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The Influencers: Van Gogh Immersive Experiences and the Attention-Experience Economy

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Abstract

Van Gogh immersive exhibitions—multi-sited, branded multimedia environments inspired by the artist’s life and paintings—are seemingly ubiquitous in 2022. These itinerant digital spectacles bundle reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s most recognizable artistic motifs with tropes of fin-de-siècle madness, bathing their visitors in an artistic wonderland of projected images and soundscapes spread throughout cavernous exhibition venues. The popularity of these commercial juggernauts is unmatched. At present, at least five different companies are staging competing versions of digital Van Gogh art exhibitions in dozens of cities worldwide, with a particular emphasis at present on sites throughout North America. How are we as art critics to make sense of these exhibitions as well as their influence within the institutional context of the visual arts? Taking the digital Van Gogh phenomenon as its central case study, this article investigates the emerging art-themed immersive exhibition model and explores the specific mode of spectatorship it promotes. Situating these projects within the broader framework of the contemporaneous attention and experience economies, and with an eye toward the crucial role of social media, I propose that art-themed immersive exhibitions such as the Van Gogh immersive experiences exemplify habits of digitally-mediated, 24/7 immersive attention and consumption in art and in everyday life.
Citation: Mondloch, Kate. 2022. The
Influencers: Van Gogh Immersive
Experiences and the Attention-
Experience Economy. Arts 11: 90.
https://doi.org/10.3390/
arts11050090
Academic Editor: John Zarobell
Received: 9 August 2022
Accepted: 14 September 2022
Published: 20 September 2022
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arts
Article
The Influencers: Van Gogh Immersive Experiences and the
Attention-Experience Economy
Kate Mondloch
History of Art and Architecture, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403, USA; mondloch@uoregon.edu
Abstract:
Van Gogh immersive exhibitions—multi-sited, branded multimedia environments inspired
by the artist’s life and paintings—are seemingly ubiquitous in 2022. These itinerant digital spectacles
bundle reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s most recognizable artistic motifs with tropes of fin-de-
siècle madness, bathing their visitors in an artistic wonderland of projected images and soundscapes
spread throughout cavernous exhibition venues. The popularity of these commercial juggernauts is
unmatched. At present, at least five different companies are staging competing versions of digital
Van Gogh art exhibitions in dozens of cities worldwide, with a particular emphasis at present on
sites throughout North America. How are we as art critics to make sense of these exhibitions as well
as their influence within the institutional context of the visual arts? Taking the digital Van Gogh
phenomenon as its central case study, this article investigates the emerging art-themed immersive
exhibition model and explores the specific mode of spectatorship it promotes. Situating these projects
within the broader framework of the contemporaneous attention and experience economies, and
with an eye toward the crucial role of social media, I propose that art-themed immersive exhibitions
such as the Van Gogh immersive experiences exemplify habits of digitally-mediated, 24/7 immersive
attention and consumption in art and in everyday life.
Keywords:
immersion; attention; social media; exhibitions; Vincent Van Gogh; media installation;
digital art; art-themed immersive exhibition; reproductions; virtual art
1. The Influencers
Venture into an exciting new world; forego all preconceived ideas of traditional museum
visits, dispel all notions of tiptoeing through silent art galleries to view masterpieces from
afar, change how you engage with art. Vitalize your senses and challenge your beliefs
in a completely unique, stimulating Vincent Van Gogh experience. (Van Gogh Alive
Website 2022)
Have you ever dreamt of stepping into a painting? Now you can! Welcome to ‘Van Gogh:
The Immersive Experience.’ (Van Gogh the Immersive Experience Website 2022)
Van Gogh immersive exhibitions—multi-sited, branded multimedia environments
inspired by the artist’s life and paintings—are seemingly ubiquitous in 2022. These itin-
erant digital spectacles bundle Vincent Van Gogh’s most recognizable artistic motifs with
tropes of fin-de-siècle madness, bathing their visitors in an artistic wonderland of projected
images and soundscapes spread throughout cavernous event spaces. Pricey, timed-entry
tickets afford visitors access to one hour or so of agreeable Van Gogh-themed multisensory
experience that is deliberately designed to promote social media sharing. The popularity of
these undemanding art-themed immersive events is unmatched; Corey Ross, president of
Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive and one of the producers behind Immersive Van Gogh,
enthuses: “We just passed 3.2 million tickets sold, which, as I understand it, makes it the
most successful attraction in the world on Ticketmaster”. (Capps 2021) The overflowing
gift shops that bookend these exhibits peddle the likes of Vincent Van Duck bath toys,
ear-shaped erasers, and espresso cups adorned with swirling nightscapes. Other fee-based
Arts 2022,11, 90. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts11050090 https://www.mdpi.com/journal/arts
Arts 2022,11, 90 2 of 16
extras run the gamut from various techno-gimmicks—a VR journey through some of the
landscapes on which Van Gogh’s paintings were based; an AI component where you can
“write Van Gogh a letter” on your phone and receive a response immediately—to special
events featuring commercialized intimacy—the Los Angeles installation of Immersive Van
Gogh, for example, markets “immersive” yoga, meditation, and date night packages promi-
nently sponsored by Lifeway Kefir. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these influential commercial
juggernauts have even spawned their own brand of Van Gogh-channeling satire:
When I died in penury, I thought about the fifty smackers each person would pay to walk
through that conference center, immersing themselves in three-dimensional paintings
that witnessed my plunge into existential despair. And I smiled. Because when life brings
rain, you can let a smile be your umbrella. And an umbrella will make that conference
center’s gift shop $39.99 richer if it’s shellacked with blurry reproductions of works I
poured my heart and soul into. (Burges 2022)
How are we as art critics to make sense of all of this? How best to account for
these profit-oriented, art-themed immersive exhibitions as well as their influence within
the institutional context of the visual arts? To begin, let us revisit the article’s title. The
Influencers. At first blush, the “influencers” are those we might expect: the professional
influencers and individual visitors (or “micro-influencers”) upon whose social media
publicity the financial success of the digital Van Gogh shows rely. If defining who is
influencing whom seems fairly straightforward however, consider this curious mise-en-
abyme. Many writers locate the viral success of the Van Gogh experiences with the cameo
appearance of one such exhibition during an episode of the Netflix series Emily in Paris:
a show which follows the exploits of a young American social media influencer working
abroad.
1
In other words, people are flocking to see immersive Van Gogh exhibitions because
a similar immersive experience was featured in a show about an influencer visiting a Van
Gogh immersive experience.
As though a fictional influencer influencing the behavior of other prospective art
experience customers-cum-influencers was not mind-boggling enough, it is important to
recognize that the immersive art-branded exhibition model has emerged as an “influencer”
in its own right. As we shall see in what follows, these immersive events not only impact
visitor behavior, but also, and significantly, these exhibitions are influencing art exhibi-
tion models themselves. (Tellingly, the production companies sponsoring the Van Gogh
exhibitions describe themselves as “global influencers,” plainly stating their undisguised
ambitions.) The immersive Van Gogh-themed experiences’ prodigious success in attracting
the attention of mass audiences has generated an outpouring of comparable shows. To
name just a few, there exists Immersive Frida and Immersive Klimt. Meanwhile, in an apparent
endorsement of the more-is-better model pioneered by the digital Van Gogh events, Monet
by the Water, Beyond Monet, and Claude Monet: The Immersive Experience are also in the works.
The transformative “influences” of immersive art-themed exhibitions continue to
advance alongside their proliferation. While the trend toward “edutainment” in arts
institutions is by no means new, even the architecture for hosting art exhibitions is shifting
under pressure from the immersive art-themed model.
2
Presumably responding to the
latest viewer preference for immersive walk-through displays, Newfields (formerly the
Indianapolis Museum of Art) recently removed the entire fourth floor of contemporary
artworks from their building to create room for a permanent immersive exhibition space.
Known as “The Lume”, the space comprises 150 digital projectors covering 30,000 square
feet of former gallery space (Capps 2021). Its first show promises a “must-see cultural
experience” featuring immersive galleries showcasing, fittingly, digital Van Gogh.3
As the collateral effects of these commercial immersive art reproduction exhibitions
continue to unfold, it is imperative for art critics to theorize the understudied spectator-
ship patterns associated with these profit-oriented, art-themed exhibitions and examine
their broader impact. This article explores the artistic and cultural consequences of the
institutionalization and commercialization of art-themed immersive exhibitions through a
case study of immersive Van Gogh shows, the largest and most popular example to date of
Arts 2022,11, 90 3 of 16
this evolving genre. I examine the specific mode of multisensory, spectacular, and social
media-based spectatorship these multimedia exhibitions promote and propose that their
significance is best understood in relation to the priorities of the contemporaneous expe-
rience and attention economies. First, however, an overview of the Van Gogh immersive
experiences and their reception is in order.
2. Descriptive Overview of the Exhibitions and Their Critical and Popular Reception
The inspiration for these enormously popular shows began in Western Europe—the
comparatively modest prototype, Vincent Van Gogh,la nuit étoilée, debuted in 2019 at
L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris—but varied Van Gogh-inspired immersive exhibitions
now reach across venues and cities worldwide, with a particular emphasis at present
on sites throughout North America.
4
(See Figures 13). Currently, there are at least five
different companies sponsoring competing digital Van Gogh experiences: Immersive Van
Gogh Exhibit (by most accounts, the most similar to the “original” version in Paris); Imagine
Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition;Beyond Van Gogh;Van Gogh Alive; and Van Gogh: The
Immersive Experience.
5
While each production company promotes its own distinct brand
of digital Van Gogh, this article proposes that their broader cultural impacts are best
identified by considering them jointly. Indeed, their confoundingly similar exhibition
titles collectively advertise the main attraction: an immersive multisensory experience
with Van Gogh’s work—an artistic encounter that is supposedly categorically distinct
from so-called “traditional” art viewing—is the big selling point. This enticement to
upend convention by eliminating any expectation of silence, seriousness, or “hands-off”
viewing behaviors, while at the same time inviting nonstop social media consumption,
is continually reinforced through the companies’ effusive marketing campaigns. “Step
inside Van Gogh’s paintings!, enter Bedroom in Arles!, snap a selfie with sunflowers in an
Insta-worthy mirrored room! Be prepared for a vibrant symphony of light, color, and
sound!” (Van Gogh Alive Website 2022).
If you have not attended one of these immersive events, you may be surprised to learn
that none of these multimedia art experiences display original works of art by Van Gogh.
Rather, the event sponsors promise intense art-inspired multimedia episodes brimming
with emotional resonance and sensory reverberation: “You can’t react passively!
. . .
you will
feel it!
. . .
it stirs the senses!” (Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition San Francisco Website 2022)
Creatively animated digital images inspired by Van Gogh’s life and works are projected
onto the exhibition spaces’ walls, ceilings, and floors, typically in large warehouse-like
spaces. Digitized versions of the artist’s paintings are collaged, modified, and made mobile,
albeit with sometimes puzzling results; for example, in one particularly memorable segment
of Immersive Van Gogh, one can find an amped-up rendition of Van Gogh’s Head of a Skeleton
with a Burning Cigarette appearing to literally puff on a cigarette (Davis 2021). While the
rival shows differ somewhat by producer and venue, their moving image projections tend
to be accompanied by a multimedia array of Van Gogh-related narrations, soundtracks,
animations, dramatic props, and even fragrances. Of course, there are plenty of mirrored
surfaces befitting our age of social media. (More on that later).
It is noteworthy that these immersive art-themed events are exceptionally cost-intensive
to produce. Bloomberg CityLab estimates an average of about USD 1M for each Van Gogh
pop-up venue in the US (excluding animation and other extra expenditures), with estimates
soaring to anywhere between USD 4M and 15M for spaces customized to house permanent
spectacles (Capps 2021). The technological outlays are equally astonishing. At the time of
this article’s writing, the company that produces Immersive Van Gogh is the largest buyer
of Panasonic projectors in the world. (Fun fact: CityLab points out that “[l]aid end-to-end,
the fiberoptic cables for the New York show at Pier 36 would stretch from the Statue of
Liberty to the top of Manhattan” (Capps 2021)). Correspondingly, these self-described
“family friendly” multimedia exhibits are also remarkably expensive to visit. The minimum
entry fee is about USD 35, but prices range well beyond USD 100 depending on time,
date, and experiential extras. Unburdened by fragile original artworks or a discernable
Arts 2022,11, 90 4 of 16
instructional mission, these are unapologetically for-profit enterprises. Each company
runs multiple versions of their trademark immersive Van Gogh experience simultaneously,
incorporating robust appeals to local corporate event planners and countless commercial
tie-ins at each site.6
Arts 2022, 11, x FOR PEER REVIEW 4 of 16
Figure 1. Vincent Van Gogh, la nuit étoilée is considered to be an inspiration for many of the Van Gogh
immersive exhibitions to follow. Photo by marc carpentier is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 2.0 Generic License, via Wikimedia.
If you have not attended one of these immersive events, you may be surprised to
learn that none of these multimedia art experiences display original works of art by Van
Gogh. Rather, the event sponsors promise intense art-inspired multimedia episodes brim-
ming with emotional resonance and sensory reverberation: “You can’t react pas-
sively!…you will feel it!... it stirs the senses!” (Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition San Fran-
cisco Website 2022) Creatively animated digital images inspired by Van Gogh’s life and
works are projected onto the exhibition spaces’ walls, ceilings, and floors, typically in
large warehouse-like spaces. Digitized versions of the artists paintings are collaged, mod-
ified, and made mobile, albeit with sometimes puzzling results; for example, in one par-
ticularly memorable segment of Immersive Van Gogh, one can find an amped-up rendition
of Van Gogh’s Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette appearing to literally puff on a
cigarette (Davis 2021). While the rival shows differ somewhat by producer and venue,
their moving image projections tend to be accompanied by a multimedia array of Van
Figure 1.
Vincent Van Gogh, la nuit étoiléeis considered to be an inspiration for many of the Van Gogh
immersive exhibitions to follow. Photo by marc carpentier is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 2.0 Generic License, via Wikimedia.
These trendy exhibits, especially their North American renditions, have garnered
considerable publicity and spawned analyses in venues from Artforum to Forbes, the New
York Times to local TV affiliates. Predictably enough, reviews are mixed. While the fact
that opinions differ is hardly surprising, one critical trend is worth emphasizing: art critics
tend to be the only writers who insistently locate their critiques of the digital Van Gogh
exhibitions in relation to actual material art objects. That is, arts writers, in contrast to other
commentators, routinely draw comparisons between visiting the Van Gogh immersive
experiences and experiencing original Van Gogh artworks first-hand. As one might expect,
Arts 2022,11, 90 5 of 16
the viewer’s experience with the Van Gogh immersive exhibitions emerge as wanting (even
reckless) when viewed in this light. Beyond the supposed indignity of seeing an animated
version of the artist’s Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette actually puffing on a cigarette,
other moments of art historian negative affect abound: from the awkwardness of lounging
on life-sized, 3D sculptural versions of the furniture tenderly depicted in Bedroom in Arles
as if testing out an IKEA showroom (Van Gogh Alive), to the mortification at witnessing a
re-interpretation of CaféTerrace at Night, inexplicably “transformed into a curtain blowing
in the wind, the image divided like one of those rubber curtains at a carwash.”7
Arts 2022, 11, x FOR PEER REVIEW 5 of 16
Gogh-related narrations, soundtracks, animations, dramatic props, and even fragrances.
Of course, there are plenty of mirrored surfaces befitting our age of social media. (More
on that later).
Figure 2. Installation view of Immersive Van Gogh in New York City. Photo by Nina Westervelt is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, via Wikimedia.
It is noteworthy that these immersive art-themed events are exceptionally cost-inten-
sive to produce. Bloomberg CityLab estimates an average of about USD 1M for each Van
Gogh pop-up venue in the US (excluding animation and other extra expenditures), with
estimates soaring to anywhere between USD 4M and 15M for spaces customized to house
permanent spectacles (Capps 2021). The technological outlays are equally astonishing. At
the time of this article’s writing, the company that produces Immersive Van Gogh is the
largest buyer of Panasonic projectors in the world. (Fun fact: CityLab points out that “[l]aid
end-to-end, the fiberoptic cables for the New York show at Pier 36 would stretch from the
Statue of Liberty to the top of Manhattan” (Capps 2021)). Correspondingly, these self-
described family friendly” multimedia exhibits are also remarkably expensive to visit.
The minimum entry fee is about USD 35, but prices range well beyond USD 100 depend-
ing on time, date, and experiential extras. Unburdened by fragile original artworks or a
discernable instructional mission, these are unapologetically for-profit enterprises. Each
company runs multiple versions of their trademark immersive Van Gogh experience sim-
ultaneously, incorporating robust appeals to local corporate event planners and countless
commercial tie-ins at each site.6
These trendy exhibits, especially their North American renditions, have garnered
considerable publicity and spawned analyses in venues from Artforum to Forbes, the New
York Times to local TV affiliates. Predictably enough, reviews are mixed. While the fact
that opinions differ is hardly surprising, one critical trend is worth emphasizing: art critics
tend to be the only writers who insistently locate their critiques of the digital Van Gogh
exhibitions in relation to actual material art objects. That is, arts writers, in contrast to
Figure 2.
Installation view of Immersive Van Gogh in New York City. Photo by Nina Westervelt is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, via Wikimedia.
Although my own initial reaction to these exhibits was perhaps less contemptuous
than that of other art critics—I am a firm believer that if audiences are consistently seeking
to engage with art outside the institutional context of art museums, we should at least be
examining why—I too found myself to be fixated on making comparisons with viewing
“real” art objects. Why would so many people queue and pay so much money to see a not-
so-spectacular Van Gogh-inspired multimedia spectacle? Why choose to visit a digitized
Van Gogh exhibition when, especially in the major cities which host these events, one could
see any number of original paintings by Van Gogh or his contemporaries for much less
money? In hindsight, I realize that authenticity is almost beside the point; instead, the lure
of a digitally-mediated and multisensory encounter with the artist and his oeuvre is central.
For most non-art commentators, the differences between the immersive Van Gogh
experiences and viewing genuine Van Gogh paintings in an art museum or elsewhere are so
apparent as to go almost without mentioning. The exhibition creators, notably, never claim
to exhibit original artworks: it is simply not part of the pitch. In recounting their goals and
processes, their emphases lie in the alleged novelty of an immersive artistic experience.
This experience, notably, is emphatically marketed as divergent from conventional (read:
dusty and boring) art viewing. The Van Gogh Alive promotional materials, for example,
Arts 2022,11, 90 6 of 16
rally potential visitors to “Venture into an exciting new world; forego all preconceived
ideas of traditional museum visits, dispel all notions of tiptoeing through silent art galleries
to view masterpieces from afar, change how you engage with art. Vitalize your senses and
challenge your beliefs in a completely unique, stimulating Vincent Van Gogh experience”
(Van Gogh Alive Website 2022). Mario Iacampo, exhibition producer and artistic co-director
of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, puts it this way: “[W]e don’t look at it as ‘Come and
see paintings of Van Gogh.’ We look at it [as] ‘Come and experience Van Gogh.’” (Iacampo
2022) Echoing Iacampo, the other Van Gogh exhibition organizers similarly bypass the issue
of authenticity, trumpeting instead their efforts to promote accessibility and anti-elitism, to
preserve the aging and “over-visited” Van Gogh originals, to offer a more comprehensive
representation of Van Gogh’s vast oeuvre than any single museum could accomplish, and
to provide “socially transformational” educational experiences.8
Arts 2022, 11, x FOR PEER REVIEW 8 of 16
spectatorship in our era of social media and ubiquitous digital devices, one with an out-
sized yet underappreciated influence upon art institutions and their audiences.
Figure 3. Installation view of Immersive Van Gogh in New York City. Photo by Nina Westervelt is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, via Wikimedia.
3. Immersive Experience, Social Media Sharing, and the Attention-Experience
Economy
While written in a different context, Peter Osborne deftly articulates the urgency of
defining changing patterns of media art spectatorship, such as those inaugurated by art-
themed immersive exhibitions. He explains: “As the economic logic of the cultural indus-
tries imposes itself on art institutions, subsuming them into its cycles of reproduction (as
the research and development sector of advertising and design), the question of what
modes of attention and experience are specific to art, at any particular historical moment,
finds itself enlivened once again by technology.(Osborne 2004)13 What is important to
emphasize is this: due in large part to changing media technologies, exhibitions such as
the immersive Van Gogh experiences are no longer seen as a place to go to passively look
at the materials on display, but rather to offer “a place to document experiences and share
those adventures with followers through social media accounts.” (Carlsson 2020).
It is no exaggeration to say that the omnipresence of digital devices and the perva-
siveness of social media sharing have transformed how we see and experience the world.14
Art-themed immersive exhibition experiences are no exception. Indeed, I will go so far as
to propose that 21st-century art and spectatorship are now invariably informed by our
24/7 habitual attention, distraction, and sharing across various screens and social media
platforms. Whats more, this is true irrespective of the works form and whether or not
any particular viewer actually engages with a digital device during their visit. Phone-re-
liant viewing now verges on being normative even in “traditionalart museums such as
the Van Gogh Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; the Van Gogh immersive expe-
riences, however, take these phone-mediated experiences to a new level, deliberately
Figure 3.
Installation view of Immersive Van Gogh in New York City. Photo by Nina Westervelt is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, via Wikimedia.
We will return to the promoters’ intriguing claims in what follows. For now, it is
important to grasp the wider popular reception surrounding these shows. Local news
publications, for their part, often describe the delightful escapism the Van Gogh immersive
events facilitate (although not without some misgivings, especially as related to the price
of admission). More to the point, and due to the events’ nearly indistinguishable titles,
these site-specific publications tend to spend a large amount of time focusing on the
thoroughgoing confusion over various competing Van Gogh experiences, often judiciously
counseling their readers on how to choose the best experience for their particular needs and
interests. (The title of Kevin Slane’s review in Boston.com says it all: “We Visited Boston’s 2
Van Gogh ‘Immersive Experiences.’ Here’s Which One You Should Choose”. (Slane 2021))
Business journals, on the other hand, often do not discuss the artist or his paintings at all.
They delve right to the heart of the issue in analyses of the market share, branding, and
enormous investment opportunity of these massively popular and rapidly multiplying
Arts 2022,11, 90 7 of 16
immersive experiences. (A 2021 article in Market Watch gushes approvingly that the team at
Lighthouse Immersive, presenter of Immersive Van Gogh, “collectively have sold about 4.5
million tickets, translating into roughly $250 million in revenue, to all their Immersive Van
Gogh presentations
. . .
And that’s not counting $30 million in ancillary gift-shop revenue.”
(Passy 2022).)
While arts writers’ over-emphasis on comparisons with viewing Van Gogh’s actual
works of art arguably obscures other critical issues regarding the spectator’s experience, the
non-art commentators, by focusing on attendance figures as the sole gauge of the immersive
exhibition model’s success or failure, are similarly shortsighted in their analyses. Zeroing
in on the different type of viewing experience and mode of attention these art reproduction
immersive exhibitions solicit and promote allows us to bridge these perspectives. It is here
where (media) art historical perspectives become invaluable. The discipline’s longstanding
investment in the study of the viewer’s perceptual engagement with art and media objects
makes it uniquely equipped to theorize these experiential art events within the context of
the conquest of attention, particularly visual attention, which is always sorely limited.
9
Yves Citton makes this case thoughtfully in The Ecology of Attention: “art historians and
researchers in aesthetics,” argues Citton, are “better placed than economists and specialists
in marketing and management to understand what is at stake over the long term in the
attention economy.” (Citton 2014)10.
Following Citton, and as savvy arts writers in fact have demonstrated, there are com-
pelling cases to be made for locating the Van Gogh immersive media exhibitions in relation
to earlier art exhibition models and their modes of spectatorship. Panoramas, world’s fairs,
expanded cinema, blockbuster exhibitions, biennials, and, of course, large-scale multimedia
installations immediately come to mind. Predictably, these are the precedents cited most
frequently in the literature. Jason Farago’s trenchant review in the New York Times, for
example, observes: “The shows hark back in particular to multi-projector attractions at
the World’s Fair in Queens in 1964 and at Expo ’67 in Montreal, which cast humanist
visions of the future in all directions.” (Farago 2021)
11
Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles
Times takes a more recent point of comparison. His head-to-head appraisal of the Los
Angeles variant of Immersive Van Gogh and Pipilotti Rist’s concurrent exhibition of media
installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art is broadly representative of the defensive
tone of many arts writers. “A bunch of high-resolution slides of famous, hundred-year-old
paintings being projected on surrounding walls at an admission price of 55 bucks is simply
no match for lounging on a floor pillow to be welcomed into Rist’s eye-popping video
garden of electronic Eden. Actual art by a gifted artist is better than reproductions of art
sold by a corporation any day—especially at one-third the price.” (Knight 2021)12.
Keeping these previous exhibition models in the forefront, Citton’s caution about
presentism is appropriate: “While the digitalization of our attention of course opens
unprecedented perspectives—for the better and for the worse—often, it only leads to the
reinvention of modes of interaction that have already been experimented with in earlier
contexts.” (Citton 2014) After all, and as these exhibition model precedents demonstrate,
catering to mass audiences is not new; putting “experience” on display is not new; mining
emotions is not new; profit-making populist ventures are not new; multimedia immersion
is not new. At the same time, however, we should be careful not to elide important
distinctions. Examining the mode of spectatorship associated with these works—how we
see and experience these exhibitions and their effects—enables us to appreciate the truly
novel aspects of these immersive art-themed experiences. As we will see in the following
section, the digital Van Gogh shows exemplify habits of digitally-mediated and profit-
driven 24/7 immersive attention in art and in everyday life. This is important because this
emergent exhibition model associated with these commercialized, art-themed exhibitions,
far from being an insignificant fad, enables us to recognize and assess an evolving form
of art spectatorship in our era of social media and ubiquitous digital devices, one with an
outsized yet underappreciated influence upon art institutions and their audiences.
Arts 2022,11, 90 8 of 16
3. Immersive Experience, Social Media Sharing, and the Attention-Experience
Economy
While written in a different context, Peter Osborne deftly articulates the urgency
of defining changing patterns of media art spectatorship, such as those inaugurated by
art-themed immersive exhibitions. He explains: “As the economic logic of the cultural
industries imposes itself on art institutions, subsuming them into its cycles of reproduction
(as the research and development sector of advertising and design), the question of what
modes of attention and experience are specific to art, at any particular historical moment,
finds itself enlivened once again by technology.” (Osborne 2004)
13
What is important to
emphasize is this: due in large part to changing media technologies, exhibitions such as the
immersive Van Gogh experiences are no longer seen as a place to go to passively look at
the materials on display, but rather to offer “a place to document experiences and share
those adventures with followers through social media accounts.” (Carlsson 2020).
It is no exaggeration to say that the omnipresence of digital devices and the pervasive-
ness of social media sharing have transformed how we see and experience the world.
14
Art-themed immersive exhibition experiences are no exception. Indeed, I will go so far
as to propose that 21st-century art and spectatorship are now invariably informed by our
24/7 habitual attention, distraction, and sharing across various screens and social media
platforms. What’s more, this is true irrespective of the work’s form and whether or not any
particular viewer actually engages with a digital device during their visit. Phone-reliant
viewing now verges on being normative even in “traditional” art museums such as the
Van Gogh Museum and the Museum of Modern Art; the Van Gogh immersive experiences,
however, take these phone-mediated experiences to a new level, deliberately designing a
screen-based, social media-centric environment.
15
Farago’s review of the multiple digital
Van Gogh exhibitions in Manhattan pinpoints what is at stake: “Individual absorption,
rather than shared wonder, is the order of the day now. From every vantage point you
will fill your phone’s backlit screen with glowing imagery.” He adds, foreshadowing our
discussion of selfies, “and there’s more than enough space to crop out other visitors and
frame only yourself.” (Farago 2021).
Exhibition models such as these correspond to the demands of the so-called experi-
ence economy, in which companies are in the business of selling consumers memorable
experiences, transcending the exchange of material goods. Rachel Monroe’s assessment
of how new technologies enter this equation is apt: “The ideal experience-economy offer-
ings are engaging enough to distract us from our devices but also optimized to be shared
on those devices.” (Monroe 2019)
16
One may be dazzled by what appear to be teeming
fields of sunflowers in a mirrored room, but the invitation to see oneself as the star of the
screen-based show is unmistakable. Again, this is true even if one is not personally taking
selfies or posting to social media, since the experience is dominated by those who are (and,
indeed, the entire exhibition is designed around those interests).
With this conduct in mind, we might describe the mode of spectatorship engendered
by the immersive Van Gogh exhibitions as a merger of the well-known experience economy
mentioned by Monroe, in which businesses orchestrate and sell noteworthy experiences to
their customers, and the more recent attention economy, in which, revenue is a function of
continuous consumer attention.
17
In the attention economy, “the new scarcity is no longer
to be situated on the side of material goods to be produced, but on the attention necessary
to consume them.” (Citton 2014) Simply put, from the perspective of an attention-based
economy, the more time a consumer spends with a product, service, idea, or any other
simulacrum of a brand, the better.
18
The digital Van Gogh shows exemplify an attention-
experience economy partnership not only because they sell experiences in order to try to
capture attention within each exhibition (by way of selfie spots, grand scale, visual and
auditory effects, the development of a story that leads to a climax, and so on), but also
because they need to compete among each other for consumer attention within the crowded
marketplace of Van Gogh experiences and art-themed immersive exhibitions elsewhere19.
Arts 2022,11, 90 9 of 16
The attention-experience economy is a helpful rubric to understand the logic of these
immersive events, especially because the commercial success of these relentlessly for-profit
enterprises hinges upon inspiring consumer behavior with their digital devices. Armed
with smart phones and habituated to constant sharing, audiences are enthusiastic to become
part of the exhibition by documenting themselves within it, sometimes sharing their photos
or videos online with others in conveniently interconnected digital content. In this way,
visitors become micro-influencers and brand ambassadors. In practice, this means that
any user-generated digital content considered strategically more valid can be selected by
the immersive Van Gogh promotional media teams and made visible on their websites,
which in turn co-creates value for the event sponsors.
20
While the dynamic of co-creating
value via social media engagement is by no means unique to the immersive Van Gogh
experiences, these shows in many ways typify institutional ambitions to generate digital
engagement.21
The principal attraction of the immersive Van Gogh exhibitions for viewers, then, is
hybrid and complex. It is a desire to engage in an immersive, embodied artistic encounter:
a desire to be physically “in” the work, creating one’s customized experience, as opposed
to merely observing from afar. Moreover, and crucially, it is a desire underwritten by a 21st
century interest in how that individualized experience might be represented or circulated
online (whether or not one chooses to document it through social media). Having visited
three versions of these exhibitions in person—Van Gogh Alive in London, Beyond Van Gogh in
Portland, and Immersive Van Gogh in Los Angeles—I can confirm, at least anecdotally, that
nearly everyone was using their phone camera at some point, and especially to take video
footage of themselves and their friends within the event space. Judging from the phone
panning motion, the favoring of video over still photography, and my informal interviews
with visitors and employees, it seemed very clear that audience members understood
the Van Gogh “experience” to involve their personalized involvement within a process-
based total media environment, as opposed to a discrete or static work. User-generated
images posted online further confirm this interpretation: they routinely foreground their
individualized experiences within the multimedia environment over and above the Van
Gogh-themed imagery or objects themselves.22
While some writers consistently decry the use of social media within art exhibition
contexts, the tide seems to be shifting, and in ways significant to understanding the
attraction of these immersive exhibitions. Selfies tend to receive the most attention in these
debates. Scholars who champion the use of selfies typically deem it to be an empowering
and democratizing practice that productively disrupts the alleged disciplinary function
of art institutions. Chiara Piancatelli, Marta Massi, and Andrea Vocino, for example,
contend that selfies empower “art consumers” to develop narratives and identity projects;
this is especially significant, they argue, because “traditionally the development of the
narrative is apanage of an elite.” (Piancatelli et al. 2021)
23
E.B. Hunter’s article in Text and
Performance Quarterly makes a similar argument. “Museums perform institutional control
over displayed objects through guards, vitrines, and motion sensing alarms that beep if
visitors get too close, but museum selfie takers steal a little control back, using the presence
of their bodies in the frame to commandeer the viewer’s attention.”
(Hunter 2018)
Hunter
further theorizes the use of selfies as a means to satisfy viewers’ desires to physically
engage with works of art. He makes a convincing case that “Museum selfies are the
twenty-first century version of touching the art—an outlet for museum visitors whose
sensory access has been restricted to the visual by multiple protective barriers, but who
still crave embodied engagement with artworks.” (Hunter 2018)
24
As for Piancatelli, Massi,
and Vocino, agency, haptic engagement, and embodied experience are central to Hunter’s
affirmative conception of interactive meaning making via selfies.
Although these critics focus on the role of selfies specifically in relation to art museums,
their claims are equally persuasive in understanding the place of selfies and other forms
of media documentation in the context of the immersive Van Gogh art experiences. As
affirmed at this article’s outset, getting as close as possible to the art-based images and
Arts 2022,11, 90 10 of 16
objects on display seems to be a large part of the appeal. Crucially, however, it is also a key
part of the promoters’ sales pitches: we’re prompted to “change how [we] engage with art”
(Van Gogh Alive Website 2022), and we’re roused to make our fantasies come true: “Have
you ever dreamt of stepping into a painting? Now you can!” (Van Gogh the Immersive
Experience Website 2022). By rewarding social media habits and explicitly rejecting “elitist”
art museum protocols, these immersive exhibitions allow viewers to literally see themselves
within Van Gogh’s art. While this is not necessarily problematic in its own right, it is
important to dig deeper in understanding what this model of multisensory and highly
emotional form of digital attention with Van Gogh-inspired media might reveal. As we will
see in what follows, by facilitating multisensory immersion and digital documentation in
straightforward, approachable, art-based environments, today’s various digital Van Gogh
shows seamlessly answer the demands of nonstop digital consumption in our attention-
experience economy.
4. Mining Emotions and Hyper Attention
Given the exhibition organizers’ objective of ensuring audience attention and en-
gagement, the decision to showcase Vincent Van Gogh among all possible artists is far
from coincidental. “We had an interest in Van Gogh’s paintings because it’s [sic] full of
emotions
. . .
when you look at his tableaus, they’re already immersive”, explains Orphee
Cataldo, artistic co-director of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience (Iacampo 2022). He
goes on to consider how this impacts the exhibition’s overall design, reflecting that “[h]e’s
done the work for you. You just have to expand it.” (Iacampo 2022) The choice of Van
Gogh is plainly linked not only to the immediate sensory appeal of the paintings’ highly
emotional form and content accentuated by Cataldo, but also to the heart-wrenching ele-
ments of the artist’s well-known biography. Tellingly, the artist’s severe depression and
lamentably romanticized psychosis features conspicuously in each of the competing exhi-
bitions. (Immersive Van Gogh’s San Francisco presentation cheerfully invites: “Experience
the organic landscapes of Van Gogh’s imagination, and journey through his brilliance
and madness.”
(Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition San Francisco Website 2022)
) Van Gogh’s
status as a tragic spiritual visionary neatly guarantees the exhibitions’ visitors emotional
response, as advertised.
The commercial advantages of securing viewers’ attention through their emotional
connections to Van Gogh’s life and work are many. A thought-provoking study in the
International Journal of Market Research describes direct correlations among experience,
emotion, and social media sharing. Their data suggest that the more participatory and
emotional the art environment, the more people tend to share their feelings with others
(Piancatelli et al. 2021). The study’s authors explain it this way: “Emotions induced in
the museum context lead to increased levels of engagement that, in turn, affect visitor
behaviors. The emotions–engagement–behavior relationship is particularly evident in contexts
characterized by spectacular consumption (Piancatelli et al. 2021).
25
The relevance of their
assessment for understanding the case of the Van Gogh immersive experiences, particularly
the research team’s clear-headed assessment of the commercial implications, is apparent.
“The creation of a playful and engaging environment
. . .
encourages visitors to interact
with the exhibition itself, pushing them to share their experience online and activating a co-
creation of value” (Piancatelli et al. 2021). In other words, the more prominent the emotions,
the higher the engagement; the higher the engagement, the higher the interaction on social
media; the higher the interaction on social media; the higher the marketing value. None of
this is lost on the event producers. “The cool thing about the immersive world in general is
that we are able to play with smell, taste, sight and all these other things that are sort of
built in natural emotional triggers”, remarks one of the exhibition designers (
Baltin 2021
).
(And, a skeptic might point out that these “natural emotional triggers” make bank.)
That the Van Gogh immersive exhibitions are in the business of vending highly
emotional, affective, art-based experiences is indisputable. That the exhibition organizers
profit handsomely from viewers’ earnest desires to get as close as possible to the art and
Arts 2022,11, 90 11 of 16
emotions on display is equally evident. Even so, it is imperative not to lose sight of what
they’re not selling. They traffic not in material art objects made by Van Gogh, but in Van
Gogh-themed digital animated environments. Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience’s Iacampo,
for one, deems the “digital transition” to be an asset in advancing ways of exploring art.
“Digital media in itself is art because we’re not just taking paintings and showing them—
you know—as a picture. What we’re doing is we’re exploring each painting. We’re
animating each painting” (Miner and Spindler 2018). Iacampo’s untroubled endorsement
of digitizing and remixing Van Gogh’s oeuvre is worth unpacking in light of our discussion
of the attention-experience economy. Specifically, what might the exhibitions organizers’
sidestepping of static material paintings in favor of large-scale, animated digital mash-ups
reveal? What could this tell us about the particular mode of engagement these experiences
promote and reward?
N. Katherine Hayles’ analysis of changing attention patterns in higher education is
instructive in this regard. Through a careful examination of classroom dynamics, Hayles
proposes that we are living through a rapid and dramatic generational shift in attentional
systems and cognitive modes. Teachers and their students are out of sync, in large part
because the former tend to rely on habits of “deep attention”, whereas the latter tend to
favor habits of what Hayles calls “hyper attention”. She explains: “Deep attention
. . .
is
characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens),
ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and
having a high tolerance for long focus times.” Hyper attention, instead, “is characterized
by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams,
seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.” (
Hayles 2007
)
It perhaps goes without saying that the Van Gogh immersive experiences epitomize a
throughgoing endorsement of hyper attention in art as in everyday life.
Adopting Hayles’ framework and terminology, we could interpret these art-themed
exhibitions’ unfettered enthusiasm for animation of all kinds—of paintings, of emotions,
of multisensory experience, of user-generated video—to be symptomatic of a broader
cultural turn. To cite just one example, we might recall that the much-discussed inaugural
advertising campaign for Meta (formerly Facebook) also showcased a “creatively” animated
digital rendition of a famously evocative painting. Like so many twinkling stars and
swirling sunflowers, Henri Rousseau’s celebrated Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908)
now moves and grooves, set to music and leaping from 2D to 3D. Analogous to the digital
Van Gogh events, the would-be museum visitors depicted in Meta’s “The Tiger and the
Buffalo” ad are whisked out of the staid galleries and immersed into a famous painter’s
imaginary jungle-themed world.
On the topic of experiencing art in the age of hyper attention, it bears asking: do 21st
century audiences now require immersion and animation to appreciate otherwise static, 2D
paintings? And, if so, what does this mean for art spectatorship and its relationship with the
attention-experience economy? From the perspective of art and attention, the question is
not an idle one. The answer remains ambiguous, although we might make some educated
guesses. Have our well-intentioned art institutions unwittingly evacuated emotion and
pleasure? Have they failed to signal their accessibility and approachability to the extent
that they are now forced to watch audiences meet their needs through commercialized,
animated art-flavored spectacles, or even through staging similar shows or exhibition
spaces themselves? Farago contemplates this issue in an especially thoughtful way. On his
recent experience of viewing Van Gogh’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he
muses: “you can stand as long as you like in front of Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses,
the agitated clouds rolling like waves, its climbing greenery edged with trembling blacks”.
He concludes with a heartfelt call to action: “I want everyone to discover, right there in
the thick grooves of the oil paint, the wonder and vitality of art that needs no animation”.
“There has got to be a way to lead people back to that discovery”, resolves Farago, “even if
some of us take a selfie afterward” (Farago 2021).
Arts 2022,11, 90 12 of 16
If critics such as Farago maintain optimism for a renewed interest in sustained engage-
ment with material works of art, theorists of the attention economy paint a more sobering
picture. Sven Birkerts’ ruminations on art and attention in the Internet age have special
meaning in this context. “The short version is that the world, its elements, its nouns, seems
to have receded a bit, as has its intractability, the defining obstacles of time and space”,
he writes. Birkerts adds, wistfully, “It’s almost as if world and screen were in inverse
relation, the former fading as the latter keeps gaining in reach, in definition, in its power to
compel our attention” (Birkerts 2015). In Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and
How to Think Deeply Again, Jonathan Hari describes how our focus has in effect been stolen,
leaving us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit.
Jonathan Crary, in his celebrated treatise 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, takes this
line of critique even further, identifying the structural problems that undergird what Hari
calls our technology-induced anxiety and lack of focus. Crary convincingly posits that the
constant stress and 24/7 expectations of our contemporary “grind” culture may be even
more impactful than digital devices and social media, while also being more challenging
to identify. His diagnosis is chilling: “As the opportunity for electronic transactions of all
kinds becomes omnipresent, there is no vestige of what used to be everyday life beyond
the reach of corporate intrusion” (Crary 2013). “An attention economy”, he continues,
“dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment
and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is
inherently and inescapably 24/7” (Crary 2013). On Crary’s unsparing read, the Van Gogh
immersive experiences substantiate both corporate dominance and the imperative of non-
stop productivity and communication: with their clarion calls to continually engage digital
devices, these immersive art-themed spectacles mine consumers’ emotions, integrating
audiences more fully into corporatized productive routines, profiting all the while.
The exhibition producers, for their part, see it differently. While they don’t go so
far as to refute the fundamental commercial nature of their enterprises, they do contend
that their experiences offer educational and even social value. Accessibility is a strong
point. The producers of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience estimate that about 50 percent
of their audience has never set foot in a museum before coming to see their exhibition
(Zaller 2022). The co-creators behind Immersive Van Gogh, the aptly-titled Impact Museums
company, are more explicit about the perceived social relevance of their projects.
26
They
characterize themselves as a “change company” and as “global influencers,” devoted
equally to entertaining spectacle and meaningful social exchange.
27
They describe the
company’s mission to Forbes, somewhat breathlessly, stating that:
Our vision for the business is to build experiences that tell those incredible stories where
people feel inspired to share on their social media and become a part of the movement
and feel less helpless and feel their individual actions can actually make a difference
because they see all of the individuals they come through with, plus their hundreds or
thousands of millions of followers engaging, and we become an amplifier for a movement.
(Baltin 2021)
Arts writers may cringe at the flamboyant digital remakes of Van Gogh’s renowned
brushstrokes and the bald-faced co-option of the artist’s inner turmoil for revenue-generating
emotional impact; theorists of the attention economy may despair at the unabashed man-
agement of individual attentiveness and activity in the service of a 24/7 digital marketplace;
but, for production teams such as Impact Museums, reworking Van Gogh’s life and paint-
ings into easily digestible, art-themed multisensory presentations is just the beginning. The
long-term influence of the consumerist, screen-based immersive attention they foster in art
and in everyday life remain to be seen.
In summary, to critically assess the significance of the digital Van Gogh events that
crowd our contemporary cultural landscape, art critics must move beyond the myopic
focus on Van Gogh’s original paintings and unfavorable comparisons to engaging with
original works of art in a museum. Rather than critiquing the immersive Van Gogh shows
for not being authentic—for their inability to replicate the experience of viewing Van
Arts 2022,11, 90 13 of 16
Gogh paintings in person—I have proposed that these exhibitions represent a new form
of immersive media spectatorship: they satisfy a desire to enter Van Gogh’s paintings of
sunflowers, starry nights, and all the rest, in order to create (and perhaps document) one’s
own customized digital experience with the work. I have further theorized how this 21st-
century media art spectatorship reflects an alignment with the consumerist demands of the
hybrid attention-experience economy and is buoyed by the ambitions of the profit-driven
exhibition organizers. I have revealed how these interlocking dynamics merge seamlessly
with visitors’ desires for Insta-ready personalized experiences and contemporary habits of
our so-called hyper attention. In the face of the meteoric rise of the immersive art-themed
exhibition, it is urgent to develop a robust critical framework for assessing the model’s
current and impending influences. I hope that this article offers a first step in that direction.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.
Notes
1The titular character of Netflix’s Emily in Paris visits a Van Gogh immersive exhibit in Episode 5 of Season 1.
2
“Edutainment” refers to programming that is meant to be both educational and entertaining. For a compelling examination of
edutainment at the intersection of entertainment industry and arts institutions, see Balloffet et al. (2014).
3
The choice of Van Gogh isn’t a mere coincidence. The Lume was created by Australia-based Grande Experiences, producers of
the global sensation Van Gogh Alive.
4
Although the Van Gogh immersive exhibition phenomenon is global in scope, this article will focus primarily on sites in North
America due to the current predominance of immersive exhibitions in that region.
5
After a hiatus of a few years, Vincent Van Gogh, la nuit étoilée(produced by Culturespaces, Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto and
Massimiliano Siccardi) will return to L’Atelier des Lumières in August 2022.
6
The online promotional materials for Grande Experiences, producers of Van Gogh Alive, are representative of the digital Van
Gogh production companies’ enterprising approach. “If you’re looking to host a touring immersive experience, establish a
new semi-permanent, multi-sensory gallery in your venue, help reinvigorate the nightlife of your city or to establish an iconic,
next-generation digital art gallery, please see the contact details at the bottom of this page.” (Grande Experiences Website 2022).
7
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1885–86, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam); Bedroom in Arles (1888, Van Gogh Museum,
Amsterdam); CaféTerrace at Night (1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands). The carwash bon mot is from Davis (2021).
8
See, for example, Christina Morales’s article in the New York Times: “The immersive experiences are meant to complement the
work displayed in a museum, not take away from it, according to [Imagine Van Gogh’s Annabelle] Mauger and other producers
of the exhibitions. They are particularly useful, they said, in introducing art to children, who, because of their height, may not
see paintings well in crowded museums. It also replaces the often rigid museum etiquette, with its near silence and strictures
intended to protect the artwork, with a looser atmosphere filled by music, lounging and chitchat.” (Morales 2021).
9For a cogent summary of the foundational media spectatorship theory debates, see Mayne (1993).
10
For a detailed account of histories of attention and perception in relationship to visual art, see, for example, Crary (2001) and
Stafford (2007).
11
While Farago’s immersive commercial exhibition historical references are definitely on point, it’s worth noting that Le Corbusier’s
Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels predates both examples. See Mondloch (2004).
12
For more on Rist’s exhibition, “Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor”, see the Museum of Contemporary Art website. Despite
Knight’s confident assertion that Rist’s media installations are “the real thing”, disambiguating the Van Gogh immersive
exhibitions from the genre of media installation art is an exceptionally complicated task. I will take up this issue in a separate
article. For now, we might well ponder Joseph Henry’s prophecy: “Pity the virtuous intentions of today’s serious media-
installation artist” (Henry 2021).
13
The profoundly influential concept of the culture industry, which proposes that the increasing commodification of culture in
modern capitalist society has transformed culture itself into a crucial medium of ideological domination, was first introduced
by Horkheimer and Adorno (1944). Following these thinkers, many of the foremost cultural critics of the twentieth century
have convincingly argued that we must be ever vigilant against the uncritical embrace of the popular and the new, particularly
insofar as they are bound up with the culture industry (Horkheimer and Adorno), commodified spectacle (Debord 1995), and
the seeming insatiable quest for the “experience of experience” itself, in relationship the experience-hungry contemporary art
museum especially (Krauss 1990).
Arts 2022,11, 90 14 of 16
14
On how the emergence of social media has changed how individuals interact and engage with their surroundings, see
Campbell et al. (2014
). On the topic of how visitors engaging with social media tend to experience art viewing as an immersive
and interactive experience, see Brown et al. (2011).
15 Farago (2019) offers an evocative consideration of painting spectatorship in the 21st century through a case study of Van Gogh.
16
While Monroe’s piece is devoted to the activities of the arts and entertainment company MeowWolf, there are significant parallels
between these art-based commercial ventures in terms of the attention-experience economy.
17
For an influential definition of the experience economy, see Pine and Gilmore (1999). On the attention economy, see, for example,
(Citton 2014;Franck 2019;Goldhaber 1997).
18
For a prescient look at how offering entertaining content and a robust experience has become imperative in the race to capture
the public’s attention (otherwise known as the “e” or entertainment factor), see Wolf (1999).
19
Counts (2009) identifies four categories of technique associated with the design of spectacular exhibition offerings: dramatic
effects (e.g., sound and light); plot mainly through the development of a story that builds to a climax; grand scale (e.g., the use of
IMAX or giant screens); and authenticity (i.e., credibility of the effects used).
20
Piancatelli, Massi, and Vocino succinctly summarize the critical discourse on social media value co-creation as consumer labor:
“while most authors have adopted a positive stance on value co-creation, emphasizing its advantages and benefits, others
. . .
[such as Zwick et al. (2008), Cova et al. (2011)] argue that co-creation equates to exploitation of consumers because they are not
rewarded for participating in the value creation practices”.
21
Note that the exhibition organizers actively solicit social media influencers to promote their brands. The “Calling all influencers!”
page on Immersive Van Gogh’s website is exemplary.
22
See, for example, the social media feeds shared to the exhibitions’ websites. For a representative example of user-generated video
documentation, see Hanuska (2020).
23
The researchers further propose that selfies, beyond merely co-creating value for the exhibition organizers, demonstrate a sort of
iconic authenticity, in which each viewing experience is understood to be iconically (if not indexically) authentic to each visitor.
They observe that selfies and their iconic authenticity of viewer experience, in a seeming paradox, may resuscitate the idea of
artistic aura.
24
The author points out that touch was understood as central to a visitor’s encounter with an artwork well into the nineteenth
century. For an historical account, see Candlin (2010).
25 My emphasis.
26
Impact Museums was founded by Josh Jacobs, Vito Iaia, Mark Shedletsky, and Diana Rayzman. Their Immersive Van Gogh
exhibition was co-created with Lighthouse Immersive.
27
The Impact Museums team outlines the inspiration behind their hybrid entertainment-social action method this way: “We have
always sort of talked about the idea that it’s hard to get people to take their medicine when it comes to serious topics
. . .
you
need to begin by entertaining and that in order to reach a mass audience you need to be an entertainment medium; but in the
process of entertaining you can educate and then inspire, so these can be sort of foundational change vehicles that take people
through that entire gamut.” [If] “you can do that on a kind of global scale, where you’re reaching millions of people you really do
have the ability to start aspiring to not just be an entertainment company, but be a change company.” (Baltin 2021).
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