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To safely reopen, facilities throw rules out the window and embrace creativity

A rendering of the Toronto’s “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit, which includes floor circles that help walk-through visitors maintain distance. (Immersive van Gogh Toronto)

When guests show up for the “Immersive van Gogh” exhibition in Toronto, their experience is going to be quite different from the one that 2 million visitors had at L’Atelier des Lumieres, the digital arts center in Paris where the ambitious installation opened in April 2018. The immersive show, which involves digital images projected upon 600,000 cubic feet of interior space, was designed as a walk-through event.

The show opened July 1, and there are two ways to see it: walk-in and drive-through. To keep walk-through visitors safe, social distancing circles are integrated into the floor projections. And, as of July 3, visitors can drive in and see the 35-minute light, sound and movement show from their cars.

By a stroke of good fortune, the venue selected for the pop-up show — a former Toronto Star printing press facility — has a ramp that can accommodate cars, though it took no shortage of work, from construction to zoning efforts, to put the adaptation into effect.

As they reopen, public spaces and private institutions around the world are finding clever ways to create and enforce social distancing. Masking tape floor markings might work in the checkout line at the grocery store, but when it comes to the arts and the outdoors, it’s becoming clear that the creative thinkers will inherit the new normal.

How do you practice social distancing on a plane?

“There are no rules here,” Thomas Edison famously said. “We’re trying to accomplish something.”

The absence of rules is reflected in the range of adaptations around the world. Consider, for instance, the plastic surgeon offering drive-through Botox procedures at his office building in Miami’s tony Bal Harbour neighborhood. The German restaurant patrons asked to create social distance by wearing hats tricked out with pool noodles. Or the strip clubs in cities around the world, such as Portland, Ore.; Landshut in Bavaria; Port Elizabeth, South Africa; and, of course, Las Vegas, where people can watch pole dancers and strippers from their cars.

In some cities, entire urban landscapes are being transformed to allow restaurant patrons to spread out outdoors. New York City plans to open 100 miles of streets to pedestrians and diners, including the parking spots that line sidewalks. Cities in Oregon fast-tracked legislation to open sidewalks for outdoor dining. In Bend, at the end of May, the city council approved the right to “close all or portions of city streets, alleys and parking lots” to increase outdoor dining space. But Lithuania outdoes all the rest: The capital, Vilnius, has opened historic public spaces such as town squares throughout the city for socially distanced dining.

“Anything that can’t be done safely has to be adjusted,” said Erika Sanger, executive director of the Museum Association of New York. Timed entry, once the province of special exhibitions, will be the norm at the more than 1,400 institutions throughout New York when they reopen. But not every safety measure will be familiar, Sanger says. Magazzino Italian Art, a museum in New York’s Hudson Valley, is adopting the EGOpro Active Tag for its reopening. The device, which will be distributed to all visitors, uses radio waves and vibrates when social distances are violated.

Cultural institutions reopen with a hands-off approach

In Singapore, a park is using a remotely controlled robotic dog named Spot to encourage social distancing. Created by Massachusetts tech firm Boston Dynamics, it wanders the park’s open spaces and broadcasts recorded messages reminding visitors to social distance. It’s also equipped with cameras that estimate the number of people in the park. Spot completed a two-week trial run in Singapore last month, and the Government Technology Agency of Singapore and National Parks Board are presently assessing its performance to determine future deployment plans.

Dezeen, a London-based design and architecture magazine, is showcasing creative responses to the challenges posed by the pandemic. In March, strong interest in the topic prompted it to replace its technology section with a coronavirus section, said Marcus Fairs, the magazine’s founder and editor in chief.

Its website highlights projects such as the Berliner Ensemble’s rejiggered performance space in a 19th-century theater, where 500 of the 700 seats were removed, and London design studio Factorydesign’s Isolate Screen Kit, an acrylic-like panel that can be installed as a partition on the armrest between seats on airplanes. A few European design firms have even developed touch-free urinals with increased ventilation since people are gathering outdoors more instead of in restaurants and cafes with accessible restrooms.

“Design at its most fundamental is problem solving,” Fairs said. “There’s a whole range of activity with people coming up with ideas from the crazy to the pragmatic. Anywhere that reality doesn’t work well, there’s a job for a designer there.”

Weisstuch is a writer based in New York City. Find her on Twitter @livingtheproof and Instagram @livingtheproof.

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