Strobe Light-Filled Art Exhibit Closes After Causing Three Seizures

A Pittsburgh art museum closed an exhibit on Sunday after three visitors had seizures or seizure-like symptoms. But this isn't the first time the exhibit has made people physically ill.

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A Pittsburgh art museum closed an exhibit on Sunday after three visitors had seizures or seizure-like symptoms. ZEE, a fog and strobe light-filled sensory experience by Austrian artist Kurt Hentschläger, closed early after paramedics were called to treat a young woman, the third case since its opening on Friday. Shaunda Miles a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust where the exhibit was being shown, said ZEE would be closed indefinitely as the gallery took "some time to assess" their next move.

This isn't the first time Hentschläger's exhibit has made people physically ill. Ten people suffered seizures when ZEE showed at a Tasmanian art festival earlier this year. At seven seizures Hentschläger estimated that was about one percent of visitors and said that was better than normal — he usually expects two percent of visitors to have seizures. After the organizers shut down the exhibit to install better warning signs, only one person suffered a seizure. That's something, we guess. ZEE also showed in Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2009; according to Miles, visitors suffered seizures then as well.

If it wasn't obvious, disorienting visitors is sort of what Hentschläger is going for. Here's how he describes the exhibit on his website:

The audience wanders freely in a space filled with extremely dense fog that fully obscures all of its boundaries. Stroboscopic- and pulse lights illuminate the fog, in a softened and evenly dispersed manner, creating kaleidoscopic three-dimensional structures in constant animation. An ambient and minimal sound-scape connects to the imagery, without directly synchronizing to it. 

The core visual impression of ZEE is of a psychedelic architecture of pure light, an abstract luminescent landscape enveloping the visitor. Time appears to stand still. 

Trippy, right? But also very obviously a risk for those prone to seizures, or even, as the exhibit warns, people who don't suffer from epilepsy. Pittsburgh visitors had to sign a waiver that warned individuals with a family or personal history of epilepsy — along with anxiety, claustrophobia, migraines, breathing and heart problems — not to see the exhibit. But as Hentschläger's one percent rule shows, warning aren't always enough.

Hentschläger, obviously aware of the effect the exhibit has on people, has considered no longer showing it, but hasn't. As he told the MONA gallery in July (We'd link to the interview, but there's a neon flashing strobe light gif above the text):

I’ve often contemplated whether I should stop showing it because I always dread that some day something really serious might happen. To have a seizure is very dramatic, but only a temporary event. It doesn’t mean you’ll have epilepsy from this point on or anything like that, it just means you’re allergic to stroboscopic light at that intensity and at certain frequencies. [...]Really it’s a beautiful piece about the experience of the sublime.

Basically, the piece is really pretty and if don't have epilepsy but have a seizure anyway it's only "temporary." If that somehow doesn't convince you to try it out (it'll show in the United Arab Emirates and Paris later this year), don't worry. There's a pretty detailed video of reactions from visitors at the Abandon Normal Devices Festival in Liverpool two years ago. And by detailed, we mean they all sound stoned.

"Um, it was the most insane thing I've ever been a part of," said one viewer. "I was always staring out front for some reason and then at one point I turned around and it was the same thing," another said. "That potential is inside there somewhere and your brain's somewhere," said a third. We're not sure what that means, either.

(ZEE screenshot via "Zee - Kurt Hentschläger".)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.