Beyond Submergence: Fragile Immersions in Event Art

Visiting Beyond Submergence at Propyard, Oma Keeling thinks about the human factors that affect experiences of immersive art.

image of Oma Keeling

By Oma Keeling
23 Aug 2023

Beyond Submergence: Fragile Immersions in Event Art 5
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Beyond Submergence: Fragile Immersions in Event Art

“Dad I wanna go, Dad I wanna go, Dad I wanna go.” Is part of the audio chorus that accompanies my experience of Squidsoup’s ‘Beyond Submergence’ at Propyard in Bristol.

Visiting the “immersive exhibition of light and sound”, a retrospective of works by the established installation art collective from the past few years, at 10am on a Tuesday morning, are myself, and a father and young child.

A fabric banner for Beyond Submergence attached to a metal fence pointing into the venue

The sign at the entrance

As we sit in the rings of light of the work Circular Echoes (2021) the kid implores that he’s bored, and this happens again at four out of five of the durational lightshow’s moments. The experience of the attempt at creating a moment of sublimation through light and sound seems like the perfect way to captivate a kid, however, that’s reductive. Reductive to children to assume that some flashing lights and weird sounds will keep their attention, as much as they might for adults convinced that this is in a way synonymous with the sublime.

These are impressive works, robustly made and able to withstand being played with, seen from all angles, able to act theatrically as bits of technical drama, queuing each other up, leading one into another as the guides of the tour, creating the impression of communication. The highlight of the show in this respect being the levitating, alien orbs of Phase Shifter (2021-23).

A faded sign in pink on white reading 'Entrance this Way' stuck to a dark wall

The way in

It’s a pretty cool act of large scale puppeteering, and uses the relationship with things being in the dark, and your expectations of these non-organic orbs, to its benefit to create wonder.

Submergence and Immersion

The clinical way the description of the show ends up sounding maybe underlines some of what underwhelmed me. It would be easy to put that down to the lofty thematics of boundaries and immersion and sublimity being inaccessible when you can’t enter a space of abstract thought because of a kid shouting about not wanting to be there.

But, there were moments where the kid was engaged, delighted. Yet, I found in those moments of coming to more harmony with the spectacle, with the physically immersive piece Submergence (2013-23), not profoundness in its spatial metaphor of the 3D digital world, but just relief from a sense that follows me around of anhedonia.

I find stuff hard to enjoy, especially guided tours, a lot of which is because of my personal levels of distraction, and underlying mental health issues, which make the promise of ‘immersion’ hard to approach.

A view of dozens of lines of ceiling length light strings, glowing various colours at their base, in a dark room

Submergence (2013 – 23)

As the hundreds of threads of lights making up this 3D forest begin to create patterns the kid finds a playground, and runs in and out of them, throwing their body through the lights, tangling them. This is when the dad films the kid, not during the previous thirty minutes of complaining at all, but only at this point of joy, and it’s where I also find relief from taking it all so seriously.

The feeling of vicarious joy becomes a way of reframing my own experiences. Why can’t I have fun? Is it because of the expectations of being an adult? It can often feel this way with the urges of ADHD coming up against the expectations of ‘normal adult behaviours’, as well as the urges of my non-binary gender experience crashing up against the biological determinism and gender fascism of ‘normal adult behaviours’, to the point of making it so that joy feels far away.

However, I can say that for a minute, I felt closer to happiness than I had for a while. Unobserved except for by three strangers (including the exhibition steward) who were alternately riotously free, or seemingly indifferent to me.

I don’t know if Beyond Submergence is good, or an elevation of thousands of years of light and sound shows into something of the FUTURE.

It feels a lot like ‘right now’, like the EVENT art show and exhibition, that happens in pre-allocated time slots, and brings you 30-40 minutes of expensive, highly marketed EXPERIENCE.

SOLA and Immersion Breaking

Then SOLA (2021-23) happened, a huge panel of blue-white lights, that bursts to life with dazzling force, and put an end to Submergence. A cloud of dry ice falls from the ceiling to create perhaps the most interesting and beautiful combination of the show, of intense light and the whorls of fractal infinity that are present in the dissipating cloud. It’s the most active and affecting piece so far, and its elegant in its simplicity.

A dramatic white cloud of dry ice falling in front of a large bright panel of blue white light, in a dark room, seen through two strings of unlit orbs.

SOLA (2021-23), seen through the strings of Submergence

To avoid the light my eye turns to the wall where the work’s description panel sits, and the effect of that initial moment is undercut. It describes “A vision of the sublime, or shock and awe to the senses…”

Shock and awe, the words stop me with confusion, with a type of shock itself, that the piece is described with the term coined by the US military to describe the type of aggressive offensive that it would end up deploying in the early 2000s.

One of my earliest memories is the televised campaign of ‘Shock and Awe’ used in Baghdad in 2003. These are wars that the UK was involved in, that were protested against at the time, that are seen as unjust by many, and as adding to levels of global instability and the persecution of Muslims. These events, described in these words, caused a level of damage and despair to people that it’s hard to come to terms with still, and that we feel the political effects of daily.

Wall text description: "SOLA (2021-2023) A vision of the sublime, or shock and awe to the senses..."

SOLA, exhibition wall text

I don’t believe that SOLA is intended to be a comment on the strategies of the US military.

That’s supported by looking into the piece, its funding by Hyundai, its commission at Guys and ST Thomas NHS Trust, and its website description┬ámissing all such commentary.

It feels more like a slip-up of exhibition presentation, but it’s a disorienting one. An evolution of casual language on the part of now adult arts professionals to include the terms of the warfare of our youths.

I’ve reached out to Squidsoup for comment.

Mixed Immersions

Either way, I leave the show with, a lot of feelings. Complex reflections on boredom, immersion, depression, joy and war.

As I go out, all the light installations in the room now activated, a group of kids of different ages pass me on the way in, one expresses amazement, another says “I’m scared.”

The kid’s dad says sorry to me. I say it’s no bother. It’s not, why would it be?

It’s fine, my questions really lie with the adults of the world who believe in immersive technologies as the be all and end all of artistic experience