential barriers in perception.  Businesses can no longer just place an ad, marketing is now 360 degrees.  You walk into a store and it will have your entire history, in the form of likes and dislikes, in order to better serve you.  So, questions arise.  How do we create an experience of real interaction?  How do we draw the viewer in?

What I will attempt to argue in a series of posts is that a new art of technological envelopment is not necessarily immersive but rather splintering.  By contrast, I will point to instances of artistic invention without technology, that may create far greater engagement or fascination.

Part 1 will examine recent exhibitions and historical precedents of immersive art to gain a better understanding of heightened perception through technological means.