For $20, you can spend your Friday night in an abandoned boiler room. That may sound unappealing, but it’s how I spent my Friday night in NYC, and for entirely voluntary reasons. I had joined a group of friends to visit ArtecHouse. An art exhibit concealed in one of Chelsea Market’s former boiler rooms, ArtecHouse describes itself as a “home for innovative experiential art,” where the primary medium is the projector. One of the owners, who calls himself “Sandro,” describes the work of ArtecHouse, based on the combination of ART + TECH + HOUSE, as “redefining the 21st century with experiential innovative art created through technology.”
The theme of ArtecHouse’s current exhibit is “Magentaverse,” in partnership with the paint company Pantone that deemed magenta the “Color of the Year.” When we entered ArtecHouse, we walked past a bar with luxury cocktails — where a friend promptly paid $12 for a tiny glass of sparkling rosé — and then we visited the first of two exhibits, a sensor-based “interactive band.” I found this part of ArtecHouse to be the most compelling, with its surreal animations of cymbals and harps, a vision of “interactive” art that felt truly futuristic. But it was off to the side, dominated by the main exhibit. For the ten minutes we played with the band, we were the only people in the room.
It was the main show that captured the crowd’s attention. Inside the expanses of the boiler room itself—coating the walls, floor, ceiling in vivid light—a 22-minute projection of abstract, magenta animations played on repeat. We laid on the concrete floor watching the spectacle, feeling only slightly nauseated as we whirled through magenta seascapes and intestine-like tunnels. We watched two complete cycles of the animation, and then an attendant kindly prompted us to leave. I wondered if I had just witnessed the cutting-edge of art. I felt relaxed, but I didn’t feel amazed. More than anything, I felt confused: what is ArtecHouse? A visionary art exhibit? A disguised cocktail bar? A scam?
The concept behind ArtecHouse may seem one-of-a-kind, but ArtecHouse is a single example of the experiential, projector-based art exhibit. Despite ArtecHouse’s prominence in the world of projector art, the idea of an immersive projector experience began with the 2008 “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition,” an exhibit created by artist Annabelle Mauger and displayed in Les-Baux-de-Provence, France. In the following years, the concept of an immersive art experience based on Van Gogh’s work exploded in popularity, with five major companies offering traveling Van Gogh shows across the United States. Like ArtecHouse, animators created special videos for the exhibits, but unlike ArtecHouse, these animations depended on “bringing to life” Van Gogh’s paintings, not creating new visuals. However, the set-up is similar — abandoned, industrial sites are turned into Van Gogh dreamlands, where whirring projectors coat the walls with the Dutch artist’s paintings. While tickets for ArtecHouse are $20, tickets for Van Gogh shows can cost as much as $100.
Inside the boiler room, I thought back to the summer of 2022, when I had attended the Pittsburgh Immersive Van Gogh experience. On my visit, they charged an absurd amount for parking, requested an additional fee for Van Gogh floor cushions, offered an overpriced cocktail bar, and featured a gift shop filled with tacky Van Gogh-themed items planted directly next to the exhibit exit. Immersive Van Gogh made no attempt to disguise its main purpose—money-making. Van Gogh’s art and legacy seemed both to be afterthoughts.
Along with ArtecHouse and Immersive Van Gogh, it seems that an array of projector-based art exhibits have popped up overnight, their garish advertisements everywhere, even on the sides of city buses. Of course, the immersive projector experience isn’t only about the visual spectacle of animation. The genre of “immersive projector experience” has grown ubiquitous, largely thanks to the “Instagrammability” of its striking visuals, which serve as an easy backdrop for an eye-catching— but recognizable—photo, the perfect addition to any well-curated, modern Instagram. Though left unsaid, treating your immersive art experience as a one-hour photo shoot is perfectly acceptable — even expected. In ArtecHouse, we spent probably half of our time taking photos. Groups around us spent the entire hour taking photos. I still have a photo of a blown-up Van Gogh daisy streaked across my face. I justified it as a “souvenir” of my experience.
Even with new Instagram content, I left both my experience at ArtecHouse and Immersive Van Gogh feeling a bit stumped, a bit frustrated, wondering: That was it? Beyond the immediate beauty of vivid, moving projections, my first impression of both exhibits was that I couldn’t pinpoint the substance behind the animation—what made it meaningful. Of course, there is value in beauty for the sake of beauty. And coolness for the sake of coolness. But immersive projector exhibits market themselves as something more than a cool, beautiful exhibit—they claim that they are using tech to revolutionize art, to expand the ways we experience, create, and interact with art. As we wandered the streets of Chelsea, I thought of the “cutting-edge” art of the past: Warhol, Duchamp, Rothko, Pollock. It’s fair to say that these examples of “cutting-edge” art have something substantial behind the aesthetics—they weren’t “cutting-edge” solely for their novel techniques or intriguing appearances, though those aspects certainly played a role in gaining recognition. But have ArtecHouse and Immersive Van Gogh actually revolutionized art?
Perhaps they have. Even if projector art is not as radical or ground-breaking as its creators claim, there is truth to the notion that our new cultural love of immersion in art has fundamentally changed what we expect of art, and what has now become outdated. On one hand, the museum experience includes many downsides that immersive art does not. As opposed to museum legs, tiresome lines, and tiny, intelligible plaques, watching the surreal, absorbing animations of the immersive art exhibit is effortless. They play, you watch. You absorb the beauty of the animations. You relax. There is no pressure to understand, to interpret, to be interested, to not be bored. It is art dedicated to the pleasant experience of consumption.
ArtecHouse, however, is not limited to first-hand consumption. Being honest, my friends and I probably would not have visited ArtecHouse if we had never seen the Instagram photos. The “Instagrammabality” of these exhibits is what makes them so popular, not to mention so profitable. And in a world where social media can make or break art’s “success”—especially considering the alluring marketing power of going viral—immersive projector art almost entirely relies on social media to succeed, a link that is indeed new, and potentially radical. In hindsight, the part of ArtecHouse that seemed most “cutting-edge” was the sensor-based interactive technology, the surreal “band” that my friends and I played at the beginning of our visit. However, is it only a coincidence that the least “Instagrammable” exhibit was also the least popular?
With our compulsion to share our lives on social media, we have likewise gained a compulsion to share art—thus, we have begun to experience art in a way that is tainted by this obsession with “shareability,” and to expect our interactions with art to always meet this standard. Subtly, skillfully, and sensationally, immersive art has harnessed these new compulsions. If art is meant to reflect our cultural values, then ArtecHouse and immersive Van Gogh shows, with their answer to the demands of the social media age, have hit the nail on its head.
I left ArtecHouse feeling confused, and that feeling has not faded. Even with these reservations, however, I was eager to post my own photos from ArtecHouse and contribute to the thousands of social media photos tagged at ArtecHouse. I uploaded them to my Instagram story, making sure to tag the location: ArtecHouse NYC.
I hadn’t completely bought into the concept of ArtecHouse, but the exhibit’s Instagram-worthy visuals had nonetheless awakened my own impulse to share. And as soon as I clicked “Share,” my personal photos became a part of ArtecHouse’s online universe. As such, I played a role in drawing in the next wave of ArtecHouse customers, contributing a tiny piece to the exhibit’s success—and, more crucially, to the magnetism of the immersive projector experience as a whole.