Creative Reality: Lush Utopias for Anxious Times
“Anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity,” says cultural critic Maria Popova. The facts suggest that she’s right: 40 million people suffer from anxiety disorders in the U.S., and 19 percent of people in the U.K. are managing depression and anxiety. In times like these — as geopolitical, financial, and ecological crises intensify — some choose to organize, protest, and fight. Others long for escape.
So, we’re looking at some of the artists and innovators who are building those escapes. For visual artists, the new escapism embraces idealized images of nature, from eco-tropical paradises that fuse reality with human-made wonderlands, to bold experiments with color and patterns derived from exotic plants and animals. This month’s curated gallery of Adobe Stock shows how artists are imagining a flourishing, euphoric version of the natural world. It’s a series of day-glow-infused refuges for the weary.
Building a psychedelic escape hatch
As the collective longing for escape intensifies, we’re seeing imagined realities inspired by altered states of consciousness. There’s a literal take on the trend, with some people microdosing and scientists researching how psychedelic drugs might help us treat depression, alcoholism, PTSD, and more. (See Michael Pollan’s current bestseller, “How to Change Your Mind” for an exploration of the science and a first-person account.) But artists are going far beyond chemically induced states, creating mind-bending, sensory-tweaking experiences.
For example, Meow Wolf, a group of architects, sculptors, painters, and virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, builds surreal immersive environments. In their House of Eternal Return, visitors walk, crawl, and climb through a Victorian home designed to skew sensations of space and time with secret passageways and imaginative scenarios. The group also created Glitteropolis, an archaeological dig site of the imagined future, decked out in neon and glitter.
In a similar vein, Berlin-based Liquidrom offers its patrons sensory-enhanced relaxation experiences. Visitors immerse themselves in a warm saltwater bath while enjoying underwater colors and music, which the group calls “liquid sound.” Meanwhile, fitness buffs at Les Mills gyms sweat through immersive workouts surrounded by theater-sized screens displaying kaleidoscopic color patterns.
In the art world, Yayoi Kusama burst back onto the scene last year, building on her avant garde work from the 1950s to 1970s. Yayoi’s projects include repeating patterns, immersive mirror rooms, and hallucinatory motifs, asking viewers to contemplate infinity and explore the artist’s dream of self-obliteration. Her work is on exhibit in Nagano, Japan, this summer.
You can also visit the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., this summer for a peek at the art of Burning Man, the annual festival that celebrates radical self-expression, communal participation, and a temporary escape into an idealistic world, even if it all burns down after a few days in the desert.
For folks who crave an altered but more reality-based escape, there are plenty of options. Take, for example, Summerland, a synthetic summer in the middle of the dreary U.K. winter. In just four hours, Summerland visitors experience a 24-hour trip to a tropical paradise, complete with day-and-night light cycles, tropical temperatures, a lush jungle landscape, and a waterfall lagoon.
Tweaking our senses
Designers aren’t just immersing us, they’re also tweaking a sense or two at a time for fleeting moments of altered reality. Consider last year’s feasts for the eyes, the rainbow bagel and rainbow sushi enhanced with beet juice, turmeric, and matcha.
For those who can’t naturally indulge in a feast of color, there are EnChroma glasses, which restore color vision to people with color blindness. But if just seeing regular color isn’t enough, you can filter your whole world with Bence Agoston’s Mood Glasses — just rotate the lenses to choose your view of the world.
There are also tools to alter our soundscapes. The app Hear, for example, allows users to change how the world sounds. You can auto-tune voices into songs or transform noise into what the company calls “cascades of happiness.” The app claims to simulate auditory hallucinations, or in the words of John Mahoney of Gizmodo, “It’s mushrooms without the mushrooms!”
Escapes can also be quiet, like the popular YouTube videos of gentle, methodical activities such as whispering and turning pages. If you’re one of the people who experiences ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), these videos can trigger a state of deep relaxation, accompanied by tingling in the neck, scalp, and back.
Taking reality virtual with new tech
These new creative realities are just the beginning of the trend. As technology, such as AR-enabled phones, reaches more people, there will be even more opportunities for artists to alter our realities.
The new AR and VR tools that will make it possible are in development now. Among our favorites are Project Dali, a 3D VR painting technology which allows artists to create and move around their creations in three dimensions, and Project Aero, which lets designers develop immersive content that blurs the physical and digital worlds. Imagine, for example, using your AR-enabled phone to try out virtual furniture in your living room before you spend a dime, or watching a restaurant menu come to life on your table.
The takeaway for designers and brands: create escape experiences
The current passion for sensory trips and sensual utopias reveals something important about where consumers’ hearts are right now: experience is the new luxury.
Consumers increasingly crave transformative moments, temporary escapes, mind-expanding parallel realities, and utopias where we transcend our anxieties about politics, economies, and the environment. For brands, this is an opportunity to tap deeply into saturated colors, exotic patterns, and augmented realities to meet consumers where they long to be.