On a recent morning, Markos Doyle walked inside a screen-lined garden shed, itself contained within a darkened exhibit hall in Boston's Downtown Crossing neighborhood.
He sat down at a white table inside the facsimile greenhouse to answer the question: What exactly is this place?
"The WNDR Museum is a digital, interactive, immersive experience," said Doyle, the general manager of WNDR Boston. "Lights, sounds. It's a place of complete immersion and wonderment."
"Our message is simple," the museum's website states. "We are all artists. And as artists, our visitors are more than passive onlookers. Whatever they do in our museum, IS art."
Founded in Chicago in 2018, the WNDR Museum is set to open its largest location in Boston next month at 500 Washington St. It's just one of a growing group of technology-driven immersive installations popping up around the world.
The garden shed at WNDR Boston is part of "INSIDEOUT," one of more than 20 exhibits that will be featured at the space's February launch. It's the work of artist Leigh Sachwitz, inspired by childhood memories of taking cover from thunderstorms in Glasgow, where she experienced bursts of rain and sunshine within a short timespan.
"She’s recreated that inside the museum using projection mapping, soundtracks, lights," Doyle said as lights flowed on the walls of the shed around him. "We’re experiencing it now, and it’s a completely enveloping environment that makes you feel like you’re in that storm.”
From a seat at the same white table, visitors pull a string attached to an incandescent lightbulb hanging above to begin the three-minute multimedia experience.
"You hear a change in the sound of, slowly winds picking up, clouds rumbling in," Doyle said. The digital windows slam shut, and rain starts falling. "The storm whips through; there's winds and rain. And then all of a sudden, the storm has cleared, and slowly the light returns."
The lights and sounds fill the space inside and out.
“It’s pretty enchanting for anybody between the ages of 3 and 93, can go in and enjoy the majority, if not the entirety of the museum. What a wonderful thing," WNDR Museum President Chris Freeman said. "And I can’t say the same thing for maybe a slightly more traditional museum.”
Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into establishing and expanding similar for-profit experiential spaces — generally referred to as "immersive art" — in new cities, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what exactly makes this art immersive, and how does the experience differ from other, more traditional, museums?
Immersive art goes all the way back to panoramic, 360-degree paintings, said Sofie Hodara, a professor who teaches interactive design and immersive media at Northeastern University. But more recently, she explained, when we hear "immersive art," we think of spaces where the audience is an active member of the exhibition; the work wouldn't exist in the same way without its participation.
Gloria Sutton, an associate professor of contemporary art history at Northeastern, said WNDR falls under the umbrella of "immersive experiences," which range from virtual reality to historical reenactments. She pointed to the rise of Google Images and social media platforms as a catalyst for the rise of attractions like WNDR.
"The term 'immersive' oftentimes refers back to something like hallucinatory escapism, that people want to immerse themselves in a gaming console or in a different universe because they're escaping the reality of the world," Sutton said.
Another one of WNDR Boston's featured exhibits is Yayoi Kusama's "Let's Survive Forever," one of the artist's more than 20 Infinity Mirror Rooms. Visitors are given one minute inside the room, where, as WNDR describes, "A sense of infinity is offered through the play of reflections between the circular shapes and the surrounding mirrors."
Kusama is one of the most important visual artists of the post-war period, Sutton said, and seeing her work in a space that contextualizes her art is different than seeing it abstractly.
"I'm not arguing one is better than the other," Sutton said, adding that viewing work like Kusama's infinity rooms without that context leads to a different experience for visitors, often one of reflection and self-disorientation.
It's part of the reason why Kusama's work is so successful and captivating for audiences, regardless of their context.
"You can go in there and have an experience that is, you know, transformative for people, and that's why this work, her practice, is legible and exciting," Sutton said.
On bringing "Let's Survive Forever" to Boston, WNDR creative director David Allen said in a statement, "We are committed to breaking down the sense of distance and exclusivity often associated with art and we're proud to redefine the museum experience as a dynamic, inclusive source of engagement and connection."
Sutton also makes a distinction between a place like WNDR and an art museum that's interested in cultivating a long-term relationship with a collection and an audience.
“To call it a museum is a misnomer, right? So it’s not really a museum; it’s more of a commercial attraction," Sutton said.
Freeman, Allen and Doyle all told GBH News the WNDR Museum is in the process of building relationships with the city of Boston, schools and the local arts community. Allen said that process took time during the organization's prior expansions to San Diego and Seattle. "People have to see that we care and who we are," he said.
“We have to, you know, be nothing other than reverential when coming into a market that we don’t live in,” Freeman said. “Boston is hopefully going to be our best yet."
Tickets to WNDR Boston are on sale now. The museum is set to open on Feb. 1, 2024.