After eight months of pandemic-induced stupor that has limited so much “immersive” entertainment to computer, phone and TV screens, the city’s newest attraction offers a truly physical escape from reality.
Opening Dec. 26, Seismique transforms a former Bed, Bath & Beyond retail space on Houston’s far west side into a 40,000-square-foot, sci-fi-fantasy playground. Though the building’s turquoise facade and jaunty, colorful signage hint at the fun inside, what awaits still jolts the senses: a maze of more than 30 woozy rooms driven by technical wonderments, the dazzle of more than 9 million programmed LEDs, and the hands and minds of about 50 artists.
The environments suggest the bays of a spaceship that’s a Noah’s Ark of the universe, containing the native surroundings of beings that have been collected from different galaxies. Founders Steve Kopelman and Josh Corley told artists the spaceship’s crash caused ripples across the world. Thus the name, which in spite of the Frenchified spelling is pronounced “seismic.”
The place has been a hive of creative collaboration most of this year, yielding installations that combine the high-tech gizmos of young digital media geniuses with serious hands-on craftsmanship by muralists and entertainment-industry veterans. Many of the artists are from Houston or Texas.
There’s nothing exactly like Seismique anywhere, although it belongs to the class of so-called “experiential museums” begat by Meow Wolf, the once lovably funky artists’ collective that launched its first permanent exhibit in 2016 in an abandoned bowling alley in Santa Fe, N.M. Meow Wolf has grown into a corporate entertainment giant, with larger, slicker venues opening next year in Las Vegas and Denver.
Attendance at interactive venues has cratered this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Meow Wolf’s original House of Eternal Return is still closed — but a number of companies are in the game. Columbus, Ohio, boasts the artist-run Otherworld, and in St. Petersburg, Fla., a smaller venue called Fairgrounds will open in 2021.
Kopelman says he avoided visiting House of Eternal Return, but he and Corley did draw from other artist influences. The lobby, for example — a fully analog optical illusion designed as a respite from the sensory overload — mimics the famous black and white cartoon cafes of Seoul, South Korea. And Kopelman has four decades of his own experience with immersive venues. He once was the world’s largest producer of haunted houses, and he co-founded Escape the Room, which has 22 locations across the U.S.
Seismique is more high tech than its competition in other cities, incorporating projection mapping, holograms, augmented reality, light mapping, motion tracking and gamification into its trippy environments. (Who even knew “gamification” was a thing? It involves using gaming techniques to engage and motivate people.) One room is reserved for on-site STEM classes where schoolchildren will create digital animations and see them come to life on the surrounding walls.
Technology also has helped to make Seismique more pandemic-protocol-friendly. While admissions will be timed and limited to 160 people per hour (about 28 percent of capacity, Kopelman says), masks are required and hand-sanitizing stations abound, hands-on elements have been made touch-optional with motion sensors and a smartphone app. About 40 motion-tracking cameras scattered across certain areas are programmed to follow patrons and activate experiences automatically so they don’t have to be touched. Interactive elements also will be sanitized with a state-of-the-art misting system.
Some of Seismique was still a work zone last week. A 70-foot-long Starship Enterprise-like structure that protrudes into the central Hub gallery was being wired with more than 1 million LEDs and thrusters that will drop calming bubbles filled with fog.
Because Kopelman has encouraged his artists to push the envelope, some of the technology is, if not experimental, still a work in progress. The team has been trying to “stress installations” to see what happens, he says. “We have had some technical difficulties that we’re figuring out.”
One of the most beautiful rooms, the infinity space “Alien Grass,” was being slightly redesigned. The initial idea was to let visitors walk among the room’s blades of grass, each of which is topped with an orb containing motion-sensitive LEDs. But a glitch happened when a large test group of people went in.
When: opens Dec. 26; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays, noon-9 p.m. Mondays, Wednedays, Thursdays; noon-11 p.m. Fridays
Where: 2306 Texas 6 S.
Details: $28 (children 12 and younger)-$35; timed entries; 346-202-6006, seismique.com
“Would you believe it? Their static electricity blew out the LEDs,” Kopelman says. He fakes a scream, remembering that moment of panic. As he spoke, a crew was building the workaround for “Alien Grass,” creating a mirrored pathway along the edges of the pastel-hued “lawn.” Visitors won’t be quite as physically immersed, but the effects of the lights may be enhanced.
The “Crystal Cavern” installation also was in progress. That room came together almost as an afterthought because there was space to fill. The cave’s sculpted foam walls were getting a coat of glitter, and 235, 3-foot-long, UV-lit pink and purple fiberglass crystals were waiting to be hung, along with more than 200 hand-molded stalagmites.
New Orleans scenic artist Dave Carry formed the stalagmites damned near by himself, but not for lack of help. “It was just a project I really wanted to do,” he says. “I very rarely work hands-on building things nowadays.”
Carry owns Professional Scenic, a company with a backlog of major projects for experiential spaces, including haunted houses and escape rooms across the country. On board at Seismique from the start, he walked through the building’s shell with Kopelman and Corley last winter, came up with the floor plan and conceived many of the rooms.
Carry refers to himself as the idea generator but says all of the installations developed through conversations among the owners and other artists who also love what they’re doing. “He’s a genius. His whole team is incredible,” says Alex Ramos, half of the Houston creative digital team Input Output, which designed or programmed three of Seismique’s rooms.
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Seismique may not aspire to be as profound as a fine art museum, but some of its emerging digital artists bring that kind of refinement to their creations. Joshuah Jest’s “Brainwasher,” for example, pays homage to the work of Nam June Paik, the father of video art, as well as video domes by the experimental filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek. The room’s 14 projectors flash images into 200 bubblelike screens, oscillating between chaos and harmony, with a soundscape to match.
Jest, who has an architecture degree from Rice University, also is the genius behind the “Fracture,” “Specimen” and “Kaleidral” installations, all developed from case studies he did for a master’s thesis at MIT, exploring ways to combine projection mapping with physical sculpture. “Kaleidral,” one of Seismique’s most dynamic rooms, integrates a song the artist wrote and split into four channels with a kaleidoscopic wall inspired by the stained glass of cathedrals. Guests feel like masters of the universe as they manipulate the designs and sound with knobs on a console.
A decade or more ago — eons in the tech world — everyone thought virtual reality would be the most lively tech-driven experience. But putting on a headset and goggles actually isolates people, Jest says. “And the social element is really important because of ‘co-attendance.’ We take cues from people around us to react to what we’re seeing.”
Seismique’s rooms get their interactive effects instead from the augmented reality of technology that responds to human bodies. Houston artist Daniel Schaeffer’s “Archive,” a narrow space lined with mirrored cubes and lit with more than 200,000 LEDs, may be the first viewer-controlled infinity room. The effects change as viewers wave their hands over cubes that contain motion-tracking devices.
Schaeffer, who found his way into the business by programming lights for concerts after dropping out of video-game-design school, also created Seismique’s “Hyperdrive Core” as an aesthetic antidote to “Archive.”
His infinity room is filled with right angles that imply human construction, he explains, while “Hyperdrive Core” appears to be the work of aliens who think more organically. Utilizing tracking cameras and fiber optics to change its display as guests manipulate the central core, this room resembles the cushy inside of a jellyfish. Schaeffer even left the “Hyperdrive Core” design to an algorithm, using software that let him design limits and goals but filled in the gaps with artificial intelligence.
He sees that relationship now but wasn’t aware of it when he designed the spaces, he says. “For me, one thing that makes art art is concept, a background story. But this art is about design and spectacle. It’s art you don’t have to think about to enjoy. You just have to be there.”