Written by Isabel Law

Immersive art shows have now entered the mainstream. In London alone we’ve seen the arrival of the Van Gogh and Dalí exhibitions, as well as permanent venues such as Frameless, 180 Strand, Dopamine Land or the Outernet emerge in the past few years.

The focus seems to be on newfound digital avenues, with the world of art increasingly fusing with technology (see the Serpentine’s comments on the arrival of the ‘full-stack’ art studio model). The reception of these exhibits has been mixed, with high volume ticket sales pocked by critical scepticism. Within this polarity we find ourselves asking: how do we create quality immersive experiences that people want to attend?

LUX - 180 Strand / Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience
Frameless / Room to Breathe - Outernet

Immersive art covers a broad spectrum of experiences, making it difficult to evaluate it as a genre. Yet amongst all instances, we can traverse a spectrum consisting of legacy at one end and innovation at the other. These are spaces which are designed to augment the legacy and heritage of existing art (see aforementioned Van Gogh and Dalí) - be it visual, sonic or other - versus works which innovates with the tools at hand to create a novel creative concept in itself, a fresh ‘modern’ artwork or exhibit.

In order to fully appraise the variety of exhibitions which exist on this spectrum, we have selected what we deem to be the a few essential aspects required to create an effective immersive experience. We find that, although leveraging legacy art and artists feels like a simpler route to create a satisfying experience, more often than not it presents itself as a lazy shortcut that fails to capture the potential of the genre. Without the crutch of legacy content, we see creators arguably delivering richer, more cost-effective and memorable experiences that should serve as inspiration to us all.

How do you set expectations before the show?

Experience starts in the journey from before you buy your ticket.

Good marketing is vital, not only for attracting visitors, but also to establish a cogent and clear tone which frames the entire experience, and influences the satisfaction and enjoyment of the event-goers.

Popular immersive art experiences using legacy work have the benefit of familiarity: a promise to see world renowned work reimagined. It’s a straightforward sell, and the risk of mismanaging expectations is low. But if not done well, the immersive format can quickly become a gimmicky distraction or misappropriation of the original work, raising questions around the cultural worth and value for money that these events are really delivering.

Without opting for recognisable content, it can feel hard to quantify, communicate and market what you’re actually offering. The genre, as we have touched upon, is still relatively ill defined, where vague or overly technical descriptions may cause confusion or alienate potential visitors. Videos and photography also often fail to encapsulate what one ought to expect, or can even ruin any element of surprise.

But this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Without using a familiar body of work, visitors may be more open-minded and exploratory in how they navigate their experience, more willing to experiment, and be surprised. The priority lies in defining what ‘sort’ of experience one can expect – will it be relaxing, informative, moving, bizarre - using adjectives and terminology likely found more in performance media such as film or theatre. Along these lines, many immersive experiences we see today have been framed as therapeutic or educational. The popular Dreamachine, touted as a ‘drug-free psychedelic trip’, and Marshmallow Laser Feast’s VR experiences that illuminate and educate visitors on processes in our natural world are good examples of this. Setting expectations in this way gives people a better idea of what they’re coming for, but it also maintains a broad frame for visitors to navigate shows in a more holistic and curious way.

Marshmallow Laser Feast

How do you spend and set a fair price for what you offer?

Impressive shows don’t have to be expensive - or technologically cutting-edge.

Most people seem happy to pay from £25 up to £50 for an experience. This is the same, if not considerably more than a typical exhibition ticket. However, the differences between a regular exhibition and an immersive experience begin to manifest themselves in the profit margins. Where some shows license legacy content for free — and cite setup costs at a modest ~$300,000, with ticket sales going into the millions – it’s no surprise we keep seeing more of these highly profitable events.

Yet, when the National Gallery put on Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece – charging £18-20 for people to interact with ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, usually on view for free at same venue – the public were more discerning.

The current commercial success of ‘insert artist here’ immersive experiences is undeniable - potentially in part due to good post-lockdown timing. But there is an ever-increasing possibility that the public consumer will demand more from these events, and layering on more tech might not be the most sustainable or cost-effective solution.

For the same £25 you can now see the David Hockney Immersive Bigger & Closer, Not Smaller & Further Away at Lightroom in Kings Cross. This was created in close collaboration with Hockney, including his own commentary throughout the experience, peeling back his process and intentions as visitors navigate his work brought to life. Our guess is it won’t be long until this richer quality of experience sets the standard for immersive experiences of this ilk.

Bigger & Closer, Not Smaller & Further Away - Lightroom
Bigger & Closer, Not Smaller & Further Away - Lightroom

Alternatively, since the licensing of legacy content can end up being a financially prohibitive, it is possible to create a fantastic immersive experience on a much less onerous budget. Take, for example, the Luminarium by Architects of Air - a series of inflated spaces of natural and geometric forms that immerse visitors in vivid colour, the only light source of which is the daylight shining through the fabric of the structure. Upon entry, the experience is transportive, captivating, photogenic - everything you would expect from an immersive experience, whilst being surprisingly low-maintenance. The concept also tours well (seeing over 40 countries and amassing over 3 million visitors) and can undergo countless iterations, spreading cost and profit potential. For visitors, the Luminarium is only £4-5 to experience – a modest price to witness and enjoy a truly innovative event first hand.

Luminarium by Architects of Air

By not relying upon legacy artwork, the effort falls to creativity, innovation, imagination, culminating in a unique, novel experience. Not only does this add to the fresh and ever-changing artistic landscape of immersive experiences, by leaving legacy behind, we are able to create more viable and financially accessible events for the public to enjoy. If we spend more time crafting experiences like this, we wonder whether paying £25 to see public domain images scaled up will continue to feel like such a fun day out.

Luminarium by Architects of Air

How can you create value that can’t be achieved via the usual forms?

Rich interaction, not just content, is key to experience

In a time where content and experiences are abundant, it feels relevant to consider how immersive art can deliver unique value. Why spend the money and time to create large scale interactive digital displays, if your traditional gallery exhibit or online exhibition can do the same?

Putting on an immersive experience to enhance or deepen the work of an existing artist has a level of value that people are clearly after. But so much focus on content could overshadow the real benefit of immersive experiences - creating a shared experience of being transported into a different world. This is something that most immersive experiences advertise, but behind all the phone screens it’s hard not to question how successful this actually is.

When we’re not there for a focal subject, we have to actively explore. We are more aware of our surroundings and more attuned to those around us. Immersive theatre experiences such as Punchdrunk’s productions embody this methodology. Their work requires you - for a moment - to to exist and interact in a crafted dimension as you must seek your own journey to enjoy and co-create the show. This choose-your-own-adventure type experience is difficult to replicate with a traditional exhibit or show. Any linear storyline, whether it’s a set list, exhibition text, film arc, renders us somewhat passive, and that can only deliver so much.

A Drowned Man by Punchdrunk

With the generative, realtime and responsive technology available to us today, we are far more able to innovate immersive experiences that can be truly active and transportive. The crux of these richer immersive experiences may be in how you create interactivity in a way that enables presence and curiosity in each moment. Alex Czetwertynski’s analysis of interactive art warns us of the limitations of ‘forcing people to interact with works in ways that don’t benefit their intelligence’ critiquing the basic action-outcome features of interactive exhibits that calls into question their value as true art. ‘Rich interactivity’, Czetwertynski argues, ‘happens when the result of the interaction is endlessly compelling and inspiring, where the outcome surpasses the expectation’. This is a high bar to achieve. But with the tools available it is something to which we should certainly aspire.

Works by Teamlab, such as the aptly named exhibit Borderless are a good example of rich interactivity. Although at first glance their format appears familiar, the experience goes much deeper than most large-scale projected shows. Creating maze-like spaces of constantly morphing, responsive original artwork, where no moment is the same, Teamlab are led by the motto: ‘You become the centre and the artwork changes with you’. Visitors become the drivers of their experience shaped by their own creativity, where possibilities can be limitless.

Borderless and Forest of Resonating Lamps by Teamlab

Creating immersive, digital and interactive art experiences to expand and deepen our relationships with artists and their work isn’t a bad idea. But we shouldn’t solely rely on that work to be the creative driver of an experience. As the genre of immersive experience develops and becomes more commonplace, the standards of what is expected at these events will will continue to rise, where recontextualising or supporting legacy work may not feel as exciting and novel as it once did.

Should legacy work make way for innovative new immersive experiences, the public consumer of art may be more willing and subsequently more attentive upon discovering the unexpected. More effort and resources can be also siphoned into the creativity of the experience itself, where there are vast opportunities to generate perhaps even more meaningful, memorable experiences.


Our perspective on emerging industry patterns, creative observations, research and insights.

As tools and technology evolve and working practices and processes respond, viewpoints offers a critical point of view from a hybrid, multi-domain studio.

Creative direction and production of narrative spaces. Formed in 2015, The Experience Machine takes physical engineering, lighting design, moving image and visual programming to new spaces by embracing emerging techniques, new technologies and novel materiality.

TEM is a multi disciplinary studio with a growing community of thinkers, designers, technical experts, producers and collaborators, it continues to explore the evolving possibilities for experience within live and virtual spaces.

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