Just recently I visited an exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum titled “Theater of the Mind”. The artwork varied all over, photographs, paintings, and installations. I’m not well versed in art and was unaware of what an installation was exactly years ago. For the most part it can take form in any number of ways, but it refers to a site specific creation to be experienced in that spot. The lighting, the room, the atmosphere, the arrangement of items in the room/on the walls, everything. Entering the museum there was a room off to the left when entering that was a sound based installation. A green bulb was placed beside curtains at the entryway to signal if someone was in there. It requested not to disturb the participant by going dark when the room was in use. Not being able to see inside due to the curtain and unsure of what to expect, my wife and I went on to the rest of the show.
After doing a full round and exploring the museum we came back around to the entry point to that same installation. The bulb was lit green indicating no one was in there. Reading about the work from the posted placard, she decided to go in and see what was going on. After passing through the curtain a minute or two went by before the bulb went dim, discouraging further entries. I thought it was strange, maybe there was a delay of some sort? Anyways, the statement read that it would be about five minutes and to wait patiently. Having a seat, I wondered what was in that room that was required isolation. It seemed odd to me. We had already went into another installation that was completely black with the exception of a curved beam of light projected through twenty feet of space, only visible from the fog machine to create a solid beam of light through the room. If that didn’t isolate the viewers, why did this one? Then my wife popped out through the curtains with a grin, a clear indicator that not only was she intrigued but she knew I was going to appreciate it. Alright, “go-time” I thought. Let’s see what this artist, Hans Rosenström, had created.
Stepping through the curtains took me into a large space. Possibly a 20×20 room that was mostly empty. An old photograph extending out from the wall instead of against it, a chair raised on a pedestal, a large woven piece of art with “1928” on it, a lamp, and another chair with a set of hanging headphones just in front of it. Other than that it was just open space. I took a seat in the headphones chair. It was positioned towards a corner, facing the woven art and lamp. After examining the weave for a moment I put on the headphones danging between me and the wall. It began an audio clip of a man speaking, explaining someone had just sat down in the chair. A story began to be told tying the room together. Bit by bit you learned why everything was in there and what it meant. While I was being told the story I heard someone walking in the room behind me to the right from the entrance. “What the hell… didn’t they see the do not enter message?” – Glancing over my shoulder no one was there. Then I heard the steps walking around the back of me to the left now. Quickly shifting to look left, there was no one there.
Then it clicked. The footsteps were part of the audio clip being played back. A bit of relief washed over me at that point. Knowing the rules of the game now I was all in and listening and appreciating the simulated environment. During the story when necessitated the lamps in the room would dim or turn on. This virtual environment and storytelling completely had my attention. There were points where only slight whispers were being spoken after the footstep and I could swear someone was in the room, leaning over my shoulder and talking to me. It was an eerie, surreal experience… Having someone be there and not at the same time.
Once he had finished telling his story and the lights returned to normal, I looked over the room once more and the old photograph protruding off the wall. It was a powerful storytelling event and left the room with the same spark that I saw my wife leave with. It’s the closest I’ve been to a VR experience, having never tried an Oculus Rift or it’s kin. If those devices can deliver even half of what was crafted in that room though, I’m completely sold. Being able to convince me that I wasn’t alone in that room to the point of anxiously looking about? Then the feeling as if someone was speaking directly to me and not just my character?
“Theater of the mind” indeed. Bravo.