Seismique, an immersive, experiential art museum, is due to launch in Houston, Texas, later this year.
An innovative, tech-driven art experience focusing on science and space and presented as an ‘intergalactic playground’, Seismique is the brainchild of Steve Kopelman, COO of Escape the Room, the largest escape room company in the US.
Kopelman has been in the immersive space since he graduated from college in the 1980s:
“I started in the haunted house industry and started promoting large haunted attractions throughout the United States. I was the largest haunted house producer in the world, and did haunted houses with Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie.”
Even at the very beginning of his career, he explains, he was keen to incorporate technology into the haunted house format:
“Just under 10 years ago, I tried to do a haunted house that would track people through it using RFID to give a personalised experience. So, when you went into a room, we would pull pictures from your Facebook account. You gave us permission, of course – and that room in that haunted house would be your family and friends.”
Unfortunately, his aspiration was ahead of the technology at that point, he says:
“It didn’t work that well; the technology wasn’t quite there. But I would always continue to look for that little extra bit of technology that would provoke the ‘wow’ moment.”
The escape room trend
Around six years ago, Kopelman became aware of the Japanese escape room phenomenon:
“I thought was a really interesting trend, and might work well in the United States. My partner [Josh Corley] and I were the first US company to open escape rooms. Now, there are over 2,500 different escape rooms in the United States.”
The pair debuted their escape rooms in New York City. He says:
“The escape rooms were basically Ikea furniture and Master Locks. And yet, there was still a three-month wait to get in. I think that spurred a lot of the growth in the industry, because people saw our success, and said, ‘I can do that.’”
“We developed a scenic facility that we partner with, Professional Scenic Services, out of New Orleans. It’s a 25,000 square foot facility with about 20 different artisans working there. There is all kinds of cool equipment: CNC machines, hot wire foam cutting machines, vacuum-form machines, 3D printers.”
A full-service fabrication company, it specialises in set design for themed environments, interactive technologies and event props:
“We can make sculptures, or we can make a small sculpture, scan it and put it in the machine and make a 40-foot-high foam sculpture.”
Seismique takes inspiration from Asia
“I’ve always been looking at the immersive space, what’s next, and what we can do,” says Kopelman. “Since the escape room had come from Japan, I had been looking at things in Asia.
“I think it’s important to come up with really cool things that people haven’t seen or experienced before. And I saw the things that teamLab have been doing. Their interactivity has been a great inspiration; there is really nothing like what they’re doing currently in the States. I’d like to take what they’re doing, and then add our twist to it.”
Kopelman’s vision for Seismique, while inspired by Tokyo’s teamLab Planets experience, is, nevertheless, very different.
“Seismique will be 40 different areas, which is significantly more than TeamLab. Our space is smaller, but we still have almost an acre of indoor space for installations.
“While we won’t have as much of the projection mapping that they utilise, we will be using interactive projection mapping, sculpture, paintings. Everything has to have some kind of immersive, interactive part to it. It must also have content.”
STEAM events at Seismique
While some venues are designed as a one-off experience, Seismique is positioned to attract repeat visitation. Kopelman says:
“We’re trying to ensure that Seismique offers so much that you really can’t take in everything in one visit. So, that gives you a good reason to come back.”
Kopelman wants Seismique to be a positive force in the community and will be incorporating a strong science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) programme. He plans to offer educational workshops for students from local schools and featuring private event spaces.
“We will have educational workshops, and will, eventually, also have summer camps,” he says. “We have one room dedicated to a school that will change every week.- it might be projection mapping that we’re teaching, or coding, or something physical It will be their room for that week.”
While also showcasing national and international artists, Seismique will offer a platform to local artists.
“We’ll have artists throughout the US,” says Kopelman. “And we’ve reserved at least a quarter of the spaces for Texans and people from our community. I think it’s a great stepping-stone to the traditional art gallery. Because most of the artists that will be involved won’t have great notoriety currently.”
Blurring the boundary between art and technology
Seismique’s concept blurs the boundaries between art and technology. Kopelman says:
“We have a really strong technology team. It’s a company that I’ve worked with since we started the escape room: Smooth Technology.”
Smooth Technology, a Brooklyn-based team of artist engineers, has developed visual experiences including the wireless LED costumes for Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ World Tour. It numbers Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Google and MoMA among its clients:
“Smooth does all kinds of playful concepts backed by the whole tech. They do some wild things, and they’re really involved in projects we’re doing and putting our own spin on. We might, for example, be inspired by something we saw at MoMA. But there has to be our spin on it.”
One source of inspiration is rAndom International’s Rain Room, which was exhibited in London at The Curve, 3 October 2012–4 March 2013.
“We’re going to do our space-age take on the Rain Room,” he says. “When you hit a certain spot in the room, everything will change. The original exhibit was a room where it rained in the entire space, but where you walked, you didn’t get wet.”
“Our version is based on using cool lighting effects. When you hit a certain spot in the room, everything changes. And instead of the rain looking as though it’s coming from the ceiling to the floor, it will appear as if it’s rising from the floor to the ceiling. So that is our twist.
“Or, because we’re inspired by some of the art of [Yayoi] Kusama, we’ll utilize mirrors. Under no circumstances will it be confused as something from Kusama, but the inspiration will be clear.”
An on-trend attraction
Seismique is on-trend in terms of immersion, artainment, experiential art, gamification, and the experience economy in general.
“I’m not a big social media person, and I don’t want something that’s built just for Instagram,” says Kopelman. “I want something that people enjoy. Fun is the most important ingredient. I want it to span three generations so people can get together. But today, it’s all about the experience.
“When I grew up, the goal was to get a Rolex, or whatever the current status symbol happened to be. Now, it’s the experience, whether it’s watching the sunrise at Machu Picchu, or experiencing an immersive artwork.”
“I think we’re going to tie in well with the experience economy. Especially if we let the artists be artists and do their thing, and give what they feel. And we’ll add the technology and put different spins so that people will see something they’ve never seen before.”
“I think we really do check all the boxes. If you’re into games, there will be a gaming aspect. If you’re into the whole Instagram picture posting, there will be plenty of places to do that. Or, if you just want to go through and enjoy the art, you can do that.
“We are definitely thinking about maybe one or two days a month not even allowing phones and cameras in the place. I think that can make it a totally different experience. We are looking at all the different things we can do and ways people can enjoy it, and hopefully, we will live up to our goals.”
Outlining the challenges of building a groundbreaking concept like Seismique, Kopelman says:
“From my haunted house background, I have a lot of experience of building something in a short period of time that has to be opened in a certain window. Some of my haunted houses were about the same size as we are. Some were as large as 40,000 square feet. I think that experience enables us to stay on target and be sufficiently well-organised to get everything together.
“As the CEO, I take the macro approach. I want something that’s cool, immersive and has content. We will, of course, give the various artists their own timelines – we have project management software and can put them on individual schedules. But it is, ultimately, their art.”
“I don’t want to overly influence what their art is. I want it to fit the rooms and I want there to be some similarities maybe from room to room, but there should be a lot of diversity. We also have equipment that can help with the artists’ creative process in practical terms. We have three-D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, foam cutters, so can help them enable and realise their vision.
“While it is a huge undertaking, we’re not really nervous about getting to the finish line.”
Dealing with COVID-19 challenges
Nevertheless, the challenges inherent in making Seismique a reality have, Kopelman says, increased tenfold with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“While building during a pandemic can present difficulties, it allows us the opportunity to adapt to the current environment. With every area designed to have immersive and tactile elements, we are developing an app that will allow the patron to experience all the immersive but be able to do it all in a touchless environment.
“Additionally, we are constantly analyzing our throughput to best ensure social distancing for the future. Our current team of over 100 artisans, craftsmen and technicians look forward to sharing our art with the community. We are still targeting a 4th quarter 2020 opening and look forward to presenting an experience that is both safe and phenomenal.
“Once we get through this together, it is going to be a great opportunity for Seismique. We will have artists and craftsmen working and getting paid, and I really feel that the general public is going to be looking for as much compelling diversion as they can find. In that regard, we’ll be ready for them.”