Immersive Exhibits

Burning Man, Meow Wolf, Nevermore Park, "Instagram exhibits" and the identity of woman.

There was a four-year period of my life when Burning Man encompassed everything I wanted to experience.

It’s a man-made, immersive festival that interacts with nature and involves freedom of creativity with an intentionally fleeting sense of the present.

Basically, I wanted to live in this video:

I watched this video any time I needed to steel my nerves for something I felt an unaccountable fear or sadness about, where I was previously excited – like the night before a trip. Or if I needed a burst of inspiration to jerk me out of the doldrums. It literally helped me subsume anxieties that could have stopped me from doing things I loved.

I love this video so much and I’ve tried to get so many people to be as inspired as I am by watching it that my siblings turned it into a graamen for me at our Sheva Brachos. (If you are unfamiliar with this custom, it’s when you rewrite the words to a song [most commonly the one that goes nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah …. nanananananananana no, really, that’s the chorus] to be about the guest of honor at a celebration.) I sobbed hysterically and I’ve been saving THAT video for a looooong time.

Now, though, the thought of going to Burning Man doesn’t excite me anymore.

Did I scale up my expectations? Did I grow up? Did I … start assuming that Burning Man enthusiasts would be as welcoming and accessible as steampunk enthusiasts (aka NOT AT ALL)?

Nonetheless, my desire to enter immersive settings hasn’t abated in the least.

Let’s dive in.

Meow Wolf

The muzh and I went to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, an immersive, George R. R. Martin-financed exhibit that I had forgotten I’d read about three years before we ever set foot in New Mexico.

To say I was blown away is to call Chicago winters “a bit nippy.”

To say I was floored is to call The Bachelor’s treatment of race “a little aesthetic.”

I was in loooooooove.

Meow Wolf is the kind of large-scale art installation that makes you feel like you’re sharing an artist’s brain space.

You enter a large house with portals to other dimensions = rooms created in the different artists’ images – there’s a portal in the fridge, a portal in the fireplace, a portal in the washing machine … and the magical thing about it is that you only need the tiniest suspension of disbelief to feel like you are, indeed, walking through a portal. That you are legitimately getting off a spaceship in new lands.

There’s some overarching conspiracy theory storyline, but there were so many people when we were there that getting to all the clues wasn’t possible. So I’m gonna go ahead and determine that you don’t really need the storyline – there are fifty different artists creating whole rooms that look like the inside of their heads. You don’t need much more than that.

So, basically, I’ve been chasing that high ever since.

Nevermore Park

In the before times, Chicago-based artist Hebru Brantley turned a warehouse on the South Side into an immersive exhibit based on his grafitti characters, Flyboy and Lil Mama. I wish I could tell you more about the characters – from what I understand, they don’t have comics or stories that are available to give background.

With Meow Wolf being name-checked in reviews, and the word “immersive” being repeated, my body was ready for a little baby version of the thing that had exploded my mind.

Nevermore Park’s warehouse was divided into areas, with much of the action happening in a sectioned central space. There were a few smaller rooms surrounding it, like a greenhouse room and a pulsing room with lights and a fog machine. There was also a subway car, with a room in the back styled out in a stylish first-class old-timey cabin, which the muzh took great pleasure hiding away in.

I’m sure there were a lot of in-jokes that I didn’t get.

While Nevermore was cute, it wasn’t as successful for me as Meow Wolf. This could be for a number of reasons: a single artist’s vision vs. a collective of artists’; the sheer amount of space they had to play with; how much of a sense of abandonment and chaos there was throughout.

Whatever the reason, Nevermore felt less like a full experience, and more like a great venue where I’d love to get drunk and hang out on the radio in Lil Mama’s head.

Instagram Exhibits

Now, I’m not going to disparage Nevermore Park and relegate it to the pejorative category of the “INSTAGRAM EXHIBIT.”

You know the type:

The Museum of Ice Cream.

WNDR Museum.

The Rose Wine Mansion.

29Rooms Chicago.

Exhibits that have popped up in the last decade, serving us the colorful, the dimensional, the dreamy, the whimsical, the identifiably branded – in what could charitably called glorified backdrops for Instagram photos.

They use the word “immersive”, but I find that to be a misnomer. The word is being used to mean you can become part of the scenery. To take a picture in it. To post to Instagram.

Not to experience it.

If you’re in the business of self-branding – by which I mean, amassing thousands of Instagram followers so that you can partner with companies to make money on affiliate links – then the daily grind of your work amasses to an intense amount of CONTENT CREATION.

You’d think it would be easy to find a picture to post every day, but if you’re not selling a PRODUCT like your art or your clothes or your music, if, in fact, you’re just selling yourself and your lifestyle, then the journey is to find new places in which to take pictures of yourself.

These beautiful, fun-looking exhibits are great for pictures. Yet actually being in one feels like walking through an event designer’s pitch deck. It feels like someone forgot to bring the party.

This all might sound very cynical, but I’m actually in favor of “Instagram exhibits.” They’re the ones that get people into museums. MOMA and their Rain Room. The Smithsonian and their WONDER exhibit.

If it takes pandering to selfies to keep cultural institutions relevant, please, by all means. Snap away.

I say this as a Millennial with less than three hundred followers on Instagram, casually thinking about how having a larger platform would help sell books if I ever get to that stage, who looks back on the photos I take specifically for social media and wonder why they’re on my phone.

To Be Fair to Nevermore Park

No, I don’t categorize Nevermore Park as an Instagram exhibit.

But I still didn’t get what I wanted from it.

Identity

Immersive experiences let me be me, but me under extraordinary circumstances.

Most of the time, most days, my circumstances are wholly crafted by my own choices.

I’m working the jobs I accepted.

I’m watching the movies I selected.

I’m doing the workout I found on the Internet.

I’m eating the food I cooked.

I’m speaking to the people whose names I put in my phone.

I’m playing with the person I made.

Not that there aren’t surprises here and there. Anytime I laugh, it’s unexpected – I can’t make myself laugh. (Though I can commit to listening to a little bit of Las Culturistas on the daily.) Anytime a new piece of culture impresses me, that’s unexpected (AND IT’S FEW AND FAR BETWEEN THESE DAYS). When the muzh learns how to make a new omelet after watching Selena and the Chef, it’s unexpected!

But all of these experiences are still things I’ve initiated.

So when I’m invited to see another mind, especially an artist’s mind, it’s like I get to lose myself in it while retaining the parts I love about myself. I get to maintain my curiosity and wonder, while submitting fully to this vision I didn’t create myself.

It’s me. But then it’s also a different me.

And some days, it’s nice to take a break.