“The immersive art exhibit is not a room with 4 projectors and sound.” Interview with the video artist Stefano Fake.

Immersive art exhibitions generate different expectations and reactions. The public visits them out of curiosity, because it is fashionable, some mistakenly expecting to see paintings and the vast majority to experience new sensations.

In Barcelona, the first two “immersive” exhibitions held last year, “Meet Vincent Van Gogh” and “Monet experience” – left many confused and quite disappointed. To learn about the situation in other countries, I traveled to Florence to meet the Italian artist Stefano Fake. Luckily, our meeting was in late January, just before the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Stefano Fake is a contemporary video artist. In the last 4 years he has created 20 immersive art exhibitions in different cities in Italy. His works travel around the world and his art is one of the most hash-tagged and loved by Instagrammers.

Stefano’s studio is located in the most Renaissance neighborhood in Europe. Very close to his office are Michelangelo’s David, Brunelleschi’s gigantic dome and the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most important art galleries in the world. In a setting of classical art and renowned artists and architects, between narrow streets, just 50 meters from the Vecchio Bridge, the Santo Stefano al Ponte Romanesque church hides. Since 2016 it has been converted into a permanent exhibition space for immersive art.

Stefano usually goes to the church by bike, sometimes to analyze the state of his exhibitions, other times to observe the behavior of the public. We visit the church to see his latest work “Inside Magritte”. After the visit we talked and the next day we did the interview that lasted up to four hours. Stefano, with a very good sense of humor, told me many anecdotes about how the public has perceived his art since its inception.

Selfie in the Infinity Mirrow Room, Inside Magritte. Photo: Irina Grevtsova

IG – Stefano, tell us a bit about your professional path.

I studied political science in Milan and at the Complutense University of Madrid. But I have always liked cinema and animated cinema. When I returned to Italy, I started making music television and short music video clips. Then I did video projections in the theater. In 2001, I founded the video art studio “The Fake Factory” and started using video projectors to create my first immersive works of art.

IG – Immersive exhibition or immersive art exhibition…Which is the more correct term?

SF – The most appropriate term is that of an immersive art experience exhibition or, more simply, an immersive art exhibition. It is a new format of art exhibition. Immersive art is an artistic expression that uses multiple video projections, lights, sounds, music on a large scale and sometimes even perfumed essences to wrap and involve the viewer in a totally artistic experience, stimulating the senses and activating their emotions.

IG – How did you begin working on immersive art exhibitions?

SF – In 2015, I visited an immersive exhibition for the first time when the Van Gogh Alive multimedia exhibition came to Florence, marketed by Grande Exhibitions, an Australian company that has taken the exhibition around the world since 2010. At the time, this exhibition, although very basic, was very impressive. It seemed very normal to me because I had already projected Renaissance paintings enveloping the spectators through video projections when I was having dinners and private events. At the Van Gogh exhibition, for the first time, people paid entrance fees for the projected art. I had never thought that there could be a market for such projections. This format caught my attention and together with the Italian producer Medialart, we decided to make the first exhibition about Italian art in Italy. We had a Caravaggio experience at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, one of the most important modern art museums in Rome.

IG – What was this exhibition space like?

SF – It had 7 rooms and it was like a maze. There was a continuous flow of images and music, about 50 minutes long, that was shown simultaneously in all the rooms through 33 video projectors.

I identified 8 chapters that took place at the same time throughout the space: Light, Naturalism, the Enigma of Narcissus, Theatricality, Medusa, Violence, Places of life lived and, finally, the Consecration of his Art. So, I gathered a team of graphic designers and animators, in my laboratory in Florence The Fake Factory, and we made the first draft of the work. With Stefano Saletti’s original music and a series of reviews with art historian Claudio Strinati, we refined every aspect of the installation to make a total immersive work of art.

IG – What was the public’s reaction?

SF – It was very interesting to see how people saw the facilities and how they used them. The public thought it was like any other traditional exhibition: that each room had its work and that you had to stay for one hour in one room and then go to the other. My idea was that people should move and that is why in the exhibition there were the same videos projected simultaneously in different rooms. In short, it turned out that many visitors did not understand how the exhibition worked, but they liked it so much and it was so successful that it surprised even us (86,000 people in 4 months).

Caravaggio Experience. Fuente: Stefano Fake

IG – What determines the success of an immersive exhibition?

SF – The place and above all the cultural traditions of the country. In each country the situation is different. In Italy there is a lot of art, a lot of heritage. So, it is very difficult to enter the cultural market with digital works. It works if you do something very radical. Do a very immersive, very dynamic immersion with a lot of expressive force. Not just simply putting up paintings with titles and some little things that move. If you build it very well, people live it. If it is not done well, you are inside a computer.

In Italy, for example, abstract art does not work. The works of TeamLab, which exhibits flowers, the people do not understand it. If you put four Italians inside an art exhibition of this type, two will not like it and the other two will ask: What is this? The Uffizi is in Florence, where the entire history of art is exhibited. If the public pays 15 or 20 dollars, it has to be something very complete. The Italian public is very demanding. So, you need to create something that works. It has to have a very strong emotional impact to justify people paying the cost of admission. So, the Disney model of opening a room with four projectors does not work.

A typical characteristic of Italy is the importance of scientific rigor. To produce an immersive exhibition, you have to hire an art historian. In France, immersive exhibitions have no scientific curator. We only have them in Italy. The historian’s name is always cited in the communication.

IG – What is the format of an immersive art exhibition?

SF – When I started working with Crossmedia, at the 2016 Klimt experience exhibition, I decided to change the whole location of the projectors and the way the public had to sit, because people have to get used to entering and interacting with the space. We still have to get to a more developed point, to change the attitude of the visitors, because they still don’t know how to act. For example, older people sit in the background and watch projections like a movie. They don’t walk, they don’t move, they don’t take photos. Children enjoy it more because they have no previous theater and film experiences and interact by playing.

An immersive exhibition conceptually has to have three levels of immersion: the large immersive room, where you are with many people, surrounded by video projections of art and you feel part of a collective. The Immersive mirror room, an experience in smaller format and size, in which you are with fewer people and you have the immersion through mirrors and reflections. And finally, the individual virtual experience with Oculus glasses. So, first you can live the experience of the collective vision, like in the theater, then a smaller one, as if you were in a video art room and, finally, a form of individual virtual reality immersion. We are now developing other forms of light immersion, which will be more multisensory experiences.

Klimpt Experience. Fuente: Stefano Fake

IG – ¿Qué determina el éxito de una exposición inmersiva?

SF – El lugar y sobre todo las tradiciones culturales del país. En cada país la situación es distinta. En Italia hay mucho arte, mucho patrimonio. Entonces, es muy difícil entrar en el mercado cultural con obras digitales. Funciona si haces algo muy radical. Hacer un inmersivo muy inmersivo, muy dinámico, con mucha fuerza expresiva. No simplemente poner pinturas con títulos y algunas cositas que se mueven. Si lo construyes muy bien, la gente lo vive. Si no se hace bien, estás dentro de un ordenador.

En Italia, por ejemplo, el arte abstracto no funciona. Las obras de TeamLab, que expone flores, la gente no las entiende. Si en una exposición de arte de este tipo metes dentro cuatro italianos, a dos no les gustará y los otros dos preguntarán: ¿Qué es esto? En Florencia se encuentra la Uffizi, donde se exhibe toda la historia del arte. Si el público paga 15 o 20 dólares tiene que ser algo muy completo. El público italiano es muy exigente. Por eso necesitas crear algo que funcione. Tiene que tener un impacto emocional muy fuerte para justificar que la gente pague el coste de la entrada. Por eso el modelo de Disney, de abrir una sala con cuatro proyectores, no funciona.

Una característica típica de Italia es la importancia que tiene el rigor científico. Para producir una exposición inmersiva hay que contratar a un historiador de arte. En Francia, las exposiciones inmersivas no tienen ningún comisario científico. Solo los hay en Italia. El nombre del historiador siempre se cita en la comunicación.

IG – ¿Cuál es el formato de una exposición de arte inmersivo?

SF – Cuando empecé a trabajar con Crossmedia, en la exposición de Klimt experience de 2016, decidí cambiar toda la ubicación de los proyectores y la forma en que tenía que sentarse el público, porque se tiene que acostumbrar a la gente a entrar e interactuar con el espacio. Aún tenemos que llegar a un punto más desarrollado, a cambiar la actitud de los visitantes, porque todavía no saben cómo actuar. Por ejemplo, las personas mayores se ponen al fondo y ven las proyecciones como si fuera cine. No andan, ni se mueven, no sacan fotos. Los niños lo disfrutan más porque no tienen experiencias previas de cine y de teatro e interactúan jugando.

Una exposición inmersiva conceptualmente tiene que tener tres niveles de inmersión: la sala grande Inmersive room donde estás con mucha gente, rodeado de videoproyecciones de arte y  te sientes parte de un colectivo. El immersive mirror room (sala inmersiva de espejos), una experiencia en formato y tamaño más pequeños, en el que estás con menos gente y tienes la inmersión mediante espejos y reflejos. Y, por último la experiencia virtual individual con gafas Oculus. Así que primero podrás vivir la experiencia de la visión colectiva, como en el teatro, después una más pequeña, como si estuvieras en una sala de videoarte y, por último, una forma de inmersión individual de realidad virtual. Ahora estamos desarrollando otras formas de inmersión mediante la luz, que serán experiencias más multisensoriales.

Inside Magritte. Sala inmersiva de espejos. Fuente: Irina Grevtsova
Inside Magritte. Sala inmersiva de espejos. Fuente: Irina Grevtsova

IG – What phase are we in now and what will happen in the future?

SF – Currently all producers are trying to see if they are doing a business with this. Those who are there are trying to create their monopolies, but in the future this will change. What we need now, and I think that in two years we will be able to do it, is to train digital artists and make their names known to the public. Today, the exhibitions do not carry the names of the video artists who create the experiences. And this is what has to change over time. Now, I am making a call to my fellow artists from all over Italy. A very important digital art market is soon to open and I want to create a group of authors who make interesting works, reinterpreting art or creating new works. We need, like in the cinema, famous names like Kubrick, Woody Allen and others. If there are no authors and people do not know them, the immersive art system that relates the artist’s name to his work can never be developed. The important thing now is to value the one who is making the works.

Talking to Stefano has been an enriching experience in many ways. His struggle to position immersion works as art, and not as a show, is inspiring and admirable. We hope that his work will be exhibited soon in Barcelona and in other cities in Spain and Europe.

Post script

It is interesting to note that the term theatrical space (in Italian luogo teatrale) originated in Florence in the 15th century. According to historians, the first luogo teatrale was a church where shows were organized to celebrate memorable events, and later evolved to the model of the covered theater that we all know.

After five centuries, a Florentine church becomes a luogo teatrale once again, hosting the first immersive art exhibitions. Is it coincidence or is it the forefront of the new exhibition format? Is this why so many controversies and criticisms have been generated? We will surely see in the near future.

Special Thanks

I want to express my thanks to Stefano for his sincerity and generosity in sharing his knowledge and experiences. This article represents only a part of all this. His vision and endless ideas will undoubtedly be the source of my next posts and books.