When Tulsa artist Katherine Hair began planning for “Grow,” her installation for ahha Tulsa’s newest version of its immersive installation called “The Experience,” she had all sorts of ideas for ways to involve her fellow Tulsans in her creation.
“I had a number of community involvement things planned, such as reaching out to schools to get kids involved with some elements of the piece,” Hair said. “Then March came, and all bets were off.”
The city-mandated shutdown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, which forced most public spaces such as ahha Tulsa’s Hardesty Arts Center to close, meant that Hair and the five other local artists selected to create installations for “The Experience” had to come up with some new ways to deal with the challenges of realizing immersive, multimedia spaces in a world of social distancing.
How these artists have met those challenges will go on display Friday, Aug. 7, when ahha Tulsa opens “The Experience: Imagine” at the Hardesty Arts Center, 101 E. Archer St.
Each of the six artists — Hair, Andy Arkley, Justice Gutierrez, Alton Markham, Emily Simonds and John White — has been given a distinct “zone” on the facility’s second floor in which to give their imaginations free rein to create works of art that are intended to envelope viewers in a multisensory adventure.
Amber Litwack, director of education and exhibitions for ahha Tulsa, said the show is made of up six separate, individual installations, all of which deal in some way with the theme of “Imagine.”
“Of course,” she said, “that theme is incredibly broad and can mean so many different things.”
One of the things several of the artists had to imagine was finding ways to work around some of their original concepts for their pieces.
“I had a number of interactive elements in my original concept, and I had to shift the focus from the piece being interactive to being more immersive,” said Gutierrez, whose installation, “Woo,” is a highly stylized environment to explore, based on the feeling of euphoria. “I think the restrictions (in place because of the pandemic) allowed me to simplify things, so that the whole piece is a bit more cohesive and impactful. It still creates the feeling that I want the piece to have.”
Hair echoed that sentiment, saying, “Originally, there was going to be a lot more going on in my piece, but having to re-examine things because of the pandemic restrictions really allowed me to hone in what I wanted to accomplish in my space. It’s a more succinct vision.”
One of the central elements of Markham’s installation, titled “The Data Miner,” was to be a large throne upon which visitors were to sit.
“Suddenly, the idea of this one item that everyone was to interact with seemed like a bad idea,” he said. “So I got permission to alter the original proposal to create this full-wall exhibit instead of the throne. Having these limitations helped me rethink how I could move forward.”
Simonds’ installation is titled “The Tempest’s Parallax,” which is designed to give visitors the chance to view the universe through alien eyes, the sole occupant of a space station.
“Everything in my space was designed to be tethered and touchable — people were to be able to pick up objects and examine them from all sides,” she said. “Now, all these objects are in Plexiglas so they can be sanitized and made safe.
“But the real challenge was that there is a concurrent film project that goes with the installation,” Simonds said. “I had to set up a way to film remotely — the people I worked with were having to make sets and costumes at home, I was sending them props through the mail. Filming during a pandemic is very hard, but it’s been awesome how everyone and everything has come together.”
“Together,” the piece by Arkley, encourages collaboration by its very title, as viewers will be able to use control panels to trigger synchronized music and animation sequences in unique combinations.
“Other than not being able to get into the studio to work in the early days of the shutdown, this situation hasn’t affected my piece that much,” Arkley said. “We’ve arranged for the control panels to be at least 6 feet apart.”
Litwack said ahha Tulsa will have styluses available for visitors who may be uncomfortable with touching such things as the control panels in “Together.”
(The sixth “Experience” artist, John White, whose installation “The Eviction” will immerse you in the journey of a galactic crew searching for a new planetary home, was unable to participate in the interviews.)
Ahha Tulsa officially reopened to the public in July, and Executive Director Holly Becker said that time has helped the organization “to get into the groove” of what needs to be done to make the facility accessible to the public and still be in accord with the CDC guidelines to help make experiencing “The Experience” as safe as possible.
This includes limiting the number of people in the facility at any given time, increased cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces, provide hand sanitizing stations and requiring all visitors to wear masks.
Yet, for the artists, as well as the ahha Tulsa staff, the fact that “The Experience: Imagine” is opening makes all the efforts and obstacles worth the trouble.
“The first ‘Experience’ was so well received, so we have quite a following for the second,” Becker said. “This is someone unlike anything else in Tulsa, and we are really proud of it and ready to show it off to Tulsa and the rest of the country.”
“As an artist, to have an opportunity like this in Tulsa is really amazing,” Markham said. “I had been thinking about moving to Denver to work with Meow Wolf (an artist collective that is one of the pioneers of immersive exhibits such as “The Experience”), so to be able to stay in Tulsa and have an opportunity such as this is just wonderful.”