You’d never guess that inside Chelsea Market, nestled between boutiques and taco joints, lies a peek into the wonders of the universe. Beyond the Light at ARTECHOUSE gives us a one-of-a-kind, immersive look at the unseen universe by way of data from the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s star-gazing jewel of the skies.
A years-long project that showcases the convergence of art, science, and technology, Beyond the Light is available now through the end of the summer, courtesy of ARTECHOUSE Studio and some of planet Earth’s giants of intergalactic know-how: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the James Webb Space Telescope Mission team at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and Johns Hopkins University’s William H. Miller III Department of Physics & Astronomy.
Known for being the first digital arts space in the U.S., ARTECHOUSE specializes in experiential art shows for all ages. Once a mere Chelsea Market boiler room, the two-floor ARTECHOUSE space now offers floor-to-ceiling digital art shows throughout the year. ARTECHOUSE’s mission is “to challenge preconceptions about art and inspire new ways of creative thinking.”
With its latest exhibition, ARTECHOUSE uses NASA technology to premiere a visual experience that seeks to push the boundaries of what’s possible for science and art in collaboration. Beyond the Light is a cinematic exploration of how humanity has experienced light through the ages, shown through 18K high-resolution projections.
When we enter, my guest and I are quickly enveloped in a dazzling display of color and sound. We make our way to the bar first to see what universe-themed cocktails are available. Always game for a pun, I choose the Cosmic Cliff, a sweet and sparkling combination of passion fruit, strawberries, and champagne. For James Webb Space Telescope newbies, the cosmic cliffs were one of the first images released by the Telescope. They’ve been described as a “bubble wall” of stars, a description just begging to be turned into a cocktail. The bar also offers beer, wine, coffee, and a passion fruit and strawberry mocktail for younger guests and those abstaining from alcohol.
After grabbing our drinks, my friend and I weave through the crowd and head down the steps to make our way to the most immersive part of the space. We laugh over how challenging it is to walk across the floor with so many moving patterns whizzing past. We aren’t the only ones struggling—we see two guests drop and shatter their cocktail glasses on the floor nearby. Brightly-colored patterns dance across our faces as we find a spot smack in the center of the room, cocktails safe in hand.
A word of warning: Beyond the Light may not be an ideal experience for those who get motion sick easily from rides and VR visuals. I found myself having to take occasional breaks to look at the ceiling to avoid succumbing to a bit of nausea, though my friend had no issues. Still, while I’m more sensitive to motion sickness from an experience like this, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment and had only a mild effect overall.
The entire audio-visual experience runs about 25 minutes on loop, with images that steadily break and interweave together. A fiery volcanic visual gives way to rainbow prisms, brightly-colored wires, and splashes of ethereal space paint. I find myself wondering how the scientists and artists are able to transform data and imagery from the James Webb telescope into an immersive rollercoaster of color and sound.
According to ARTECHOUSE Studio, their animated projections were designed to bring “what is often invisible to our naked eyes into the highest resolution possible.” To put it more plainly, if you’d like to see what concepts like string theory and loop quantum gravity might look like as artistic visuals, this show is for you.
Not only does the exhibition incorporate images from the telescope into the projections, but it also showcases pictures of the technology used to make these discoveries. Images of NASA computer screens and geometric blueprints traverse the walls alongside more abstract imagery. Now, if you’re like me and got middling grades in high school science class, don’t worry. The visual experience is just as exciting without fully understanding the data that inspires it.
The video projections are accompanied by an epic soundtrack, and we learn that an original score was created using spectra data from the periodic table and AI-aided, digitally-generated sounds. The epic orchestral compositions are accompanied by machinery clicks and chimes, reminiscent of a futuristic space film. Though the orchestrations are loud, they strike a meditative chord that complements the kaleidoscope of color projected across the walls.
During the show, guests can also explore six small exhibits that highlight NASA’s work on the topics of heliophysics, climate science, biosphere, the moon, the Mars rovers, and NASA Spinoffs. A small room next to the bar offers an exhibit called Vanishing, which shows the effects of climate change using water droplets and synthetic images of glaciers that shift every 28 seconds, symbolizing the time it takes for “an ice mass equivalent to the Chrysler Building” to melt. It’s a sobering exhibit that stands in far contrast from the bright, frenetic colors of the light show.
Another installation gives an AI-led exploration into what the dreams of the five Mars Rover vehicles might be. The impressive robots remind me of the beloved fictional bot, Pixar’s Wall-E, and I wonder how much the animated character has influenced public interest in NASA’s work with the Mars rovers.
Threaded subtly through the exhibition is the acknowledgement of the challenge that comes with making complex data relevant to the general public. It’s the predicament that NASA scientists face when it comes to making their research stand out in an easily-distractible world. How do you gain the support of the public with content that’s so difficult to grasp?
Beyond the Light is one answer. By creating an accessible audio-visual experience that transcends age and knowledge, the exhibition invites the public to marvel at the mysteries of the unseen universe without requiring them to understand it. All you need to enter the conversation are your eyes and ears. In this way, ARTECHOUSE and NASA succeed in turning the most sophisticated scientific discoveries into an accessible and memorable night out. Your attention is won and perhaps, in the future, when the complexities of the universe are brought up in the news or in conversation, your attention will be captured once again.
After two full loops through the show and a wander through each of the six mini-exhibitions, my friend and I are ready to head back out into the familiar noise of the city evening. Walking through the exit feels like re-entering earth’s atmosphere after a transportive excursion through the universe. Although the last couple hours have been otherworldly, I’m thankful to be back in familiar city territory. After all, they don’t have Shake Shack in space.
Take the Trip or Skip?
Beyond the Light is an ideal outing for adults and kids alike, though parents should gauge their child’s ability to handle a loud, high-stimulation environment before buying tickets. ARTECHOUSE succeeds in pushing the boundaries of art and innovation, and those interested in science and space exploration will find this educational experience to be highly engaging. Beyond the Light is the culmination of five years of collaboration from NASA and ARTECHOUSE, and viewers can enjoy the fruits of their labors through the end of August before the exhibition moves to Washington, D.C. Tickets are available daily in hour slots and can be purchased online here.
ARTECHOUSE is located at 439 W. 15th St. (btw. Ninth & Tenth Aves.); artechouse.com. Beyond the Light continues through August 31st.
General Admission: $25
Students, Seniors (65+), Military & First Responders: $20
Kids (under 4): Free
Kids (4-15): $17
Weekday Family Pack (2 adults, 2 children): $75
ADMISSION & HOURS
Open daily 10am-10pm. Sessions are every 30 minutes and last for 60 minutes.
XR BAR HOURS:
Monday – Friday: 3–9:30pm
Saturday & Sunday: noon–9:30pm