An immersive Monet not very ideal


Last week the first Digital Arts Center in Barcelona was inaugurated. It was an exciting and highly anticipated event by many professionals in the cultural field. According to its creators, the Ideal Center is inspired by the models of the well-known Digital Arts Centers such as the Borderless teamLab in Tokyo and L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris, l’Artechouse in Washington DC, among others.

Today, the word “immersive” has become very fashionable in many experiences, especially those linked to digital art. Originating in video games and virtual reality, thanks to the development of technologies, this term has also been used in digital art. The immersive in art communicates through the language of sensations and emotions. In total immersion, the state of consciousness of the viewer or user is transformed by being surrounded by an audiovisual environment, and at the same time, by perceiving their presence in a non-physical world (Sacristán, 2019).

After the less than successful start of the self-declared immersive exhibition of Van Gogh, which was presented in Barcelona a few months ago, I must recognize that I had high expectations before visiting the first immersive exhibition produced in Barcelona.

On the advertising posters, Twitter and the website, the organizers affirm that 360º projections, 1,000 square meters of screen surface and virtual reality technology are used in the exhibition. These are very powerful reasons to believe that it is true, to be excited and buy a ticket. So I did, and full of impatience, I visited the exhibition last weekend.

The Ideal, is an old neighborhood cinema that was also a television set and is located on the edge of the Eixample grid. In this urban district there is a mixture of uses, buildings and different architectural styles. Historic residential buildings coexist with modern multimedia and design educational centers. Nearby there are abandoned buildings and smokestacks that stand out, recalling its industrial past.

The Ideal is painted gray and it is difficult to distinguish it from a distance because it is lost between similar buildings. The entrance hall, where the lockers are located, has modest dimensions. To your right, there is a place to wait for your turn and, right there, a small shop, some tables and vending machines for food and drink.

The entrance of the Digital Art Center. Source: Irina GrevtsovaSince it was the weekend, there were many people in the entrance queue. They were mostly from the neighborhood, older or middle-aged people and families. There were practically no young people or millennials. And, as it turned out later, everything had an explanation: that particular day most of the visitors had come by invitation.

You could only enter according to the established schedule and it was best to buy tickets in advance. I decided to take a risk, I went without a ticket and right when my turn came, tickets were sold out and I had to wait two more hours.

While I was waiting, I looked over the free triptych of the exhibition. Interestingly, they were only available in Catalan, but that was not what surprised me. In the inner fold there was a detailed plan of the exhibition accompanied by the description of the script.

Information leaflets are a tool used in some traditional museums and exhibitions. They help visitors to plan the route and to orient themselves better, but in digital exhibitions there are almost never triptychs or routes. The radar that guides the visitor is their own sensations. The organizers disregard the purpose of the text and give priority to intrigue, sensations and emotions.

The two hours of waiting went by very fast. The time indicated on the ticket that I had bought coincided with the lunch hour, so there were not many visitors, and those that were there were mostly families with small children and elderly couples.

My turn did not take long to arrive and our group entered the first room, a long and narrow corridor in which on the right were information screens and on the left, a corridor. The visitors moved slowly along, bit by bit. They stopped in an organized and systematic way, carefully reading the information that appeared on each panel. I, on the other hand, listened to the music that came from the immersive room and was dying of curiosity to get there.

Fuente: Irina GrevtsovaThe next hall was just for passing through. In its center was a screen on which a documentary about the history of that cinema was projected. The room was empty. None of the visitors had stopped here.

The video projection of the documental film. Source: Irina GrevtsovaThe next hall was also not immersive but rather a drawing workshop. On the tables were pencils and paper sheets. Photocopies of Monet’s paintings had to be colored and placed on an interactive scanner to see the projected image on a large screen.

Game room: Irina Grevtsova

This hall reminded me of the MORI museum in Tokyo, where there is a similar drawing workshop room, but of much larger dimensions and located at the end of the tour. The drawings of the visitors were based, in this case, on the entire dream world of animals that they had experienced in the spaces before the workshop. In MORI the drawn images are projected and incorporated in motion, on all the walls, creating the immersion effect. In this room of the Ideal, only one family stayed to draw with a child, probably due to its location at the beginning of the tour and also to the lack of references. Everyone else hurried to the room with curtains where the music came from.

I pulled the curtains aside and entered. When I saw the walls and floor covered in digital projections, I realized that I was in a topically immersive room. However, there was a lot of light and the back wall, which was at the end of the room, immediately caught my attention. At the bottom of the wall was a black hole that blocked the bottom of the screen. This black hole was the exit of the exhibition! The projections only covered the upper half of the screen. I could not believe what I was seeing! The sensation of magic disappeared immediately.

I looked around. Technically the audiovisual videos were projected in over 360º , but in reality there were many projections at the same time and with different themes. Because of this, to get an overall view of the show there is only one point of view: being in front of the three full screens.

Looking for a better view, I turned my back to the hole and faced the curtains through which I had entered. It was from that point that the projected images were best seen, but the vision was only 270º. It is also what the other visitors did, spreading themselves out proportionally throughout the room. Some were sitting, others had remained standing, but practically no one moved. Everyone was following the projections passively.

Immersive room. Source: Irina Grevtsova

It is worth mentioning that during the show the curtains were constantly opened with people entering, which distracted and hindered the perception. In addition, due to the large distance covered by the screens and their low height, the ceiling looked very low and came out in all the photos.

There are technical solutions to make the roof and access invisible. In MORI, for example, the rooms are submerged in the dim lighting and the ceiling is barely visible. In the areas divided into smaller spaces, by using partitions, mirrors appear to double the spaces and generate the illusion that the walls are taller. They are simple resources that allow this problem to be solved.

Sala inmersiva del MORI. Fuente: Irina Grevtsova

As for the quality of the projections and the spaces destined for them, there were many defects. Looking at them in detail, you could see that the screens were poorly adjusted in the corners of the rooms. The dimensions of the actual objects that were projected were distorted and hard to believe. The projected videos were not interactive. It was very sad to watch as a child tried to play with the virtual fish, but they would swim away without paying any attention.

Fuente: Irina GrevtsovaThe pace of the videos was sometimes too slow. But the main disappointment for me were the contents and the script. The video was not adapted to be projected in an immersive room. Urban scenes created in virtual reality, such as the one of Venice, or the platform of a railway station, for example, were projected on three screens without taking into account the perspective. They created the impression of isolated projections. The titles of the paintings, as well as the paintings themselves were embedded in the facades of the buildings, between the houses and the bridges. The realistic images of the Parisian Orangerie museum where the works of the Water Lilies are exhibited cause an even greater stupor. And nothing of a surprising projection of Monet’s particular pictorial technique.

Fuente: Irina Grevtsova

The  last hall was dedicated to virtual reality. At the entrance there was a sign warning that the waiting time was 20 minutes. Taking into account that the complete visit lasts 50 minutes, dedicating 20 to the waiting time can cause some disappointment.

Hall with virtual realuty. Source: Irina GrevtsovaThe experience itself lasts 10 minutes. It represents a video that runs through the artist’s best-known paintings. It is, by far, the best part of the exhibition. The video is of good quality and is projected in 360º. The great problem with this experience is that the music can barely be heard, due to the noise generated by the visitors waiting for their turn in the same room

As a result of the experience of the visit, it can be said that the technical data announced in the advertising posters are met. But there are many defects that make the immersive effect not end up working. The distribution of spaces, the use of texts, the spatial characteristics of the immersive room, excessive lighting, uncontrolled sound, script and animation are some of the many aspects that generate distortions in perception, generating projections without emotions and without magic. In short, they do not allow the immersion the visitor pursues and that was announced.

Barcelona is an avant-garde city in many fields and digital arts are among them. Great artists and creatives work in the city, and internationally renowned festivals such as Sónar and MIRA Digital Arts Festival are held.

The result of Monet’s exhibition shows that the organizers were in a hurry to open the center. We hope that the situation changes with the next visiting artists. The pity is that the first impression of the visit will be present for a long time.