How and Why Immersive Experiences Are Taking Over the Denver Art Scene

Although it’s unfair to call the immersive art trend new (just look at the work of Kurt Schwitters or Marina Abramovic) in Denver the term exploded in popularity over the last year or two. From pop-up installations to decorated music festivals to entire galleries transformed, this expansive label has pervaded the art community. But its ambiguity allows for wide interpretations, sometimes in favorable ways and sometimes as an advertising tactic. It leads us, enticed like so-many enchanted moths to the seductive light of interactivity, to forget why art has always been so powerful — because it makes us think about its purpose. The immersive label, in all its popularity, should be stripped down and questioned — if for no other reason than to weed out the events that are aimed at content over artistry.

So what is immersive? What impact has it had on Denver’s scene? Is Meow Wolf responsible or simply jumping on a bandwagon? We break down all of these burning questions and more, ending on a final, open-ended question — will Denver come to be defined by this immersive art scene?

What is Immersive Art?

Immersive Theater

Audience members enjoying the immersive experience of Travelers of The Lost Dimension at Stanley Marketplace in 2017. Photo courtesy of DCPA and AdamVisCom.

Immersive art, in principle, has a simple definition — it’s the creation of a world around the person in a way that makes them feel part of and inside of it. In practice, the label of immersive art touches on everything from illusory world-building to simply including a piece of interactivity within a larger, traditional art show. The true meaning of immersive art is somewhere between those two things — the definition and the practice of it. Immersive art must create something that moves beyond the fourth wall (the space between an audience and performer), bringing viewers into the art and augmenting their reality.

In that description, to be labeled “immersive art” the only requirement is that an audience no longer exists as a passive group of onlookers. Viewers become “participants” and no two people experience exactly the same thing. This can be done in almost any medium of art. The obvious one is theater, where immersive performances require audience members to interact with the cast or decide on the ending to the plot. Next is sculptural work, where worlds are literally built to be walked around in and interacted with — a tactic that was first perfected by Disney but has been reimagined in many different ways. Virtual reality is a genre of immersive art that encompasses a wide variety of technologically-motivated world-building, from animated places explored with a headset on to spaces or screens that respond to stimuli in the real world. Light installations like the ones of Knomad Colab create dreamscapes out of ordinary places, inviting viewers to explore the emotions that are triggered when bathed in color.

David Moke — of Understudy, the Denver Theatre District and Night Lights — explained immersive art as “installations or performances set up in non-traditional ways, in which the audience can engage beyond simply looking at it.” Ali Rubinstein, the Chief Creative Officer at Meow Wolf, went further to say “the execution of an immersive art experience would, to me, include a total 360-degree immersion. A creative environment that can be walked into, physically experienced, explored. It can be maximal or minimal, but it includes a narrative or story element that creates a ‘total’ experience.” Whereas Amber Blais, one of the co-founders of Rainbow Militia, a local circus troupe known for immersive performances, explained, “the best immersive art gives you moments that never leave you. That, even years later come back to you and give you a chill or a story.”

In all of these descriptions, the common thread is that the artist has traversed the gap between their creation and the people who experience the creation. This does not mean that the artist herself must always interact with her audience (although that has already been done as a famous immersive performance) it means that the audience is part of the piece of art. This ultimately implies that immersive art may be replicable, but no two instances of it will ever be the same.

The Rise of Immersive Art in Denver

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Back in 2012, another local art writer Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote an article for The Denver Post about the rise of interactive (or immersive) art not only in Denver but across the country. This was one of the first instances that I could find that actually dissected the quickly developing trend and its implications for Denver — implications that Rinaldi thought were good and bad, both “inviting in the idiots” and providing accessible art to the masses.

That was almost exactly seven years ago, and since then immersive art has reached even further into the local art scene. Where Rinaldi advised readers to sometimes enjoy the act of simply looking at a piece of art, it seems as if people have chosen the opposite approach. As Moke noted, “people now touch everything” — a sentiment that hits close to home, since I contracted a nasty head cold after my first visit to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe a few years ago.

Before the mid-2000s, immersive art in Denver was almost entirely exclusive to theatrical troupes and performances, like Off-Center at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, the duo Handsome Little Devils and Control Group. At the start of the 2010s, immersive productions in Denver started forming out of the digital world, especially with Denver Digerati led by Ivar Zeile.

Jennifer Mosquera and Eric Jaenike, of the popular installation Natura Obscura at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, mentioned that “Casa Bonita has been a driving force [for immersive art] for over 45 years, though because it’s kitschy people tend to overlook it.” Moke, similarly expressed credit to “haunted house groups like 13th Floor” as the “original immersive events.”

But the rise in immersive experiences truly bloomed after Rinaldi’s article, a time that was fraught with local tragedies like the Century 16 movie theater shooting in Aurora. Immersion into art was a tactic demanded by the masses in order to escape reality.

“Clearly there’s a societal movement towards experiences over things,” Mosquera and Jaenike commented. “There are well-established psychological reasons behind that change in preferences that will continue to propel immersive experiences, things around happiness and the hollowness of materialism. Combine that foundation with the fact that technology will continue to enrich immersive experiences at an accelerating pace and you have the recipe for a fundamental transformation in how people engage with art and entertainment.”

In 2014, Monkey Town came to Denver after spending time in such cultural hot spots as New York City and offered a reimagined take on dinner and theater, with a digital box surrounding the diners. Later that year, the world was coming to terms with the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, an ebola outbreak, the birth of ISIS and more. Immersive art like Monkey Town wowed audiences and for the first time in many years, the economic impact of art and culture events in Denver started to increase. So did the participation and viewership numbers. People wanted to find themselves in other worlds, in places that made sense or felt comfortable or offered a reprieve from everything in reality that scared them.

Denver Embraces Immersive Experiences

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In recent years, the escapism that immersive art provides has proven even more desirable as people complain about news fatigue. Participation in Denver’s art and culture events and the economic benefit has been steadily growing making us posit that the two might be correlated — the distrust of news sources (or traditional means of gathering information) and the rise of interactive creative entertainment that engages audiences better than ever before.

In 2017 immersive art and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) scene banded together in a partnership funded by the overnight New Mexican sensation Meow Wolf. Although Meow Wolf offered funding to DIY organizations across the country, Denver groups received $54,000 of the $215,000. That infusion of funding spawned a small craze in the local art scene, with the sudden realization that selling high-priced art to rich collectors might not be the only way to pay the bills as an artist.

It was 2018 that cemented immersive art as more than a passing fad in Denver. Meow Wolf announced that it would open a permanent exhibition in Denver, a monumental space that, when finished, will triple the size of the original one in Santa Fe. Weekend-long festivals like Far Out Factory and Temple Tantrum paid local artists to transform spaces, impressing audiences, most of whom were green to the art scene. Near the end of 2018, the Denver Immersive Summit was started by Jenny Fillipetti and David Thomas as a symposium for all aspects of an immersive art experience, including staging, logistics and connections with other artists and art organizers.

By the start of 2019 the term “immersive art” was perhaps the hottest topic in the Denver art scene. It started with the Museum of Outdoor Arts and Prismajic launching Natura Obscurafeaturing the work of some of Denver’s leading immersive artists like Chris Bagley. It ended with the sensational Camp Christmas at Stanley Marketplace created by Lonnie Hanzon. Mosquera and Jaenike, after such a whirlwind year with Natura Obscura, mentioned “certainly immersive experiences are getting more popular in Denver along with everywhere else. The question then becomes are all immersive experiences art?

The Fine Line Between Art and Content

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Some of the immersive displays that have popped-up in Denver, especially in 2019, skirt the boundary between art and “content.” If a room or wall is perfectly formatted for an Instagram photo, does it lose its artistic value?

One of the worst examples of immersive experiences, as advertised by the companies and events that can’t fully invest in an actual immersive showcase, is the “immersive” Instagram backdrop. Throw in some three-dimensional props, a neon light with a catchy phrase and a chair or seat made of something unusual and — voila! — immersive.

True immersive art experiences ask us to use something called narrative transport. This is the idea of losing yourself in a story or getting “caught up” in one. Blais, of Rainbow Militia, noted that immersive experiences “change the way art is consumed by audiences” by removing the fourth wall and making the whole production accessible. It’s easier to get caught up when you forget that there is a separation between you and whatever you’re experiencing. But when does that consumption of art become consumption of content?

When narrative transport is used properly, one of the values of the immersive experience is that it imparts a more profound meaning to the participant through the use of kinetic sympathy, or accessing emotions by interacting with something. When narrative transport is used for something else — like advertising — it cheapens the whole label of immersive.

Cole Huling, one of the founding members of Handsome Little Devils, commented that “there’s a reason ‘immersive shows’ have become a punchline in mainstream comedy. Not everything is meant to be immersive, and forcing an audience into an uncomfortable performance experience is just bad for everyone. I think it’s the responsibility of artistic directors to really take a hard look at the show they’re putting on, and make sure it’s right for it to be an immersive experience. Sometimes what it wants to be is simply interactive, or even a traditional 4th-wall play. We have a responsibility to our audiences and to the work to not sacrifice integrity just for the sake of buzz and ticket sales.”

The massive warehouse outfitted by the phone company Visible called Phonetopia in RiNo this past November showcased the extreme version of this dilemma. The “immersive IRL phone experience” was designed to call attention to our relationship with our phones by providing “content-worthy” rooms all set to a social media narrative (there was a slide that ended in a bunch of D’s and M’s). Yes, it was an advertisement and Visible admitted openly to this motive. But it was spookily similar to the set-up we are seeing in immersive art experiences that are not advertisements. Far Out Factory, Meow Wolf’s Kaleidoscape, Spookadelia at Spectra Art Space — these are all local examples of an artistic trend that Visible took advantage of. And so events like Phonetopia dilute the importance and significance of immersive art, “inviting in the idiots” as Rinaldi wrote nearly a decade ago.  There is no empathy at pop-ups that use artists or art for branding or profit.

Eric Nord, of Leon Gallery, mentioned among many other insights about immersive experiences that a negative side effect can be the “gamification of art” and the “pressure placed on artists to entertain people.” If the immersive label is used for experiences that purport those symptoms, the role of the artist as a thought-provoker and revolutionary is replaced by the artist as a content creator.

The Value of Immersive Experiences

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Another value, one that is currently appreciated with more fervor, is the ability for immersive art to cross-pollinate. Simply looking at art may be too esoteric, leaving large populations out of the artistic conversation. But include an element of interactivity or engage more than one sense and art’s accessibility skyrockets. Integrate music in your art show or art in your music festival, for instance, and you’ll have music and art lovers coming together.

A perfect example of this is with local artist Thomas “Detour” Evans, who started experimenting with sound and painting in 2017 when he was a Creative-In-Residence at the Denver Art Museum. Since then he’s installed increasingly more technical and complex exhibits at the DAM and other local art institutions, with the effect that he attracts children, young adults and people of color into buildings that have traditionally served elderly white visitors. Aside from opening people’s minds through his multi-sensory approach to art, Detour also opens doors to visitors that have been left out of the conversation. And immersive art has a tendency to knock down barriers that have been rigidly held in place for centuries in the art world.

“Immersive art is an avenue that hasn’t been explored all the way and I think there’s a lot of exploring to do,” Detour explained. “The ability to fabricate a world and bring people into a different world is just beginning. You have to hit more than one sense to have a true impact on someone.” Detour’s most recent show at RedLine took viewers 100 years into the future of Denver with a mock-museum for a fake band inspired by real local musicians. Several different live musical performances allowed Detour’s vision to come to life and also made the audience feel like true museum visitors, time travelers and part of the art itself.

When immersive art inspires sympathy or empathy, it does so through similar methods as Detour’s open-door approach. Instead of asking others to understand and empathize through observation, it invites them to feel how someone else feels or reach into their own emotional triggers. This past summer the Biennial of the Americas explored “Empathy in Action” as the guiding ethos, leading to a series of interactive and immersive art displays exploring empathy. It seemed as if empathy in art was best broadcast through immersive elements, like A Mile in My Shoes by British artist Clare Patey where participants literally wore someone else’s shoes and walked around listening to the shoe owner’s stories told through headphones.

When immersive art succeeds, it adds to the belief that art can and will change the world for the better.

Will Denver Be Defined By This Trend?

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Where other art-centric cities have had immersive art for decades, Denver’s scene is only starting to mature. That also means that where other cities have learned to incorporate immersive as a genre of its own, Denver is still grappling with the usage of the term. And instead of showing careful trepidation about slapping “immersive” onto an event, it seems like organizers and artists use the term like it’s going out of style (which will probably only make it go out of style faster).

But the real culprit driving the popularity of immersive experiences in Denver may simply come down to dollar signs. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. People are going to art events and museums and even purchasing from local artists. Employment in the art and culture sector is on the rise as well, which means that more and more creative people can and are pursuing careers they are passionate about. Immersive art events pay for the design and creation of the space and so far we’ve seen an incredible amount of support (and money) going to local artists for these projects. People like immersive art and they are willing to pay for it because it makes an impact on them more than simply looking at art ever has.

If Denver becomes known as the perfect city for immersive art, it will attract creatives from across the globe to travel here. And already, that’s begun, with the recent announcement of David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar coming to the Mile High City for the immersive Theater of the Mind (thanks to the already pioneering efforts of Off-Center).

So why would the artistic community want to slow the momentum of something like that? Why not let Denver be defined by immersive art? Well, Denver hasn’t traditionally been known as an overly supportive city to artists and even just a year ago many galleries admitted that most of their sales went out-of-state. The problem might hide in the fact that many immersive experiences do not separate the elements by artist or give explicit credit to the participating artists. Meow Wolf’s Kaleidoscape ride in Elitch Gardens, for instance, features the work of a few Denver-based artists but without considerable research for the average person, this never comes up. It’s created by Meow Wolf, whatever or whoever that is. Immersive art, for all benefits, can be tainted in a way that scares everyone away. And if Denver is defined by a tainted version of immersive art, the artist community may once again flee for other cities where better opportunities exist.

Nord, who’s work at Leon Gallery has helped drive the conversation about contemporary art in Denver for some years now, summed up the probable future of immersive art on a grand scale, explaining that it “has been around for nearly 100 years, since the Dadaists. However, within the art world there are ebbs and flows of what is considered relevant. I think that as immersive art permeates the minds of the general public, and becomes the type of art that the average person is discussing (we seem to be there already), the art community will likely tire of the trends and buzzwords, and will seek out an entirely new form or approach to art making. It might end up being very similar to immersive art, but the artists will devise a new philosophy that will alter the manner in which it is portrayed and how it is discussed.”

The bottom line is that artists will have to decide whether immersive art will blossom into a defining Denver art form rather than an advertising tactic or content farm. They have the responsibility to either push it forward or surrender it. If they surrender it, Denver might be defined by the glorified costume party, the immersive experience with no art. But if they push it forward and embrace it, Denver might become the cultural icon of the West, a modern reimagining of the Queen City.