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Life Imitating Art

4/24/2017

mobile smartphone photo camera museum smithsonian

Over the course of more than five decades, world-renowned artist Yayoi Kusama has dedicated her life to revolutionizing the way people interact with art. The diverse portfolio of her career-making installations, fully immersing viewers within the mirror-lined spaces, are currently in the spotlight in a retrospective exhibition, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Washington, D.C.

Following shows in Los Angeles and New York, the exhibition — Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors — has drawn the largest crowds the Hirshhorn Museum has ever seen since its Washington debut in February. This is the first institutional exhibition to explore the evolution of the celebrated Japanese artist’s immersive installations, and with nearly 80,000 having already walked through its doors, hundreds are still eagerly waiting to get in before the exhibit moves on to Seattle in June.

museum smithsonian mugs color dots

However, not all of the 80,000 visitors to the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrorsare able to physically step into these virtual landscapes. The Infinity Room series of cube-like rooms are only accessible by a raised platform, and only viewable within a confined space. These structural features make it difficult, or impossible, for exhibition visitors with mobility limitations to experience the iconic rooms first-hand.

As Zach Baldwin from the American Association for People with Disabilities(AAPD) has reinforced, “people with disabilities should be afforded the same opportunity to experience culture and the arts — in all of its different forms — as their non-disabled family members and friends.”

With the goal of making the experience available to all museum visitors, the Hirshhorn team was faced with the unique and unprecedented challenge of both translating the experience for those with physical restrictions while also keeping the integrity of these physical, experiential art pieces, whose very specifications are viewed as art by Kusama.

The solution? Turning this virtual space into virtual reality.

museum Smithsonian infinity mirror light

Each reflection, simulating “infinity,” is individually built by hand with computer graphics using software that is most commonly used for video games. The VR application’s animation of the artwork allows those with mobility challenges to immerse themselves in three of Kusama’s dazzling and infinitely expansive and otherworldly environments, including Phalli’s FieldAftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, and All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.

With this solution in hand, our collaboration with the Hirshhorn to supply the Infinity Mirrors exhibit with Samsung Gear VR kits and accompanying Galaxy S7 phones was a natural fit.

While VR has become a new medium for art, it has also proven to be a tool for empathy, inclusiveness, and education. According to the Smithsonian’s Office of Accessibility, they’ve never used technology like this before and it’s the first time that VR is being used by a museum as a strategic tool for accessibility needs.

VR virtual reality AR headset goggles user woman

In addition to serving as a solution to meet the needs of every museum visitor, the VR also prompted dialogue amongst other visitors observing the experience and sparked ideas across other Smithsonian departments to consider ways to leverage the innovative technology within their own fields.

AAPD also noted after visiting the exhibit, “the Hirshhorn’s use of virtual reality to make the museum more accessible to visitors with disabilities is just one example of how technology can help expand access to the arts.”

 

 

By providing this technology for exhibition at the Hirshhorn, we build upon this latest opportunity to realize such a vision at the unconventional intersection of art and accessibility.

This application of VR represents just one glimpse into how emerging tech can be creatively used to improve the human experience — and I look forward to seeing other groundbreaking ways the infinite potential of technology will be experienced in the future.

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