Lonnie Hanzon Offers a Quick Immersion in Immersive Art

Lonnie Hanzon, immersive designer.
Lonnie Hanzon, immersive designer.
John Mueller
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At the start of 2018, Santa Fe sensation Meow Wolf announced plans to come to Denver, kicking off a year when this city became immersed in the idea of not just immersive art, but immersive everything, from immersive performances to immersive real estate deals to immersive toilets (no kidding: Check out Kohler’s new campaign).

And the immersion in all things immersive will continue in 2019, starting with Natura Obscura, a years-in-the-making “immersive arts experience” produced by the Museum of Outdoor Arts in collaboration with Prismajic that opens on January 11 and runs through April 28 at MOA’s Indoor Galleries at the Englewood Civic Center (complete with a timed schedule and its own website, naturaobscura.org) and the more modest FEED: Melting Pot, a four-course evening January 19 and 20 that will examine “how intimately connected food is with our conception of being American — or not,” curated by Julie Rada and directed by the Catamounts’ Amanda Berg Wilson, with “culinary magic” by Savory Cuisines, at a “secret location in the Glens of Lakewood.”

That location happens to be the home of the Enchantment Society, which hosted a run of Broken Bone Bathtub this past fall. The arts don’t get much more immersive than that production: The solo artist spent the entire time soaking in a bathtub, talking directly to a small audience wedged into what was designed to look like a bathroom. Longtime Denver artist and artrepreneur Lonnie Hanzon brought that show to Denver, shortly before he delivered the opening talk at the first annual Denver Immersive Summit, where he offered a “highly selective timeline of immersive art and entertainment” that ranged from cathedrals to operas to the tiki craze to Disneyland to Casa Bonita to escape rooms (did you know that Denver has the highest per capita number of escape rooms?) and, yes, Meow Wolf.

Meow Wolf help put immersive experiences on the map.
Meow Wolf help put immersive experiences on the map.
Kate Russell/Meow Wolf

For a quick lesson in all things immersive, we reached out to Hanzon. Note: In normal conversation, as well as this Q&A, Hanzon is careful to avoid the I-word whenever possible.

Westword: What is immersive art, anyway?

Lonnie Hanzon: This is the thing: There’s not a complete glossary yet, and it is always evolving. Everything in this sector is experiential. Some of it is interactive, and some of it achieves immersion. But immersive is not a noun. And so people need to stop using it as a noun. It is a method of design, and it is a quality that is achieved or not achieved. Right? That’s the thing. Everyone goes into these immersive experiences and they come out saying, “That was interactive, that was experiential,” but the audience gets to decide if immersion has been achieved.

Immersion is only achieved if the audience member reaches embodiment and presence. In other words, you get to that spot where you have left your everyday life behind. All of our brain is firing up, either for a virtual-reality experience where you’re flying over Paris, or you’re in a theater piece with one actor who has gotten you inside a magic circle. It becomes transportive. There are all these litmus tests. One is time shift. Could what you’re experiencing only happen here, and right now? Is it a singular, truly transportive, sometimes transformative experience?

This is going to be a worn-out word for a long time. There is not a business sector that is not getting involved. It is simply the new way of design. Everyone is moving into immersive design, and they all think they’re the Lone Ranger.

Lonnie Hanzon brought Broken Bone Bathtub to Lakewood last fall.EXPAND
Lonnie Hanzon brought Broken Bone Bathtub to Lakewood last fall.
Courtesy of Lonnie Hanzon

Why is it so big now?

In Joseph Pine’s The Experience Economy , he explains it with coffee. It’s a commodity, then a good, then a service, then an experience (Starbucks); then what our society will look for next is transformative society. ... Immersive entertainment expanded four times faster than the expenditure on goods in 2014 through 2016. We have an audience now that is able to take in five medias at the same time, and at the same time, we have all been screened to death, to the point that analog immersive experiences — people making eye contact, people talking to each other — fills a craving. Boom, it’s blowing up.

I tell people that I did what would now be called my first “immersive” gated pop-up that went internationally viral in 1986. And I was on a team trying to get virtual reality to market 27 years ago. In some ways, this whole thing is nothing new, but yes, it is. People are mixing it up.

Why does it suddenly feel like immersive art is everywhere in town?

I’m going to go back to people complaining about how expensive Denver is. But it really isn’t, compared to other markets. It’s still comparatively easy to open a storefront. … Everyone thought by now that escape rooms would be a fad, but they’re not a fad, they’re just getting better and more amazing and more immersive. New categories keep popping up. Now we’re talking about how ephemera experiences need to be added to the list.

With immersive art, what is the role of the audience?

The audience has agency at varying levels. Most of the time it’s implied; some of the time it’s expressed with actual choices.

Offering an immersive experience for more than forty years.EXPAND
Offering an immersive experience for more than forty years.
Kris Gabbard at Flickr

Are people surprised when you call Casa Bonita immersive?

Shocked, and they laugh, but I can also say look at Disneyland. Uncle Walt was really the grandfather of immersive. Once you got past the gate, you could not see the outside world. Departure is important: You leave your world behind. Disneyland is what trained us all to have this craving for all of this. Funny, now Disney is building Star Wars Land, with a Star Wars immersive hotel. They’re going to the next level. But then you’ve also got the one-man, two-man scrappy shows happening.

Oh, my gosh, there are so many on the slate. In Denver, Sweet & Lucky was an out-of-the-park success, and now every actor and every choreographer has their own production company. Everyone’s throwing themselves into it. Out of fifty states, only fourteen did not report some form of immersive something in 2018.

The Off-Center's Sweet & Lucky was a hit in 2016.
The Off-Center's Sweet & Lucky was a hit in 2016.
Adams Visual Communications

And what about Meow Wolf?

Let me be clear: They did not invent a new engine. They cut the brake lines on a couple of muscle cars. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I think it’s fabulous, and they did an amazing thing, but it’s been a massive synchronicity that’s been gifted millions of dollars. Eventually, Denver people will realize that immersive stuff has been going on for a long time, and it will continue.

So what’s your concern about the I-word?

Be careful using the I-word. It’s like interpretive dance: It only works if the audience can interpret it. I encourage creators to say, “Hey, call it a puzzle room, call it a theater piece, call it a dance piece, call it a show, call it a circus, call it a dinner. If you reach immersive, your audience will tell you.” If you’re being so bold as to call your work “immersive,” you’d better have the goods.

I’ve got to get you away from your car and your day and the traffic and your phone and everything else. I’ve got to get you out of all of that and into my magic circle. That’s a lot easier said than done.

Want to know more? The DCPA Off-Center's Charlie Miller is hosting a Denver Immersive Theatre Community Gathering and Conversation at 7 p.m. on Monday, January 14, at the Robert & Judi Newman Center for Theatre Education, 1101 13th Street. Find out more on the event's Facebook page.

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