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Go your own way

Ahha’s ‘The Experience’ is an immersive playground for artists and the public

“The Experience” at ahha

Valerie Grant

“I mean, how do you troubleshoot gum?” laughed Lauren Collins, ahha’s director of communications and creative affairs, as she stood under a tree made of PVC pipe and motion-sensitive hair dryers.

Unknowns are part of the art at the newly rebranded nonprofit’s latest exhibition, “The Experience.” And she’s coordinating far more than the usual amount of unknowns these days.

It’s not just the gum. There’s the neon lighting for the giant orb. The film for the trampoline theater. The thunderstorms inside the cloud installations.

After six months of thinking as big as they can, with keys to the building and stipends for their time, labor, supplies, and helpers, the show’s lead artists—Laurie Keeley, David Reed James, JP Morrison Lans, Jeremy Lamberton, and Daniel Sutliff—are preparing to open their new dimensions to the public June 30. For the city’s biggest-ever immersive art installation, ahha divided the second floor of its Hardesty Arts Center into five zones in which each artist was given free rein to create whatever he or she desired (their only limits: the fire code and a PG-13 rating).

“It’s all a grand experiment, really,” said David Reed James. Those are his hair dryers, his “gum lab,” and his trampoline. He’s had some of these ideas for more than a decade. The hub of his full-to-bursting zone is an invention called the Siestamatic, a see-through pod people can climb into, lie down in, and rest, observed by whatever other guests happen to be in the area at the time. The viewer, in a way, becomes the art.

“I envision commercials for the Siestamatic all throughout the space,” James said. “‘Tomorrow’s sleep today! The sleep of the future! Your dreams will never be the same!’ The rest of the space is sort of the dreams and thoughts of the person who’s volunteering to sleep.”

JP Morrison Lans has filled two rooms with lush detail, from hand-dremeled backlit constellations and life-sized murals (a disorienting adjacency to Lamberton’s funhouse film tunnel), to an enormous black skirt inside, in which visitors can lounge on a balloon-strewn forest floor. Little doors open to reveal dioramas by artists, including Beth Burgess, whose taxidermied squirrels dressed as pirates are pursued by faintly glowing malevolent eyes.

“I finally settled on a title for all of mine,” Morrison Lans said. “It’s called ‘Journey to the Center of the Universe’—both profound and corny! This idea of travel is relevant to everything all the artists have done: to go somewhere else.”

It’s easy to get lost in “The Experience”—in space, time, and wonder. It’s the kind of lost you craved in childhood, where something like the sight of a giant eyeball (one of many such filmed portraits) brings a down-the-rabbit-hole thrill.   

“We wanted to activate the entire space,” said Project Director Dr. Amber Litwack. “Without sacrificing quality, we’re de-formalizing. This is for Tulsa, by Tulsa.”

(Artists in future cycles of “The Experience,” conceived as an open-ended project, will be chosen through a call for proposals.)

Exploring every level of the word immersive, “The Experience” makes room for the artists, the organization, and the public alike to drop in, slow down, and let new realities emerge.

“We want to say it’s okay to have big ideas. It’s okay to play. It’s great to be in a space where you don’t have to take a certain path,” Collins said. “It’s dreamy, serious, psychedelic, funny. Every time I come in here it looks different.”

Standing inside what feels like the darkly glowing heart of an Atari game, Daniel Sutliff said the project has been transformative for him.

“This has had a massive impact on my life,” he said. “I quit my job that I loved and had been at for 11 years to do this. Before this I was thinking, ‘How can I get involved in something that will give me income and be a collaborative project?’ When this came up I realized, ‘I don’t know what would be that opportunity if it’s not this.’ I’m not taking it for granted.”

“It’s one of those projects you kind of wish would never end,” Laurie Keeley agreed.

In her installation, guests can climb aboard a rocket and zoom into an exhilarating rainbow horse projection. Her space swerves from an “antidepression chamber” where excerpts from “The Artist’s Way” play softly to a series of glass insulators with TVs inside playing rap videos about roaches and broccoli that Keeley created with Dark Matter Studios.

“My initial concept was to do an airplane crash into a better place,” she explained. “I want to transport people to a different mindset, let them forget about their grocery lists and be in a here and now moment, and especially have fun. That’s as important as anything.”

“The Experience” at AHHA
Opens to the public June 30
101 E. Archer St.
Hours vary; closed Mondays

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