Artechouse: Curating for the Digital Future of Museums (Review)
The newest art org to join the fray of contemporary arts spaces across the landscape of the District occupies particularly odd territory, previously solely utilized by uninviting office space. Artechouse, a new arts space opened in Washington, D.C. in June, and recently presented “Spirit of Autumn” (October 1 – November 5). It was the follow-up installation to its debut show, “XYZT: Abstract Landscapes.”
The building, unremarkable in any way, features a sandwich and pizza shop among an array of unmarked business suites tucked within. The location, however, is interesting. Prior to about 3 years ago this precise sliver of the SW quadrant of the District saw little to no foot traffic – or any traffic outside the comings and goings of the 9-5 federal crowd. Known as Washington’s business district, it was assumed that retail, restaurants, let alone art, couldn’t thrive past 5pm with the mass exodus of the population, i.e. federal workers, leaving to return to their homes in the northern quadrants and the burbs. Then the SWBID (Southwest Business Improvement District) swooped in to “improve the business climate” of the quadrant. Focusing on the section of the quadrant connecting the federal buildings to the residential neighborhoods and Wharf further south – a walkable area through highway underpasses – the BID has worked to flip the impression of this area from staid and stuffy to lively and entertaining. Enter: Artechouse.
Not exactly employing a position of gentrifier in that groups have not been displaced by this section of the SWBID, Artechouse is certainly a tool for changing the landscape of its neighborhood. Though the BID has created a boom in development, including luxury high-rises, restaurants, and retail, throughout the sprawling 400 plus acre of Southwest, branded “District Wharf,” Artechouse’s placement is within existing business district territory. But as such, it’s impossible to ignore the agenda-ridden existence of the art org, written all over its design and #mood, I mean, atmosphere.
Artechouse is certainly an original feature in the D.C. arts landscape and self-describes as
“At the crossroads of art, science and technology, ARTECHOUSE brings a true 21st century art experience to the nation’s capital as Washington, D.C.’s first interactive digital art gallery.”
While most D.C. art galleries almost exclusively call the Northwest quadrant home, Artechouse brings a fresh art experience to unclaimed territory both in locale and in theme. As the District’s first space solely dedicated to tech art, Artechouse has the sobering responsibility of setting the bar for this rising art medium . . . but sobriety is not on the menu. Explicitly designed in the layout, curation, and experience of Artechouse is the bar, specifically the role in which artisan cocktails will play within the exhibitions. After downloading their app you’re instructed to snap a photo of your cocktail, which features an edible wafer cookie atop via AR, that reveals swirling leaves virtually floating above your glass.
Upon descending the two flights of stairs down to the exhibition space entrance you enter at the top of landing, where to your left is the minimalist-styled glowing-white surfaced bar, and down yet another flight of stairs is the main gallery.
In “Spirit of Autumn” a giant two-story digitally-projected tree stands middle against the far wall, as digitally-composed leaves flutter in virtual air. The two side walls are projected with more falling, twirling, dancing virtual leaves, which respond to your movement and noise. As you interact with the painting a ghost-like outline of yourself appears on the wall. Two microphones hidden in the walls pick up sounds within the gallery space, but are best activated by clapping directly into the speakers. Sound triggers a visual response within the digital painting – storm clouds, thunder, and lightening appear and disappear.
As your ghost avatar shadows your movements throughout the space, you become a subject within the artwork itself – a moving object walking in painting. Another gallery space opens to an enveloping, hypnotic swirl of color, this time completely controlled by the visitor. Virtual paint spills move, change color, and churn along the floor directed by the movements of the visitor within the space. The responsiveness of this algorithm is more sensitive than the one working the leaves in the other room, resulting in a more satisfying experience of art-creator.
As a further immersive, interactive experience you’re invited to create a leaf to add to the digital collection within the painting. In the back room you can color a stencil – adhering to the guidelines of the artwork, no words please! – which you drop through a slot into a room where a technician will digitize and upload your creation to the algorithm of the painting. In just a few minutes your work of art will descend from the upper corners of the painting to join the mix of leaves swirling and twirling in response to the visitors.
The effect is meant to be pensive and peaceful, but the aesthetic of outlined ghosts coupled with the swoosh of falling leaves and sporadic, ominous thunder produces the creepy feeling of a virtual haunted forest. As nothing in the design of the exhibition or the gallery seems haphazard, I would guess that the spookiness is intentional. The art itself falls just short of being a parable of the season it represents. As fall is associated with the return of school it is married to the sensibility of intellectual resurgence. But the exhibit feels more like summer in its playfulness and intellectual-lightness. The docents explain that the artists attempt not a literal exploration of fall, but one that is surreal.
However, in considering the climate of arts within the District – monolithic national museums contrasted by small but feisty community-driven arts orgs – it’s Artechouse itself that is surreal. Where did this place come from? Who is it here for?
As a space that reads explicitly cool and detached, that has sprung to life not of the demand of a passionate horde within a dedicated community – as most non-federal arts orgs in D.C. do, Artechouse is a conundrum of placemaking, but assuredly an icon of today’s art trend.
The staging of both the exhibit and the gallery structure is meant to be Insta-envy prime. As hip artisanal drinking is laid into the very plans of the exhibition, the gallery and show beg for social, as well as artistic, interaction. It’s impossible to ignore the prominent placement of the bar, upon entry, reachable before the art. Perhaps this is done knowingly, as in all art openings visitors crowd the bar anyway, why not make it easily accessible? But it remains that the bar, perched aloft the gallery space, sits physically above the art – looking down from it throne most high. As if to further illustrate the import placed on social drinking within the exhibit, when I asked the bartender for the hashtag for the show, he replied chuckling, “#amazingcocktails?”
However, the signature drink, as is the entry ($15 – $25), is expensive, at $12 each.
In an era of uncertainty for the funding of art Artechouse exemplifies what may well become the future for experiencing innovative art forms outside of traditional museums. Appealing to the social media boozing crowd and their need for Insta-ready spaces to share their happenings, Artechouse’s format resists threatened traditional arts funding structures. Self-monetization is a good thing, and may well prove a necessity for the future of alternative art spaces. But what does that mean for the future of art – and specifically tech art – itself?
Artechouse claims to be a haven for exploring the intersection of art and tech, but as such a broad and varied medium and with their galleries designed as selfie stations, can (or perhaps, will) the organization sustain exhibitions not easily bent towards social media?
As a space to explore new age media, Artechouse is refreshing in the D.C. arts landscape. Compared to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, whose dedication to exploring tech art has leaned heavily towards media art, and when it has varied from that, exhibitions have rested about a decade late of innovative, Artechouse is sharply zeitgeist.
But Artechouse delivers a very specific experience of tech art—one that is closely married to the commerce of social media. Not all tech art will comfortably fit under this umbrella. Moreover, Artechouse has the built-in problem of the Instagram double-edged sword: will visitors pay for the experience after viewing it for free through friends’ Instagrams? As one of the very few paid entry art spaces in town, Artechouse will have to overcome the local mindset that resists paying for art experiences.
The exhibition is designed as a social-media crack den but is that the Artechouse hook?
Of course there is still the bar allure of the gallery.
Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell (@KayleighBinDC), is a Washington, D.C. native and museum educator with over 10 years of GLAM experience, devoted to exploring ways to engage with marginalized audiences through museums and social justice practice.