On a lonely promontory in Southwest D.C., the influencers gathered.
All summer long, they converged on a basement facility parked in the same cul-de-sac strip as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. They arrived with photographers in tow. They came in search of the ’grams of the summer, and the best filters money could buy—the interactive digital art of Adrien M. & Claire B.
XYZT: Abstract Landscapes, the inaugural show at ARTECHOUSE, closes on September 3. The exhibit features Atari-like digital graphics that respond to motion, from squiggly lines that trace viewers’ footsteps along the floor to cloudbursts of letters that follow their figures along walls made of tulle. On Labor Day, ARTECHOUSE opens ticket sales for its next exhibit, Spirit of Autumn, another digital projection show—this one featuring augmented-reality cocktails—that opens October 1.
ARTECHOUSE, the brainchild of cofounders Sandro Kereselidze and Tatiana Pastukhova, elbowed its way into a national conversation about spectacle and art this summer. XYZT: Abstract Landscapes, featuring the work of French digital artists Claire Bardainne and Adrien Mondot, may have eclipsed the Hive—the latest iteration of the National Building Museum’s annual architectural folly, this one by Studio Gang—as the selfie happening of the summer.
Kereselidze says that the basement space has been open and available since the 1990s, around when he and Pastukhova first came to D.C. Since 2009, the pair have been throwing art-adjacent pop-up social parties under the banner of Art Soiree. All this time, he says, the space now occupied by ARTECHOUSE has been free—a missed opportunity, until they seized on it two-and-a-half years ago. “It’s a shame,” Kereselidze says, “but at the same time we are very fortunate to be able to make our dreams come true and deliver what we had envisioned.”
XYZT, which opened earlier this year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Fisher, gives a hint as to what ARTECHOUSE’s founders have in mind. Each of the 10 digital landscapes or sculptures was designed with the viewer in mind. In “Anamorphis in Space” (2011, 2015), for example, a projector displays a grid of simple white lines along the floor in a tight corner corridor of the gallery. Sensors pick up on viewers’ footfalls as they walk through the corridor, setting ripples of motion through the field.
Art Soiree always delivered much more soiree than art; ARTECHOUSE, similarly, seems to put priority one on tech. The user interfaces in XYZT are all handsome, simple, and minimalist in a Tron or Marie Kondo sense of the term—scaled down, unfussy, delimited. Microsoft Kinect cameras record viewers and translate their figures into corresponding clusters of digital static in “Shifting Clouds” (2011, 2015), an experience like looking into a mirror in The Matrix. Every piece offers the same revelation, though: a spike of brain-wow that lasts for as long as it takes to snap a story on a cell phone. For all XYZT’s pretensions of operating across space and time, the show is disappointingly one-dimensional. The next exhibit promises even less: a digital video backdrop of fall plus an app that reveals zany Pokémon Go–style augments when you pass your camera view over a cocktail. “Neat”—click!—and the thrill has come and gone.
There is room for a gallery that focuses on digital and interactive work in D.C. Curator Paul Shortt has admirably commissioned genre-busting work for the Arlington Planetarium, including Babel: A Full Dome Projection (2017) by Kelley Bell and In This Convex Hull (2016) by Brandon Morse. This series challenges artists to make use of existing infrastructure with novel projects, the same way that Doug Aitken used the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden building as a 360-degree screen for SONG 1 (2012). The scale at the planetarium is more intimate, though—something to be savored, not shared.
Any effort to highlight more work by Bell, Morse, Cliff Evans, or any other number of area artists working with digital media ought to be encouraged. Theirs are artworks, however, and locally grown—not party set-pieces hauled in on a world tour. While the distinction can be elusive or arbitrary or philosophical, one easy tell that a space is trading in spectacle is when it reaches saturation levels on social media. Both the Phillips Collection and the Hirshhorn ran shows by Markus Lüpertz all summer, but his trenchant paintings never clogged anyone’s feeds.
A gallery devoted to digital or immersive work, something like New York’s bitforms or Pasadena’s And/Or Gallery, has been sorely missing in the District art scene. Now there may be some (unlikely) competition in this arena. The Renwick Gallery has bid once again to be D.C.’s official receptacle for spectacle with Parallax Gap, a small-scale follow-up to 2015’s blockbuster Wonder. The piece—a ceiling installation in the museum’s Grand Salon—comprises nine fabricated 3D drawings of famous ceilings from across the country. Viewed from most perspectives, the installation by architectural firm FreelandBuck will look like its own thing, a high-tech assemblage of colorful cutouts. Viewed directly from below, the multi-level geometric forms come together to reveal a depiction. In-the-know viewers who lie down on the plush carpet at specific vantage points may look up and recognize the dome from the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, for example, or the dome from Minneapolis City Hall.
That’s a delightfully dorky ask of viewers—to pick out the “iconic” ceilings from the Chancellor Green Library at Princeton University or Cincinnati’s Union Terminal—and one that might make more sense at the Building Museum (insofar as it has a native audience anywhere). With Parallax Gap, the Renwick is following, not leading, by looking to hook some of the summer swagger that has attended the Building Museum’s design series (Bjarke Ingels Group’s BIG Maze, Snarkitecture’s The Beach). The Renwick can claim it all as craft, its original guiding mission. What isn’t craft in the end?
If there’s one thing to be said for the District’s embrace of spectacle, it’s that it’s happening at all scales. Institutions and independents are both firing up loud installations. For his part, Kereselidze isn’t apologizing for drawing the influencer crowd. “Whether we like it or not, we have technology always in our hands these days,” he says. “It becomes a very powerful tool for creative-minded people to use in a way to interact with audiences and bring something unique.”1238 Maryland Ave. SW. $10-$25. artechouse.com.