ZeroSpace / SuperReal

Two NYC technology-based installations offer distinctly different approaches to digital experience design.

A few weeks after my tour of new NYC micro-museums, I became aware of two new pop-up experiences built around immersive digital environments. I was curious about the logistics and economics (and experience design!) of these ventures, so I checked them both out on a recent weekday.

Let’s get this out of the way – I visited SuperReal a few days before its closing, and as of this writing it’s not scheduled to happen again… though its creators staged a similar experience a few years back in the same venue, so it’s possible it will return again.

SuperReal confettiSuperReal was an immersive installation staged at Cipriani 25 Broadway, right in front of the notorious Wall Street bull statue. The high-end event space worked with Montreal-based media designers Moment Factory to create this experience, which transformed Cipriani’s ornate, Italian Neo-Renaissance hall into a projection-mapped fantasyscape.

After donning protective slippers, passing through heavy plastic curtains, and navigating a maze of temporary barriers, I stepped into the enormous space, with projections covering the walls and the central 65-foot-high domed ceiling. Mirrored tiles on the floor extended the immersive effect, and beanbag chairs and oversized balloons gave it a casual, playful vibe.

SuperReal decoI watched the entire 45-minute show, which cycled though a sequence of themes, reconfiguring the room roughly every five minutes. Many of these were purely abstract – fairy-dust particle effects, sweeping grids and lines, flowing fabric. Others were tightly tied to the geometry of the space, transforming the room’s ornament into windows revealing a lush garden or a violent thunderstorm. At one point, 1920s jazz played as projections accentuated the room, then a wireframe skyline rose up to fill the walls, only to transform into a Miami-esque discotheque playing Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).

There was certainly a randomness to the content, which was described by the hosts as “multidimensional realms that blur the boundaries between real and virtual.” Ultimately, despite the high level of both design and technical craftsmanship, the concepts felt a bit generic, as if they were ‘greatest hits’ from other installations. Maybe I’ve seen too much projection mapping to still feel the magic, but a hint of a storyline would have gone a long way.

Across from Penn Station in Midtown, I encountered something completely different at ZeroSpace, a mysterious new installation in a large venue that recently hosted Candytopia. Themed around interdimensional travel, ZeroSpace falls somewhere between an interactive theater piece and an immersive art installation.

ZeroSpace lobbyAfter checking in, my group of 10 was led into a briefing room, where we were asked to lock up our phones in Yondr pouches (alas, no photos…) and answer some brief, silly assessment tests. Our two hosts set up the scenario – they were scientists, and we had all ‘volunteered’ for an experimental trip to another dimension. After a shoddy orientation video, I started to get a bit worried about what I’d signed up for.

We proceeded to a room with reclining chairs situated below a projection dome. Looking up, abstract, trippy black-and-white animations, beautifully crafted, represented our journey to the other realm.

Finally, we were led into a large, open space, where yet another performer met us and gave us yet another orientation. Now, we were free to roam about and explore. My eye was drawn to a passageway with a vivid floor projection of undulating pinks and purples, leading to an ornate wall mapped with abstract monochrome animations. Both of these installations were simple, effective, and technically top-notch.

Off this corridor, three rooms each hosted a single artwork. The largest had mirrored walls and a ceiling of loosely dangling plastic fibers lit with lasers, which seemed to undulate as if the surface of the ocean, an effect alternately creepy and relaxing. Another room was filled with a giant spinning geometric structure, itself laser-cut like an ornate lantern, shining and reflecting patterns of light onto the walls like a disco ball.

The third room was my favorite, featuring a ceiling-mounted starburst of 48 LED strips by Christopher Schardt. Once again, the content was completely abstract, but the vibrant colors and patterns were mesmerizing. I watched for at least five minutes, and was tempted to stay longer.

Instead, I explored a bit more. Around a corner was a gigantic sandbox with overhead projection and depth sensors, a larger-scale version of the topography interactives commonly seen in science centers. Nearby, a series of well-crafted ‘interactive mirrors’ transformed visitor images into spinning disks and prismatic colors.

There was only one thing left to explore. Moving stealthily through the space were a number of interdimensional ‘beings,’ dressed in white cloaks and elaborate geometric masks, somewhere between Eyes Wide Shut and Hellraiser. I managed to engage one in some wordless interaction, and she led me into a small interview room, where (via ‘translating’ headphones) I was asked what life was like in my dimension. The conversation was a little bit invasive; I played along with it, though it went on for a few minutes longer than I’d hoped it would.

Finally, I headed toward the exit, an elaborately-lit portal… and the storyline abruptly ended, as my phone was unlocked and I was free to go home.

ZeroSpace is undeniably weird, and has a bit of a split personality. Its sci-fi setup suggested a narrative adventure, but it didn’t follow through. And the aesthetics of that story (and the space itself) were underdeveloped compared to the pristine art installations.

The space claims to present art by some of the world’s leading digital artists, but their names were nowhere to be found on site (they’re listed on the website). A few of the works were by artists I’d seen represented at the Burning Man exhibition last year in Washington, DC. That exhibition was free; this one was $49 for what amounted to roughly 10 digital artworks, plus the theatrics.

ZeroSpace exterior
At SuperReal, visitors (including myself) had their phones out the whole time, some of them recording the entire presentation. Can ZeroSpace, a phone-free environment, really survive? It remains to be seen whether its exclusivity is enough of a draw to overcome the impossibility of selfies.

While I wanted more from the experience – more art, more story – part of me is rooting for ZeroSpace. In a world where the Museum of Ice Cream claims a $200 million valuation, there’s something appealing about a pop-up that exists outside the realm of Instagram, asking visitors to have a visceral reaction to its experience rather than simply documenting themselves in it.