At the entrance of the Museum of Interactive Art, an artist statement on two sheets of printer paper is taped to the wall.
Local artist Aaron Harrington writes about watching a wave in a river. Though standing waves have a unified form, Harrington explains, they are always changing.
“It’s always made up of different water moving through it,” he said. “When you actually look at the wave, it never looks the same at any two moments.”
Harrington uses this natural phenomenon as an analogy for his new space.
“The visitors are drops of water moving through the river and changing the exhibit,” he said. “And I’m surfing the wave.”
The Museum of Interactive Art, currently a 500-square-foot room full of Harrington’s collection of interactive artwork, recently opened in part of the former foundry at the Shidoni Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Tesuque. The museum is small, but if it’s successful, Harrington hopes to gradually expand to other parts of the 10,000-square-foot vacant space.
In his installations, the 39-year-old artist said, the important thing is not just that they are touchable. The artworks also are not “fully realized” until there’s interaction with a participant viewer.
“Touching it, climbing on it, exploring, is not enough,” he explained.
“If you can do it with your hands behind your back, it doesn’t belong in here. The art has to be responsive where it actually changes as a result of you interacting with it. In a way, the artwork experiences the visitor, because it’s actually changing.”
While walking through the one-room space a few days after its mid-November grand opening, Harrington said most of what fills it was made as part of his senior thesis project when studying at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the early 2000s.
The materials have mostly been in storage, but he said he’s exhibited some of his works at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, as well as in local gallery shows.
Born and raised in Santa Fe, he also lived in New York before settling back home more than a decade ago. Harrington cites his upbringing in the City Different as a part of his inspiration to make installations like the one’s he’s now presenting to the public.
When visiting galleries and museums, he remembers being constantly told, “Don’t touch the art.”
He then started making interactive works during his college years. At the time, he’d primarily studied photography and it was difficult for him to gauge reactions to his work.
“I like to see what people do more than what they say,” he said. “It’s more interesting to get feedback in that way, what people do.”
While in school, he also interned for interactive science museums, though he said he likes the “open-ended” quality of interactive art compared to science-centric exhibits.
‘Transcending space and time’
His “Tesseract Light Box” in the middle of the museum room in Tesuque is inspired by the idea of a four-dimensional cube (tesseract is the word for the concept of a 4D cube in geometry).
“It transcends space and time, so our minds can’t quite grasp a shape like that,” he said of the geometric figure.
Using the tesseract concept as inspiration, he took close-up photos of everyday happenings, printed them onto poster paper and put them between Plexiglas. Circling the photos are sentences describing the images, like “Bubbles Cling to a Coffee Cup” or “Wet Desert Sands Slowly Absorb a Puddle.” He created a large wooden structure where participants can place the Plexiglas squares one over another. The images merge together as one and the words become what he called “gobbledygook poetry.”
“You layer those places and times together into something that transcends space and time,” he said.
Also around at the museum is something he calls the “MagNetwork,” which Harrington developed while working with the New York Hall of Science. Based on the scientific theory of emergence, knobs on a table move around, but never touch each other because of magnets underneath.
His “Poetree” is a series of flippable images of words from brand labels or signs in which the visitor can make their own phrases. Another is his “automatic self-portrait maker.” Visitors make portraits of sorts by pressing their faces into tin foil and hanging the results up on the wall.
Placed in a corner is what Harrington calls the “Parallel Reality Portal,” a mirror he created that plays on the idea of entering an alternate universe. Because it is curved, the mirror doesn’t project a typical reflection. For example, if someone holds up written words in front of the mirror, they do not appear backwards like in a regular mirror. Harrington put up his left arm and pointed out how it was his reflection’s left arm that was up, as well, not the standard “mirror image.”
The closer someone gets to what Harrington calls the “portal,” there’s something of a physical, vertigo-like reaction.
“It’s because the focal point is in front of the surface, so your brain doesn’t quite know what to do with it,” he explained. “Your eyes are telling you one thing and your brain is telling you another.”
New use for old foundry
Harrington’s relationship with Shidoni came from a recent stop there as he drove by on his way back from a job – his full-time work is taking “virtual tour” photos of the interiors of businesses – and got to asking about its recently emptied space. He then told the operators about his artwork sitting in storage.
The Shidoni Foundry, which opened in 1971, closed in April 2017 amid financial issues. Its bronze casting equipment was moved to a new space in Albuquerque. Shidoni’s sculpture garden and two gallery spaces remain open.
Today, the Museum of Interactive Art is housed in the foundry’s old waxing room. According to Shidoni president and CEO Scott Hicks, it’s where workers created wax models used to make a ceramic shell. Crews would melt the wax out and cast the shell in bronze to make a sculpture.
Hints of the industrial-looking room’s former use still exist. Harrington has covered old wax stains on the walls with plastic tarp, and inspirational quotes from artists and academics. He couldn’t paint the walls, he noted, because paint doesn’t stick to wax.
It isn’t easy in Santa Fe to find a place that trusts someone with “weird” art like his, Harrington said, commending Shidoni for taking a chance on his idea. Instead of paying rent right out the gate, Harrington said that he and Shidoni split the museum’s admission earnings. If the museum is successful, then they can work out another arrangement, according to Harrington.
Artists-in-residence have occasionally used the vacant foundry space over the past year, but Hicks said Harrington’s museum is the first longer-term use since the foundry’s 2017 closing. He said he’s open to working with other art-related ventures that could use parts of the remaining thousands of available square feet.
Of Harrington, Hicks said the artist has “a lot of great ideas and good energy.”
“It’s a great use of the space and great new concept here,” Hicks said.
If admission is steady, Harrington hopes to continue adding to the museum. He says he has more works in storage, including a tree sculpture with suspended rakes that move to make Zen garden patterns that he’s shown at Burning Man, and conceptions for others.
He already has plans to open up an “invent-your-own-reality” room within the next month or so. He said it would be a place where kids specifically would “unleash their creativity,” with boxes for building or crayons for drawing on the walls.
“I have lists and lists of interactive exhibit ideas,” Harrington said. “I could fill endless space.”
To draw in guests, Harrington’s plan is to host ongoing activities. For the holidays, he is offering a “Build-a-Beast” workshop – a play on the national Build-a-Bear Workshop chain – in which Harrington offers disconnected toy pieces for kids to make their own custom action figures. Around New Year, he has plans to offer the experience of making dream boards, which are more or less aspirational collages.
Harrington also outlined a bigger vision he has for interactive art. One day, he hopes to see interactive museums be as “ubiquitous” as natural history museums or children’s museums in cities across the country.
Locally, Harrington hopes his museum’s existence will help “disrupt” the economic focus on standard art and shift the scene toward art as an experience. He believes operations like Meow Wolf have already proven there’s a desire for such a change and that consumers nowadays are more interested in experiences than possessions.
“It’s a billion-dollar art market in Santa Fe, so what would a billion-dollar experience-art economy look like in Santa Fe?” he asked.