You could easily miss the entrance to Artechouse. The buzzy spot known for melding art and technology is surrounded by a Potbelly, a Starbucks and nondescript corporate buildings. I wasn’t convinced I had arrived at the correct address until I spotted a tiny, glass-enclosed lobby.
Inside, down a few flights of stairs, projections of abstract landscapes, ethereal sounds and animations powered by LED lights filled the vast, dark space. It’s all part of “New Nature,” Artechouse’s latest exhibition, which runs until Jan. 13. Discreetly placed motion sensors worked in sync with the art, created by Polish artist Mateusz “Marpi” Marcinowski, which changed as visitors moved in front of them.
It isn’t a traditional museum experience, like the ones tourists have come to expect a few blocks over on the Mall. Instead, Artechouse is part of the local and national trend of using technology to create interactive art. The Hirshhorn Museum is doing the same with “Pulse,” which features heartbeat monitors that capture visitor fingerprints to shape the art; “Carne y Arena,” an installation that closed at the end of last month, used VR technology to put visitors in immigrants’ shoes.
If you’re planning to visit Artechouse, here’s what you need to know before you go.
Go with an open mind
Walking into Artechouse, it’s important to free yourself of expectations and preconceived notions — at least according to the space’s art director, Sandro Kereselidze, who encourages viewers to “lose” themselves in the exhibition.
Tour guides lead groups down the stairs into a basement-like space and explain the concept behind Marpi’s “digital pets” — abstract-looking creatures that react to visitor movements. It took me a second to adjust to the darkness and ambient sound. Past an elegant bar and down another set of stairs, my eyes were drawn to the far-reaching tentacles of the animation projected on a 270-degree screen.
In this central space, you can relax on bean bag chairs or interact with the pets by moving your body or motioning on an app that was specifically created for the exhibition (more on that below). If you get close enough, bubbles appear on-screen, mimicking your movements like a digital shadow.
It’s best to follow the lead of the children. Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal with the projections — even if that means taking Artechouse staff member Hakeem Cunningham’s advice and doing the “YMCA.” Lean into that silliness and ignore that nagging “Am I doing this right?” feeling to see how the animations react.
In another room, referred to as a “digital petting zoo,” you can play with eye-catching video-game-styled creatures on TV screens. Marpi’s work was inspired by his early interest in evolution, the early-2000s keychain-game Tamagotchi and multiplayer online role-playing games. But don’t expect to see the friendly 8-bit Tamagotchi-style animals — the creatures seem to function as a digital Rorschach test. Depending on your interpretation, they can resemble anything from CGI-styled bamboo to a beaded necklace.
Try to break apart the berrylike spheres and listen to the chime sound effects as you brush a chrome-covered plant. Finally, walk around a third smaller room and notice how the vertical colorful LED “trees” light up as you move.
The art is evolving and learning
“New Nature” is unlike Artechouse’s previous exhibits in that it makes use of machine learning, meaning the “creatures” will evolve over the span of the show. In the first few days after the opening, the staff noticed the creatures changing in appearance, becoming smarter and going to their food sources quicker, says the space’s managing director and founder Tatiana Pastukhova.
This means visitor and artist alike won’t know how the species will act and look by the end of the run.
Buy your tickets online and download the apps
After buying tickets online — Artechouse also offers walk-in tickets, but timed sessions can fill up — download the free “New Nature” app so you can easily feed the pets. You can also move the creatures around on your phone, a visual that is then mimicked on the big screen. Tickets are $15 for adults; discounted prices are offered for children and seniors.
There are also augmented-reality drinks. To experience them, download a second free Artechouse app. The bar serves an assortment of cocktails for $12 each; point your phone toward your cocktail, and an animation will unfold on your screen. (Downloading two apps may seem excessive, but they will play a key role in your experience.)
Artechouse’s website asks that visitors arrive 10 to 15 minutes early and leave 45 minutes to an hour to spend in the space. And if you’re hungry afterward, remember: The Wharf is just a 10-minute walk away.
1238 Maryland Ave. SW.