September 2023
Alan Dean Foster

Immersion in Art (for Real)

For thousands of years humans gazed at and were satisfied with flat art. Depictions in iron oxide, ocher and charcoal rubbed on cave walls in Lascaux, France. Frolicking fish and dolphins laboriously brought to life with tiny pieces of stone and glass set in ancient Roman floors. Paint applied to walls, church domes, canvas and wood (yes, by the Romans, too). Moving images shown on a screen or television or computer monitor. How inventive. How beautiful.

How dull.

That’s what our descendants are going to think. Because why stare at a flat piece of art on a flat surface when you can enter into it and interact with it?

We gawk at the beginning of this artistic revolution. Art lovers can now step into touring exhibits where the original creations of van Gogh and others swirl and twist all around them, generating a moving display of the artist’s intentions. A flat painting grows and flows until the viewer is not confronted but enveloped by it. Painted flowers and stars are given life and motion through the grace of applied technology. Lest we neglect our ears, music complements the transformation. We are at the stage where we no longer observe art: we inhabit it.

Opening in September in Las Vegas, the MSG Sphere promises to build on the immersive-art experience by placing viewers inside the world’s largest wraparound screen. If anyone remembers Cinerama and its tripartite screen, this is it on steroids. No, it’s beyond that. At a cost of $2.3 billion, it had better be. The Sphere promises to present media (they don’t talk about ‘art’ yet) in an unprecedented all-encompassing fashion. Have a look online at some of the exterior imagery (I particularly like the giant eyeball that creeps out approaching drivers).

I love paintings of underwater life. Corals and fish, nudibranchs and cetaceans, pretty much anything is better down where it’s wetter under the sea. For those who cannot scuba dive, Sphere will place you underwater. Not just with overwhelming visuals. The rows of seats vibrate, wind and scent can be introduced, the entire diving experience can be synthesized.

So, enhanced IMAX, people might say. Nope. IMAX is a flat-wall technology. It’s big, but it’s flat. The artists of Lascaux would feel right at home with it. Excepting perhaps the Sphere’s 160,000 speakers.

As a writer I strive as best I can with mere words to put readers inside a story. This new technology offers the opportunity for creative individuals and groups to do it for real. It’s not perfect. You are seated and cannot move around, which you can do with the current immersive art currently on tour. But I see that coming. I’m sure Disney is working on it.

Remember, the Sphere is the first effort of its kind. On a smaller scale, it’s easy to envision being able to stroll through an entirely alien environment, where sophisticated animatronics blend seamlessly with Sphere-style sound and video. Computer control means each successive environment can be different. Or the same environment can be altered or edited at the whim of the project creators.

Why watch Jurassic Park on a flat screen when you can walk through it? I’m sure one of the early Sphere productions will involve dinosaurs (if not, it should). Technologically as well as artistically we are marching toward realization of the Star Trek holodeck, only on a much larger scale. The holographic of the group ABBA is already on tour. Marry the best  holograms with a chance to walk around and through the stage setting, or place the performers in a forest, or underwater. Sphere will open with a “performance” by the group U2, based on its album Achtung, Baby. I hope the creators and operators of Sphere will move swiftly beyond glorified music videos and offer the audience something striking and new that takes full advantage of their ground-breaking tech.

One day in the not-too-distant future we’ll all have our own little spheres at home, or at the very least the sphere-equivalent of a video arcade, where we can enter into other worlds, interact with other people and aliens, all of it propelled by stories specially created to make the best use of the technology.

I remember when commercial television began to take off. It transformed entertainment. Immersive art is preparing to do the same. My family’s first television was a huge wooden box with a very small black and white screen centered on it — hard to imagine in these days of cellphones with brilliant color reproduction.

Just as it is hard to imagine where immersive art is going to go, and how we are going to arrive there. We can step inside a painting now. Soon we will be able to step inside a story and interact with the characters.

Gandalf, pleased to meet you — and who’s that standing behind you?

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.