Washington, DC — A few blocks south of the Mall, past the USDA building and on the way to the unfortunately named Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel, is DC’s newest art space. The brainchild of local art event curators Art Soiree’s Tatiana Pastukhova and Sandro Kereselidze, ARTECHOUSE (pronounced “art tech house”) describes itself as “an innovative digital art space dedicated to showcasing artists who are forerunners of the new renaissance in arts and technology.” Although this description sounds somewhat gimmicky and almost too trendy for its own good, ARTECHOUSE’s inaugural exhibition, XYZT: Abstract Landscapes, is not only engaging and entertaining, but also surprisingly beautiful and profound.
The show was created by a group of artists and engineers working under the name Adrien M & Claire B, which is headed by Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne. Hailing from Lyon, France, Mondot is a juggler, artist, and computer scientist. Bardainne, his partner, is a graphic designer. Over the years, they’ve created a range of different projects together, using technology in uniquely aesthetic and humanizing ways — most notably a 2015 performance with choreographer Mourad Merzouki called Pixel, in which 11 performers dance through and interact with a variety of different digital projections.
XYZT, named for the four dimensions (horizontality, verticality, depth, and time), consists of 10 separate works, each powered by a uniquely interactive mathematical algorithm. There are projections that change as visitors walk over them, and large touchscreens you can manipulate with the swipe of a hand or two. There’s a giant screen with sensors attached, so that a “cloud” of pixels gathers, seemingly magnetically, into the shape of the person standing in front of it.
Although the larger works seemed more popular, I found the small and quietly poetic pieces to be the most interesting, particularly those that spewed random letters and words. The largest of these, “Letter Tree” (2011/2015), consists of a projection of a tree softly swaying in a digital “wind,” which gets stronger and stronger until the tree’s leaves-turned-letters flutter and blow to the other side, leaving the tree bare, before the cycle starts all over again. In lieu of wall text, a short explanatory video on a small podium next to the project poses the question, “Can the wind compose poems?” before launching into a layperson’s explanation of the individual algorithms—for the branching of trees and the movement of wind and water—that propel the project.
Similar videos accompany each of the other projects, providing short yet enlightening descriptions of their technical and philosophical underpinnings. The videos also tell visitors how best to interact with each work, with directives such as “dance,” “walk,” “touch,” or “blow.”
Like “Letter Tree,” a couple of “Typographic Organisms” (2011/2015) explore the meaning of words and randomized combinations of letters. In these works, stacks of letters are projected into a kind of aquarium, and when the visitor blows through vents in the lid, the words and letters move and disperse, in one case flowing into and out of a vase, and in the other squirming around a spherical glass-like bacteria under a microscope. In “Coincidence #1” (2011/2015), also housed in a small aquarium, the words “COINCIDENCE” and “HASARD” (which means “coincidence” in French) sit peacefully on a rock; clapping in front of them causes the letters to split apart and fly into the air like digital mosquitoes, before calming down and returning to their original places on the rock.
XYZT is all about the distortion of shapes and meanings, creating fictional digital spaces (of course, digital spaces are always fictional, right?), each taking its cue from the math and physics behind natural processes — the movement of wind, water, microbes, bees. The works that incorporate words add a third layer, language, which is likely why they are the most powerful in the show. The larger, more interactive (and more photo-friendly) works, while interesting and fun, are at their best when accompanied by dancers on a stage, as regular gallery visitors are often too shy to create the dramatic movements needed to really engage with the projections. If you happen to be a dancer, you’ll have a fabulous time exploring the plethora of collaborative possibilities with the digital projections. But if you’re more of a contemplative observer, like me, those little aquariums will keep you entranced for hours.