I was all set to propose a new art movement I decided to call “Immersion Art,” the creation of an environment in which the viewer could “immerse” himself, when I realized that it wasn’t new at all, in fact, you could say that’s it’s as old as humanity itself; it’s what the cave painters were doing when they performed multi-media rituals in torch- lit caves with hordes of painted pre-historic animals as a backdrop.
My form of Immersion Art is singularly low tech. I don’t use lighting or slides or computerized images, just an old-fashioned overhead projector, the obsolete kind we used to use in schools to put lessons on a blackboard. Many years ago, when I was teaching art history at the University of Connecticut, I remember walking by a classroom and seeing chemistry notes put up for students to copy. I remember thinking, why did it have to be boring formulae; why couldn’t it be art? I started photocopying my sketches onto transparent sheets of plastic and using these enlargements as the basis for paintings. In recent years however, I decided to carry it a step further and make the projected images themselves into an art form, and lately, going even further, I began to include the viewer in the image as well.
What exactly is “Immersion Art?” My son, Ned, an environmental sculptor (and don’t ask me what that is) explains it beautifully. He claims “it’s the difference between being inside a forest versus standing next to a plant. “ Anyhow, I soon discovered I could use the overhead projector to create the forest.
I recently sent out an e-mail to a group of local artists, asking for unwanted overhead projectors (they were obsolete; everyone was now using PowerPoint and a computer) and ended up with eighteen perfectly good machines that were taking up storage space in local schools. I could have acquired dozens more if only I had a bigger attic! A lifetime supply I hoped!
Many years ago, just out of art school, I went down to the Lower East Side and took a roll of snapshots with my new Kodak Brownie camera to use as reference material for some paintings of street life I was doing. However, I never got around to using the images and the envelope with the prints and negatives remained untouched for years. About a dozen years ago, I found the envelope, unopened, had the images printed and began to use them as backgrounds for a series of cardboard box dioramas I was working on. Recently, I copied the scenes onto sheets of acetate to use with the overhead projector. In my darkened studio, I was able to re-create a lost world one could actually enter, his or her shadows mingling with the people I had photographed on Delancey Street or under the Third Avenue El decades ago. I then borrowed a half- dozen projectors and put together an exhibit that filled a huge, windowless art gallery. By projecting and overlapping the images twenty feet high, I created a world people could actually walk into, blurry, dream-like and surreal.
The closest thing to this experience nowadays is what happens when you go to a natural history museum or zoo where they recreate a rain forest, replete with steamy temperatures and exotic birdcalls. If I ever get a chance to do this installation again, I will try to tape street sounds and music, making it even more “Immersive.” Smells of food and garbage would provide a nice touch as well. The overhead projector, low-tech as it is, can pull you into an environment that evokes memories of the past.
I like to think I invented “Immersion Art,” but the truth is, it has been around (under other names) for millenia, “multi-media” rituals that combined art and theater. The Medieval cathedral, another multi-media experience also “immerses” the viewer as does going to the theater. More recently, the “Happening” movement of the 1960s involved the audience in a multi-dimensional manner that evades the standard “art-on-a wall-to-be-sold gallery experience. Best of all, having no product to market frees both the creator and the viewer, allowing them to inter-act rather than trans-act. “Immersive/Immersion Art” is still going strong