Beyond those Van Gogh shows: Already trending globally, immersive art galleries now popping up in Canada
Is it the next big thing? Organizers think the future is bright ... and projected in 360 degrees
In Calgary, Mary Anne Moser is waiting for a delivery. A shipment of panels is set to arrive this week, she says, and that might not sound like huge news, but once those packages turn up, work can begin on the next phase of a project that's been underway at the Telus Spark Science Centre throughout the pandemic.
The Spark's old Energy and Innovation Gallery is being transformed into a brand new attraction, part of the centre's $5.88 million revitalization project, an undertaking that will also see upgrades to their domed theatre and classrooms, among other additions. Moser is the president and CEO of the Spark, and she excitedly shares her vision for the aforementioned gallery — a room that's empty for the moment, but will soon house a facility that's as futuristic as it is extremely of the moment.
The project is a digital immersion gallery, a dedicated venue with 5,500 square feet of exhibition space. Slated to open on July 29, it's been specially designed for multimedia events in the style of, say, those 360-degree Van Gogh extravaganzas, shows that have become increasingly familiar to audiences via any number of touring productions — and/or Emily in Paris.
Animated sunflowers, however, will not be the main event when the Spark debuts its new gallery at the end of the month. Their inaugural show is called Every Second. An educational experience narrated by Isabella Rossellini, Moser describes the original production as a story "about the math of moments that make up your life," and further programming is to be announced, with fresh shows appearing every six months. "We'd love to bring people to the bottom of the ocean and inside the human brain or, you know, to outer space," says Moser. "We have quite a few projects in the hopper."
The first digital immersion galleries in Canada
No matter what eventually appears at the Spark, the science centre will soon boast the distinction of having one of the only stand-alone digital immersion galleries in the country. In February, an event space called OASIS Immersion launched on the ground floor of the Montreal Convention Centre in the city's downtown. That venue, which is also intended to be a permanent tourist attraction, boasts more than 21,500 square feet for projections — an area that's split over several rooms, including three main exhibition galleries. Similar to the way things work at the Spark, OASIS Immersion creates its own original programming which is produced by a dedicated team. (The Spark has partnered with a Quebec studio, Supply and Demand, to design both their shows and the schematics of the exhibition space itself.)
At OASIS Immersion, their current show (Inspirations) is a collection of stories designed to pique the senses. Visitors walk lava fields and the ocean floor. They're launched into space with Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, and also treated to a 360-degree concert film from Montreal pianist Alexandra Stréliski.
We'd love to bring people to the bottom of the ocean and inside the human brain or, you know, to outer space.- Mary Anne Moser, president and CEO, Telus Spark Science Centre
Canadian content is in the spotlight at OASIS, with special attention to Quebec stories — a focus that will persist through future programming, says Denys Lavigne, president, creative director and co-founder of the project. Like the Spark, OASIS Immersion intends to update their programming throughout the year, and they're already on their second exhibition. Lavigne likes to compare their brand to a magazine. The driving concept is to tell uplifting stories about people, places and ideas "that shape our world today," he says, and as such, they aim to bottle the zeitgeist in every show. A unique production, he says, can take as little as three months to complete.
One-off spectacles happening this year
In terms of competition, Canadians have a variety of options when it comes to bathing in 360-degree animated light. There is, indeed, still more than enough Vincent to Van Gogh around: Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary all have some version of a Van Gogh spectacle on offer this summer. Imagine Picasso is in Quebec City until Sept. 6, and Monet's paintings — already plenty immersive in their IRL form — will be reinterpreted for shows arriving later this year in Toronto (August) and Montreal (December). Tsawwassen, B.C. is home to The Da Vinci Experience through March 2022. You can even find a redux version of an immersion gallery in a pedway shopping centre in Edmonton. One commercial gallery's transformed their storefront into an econo-sized attraction at the City Centre Mall. (Visitors can gawk at animated projections of the psychedelic paintings and prints available for sale.)
In terms of the touring shows, however, they've been one of the few big-ticket entertainment options available in the pandemic era. But Lavigne believes audience appetite will only persist, even when lockdowns are a hazy memory (fingers crossed). "There are these travelling exhibits around the world, but we were more interested in the notion of creating this space," says Lavigne, who imagines Montrealers returning to OASIS over and over, like they would any favourite museum or gallery.
Before launching OASIS, Lavigne was the founder of Arsenal, an agency specializing in immersive multimedia brand installations. And over the course of more than a decade running that company, he says he watched the technology evolve from sophisticated set-dressing to the main attraction itself. Three years ago, he pitched the OASIS concept to the Montreal Convention Centre, though even by then, digital immersion galleries were on the rise in other countries.
The first, and arguably most famous, is teamLab Borderless, which opened in Tokyo in 2018. Not just immersive but interactive, the shimmering exhibitions found inside are all created by the teamLab art collective. Looking at photos, you'd think the experience was closer to a real-life Holodeck than a light show. And in its first year, 2.3 million visitors passed through, establishing it as the most popular single-artist museum in the world.
More teamLab galleries are in the works; a permanent exhibition in the Netherlands is the most recent to be announced. But their work also appears in other immersive-first galleries. Superblue, a new "experiential art centre" in Miami, is now showing work by teamLab alongside installations by art stars James Turrell and Es Devlin. Florida is also home to another similar attraction, Artechouse, which runs further satellites in New York and Washington, D.C. The fourth floor of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields was recently made over into an immersive digital art gallery called The Lume Indianapolis. Their first exhibition? Van Gogh — a subject popularized by another permanent attraction, L'Atelier des Lumières in Paris.
A 360-degree pandemic pivot
Both Moser and Lavigne have watched these galleries with interest, and they began developing the concepts for their own immersive venues long before the dawn of COVID-19. Jeannot Painchaud is the president and CEO of Cirque Éloize, an award-winning circus company from Montreal. He says he'd been intrigued by the proliferation of immersive storytelling, too. But the pandemic is what pushed Éloize into the business of 360-degree spectaculars.
"It was a question of survival, surviving the situation," says Painchaud, who recently launched Expo Éloize, a new arm of the company that's exclusively dedicated to producing immersive entertainment. In June, they debuted Below the Ice with Mario Cyr, an immersive production that takes audiences on a trip to the Arctic with the titular Quebec cinematographer. The piece took just six months to pull off — from ideation to opening day. And it plays at Studios Éloize in Old Montreal to Oct. 31.
In the first months of the pandemic, Cirque Éloize's operations were frozen. Their live performances stopped, tours were postponed — and indeed, they won't resume until spring 2022 at the earliest. "It was zero, zero revenue. Everything fell apart," says Painchaud. And they've restructured in response, launching five new divisions that capitalize on their team's diverse creative skillset. Expo Éloize is one of those.
"For years, we've been known for our artistic work, but also we're known for our production work," says Painchaud. Éloize employs multimedia experts, project managers — folks with the necessary know-how to build a custom 360-degree exhibition, he says. "The idea was to basically give work to our people and keep our people."
Their first show is now appearing in a building that usually serves as office and rehearsal space for the company — real estate that was going unused during lockdown. "Instead of just spending money paying the bills, we transformed the studio," says Painchaud. Studios Éloize likely won't become a permanent HQ for their immersive productions. Painchaud doesn't rule out the possibility of future shows being staged in the space, but the main objective for the initiative is to develop touring properties, and indeed, Below the Ice is already booked to travel to Quebec City. Further Canadian dates, followed by an international itinerary, would ideally follow in the years ahead.
More than a fad?
Like the organizations opening permanent immersive art spaces, Painchaud is betting that audience demand will outlast the pandemic. "People are looking for a shorter experience, something that they can be involved in, where they can learn something," he says. Below the Ice has sold close to 15,000 tickets since opening in June, Painchaud reveals. If the pace keeps up, they'll see at least 40,000 visitors by the end of the run, he estimates. Under pandemic restrictions, the venue can process 80 visitors an hour. "It's not a lot of people, so we need to do a long run." Still, Painchaud says, sales are "almost over our expectations."
People are looking for a shorter experience, something that they can be involved in, where they can learn something.- Jeannot Painchaud, president and CEO, Cirque Éloize
"Honestly, I think it's beyond just being a trend — immersive experiences," says Lavigne. "It's going to establish itself as a permanent fixture in the cultural industry because it's so agile and impactful — agile in terms of the creative possibilities and impactful in terms of the scenes. You're in the experience, you're in the story.... I think it links to bigger trends in terms of what consumers are looking for in terms of more complete, engaging experiences."
At the Spark, Moser wants to harness those big feelings and turn them into a passion for science and technology. It's the same basic idea behind other attractions you might find in a science centre or museum: hook the audience through the power of storytelling. And indeed, in some ways, Moser considers the Spark's upcoming gallery to be just another tool at their disposal. "We've got a dome theatre — a planetarium — and a 360-degree theatre. We have a traditional theatre. We have all these storytelling platforms," she says. "This one is just a little more technologically intense."
Lavigne predicts we'll be seeing more of these galleries soon. He even hopes to expand OASIS Immersive to other markets one day, after it's firmly established in Montreal. "I think it represents a certain aspect of the future of entertainment," he says. "We're only at the beginning."