Disney deal latest sign that projection-driven immersive exhibitions are revolutionizing how we engage with art

[The Toronto Star reports on how large-scale projection-mapped images and accompanying soundtracks are providing popular immersive entertainment experiences and challenging the definition of art. As one of the experts who hope the sector will turn to original, contemporary and even narrative-based source material says, “They’re barely touching on what this technology can do right now — the level of illusion and how it can create this sense of presence.” See the original story for a second image. –Matthew]

Disney signs deal with Toronto’s Lighthouse Immersive to develop new projection art experience

Projection-driven immersive exhibitions are revolutionizing the arts world and changing the way we engage and consume art

By Joshua Chong
October 6, 2022

Lighthouse Immersive announced Thursday that it has struck a major deal with Walt Disney Animation Studios, which has granted the Canadian company access to its entire canon of films from “Steamboat Willy” to “Encanto” and everything in between. The new exhibit, “Disney Animation: Immersive Experience” will premiere in Toronto this December before touring globally in 2023.

“It’s a combination of the best of many Disney movies, a ride at Disneyland, and being in a world where you can turn around in any direction and experience something different,” said Oscar-winning producer J. Miles Dale.

The deal marks the latest project in an immersive entertainment sector that continues to blossom. Since June 2020, there have been no fewer than 10 major immersive art exhibits in Toronto. From “Immersive Van Gogh” and “Immersive Klimt: Revolution” to “Immersive Frida Kahlo” and “Immersive King Tut: Magic Journey to the Light,” commercial production companies like Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive have pushed the form, once relegated to special exhibitions or niche indie galleries, into the mainstream.

These days, the attractions are typically located in cavernous galleries or warehouses fitted with large screens, where images and videos are projected, which, paired with sound and other sensory inputs, allow spectators to become “immersed” in an artist’s work.

As the sector grows, so too its choruses of supporters — and critics. Some praise how the technology has democratized art, making it more accessible to a younger generation of audiences. Others lament how the form has appropriated and diluted the original pieces, questioning whether these projections are “art” in themselves.

No matter where they stand, however, art critics and industry experts agree the growing cadre of commercial, high-tech entertainment enterprises are irreversibly revolutionizing the arts world — changing the way art is consumed and forcing traditional galleries to find new ways of creatively presenting their collections, or risk being left behind.

“The impact of the immersive experience is that people are demanding more of art,” said art critic and writer Andrea Carson Barker. “Now, the desire is to have more impactful, tech-based, experiential experiences. So that presents a challenge for traditional museums and it’ll be interesting to see how they rise to that challenge.”

Though immersive art exhibits that use projection-mapping technology have been around for decades, it wasn’t until 2020 that the concept took hold in North America. An episode of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris,” which featured the titular character visiting an immersive Van Gogh exhibit in France, helped thrust the attraction into the public consciousness.

Soon after, similar exhibitions proliferated around the world. Toronto’s own immersive Van Gogh attraction, produced by Lighthouse Immersive, opened in June 2020, before touring across North America. In total, the Canadian production company has sold more than 5 million tickets to the exhibition across the continent.

As pandemic restrictions forced the closure of numerous other arts and entertainment attractions, immerse exhibitions could, for the most part, adapt and remain open. At the height of the pandemic, Toronto’s Van Gogh exhibit pivoted to allow for drive-in visitors. For many families cooped up in isolation, immersive exhibits became one of the only cultural attractions still open to the public.

“Though this technology has been around for quite a few years, the pandemic has given it a new push,” said Louis-Etienne Dubois, an associate professor of creative industries management at Toronto Metropolitan University.

The new “Disney Animation: Immersive Experience” marks a significant partnership for the venerable animation studio, which rarely shares its work with other production companies.

“The collaboration with Lighthouse Immersive is a first for Disney Animation,” said Clark Spencer, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “It’s a dream to bring the best of animated storytelling together with the top experts in the immersive art experience.”

After premiering the Toronto, which has emerged as one of the global centres for these immersive experiences, the exhibition will tour to Cleveland, Nashville, Detroit, Denver, Boston, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Columbus, with additional cities in North American yet to be announced.

“This partnership cements our position as the world leader in immersive entertainment,” said Lighthouse Immersive founder Corey Ross. “We launched here in Toronto in the middle of the pandemic … so, it’s actually a fantastic Canadian success story in this new realm of entertainment.”

The technology’s meteoric rise in popularity can also be attributed, in no small part, to social media. Throughout the pandemic, Instagram and TikTok feeds, especially those of teens and young adults, were overwhelmed with posts from these immersive installations.

In Toronto, Lighthouse Immerse actively recruits social media influencers to promote “Immersive Van Gough,” in exchange for “some serious freebies,” according to the company website. And at the exhibits themselves, visitors are encouraged to scan QR codes, which bring them to custom-designed Instagram filters that enhance how visitors capture their experience.

“A lot of these experiences that have been created recently are very much about producing that sort of Instagrammable moment, as well as an interesting environment to explore,” said Dave Kemp, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Image Arts.

This trend of reimagining classic works through an immersive lens is also calling into question our relationship with art and how we engage with it. No longer are visitors engaging directly with an original piece of art, but rather a copy of the original.

“The aura of the original photo or painting — being in the presence of that actual original object — isn’t really replicated in an immersive experience,” said Kemp.

For experts in the industry, the burgeoning projection-mapping sector blurs the lines of various forms of arts and entertainment. Is it truly art or closer to a theme park experience?

“It is heavily commercial,” said Barker, who has seen several large-scale immersive art installations. “I felt like the gift shops were almost more developed than the exhibitions themselves.”

But Barker believes it’s this innovation that challenges our definition of “art” and pushes the boundaries of the form.

“When you look back at the history of art, the canon and the more recent democratization of art, you see the definition of art becoming more broad thanks in large part to technology and social media. Art hasn’t been exclusive to museums and galleries for many, many years,” she said.

Though immersive art exhibits are priced at comparable rates to traditional art galleries or museums they aren’t necessarily targeting the same audience, both Barker and Dubois stressed.

“They’re trying to do different things,” said Dubois, noting immersive installations are appealing to visitors who want a passive, sensory experience, while museums and galleries offer more educational and cerebral activities.

However, the rise of these immersive installations are forcing traditional museums and galleries to rethink how they present their work and engage audiences, especially young ones, said Barker.

“Competition in a market is healthy and it is paving a way for a more creative way for museums to present their work,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for museums to engage a new generation.”

As with the immersive entertainment industry itself, production companies are just “scratching the surface” of what the technology can do, said Noah J. Nelson, publisher of No Proscenium, a publication focused on the immersive art and entertainment industry.

“The whole point of projection mapping is to map images onto surfaces that are not flat screens,” he said. “They’re barely touching on what this technology can do right now — the level of illusion and how it can create this sense of presence.”

All the experts who spoke with the Star — Barker, Dubois, Kemp and Nelson — hope the industry engages more contemporary artists and creates installations that are narrative-based and specifically designed for the medium, rather than adapting existing work.

“Actual immersive environments are amazing, but I would love to see work by contemporary and living artists, and exhibits where either work is made specifically for those environments or where artists are collaborating with the (production) teams to make their existing work suit that environment,” said Kemp.

Lighthouse Immersive has created works in conjunction with living artists, most recently Robert Lepage’s “Library At Night” and Guillaume Côté’s live dance and multimedia project “TOUCH.”

“We’re really working and trying to push out the different ways in which this immersive entertainment can be rolled out and how it can be applied,” said Ross, adding he also hopes the medium further embraces narrative-driven works.

Nelson, however, is unsure if the entire industry will move down that path, given the profitability and success of the current model. Although projection-mapping technology isn’t cheap, and there are significant upfront costs for new companies, installations are somewhat easily replicable and the digital software is reprogrammable, he said.

“I think that the companies will ride this form as long as they can,” he said. “But if they don’t start experimenting with some better ‘wow’ factor or with something that does feel like a real narrative that has a replay value, people won’t want to go back.”

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