There’s a new immersive exhibit at New York’s The Shed that has our spidey senses tingling…
Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s) is billed as a “large-scale exhibition and sensory experience with spiderwebs, air, and the cosmic web”.
“Through floating sculptures, interactive installations, and an artistic process that centers collaboration, often with spiders and their webs, Tomás Saraceno proposes a conversation between human and nonhuman lifeforms.
In a call for environmental justice, Saraceno also collaborates with human communities that have been impacted by these negative effects to renew relationships with Earth, the air, and the cosmos, particularly as part of his community projects, Aerocene and Arachnophilia.”The Shed
How can experience design mediate the overlapping space between exhibit and performance? Creative director, experience designer and WXO Founding Member Julian Rad gives his take…
What happened during the experience?
- We start by entering a long room ringed by heavy theatrical curtains with two concentric rings of benches in the center. As we enter, guides instruct us that people who have tickets for the lower level should sit on the inner ring, and those of us who have tickets for the higher level are invited to sit on the outside. We then are given a lively lecture on what we are about to experience. A set of lockers give us space to secure our valuables as the nets are open, and anything falling would be a hazard. And with that, we begin a climb up and up and up to the 40-foot-high level (did you think your author would get a ticket to the lower level? Never!)
- We are welcomed and ushered through a first set of doors into a smaller space and then into an impossibly vast, off-white space filled (as much as possible) with fog. Spiders are VERY near sighted and even that is fuzzy, so the fog in a white space filled with light effectively reduces our depth perception. We step off the ledge onto the industrial-strength cable netting that holds up this half of the audience for the performance.
- As we pick our way gingerly across the expanse to find a perch for the 9-minute performance, we can feel every movement and every step that every other audience member makes. Here we encounter the other superpower of the installation: the amplification system. Throughout the netting there are a number of circular buckles on which are housed microphones, picking up every sound, every whisper, every noise we make and throwing it into the series of speakers that ring the edge of our net level. This makes us wildly aurally aware of everything going on around us, and more specifically, of every little noise our fellow audience members make.
- Weaving our way to the spot we pick out, we settle in. Sitting down with our heads to the outside edge, the audio is fading in an undulating drone, subtly insinuating itself with the amplified audience noises. The lights fade out and enter “into the world of the spider.” As we are plunged into near darkness, music forms from the noise and this is when we discover another of the superpowers of the experience: those “buckles” are also “thumpers”. They pluck and ping and set the wires of the web thrumming with vibrations that simulate what it must mean to spread your awareness of the greater world around you via woven filaments.
- Once we’ve exited the experience, we’re led out and downstairs to a comprehensive exploration of Tomas Saraceno’s particular obsession with spiders. From his web “collaborations” and research to his early explorations of filaments and arachnid communications, it’s clear that Saraceno loves these eight-legged wonders and it’s impossible to not get swept up in his excitement and wonder.
- Upstairs on a separate floor, Saraceno makes his strongest condemnation of the disposable nature of human industry by taking the plastic shopping bag and stitching them together with clear tape to build an oversized balloon. Inspired by the way spiders spin balloons to use the air currents to transport themselves, this gesture is at once delightful and sobering as you realize just how vast our plastic problem has become.
What’s good about the experience?
- Thomas Saraceno does a brilliant job of getting us to shrink ourselves into the sensual world of the arachnid, from an immersive, tactile, scale recreation of a web to a series of forensic breakdowns of the facets of a spider’s communion with the world.
- The primary focal point of this exhibition, the 95-foot web woven inside a sphere built in The Shed’s McCourt space, is a triumph.
What could be improved?
- I craved a story. Saraceno has done such brilliant and wonderful work in immersing us into the sensual experience of being a spider and effectively recreating for us lowly four-limbed creatures how spiders interact and communicate with the environment… only to ultimately disappoint by being satisfied with that achievement.
- I would have loved a guided journey into the world of the spider, starting with those first tentative steps onto the web, finding our way, picking through to the center. Then give us a moment of danger, a moment of triumph, what does it feel like to find prey stumbled into your web? How does a spider experience excitement? What does a spider feel as they settle into a meal?
- According to the exhibit, the music is performed by “arachnid players, spider diviners, and atmospheric and cosmic matters, captured via recording devices in collaboration with the Arachnophilia community and amplified in the installation”. Some shape and form to some of these interactions would have provided a sturdy spine upon which to build a story.
- While spider’s eyesight is poor, there’s such a fantastic opportunity to play with color and shadow in this vast sphere to provide more context for how the story evolves. I know that for Saraceno the medium is the message, but had he used these new tools to tell a story that we all think we understand in a context that is so wildly misunderstood by all of us, it would have been transformative.
What elements do you like so much you’d like to use them in your work?
- SO MANY THINGS. I’ve expressed my admiration for so many elements in my descriptions above, but what really stands out for me is that this experience has opened up my comprehension of immersion.
- Haptic and tactile design can give us so many new ways to experience the world we’re creating, I’m excited to explore new ways of building context.
You can book tickets for Particular Matters here.