Review: The New Oakland Festival explores the many definitions of immersive art

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The first-ever Oakland Festival of Immersive Arts is free to the public and runs Friday-Sunday July 22-24 Photo: Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Downtown Oakland’s Broadway Corridor remains one of the most architecturally stimulating parts of the Bay Area. Within a few blocks, there is an abundance of weathered art deco, eye-catching mid-century structures, and many interesting building conversions and new construction, making it a great viewing destination apart whole. When I have attended events in the neighborhood – from performances at the Fox and Paramount theaters to fashion weeks, drag shows, gallery openings and mural walks – I am often struck by how the streets they -themselves serve as an artistic place with so many pre-existing points of visual interest.

But even with what is already in sight, the region has called for more art installations and activations, especially since the pandemic.

On the July 15 opening night of the first-ever Oakland Festival of Immersive Arts — which is free to the public and runs again Friday through Sunday July 22-24 — that call was answered in spaces on Broadway, Franklin Street and Telegraph Avenue between 12th and 20th Streets. Presented by the Immersive Art Alliance, the two-weekend event features 20 artists and collaborators, with four premiere projects among the works on display. Art categories ranged from sculptural installation, painting and video work to light and sound installations and augmented reality. On Friday evening, groups began to gather after sunset and, guided by the festival website, searched for the various works in nine locations.

Augmented reality art brings together music, storytelling, movement, and other effects to create an immersive experience for viewers. Photo: Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

“Immersive art” is a term that carries very specific cultural associations for today’s audiences. With so many digitally projected attractions now using the word in the title, which vary widely in quality, you’re forgiven if your first thought is one of these experiences. The nonprofit Immersive Arts Alliance has helped many Bay Area residents see beyond these kinds of pop experiences with a focus on site-specific, community-generated art. Last fall, the group co-presented Shimon Attie’s excellent “Night Watch,” which featured a houseboat traveling the San Francisco Bay with an LED street featuring video portraits of refugee asylum seekers. The work presented at the Oakland Festival of Immersive Arts is a worthy follow-up to the ambitious “Night Watch” project.

One of the most engaging experiences of the evening was Oakland artist Damien McDuffie’s “AR Museum for the People,” a mobile augmented reality project experienced through printed photo collages displayed at the showcase of ‘Oakstop. On their own, the images related to the artist’s family and the history of the Black Panther Party of Oakland are powerful works that testify to McDuffie’s aesthetic sensibility and community research. When viewed through McDuffie’s free Black Terminus AR app, the artwork comes to life with music, narration, movement and other effects. Sometimes AR can feel like an afterthought to physical labor – or worse, like a gimmick. Given the success of McDuffie’s images, the AR component really feels like an extension of the world of physical works. This weekend, McDuffie plans to launch a tour on the app that will look specifically at Black Panther history through the neighborhood.

“Unseen to Seen” by Oakland artist Kimberlee Koym-Murteira, which consists of multiple installations presented at Story Windows Space, was developed over the first five months of 2022 with artists Sylvie Minot, Daniel Alexander Jones and Allison Pasquesi, exploring expressions of grief and trauma. The most imposing part of the project is the sculptural installation ‘Gestures Toward Touch’, which features hand casts of community members.

Koym-Murteira called the use of hands a nod to the restriction of touch during the pandemic, and when seen arranged en masse surrounded by reflective material, illuminated at night by light shining through jars filled with colored liquid, it’s a haunting scene.

The Oakland Immersive Arts Festival was a response to the call for more art installations and activations. Photo: Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

“Convergence of Unruly Outcomes” by Sally Weber and Craig Newswanger, a kinetic light installation at Studio 17, was a popular destination throughout the night. Oakland artists explored concepts of chaos by creating unpredictable patterns of light in a darkroom environment with four works. Primarily, “Entangled Orbits and Stars” creates spinning spirals and dotted streaks of white light, while “Out-of-Bounds” forms streaks of blue light with an erratically swinging pendulum. These works, along with the flashing lights of “Cosmic Encounter” and the sound-sensitive “Raylights”, encouraged lingering given how easily he was absorbed in the work. Equally captivating was San Francisco sound artist Jonathan Crawford’s “What the Moon Has Seen,” a 360-degree listening experience in the California Ballroom. The artwork can be truly engulfing in space, which has a faded early 20th-century California glamour, and it’s delightfully shocking to feel the rumbles and windswept sounds of the artwork, as well as segments of oral creations by young artists working with 826 Valence.

The quality of work at the Oakland Festival of Immersive Arts is very promising for what the event can become and also cleverly shows the many definitions of the term “immersive” that can exist in the art world. It also feels like an event that truly belongs in downtown Oakland: as you walk to each venue, you get a street-level view that becomes as much a part of the experience as what’s on display. interior spaces.

“Unseen to Seen” by artist Kimberlee Koym-Murteira, center, consists of multiple installations and was developed over the first five months of 2022 with three other artists. Photo: Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Oakland Immersive Arts Festival: 8 p.m. from Friday to Sunday July 22-24. Free. Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, between 12th and 20th Streets, Oakland. www.immersiveartsalliance.org

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