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You don’t need a green thumb to cultivate ‘Utopian Garden’ exhibit at Tacoma Armory

There’s no need for fertilizer at Tacoma’s newest garden.

“Let go and have fun,” a disembodied voice advised visitors before they entered “Utopian Garden” at the Tacoma Army on May 25. The immersive, interactive show premiered in May and takes visitors on a journey through an otherworldly garden.

The work was commissioned by Tacoma Arts Live and follows other recent immersive exhibits at the Armory, including “Imagine Van Gogh”.

The interactive exhibit was created by German design studio flora&faunavisions and allows viewers to explore the intersection of art, science and nature.

The 45-minute, timed-entry show includes 300-degree wrap-around, 12-foot-tall digital projection screens. Participants can interact with the projections through gestures to create their own onscreen art. Or, they can relax on various seating platforms and just watch the spectacle unfold.

Visuals

Tacoma Arts Live’s evolution of immersive exhibits has been moving at light speed in recent years. In 2019, the group presented “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition”. Using immense high-resolution images, licensed by The Holy See, viewers were able to get both an up-close view of the 16th century art as well as a sense of what the Vatican chapel looks like.

In 2022’s Van Gogh show, digital projections of the Dutch master’s art filled the space. That show was quickly followed by “The Infinite”, a space station-themed immersive show. The space show was interactive but only through virtual reality glasses. Both of those shows saw around 30,000 visitors, according to Tacoma Arts Live executive director David Fischer.

Growing before your eyes

Now, “Utopian Garden” upgrades that experience with visitor interactions that require no special equipment.

On May 25, visitor Fil Baloca was waving his hands and arms to plant seeds, create designs and generally interact with images that looked like wallpaper come to life.

Baloca called the show interesting but wished it had more variety.

Tacoma Arts Live wanted to produce the show in order to control the pricing, Fischer said. Key to that is offering discounts to various groups, especially for children.

The art aspect was left to flora&fauna, he said.

“Mostly, it was their vision, to try to engage folks in thinking about the environment differently,” Fischer said. “They created this fantasy landscape that really invites people to play.”

Expect more interactive exhibits in the future, Fischer said. Tacoma Arts Live aims to draw boomers from their post-pandemic isolation and engage younger viewers used to using their hands and their eyes for entertainment.

The garden

The show is made up of three sections. After a bit on inspiration, imagination, art and creativity, the show moves into a science section. There, patrons can create geometric shapes and change their orientation and colors.

Next up is the headliner — nature. A huge flower fills the screen, and it shoots seeds, or perhaps pollen, across the screens. Water bubbles soon fall and butterflies flutter. All of it can manipulated with gestures. Baloca was busy bursting virtual bubbles and planting seeds that soon bloomed into fantastical plants.

The imagery was inspired by mathematician Ada Lovelace, botanist Carl Linnaeus, artist and gardener Claude Monet and others.

Finally, the show adds to the scenes architecture that might be described as Frank Lloyd Wright meets The Smurfs.

Technology

“It’s extremely complicated to produce, not only artistically, but technically,” Fischer said.

Each of the shows 15 projectors seamlessly stitch their imagery together across 200 linear feet of projection screen. They also need to “speak” with overhead sensors that recognize where and how patrons are engaging the screens.

It takes a little getting used to. Each show has a staffer that wordlessly demonstrates the process.

Before the show, the taped introduction advises those affected by fast movement and strobe lights to use caution.

“If you are sensitive to this, please make the choice that is best for you,” the narrator advises. Some viewers of the show have experienced motion sickness.

Hands on

When the show ends, guests exit into a workshop area where up-cycled brooches or leaf rubbings can be made. A seed-ball station is proving to be popular. On Thursday, Baloca used clay, compost and flower seeds to create several balls which he left for future visitors to use after they dried. He took a couple home that a previous visitor had made in a sort of a pay-it-forward gesture.

If you go

What: ‘Utopian Garden’

Where: Tacoma Armory, 1001 S. Yakima Ave.

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed., Thu. and Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri. & Sat. through June.

Tickets: $39 weekdays, $49 for weekends; Discount tickets for seniors, military, students and children ages 3–6; Children under two are free. Group rates are available for parties of 10+. Call 253-346-1721 or visit 1001 S. Yakima Ave.

Information: TacomaArtsLive.org.