Can Artists Write Code? Artechouse DC Review

My first visit to Artechouse was early this year, around January or February. I’ve visited a second time since then but I want to talk about the first time I visited, because the exhibit was more down my alley and also because I think first impressions tend to be the most vivid.

It’s an incredible space, entirely underground except for the small reception area where people must put on the goofy slippers and pay the fee before they can descend into the dark depths of the gallery. It’s at least two or three flights of stairs down before the space opens up and you are greeted with a big door and a screen that offers an overview of all the exhibits.

A lot of emotions come up for me when I visit spaces like Artechouse. It’s hard not to feel a little bit of envy for all of the artists that “made it,” because few artists who use computers as their primary medium get to exhibit to a wider audience. Galleries are still thought of as primarily spaces for artists who work with paint and clay and pencil than those who wield projectors and styluses and arduinos. Not to mention the DC area isn’t known to be a big hub for contemporary artists.

The envy started to fade once I actually saw the main exhibit, though. Once the big doors opened wide and I walked in with my husband and saw the expansive room with its giant walls all being projected on simultaneously with entrancing patterns, it was hard not to stare. I have to admit, I was quite mesmerized. The work reminded me of some of my experimental art from college that I made with Processing. It’s a programming language that was made more accessible to artists, and designed to manipulate pixels for visual effect.

Afterward I read the details for the exhibitions but it wasn’t written anywhere what specific software they used. I wasn’t terribly surprised that the artists kept it a mystery. Or maybe they just thought nobody would be interested in reading about it. After a little while of standing, I laid down in one of the bean bag chairs arranged on the floor and enjoyed the changing visuals for quite some time. There was something reminiscent of space and faraway galaxies in the projections on the walls. They were larger than life and constantly changing but in an unhurried, natural sort of way. Even the music reminded me of the soundtrack from space films like Interstellar or Solaris. Being in that room felt like being part of the grand mystery of life and the solar system.

Eventually we moved to the left side corridor, where there was more art awaiting us. There was a series of human-size screens arranged in a row, and people were standing in front of some of them changing their poses and watching the screens intently. I realized pretty quickly that the image on the screen would respond to you, probably via a hidden camera somewhere in the room. The image that looked back at you was kind of like a silhouette, but a bit more amorphous. My guess is that Processing was used for this exhibit too, because I have also experimented with some of the effects that Processing has when connected to a webcam. Although the work was intriguing, I wasn’t as excited by it as I was by the first piece. Yet there was a certain alien quality to the way the images responded to you, like a mirror into another world.

Farther down the corridor opened up into a larger room again, not quite as big as the first but still larger than a living room. Looking back now I think this exhibit was the most stimulating, at least from an intellectual perspective. There were about six vertically oriented screens set up in a circle, and people were invited to stand inside the circle. The screens were receiving live data regarding trending topics on twitter. In relatively short cycles the screens would alternate from displaying tweets to display a visual rendering of different emotions in the tweets. Sometimes there would be a spike of emotion, for example anger, and an outpouring of red shapes would shower the screen. The last stage was the most beautiful, when all of the different emotions displayed at once to create a kaleidoscope of shifting colors.

While this was fascinating to look at what I found even more fascinating was the screens off to one side, where you could dissect the data being fed into the artwork in more detail. There was something about seeing it all in front of you in real time, and seeing the aggregation of that data, which really helped to get a better grasp on the sheer amount of human interaction and expression occurring at every moment. It is truly mind boggling. I stayed in that room a long time, fascinated by the changing emotions and colors in the exhibit. There was something about how all of that data, all of those voices at once created something that was both greater and separated from each individual. Almost like it gained a power and force of its own.

The final exhibit at Artechouse was on the opposite side of the main room, and unfortunately the least interesting from my perspective. The screens were positioned above you so that you had to lay down on a cushion in order to experience the artwork fully. Laying down did give me a different perspective, sort of like how I imagine one might feel inside a spaceship when down becomes up and up becomes down. The smaller room also made the space feel more intimate, and even a little bit claustrophobic. My husband described it better than I could. “It was like going through hyperspace in Star Wars except the hyperdrive was broken so it kept shorting out, gave me an eerie feeling of being lost in space on a broken-down ship.”

Overall, I think I will be going back to Artechouse many times in the future. I wish there were more exhibits in DC that combined art and technology. Artechouse has two other locations, in NYC and Miami, though I expect those locations also see more competition in the space of art + technology exhibits. I’m curious to hear from anyone reading this that might have been to those locations. What were the spaces like? Did you come away impressed or disappointed?

Like I mentioned earlier, the second exhibit I saw at Artechouse did not impress me as much as the first. It was a cherry blossom themed show, with all women artists. I absolutely appreciated the decision to feature women artists but the exhibits were not as interactive or multifaceted as those I described in this post. If you want to read more about that exhibit and see some images, check out this article.

If you’re interested in Processing or any of the other tools that I suspect the artists behind these exhibits used, you should absolutely check out my follow up post citing some great learning resources.