The Looming Arms Race In The Cultural Experience Economy

Yoram Roth is a Founding Member of the WXO, the Executive Chairman of the Board and majority shareholder in Fotografiska Holding AB, Executive Chairman of NeueHouse, Inc, and an entrepreneur with a focus on the culture, community, and hospitality sectors. Here he looks into the future of the emerging immersive space, and the factors that will affect its development: price, technology, art, and the audience.

Over the last ten years, there has been a substantial growth of “culture as an experience.”

The movement beyond the white wall started over forty years ago with artists like Yayoi Kusama and her Infinity Rooms, light and space artists like James Turrell, the large wrapped spaces and floating islands by Jean-Claude and Christo, but also artists emerging a generation later like Olafur Eliasson, or photographer Gregory Colbert’s Nomadic Museum.

Yayoi Kusama and her Infinity Rooms. Photo by Unsplash

The most recent development is driven by artists and collectives creating site-specific immersive cultural experiences that reside on a spectrum between fine art and the spectacular. They include installations by Studio DriftRandom International’s Rain RoomChristopher Bauder’s Skalar Exhibition Cycle in Berlin, Refik Anadol’s data sculptures, Ron Arad’s 720installation, or dedicated locations like Artechouse’s projection spaces. With this particular genre of location-based cultural experiences we must also include places like Meow Wolf, the Museum of Ice Cream, but also Burning Man and the big-name music festivals.

We get to watch a genre emerging from the high towers of the fine art world and the underground bunkers of the night club scene.

There are several groups working in this immersive experiential cultural space, the best-known of which is TeamLab from Japan. As an artist collective comprising 400 programmers, artists, and producers, TeamLab has been able to create a remarkable body of work that is all at once technically cutting edge, artistically deliberate, and whimsical in its effect.

The Immersive Van Gogh

Van Gogh Outdoors. Photo Unsplash

The most prominent form of immersive experiences emerging over the last two years has been a variation on the Immersive Van Gogh. Currently there are over fifty different shows in North America alone, and probably as many across Europe and the Middle East as well.

One of the early progenitors of this particular enterprise was Atelier des Lumieres, who has four locations in France within the Culturespaces group. They have relied on major Impressionist and Modern artists like Monet, Klimt, and Dali whose work is in the public domain. Their Van Gogh exhibition was extremely successful. The ‘exposition’ was featured in an episode of Emily in Paris, which set off the current mania.

The work of Van Gogh is now in the public domain, which means it’s possible to use his work without having to ask anyone for permission, nor pay any royalties or licensing fees. Seventy years after a person’s death all rights expire and can no longer be protected for personal or financial gain by its creator. Not only can producers take the works of the artist and alter or animate them, they can also sell merchandise and reproductions without sharing any revenue.

Van Gogh is the perfect show subject. He is one of those few artists that almost everyone has heard of, while his work is also available royalty free. Few names can compel such a large audience, and a major Netflix show definitely helped propel the entire concept to the forefront.

Some of the current Van Gogh shows are working with the original creative team that developed the Paris show, others have simply produced their own. At its core, it’s not difficult to take some wonderful paintings and animate them, though some teams have created exceptional animations to transport the artist’s vision. The resulting video is then beamed on to walls of a large room using high resolution projectors, while combining them with voice-overs and accompanying orchestral music. Upon entry into the overall experience location, there is some historical context and background information on the artist as well as some fun selfie opportunities, and a massive gift shop on the way out.

I believe done right, these immersive cultural experiences could be awe-inspiring. They draw a broad audience and feel accessible and inclusive to all visitors, even those who have shied away from contact with the traditional art and museum world. Snarky voices have insisted these kinds of moments exist solely to feed Selfie Culture. Being culturally curious is wonderful, but it is also acceptable to shoot a selfie. It’s ok to let the world know that you love culture by sharing it on social media. It’s perfectly fine to buy a present for a friend or a keepsake for oneself, especially if the selection is relevant and interesting. Art and fun are not mutually exclusive, nor does the combination make it any less of a cultural experience.

The Business of Experience

Van Gogh Outdoors. Photo Unsplash

Nonetheless: change is coming. The current crop of Van Gogh shows represent a unique moment in time, combining free star power and a low barrier to entry with a hungry and impressionable audience.

However, the producers should be cognizant of what the future holds. There is a looming arms race, and the development of this sector will be fast and fierce.

Four factors will affect the Immersive Cultural Experience sector: price, technology, art, and the audience.

Price

Van Gogh Outdoors. Photo Unsplash

Currently, these various experiences are very expensive, and we should anticipate downward pressure. In the United States the average gross price regularly exceeds $45 per person, and in Europe these experiences can cost up to €35, all before considering parking, transportation, or money spent on food and beverages. Remember, the average calculated time spent is around 25–40 minutes. It’s an expensive date night or family outing, and some of these experiences feel underwhelming. It is highly unlikely to be an experience they would come back to a second time.

Right now, a lot of the Van Gogh businesses have generated substantial pre-sales. They’ve sold thousands of tickets before opening in their respective cities with extensive marketing campaigns based on FOMO, the fear of missing out. “Only three months left to experience Van Gogh like you’ve never seen art before!” Coming out of a year of lockdown, this is a very compelling pitch, especially since timed entry is a great sales tool for creating artificial scarcity in the name of health and safety.

However, if the producers want guests to return for their next production and continue to pay such high ticket prices, the shows will have to ramp up on technology and continue the inclusion of new features with every new show. They will need to ensure the continuous Wow! factor. Multiple projectors and stereo sound will not be enough for very long.

Technology

The Festival of Light, Berlin. Photo by Unsplash

Beyond motion sensitivity and animated projections, shows will need to begin including other technologies. For example, refracted light and color lasers are still an awe-inspiring sight. The complex physical choreography of programming interfaces — like the ones WhiteVoid or Studio Drift conjure with wires and motorized pullies to move entire fields of light — are several generations away from our 1970s “Night at the Planetarium” set to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

The most impressive aspect of TeamLab is the incredible proprietary technology underlying their art experience. The collective uses hundreds of projectors with an array of motion trackers and sensor technologies, which follow movement or allow quasi-physical responses from the guests. When you touch a wall, a projected flower turns to a butterfly, or there are entire rooms filled with real clouds. This is not easy, cheap, or quick. TeamLab’s technology, much of it developed in-house, is so seamlessly integrated, it feels like magic. The average visitor cannot figure out how it works, but leaves memorably enthralled.

The technological race is further compounded as tools become more accessible. Even a high-end restaurant like Cipriani’s in New York now offers an experience called SuperReal, though in fairness this was produced by the highly talented Moment Factory. The annual Festival of Lights in Berlin is attracting an increasing amount of amateurs, but also production designers and set & stage builders as the cost comes down. Software tools are becoming more intuitive, and high-powered projectors more affordable.

One technically differentiating angle that should be considered is the inclusion of XR — the various forms of Extended Reality. Some of the Van Gogh location-based experiences have deployed Virtual Reality tours, often costing a few dollars extra for ten minutes spent looking around with heavy-but-fragile goggles. The most powerful untapped opportunity resides in Augmented Reality, which traditional museums should also consider. AR is a compelling way to add layers of context and information while providing a unique experience. It’s also a great tool for the selfie generation. As visitors use their phones to capture the experience for social media or simply their own photographic memory bank, AR features allow the visitor to shoot particular images while seeing visual components that enrich the exhibition. A dedicated app can also enable a relationship to the visitors that goes beyond their moment in the physical space.

Art

To most other cultural experience producers, the great challenge will come when building their exhibition program, which means selecting artists, or what some of them consider simply content.

The great painters are quickly exhausted. We can imagine a great show based on Renaissance work, maybe the feverish visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or possibly some Pre-Raphaelites if the producers have a romantic tilt in mind, but even those won’t have the same compelling pull to a broad audience. Atelier des Lumieres has produced dozens of shows around the big names of European art including the Surrealists like Dali and Gaudi, the Impressionists like Degas and Monet, and of course the original Van Gogh. They operate in major tourist destinations filled with visitors eager to experience culture. After queueing for hours in a dense crowd of impatient camera-wielding tourists to see the Mona Lisa from 25 meters away, going to a climate-controlled place that surrounds you with big-name art feels like a reward. However, even Atelier des Lumieres seems to have exhausted its trove of traditional artists. Its newest show features photographer Jimmy Nelson’s The Last Sentinels.

Audience

James Bond 007 Location. Photo Courtesy of Elements

Those involved in the traditional museum world recognize everything just leveled up in terms of capturing an audience. Adjusted opening hours to accommodate a young members’ night might have felt like a path to a broader audience before the pandemic, but suddenly the stakes have gotten considerably higher.

So, how can producers beyond the fine art world develop an experience based on existing intellectual property with a built-in audience?

In Shanghai we saw a massive, well-produced immersive show developed by TenCent based on its Honor of Kings video game that used elaborate sets intermixed with projections and soundscapes, and attracted hundreds of thousands of paying visitors in 2019, mainly young men. HoK has more than 100 million people playing it, which makes it the most successful video game of all time.

The major media companies will not license their intellectual property to gimmicky projection producers. Their brands are too valuable. Disney — the biggest of all media companies — is one of the progenitors of immersive experiences. Before it offers up Star Wars, Marvel, or any of its other great brands, it will simply build it alone, much like TenCent did in Shanghai for its Honor of Kings property. Few could build it as well as Disney’s Imagineering group anyway. Disney’s Fantasia, or even a reworking of Pirates of the Caribbean could work wonderfully. Other big names include the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

One of the best-known movie franchises, James Bond 007, has gone so far as to license and build a permanent experiential museum. Sölden, Austria is known as a very youthful ski resort with an emphasis on extreme winter sports. It has placed the museum at the peak of an alpine mountain, like a villain’s lair, only reachable by cable gondola.

Inevitably there will be a fragmentation of the crowd, but building something specific for a narrower audience can still be a rewarding business. Bands like the Grateful Dead or Phish have a built-in fan base that will travel far to be a part of something special, and local Stockholm heroes Swedish House Mafia or Abba have proven to command a significant audience.

The same can be said about certain trusted brands. If the Black Rock Arts foundation were to take its Burning Man idea to competent producers, it might be a powerful traveling show featuring immersive experiences as well as wonderful art installations. Let’s be clear, in a world in which there is a substantial push to legalize recreational drug use, these kinds of experiences could be worth the trip.

In the hand of creative producers, there are plenty of quasi-psychedelic topics in the public domain. A scientific approach might include a Fantastic Voyage through the human body, or an illustration of the impact pollution has on global climate change and the environment for flora and fauna. The endless abyss of the night sky holds a strong fascination. Historical views can include ancient Egyptian rulers, the Mayans, or a medieval setting underscored by Gregorian chants.

What’s next

Fotografiska. Photo by Unsplash

Where less sophisticated experience producers will land on the immersion spectrum, or what this means to traditional museums, remains to be seen. Another reckoning is whether these tools drive engagement or are simple spectacle for the sole purpose of generating ticket sales.

On the far end of this spectrum SuperBlue is a clear winner, having a substantial lead both in technology as well as its roster of some of the most impressive artists working in the field. To their detriment, it comes with substantial capital expenditure, and a need to constantly generate new visitors as it has yet to explore building community and the related programming opportunities.

Fotografiska has been a leader in this space for many years, through a lens focused on photographic art. Our museums feature several exhibitions concurrently, many with immersive and staged elements that go far beyond simple photography. The shows we mount change every few months, giving guests ample reason to return for something new and contemporary. Many choose to become members and participate in eclectic programming, or simply to stay whether day or night, for a drinks or a meal. It’s a true multi-faceted experience.

Another ephemeral but important factor is the emotional connection between the space and its visitors. Location, architecture, and design all matter, and can descend into a meaningless void if they don’t provide the foundation for true human interaction. The highest goal is a shared experience, and the best museums capture that magic.

Nonetheless, Fotografiska is not immune to the looming arms race. The immersive cultural experience economy is not a binary state, but rather set across a broad spectrum. Whether we like it or not, museums are part of this world, which is why we deploy immersive and interactive strategies in myriad ways to fulfill our mission. The most forward-thinking institutions will evaluate all the tools and move past the disdain that has often hampered museum development.

It cannot be every museum’s role to compete with what is clearly lighter entertainment, but there is a real chance to fulfill an educational role by offering greater insight or at least context into a particular work. Whether it is historical or contemporary, the framed canvas can feel like a moribund offering when people are planning their free time. As András Szántó, author of The Future of the Museum asks: “In the end the question is: is it a curator-driven enterprise, or an audience-driven enterprise — or can it be both?”

Ultimately, museums must broaden their mission. We have arrived at a time when most people consider a museum visit only on holiday, but rarely in their everyday hometown life. Museums must become more inclusive, and part of that effort means considering the exhibitions on view, the programming supporting it, as well as the hours of operation. An evening at a cultural institution is a great way of seeing if you click with a first date. Museums and night clubs are very different spaces, but at their best, they are both places where visitors can go beyond their daily experiences. At Fotografiska, it is our goal to inspire a more conscious world, and we are proud to lead this movement.

To get more insights from experts in the experience economy like Yoram – and to be the first to know about our membership programme, events and more – sign up to the WXO community here.

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