Features

Immersive License

by Lauren Sloss

Interactive projection-mapped landscapes are an inspiring backdrop for Nocturne X, which runs through January 7 at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts’ Mission Street theater in the City.

Nocturne X is part of a growing movement at the burgeoning Bay Area intersection of art and technology.

The moment we stepped out of the airlock, we were greeted with the sound of pulsing, oozing life. Fantastic colors swirled against the night sky as the moon rose and set, then rose again. Lush with life, every surface seemed to vibrate with energy — were those plants watching us? Suddenly, there was a rumble and a cacophony of noise — EARTHQUAKE!

Welcome to Nocturne X, an interplanetary journey, an otherworldly forest and a brand-new exhibition at the boundary-pushing Gray Area Foundation for the Arts’ Mission Street theater. Created by Numina Studio — a collective of artists, programmers, craftspeople and makers that came together in March 2021 — Nocturne X is the latest iteration in an increasingly popular type of art-based experience, one that is deeply connected to groundbreaking technology, both experiential and immersive.

While art and technology have always been closely linked — after all, there’s no painting without pigment development, no photography without chemical know-how and technical expertise — tech-informed art is experiencing an explosion of public interest. From the popularity of exhibits like Immersive van Gogh to the runaway movement around NFTs, and the accompanying demand for digital art, there are more opportunities than ever to experience modern innovations through an artistic lens. There is perhaps no better place to do so than in San Francisco, a city that has been equally shaped by countercultural notions of creative freedom and the success of the tech industry.

Nocturne X is a family-friendly exhibition in which interaction, exploration and play are not only encouraged but necessary to fully experience the 4,000-square-foot space, which has been transformed into a vibrant landscape meant to represent a foreign planet. In addition to sheer sensory delights — from large-scale sculpture and video art to tiny dioramas tucked behind peepholes — the exhibit features a well-developed narrative centered on the findings of an explorer who arrived on Nocturne X 300 years ago. In addition to the all-ages exhibition, the venue is the setting for theatrical performances and late-night, DJ-fueled dance parties as a part of the “Nightfall on Nocturne X” series for those 21 and over. Nocturne X is also bringing the spirit (and talent) of the Bay Area’s underground art party scene to a more approachable context.

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NOCTURNE X
2665 Mission Street, San Francisco.
Through January 7.
Tickets available for one-hour intervals Tuesday–Sunday, 12–8 p.m.
“Nightfall on Nocturne X” events take place 9 p.m.–2 a.m.
nocturne-x.com

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Shlomo Zippel, cofounder of Numina Studio, has been involved with creating large-scale group artwork since moving to the Bay Area 11 years ago. He was simultaneously starting various firms — including most recently Whisper, a San Francisco-based AI-driven medical device company. For him, the connection between the two was always natural, and a given. “The skill sets feed off of each other. Making hardware for Burning Man art gave me confidence to then make hardware for medical devices,” he says.

In his decade-plus in San Francisco, Zippel was struck by the fact that a lot of the art that he was creating and experiencing was going unnoticed by much of the Bay Area (particularly by the subset that didn’t journey to the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man every year), and less so by the 20 million tourists who came to visit every year. “You get to see the sea lions at Pier 39, you get to see Alcatraz, but you don’t necessarily get to see this cool combination of art and tech,” he notes.

This struck Zippel as a major opportunity to bring this work to the mainstream and to create a tech company-inspired model that would allow artists to make a living wage while creating. The result, Numina Studio, employed over 150 makers, with skill sets ranging from resin molding to programming, crocheting, building, drawing and storyboarding — all of which is reflected in the immense level of detail present in every aspect of Nocturne X. It is, on its surface, a fun and whimsical exploration of a planet. Should you care to dig deeper, there’s ample commentary about the interconnectivity of life forms and the importance of living in harmony with the natural world.

The work found a natural partner in Gray Area, a nonprofit founded 13 years ago and whose stated mission is, “creative action through social transformation.” As Barry Threw, Gray Area’s executive director, says, “People are looking for personal growth and transformation. Art can be an extremely impactful arena to provide these sorts of experiences in a way that’s consciousness-expanding.” Some of the consciousness-expanding could, he hopes, give space for us to reconceive how we approach technological innovation, and the ways in which it can inspire and engage with artistic pursuits. In other words, by using tech, artists have the potential to flip the way we think about technology on its head.

“Artists have always done this, regardless of the kind of technology,” says Rudolf Frieling, director of media arts for SFMOMA. “Subverting and countering primary functionalities, or rationales, is one of the most important methodologies of the artist.” From pioneers in the field like Nam June Paik to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (whose work is currently on view at SFMOMA), the ability to confront is a feature of the best iterations of immersive art. After all, entertainment is easy to come by; art is meant to awaken.

“Immersion has the potential to fill you with energy and excitement, and maybe even confusion,” Frieling says. “It will massage your senses. But in what way? And what can you do with it afterwards?”


Prepare To Be Fully Engaged

Looking to experience the power of immersive art? Here are three additional exhibits in San Francisco to explore.

Entwined

Where: Peacock Meadow, Golden Gate Park
When: Through February 1
What: Charles Gadeken’s public art piece was a bright light in a dark time last year. Starting December 2, Entwined is back with an expanded footprint and more sophisticated opportunities for interactivity. As you wander through the technicolor forest, scan QR codes to design your own lighting patterns and peer through peepholes in the trees to discover new worlds within.

teamLab: Continuity

Where: Asian Art Museum
When: Through February 14
What: teamLab, a Tokyo-based international arts collective, has created a magical sensory overload in the form of Continuity, an exhibit that invites you to see, hear, touch and smell 14 digitally rendered artworks that respond to your movement thanks to dynamic algorithms. The installation, which careens across walls, floors and ceilings through 8,500 square feet of space, takes cues from traditional Japanese art forms and mythology, with technicolor brushstrokes and riotous images of plant and animal life that evoke joy, wonder and an appreciation for the fragility of our world.

Unstable Presence

Where: SFMOMA
When: Through March 6
What: Mexico City-born Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work acts like a subtle subversion of our ideas of physical presence, and their ephemeral relationship to surrounding space. In this stunning exhibition, words are transformed (into water and vapor, 3D-printed sculpture, flashing lights and breathable particles) and compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach are coalesced into a hivelike cacophony as you are compelled to examine your own literal place within the work.

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