My friend Miriam peered into a screen and waved at it, as if it was the first TV she’d ever seen. Perplexed, she clapped and puffed air at it, trying in vain to get the images on the screen to respond to her movement. This kind of behavior, though likely to get you kicked out of a Best Buy, is accepted and even encouraged at ArTecHouse (1238 Maryland Ave. SW), a new D.C. gallery devoted to digital art.
I pretended not to know Miriam, and chatted up one of the gallery’s founders, Tatiana Pastukhova. “Is this one of the interactive installations?” I asked, gesturing to the TV screen.
“No, but all the other screens are,” she said. “You should put up a sign or something,” I said. Taking my earnest suggestion as a joke, Pastukhova laughed. “It’s been fun watching people forget about their phones and cameras and just play,” she said.
Though ArTecHouse is tucked away in the concrete jungle of Southwest D.C., it’s been attracting sellout crowds since it opened on June 1. “A lot of people hear about us through Instagram,” Pastukhova explained.
I believe it. The first exhibit, “XYZT: Abstract Landscapes” (through Sept. 3), comprises a series of interactive digital environments by French artists Claire Bardainne and Adrien Mondot that beg to be photographed or — even better — captured on video and turned into hypnotic GIFs. (Try the Boomerang app for this.)
The first installation you encounter, “Field Vectors,” is a patch of lines reminiscent of tall, waving blades of grass, projected onto a white concrete floor. When you walk across the lines, they yield to your steps, then spring back into place. The second installation, “Discrete Collisions,” is a 3-by-4-foot touch screen that shows alphabet letters tumbling from top to bottom. If you press your hand to the screen, the letters start piling up, as if you’re physically blocking their fall.
Other parts of “XYZT” proved too hard for Miriam and me to figure out on our own. One such installation, “Typographic Organisms,” includes a real aquarium that appears to contain three snakes made of alphabet letters. We waved at the image inside, we tried talking to it, and then, struck by inspiration, Miriam crawled under the aquarium and pressed her hands up against the glass on the bottom.
“No, no,” a woman with a French accent said, rushing toward us. “You’re supposed to blow into it.” Demonstrating, she pursed her lips and directed a stream of air into the aquarium, which caused the alphabet snakes to rear up, as if surprised. As the snakes settled back down into new configurations, one rattled its tail at us threateningly.
I was starting to sense a theme: Using computer graphics, movement sensors and — in the case of the aquarium — tricky two-way mirrors, the artists behind “XYZT” mimic natural phenomena like swaying grass, falling rocks and slithering snakes. But instead of fooling people with realistic digital images, they’ve created immersive environments that hover eerily between the world we know and the world of computers. Adding to the effect: Many of the installations incorporate natural sounds, such as the rustling of leaves or a quietly buzzing swarm of bees.
Even if you aren’t interested in parsing out themes in modern art, the exhibit is quite fun — especially for kids. (The gallery recommends the exhibit for children 6 and up, but it doesn’t ban younger kids.) I found it especially fun to watch one pair of middle school-age sisters who were geniuses at figuring out how to control the images in the exhibit, and perhaps even better at annoying each other.
At an installation called “Kinetic Sand,” the girls pressed a touch screen, causing scattered dots to gravitate toward their hands. Within minutes, each girl had gathered an army of dots that whirled like spiral galaxies around her fingers. Then, they started dueling like rival sorcerers, trying to steal each other’s dots.
“Stop fighting,” their mom said, pulling the two away just before the sisters’ battle transformed from pixel stealing to hair pulling.
It was time to leave, so I found Miriam, who was doing body rolls in front of a huge screen that reflected and mutated her image. On our way out, we chatted again with Pastukhova, who said that future exhibits at ArTecHouse will, like “XYZT,” also encourage people to experiment and play.
That sounds fun, but as you transition back to the real world, you’ll want to remember that most electronics aren’t looking for dance partners. Otherwise, your next trip to Best Buy might be your last.
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