Entering a New Era of Immersive Art

ArtOfImmersion-Post.jpgIn his new book, Wired editor Frank Rose argues that, in the last twenty years, technological change has begotten a new, immersive kind of art. The central innovation has been the Web, which, according to Rose, is rendering aesthetics an increasingly interactive experience. No longer is a book over when you finish it; no longer does a television show exist only when programmed. Through Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, video games, and viral marketing, viewers can populate the hinterland -- both the lulls between weekly episodes and the unspoken words between characters -- with whatever fantasies they please. They can tweet as Donald Draper's jilted wife, colonize the planet of the Na'vi as Xbox gamers, and shape the minutiae of Star Wars on Wookieepedia. They -- we -- are no longer viewers as much as doers, and art is no longer something to be viewed as much as something to be lived.

As you would expect, Rose is forward-thinking, optimistic, and -- to borrow Zadie Smith's distinction between her Luddite self and her Web-savvy students -- thoroughly 2.0. The premise of his book, however, is old-fashioned, and essentially that of Walter Benjamin's landmark 1935 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In that piece Benjamin argued that methods of technical reproduction, namely photography and cinema, had freed art from the provinces of ritual worship. Works once viewed only by the anointed few became available to all, and art evolved from something cultish into something political.

Seventy-five years later, Benjamin's assertion that "the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character" looks especially prescient. Today anyone can comment on an online story. Anyone can hear two songs and post his own mash-up. Anyone (with enough wit and nerve) can engage in a Twitter conversation with Kanye West. That the Web and social media have further leveled the stratified world of the fine arts is undeniable, and though Rose never references Benjamin, it's difficult to read The Art of Immersion as anything but the maximum extension of this process, the final frontier of art's democratization.

But Rose has another point: the Web has not only changed the way we consume art, but the art we consume. Our love of links has given rise to the "hyperlink cinema" of Pulp Fiction, Crash, and Babel. Our desire for a 1st-person, video-game experience at the movies has popularized 3-D and alternate endings. Most of all, our desire to totally lose ourselves in a fictional universe has sent directors on a grail quest for the holodeck, which Rose defines as "the definitive if as yet unattainable immersive entertainment experience." It's the filmic equivalent of reality, the never-ending story, the Avatar in which we become our own doubles for as long as we choose.

One chapter of that holodeck quest began with Jordon Weisman, who arguably invented alternate reality games as a camp counselor in 1979, and who went on to work as creative director for Microsoft's entertainment division. When asked by Rose about his role at the software giant, he replies: "What we're doing is a giant extrapolation of sitting in the kitchen playing Dungeons & Dragons with our friends. It's just that now our kitchen table holds several million people."

It's an inspirational, basement-to-boardroom story, though it's tinged by an unnerving Zuckerberg smugness. Make no mistake, Weisman is a nerd's nerd, and any book that portrays him as an aesthetic luminary is likely to rankle some highbrows. Old, 1.0 souls will be infuriated by some of the book's assumptions: a third dimension automatically adds more than superficial depth, a galaxy of arcana will always deepen a story, art without these elements is geared toward passive (rather than immersive) viewers. And even if we do live in a new era of immersive art -- art designed for continuation in tweets, blogs, alternate endings, video games, PR campaigns, live action-role playing, and incepted dreams -- are we truly immersing ourselves in the works, or in ourselves?

The answer, I'd say, is both. More precisely, we get to choose our own ending. The Web lets us dive deeper than ever before, though into what is up to us. A new avant-garde is taking the plunge -- not underground, but online. For those of us lagging behind, wading rather than diving into art's new cyber-sphere, Frank Rose makes an excellent guide.

The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, by Frank Rose. W. W. Norton & Company, February 21, 2011.