A hundred years after his passing, Vincent Van Gogh is making quite a splash in South Florida. “Beyond Van Gogh, An Immersive Experience,” at the Ice Palace Studios, allows you to immerse yourself into Van Gogh’s vast body of work like you’ve never been able to before. Through the driving force of the artist’s dreams, thoughts, and words, you’ll see his art as light and colors swirl, change and morph into flowers, cafes, and landscapes.
I was curious about the exhibit’s creators, Normal Studio in Montreal. Renowned audiovisual designers, they’re known for their ability to fuse creativity and technology, collaborating with artists and producers to create experiences for entertainment, performing arts and public installations.
In 2009, Mathieu St-Arnaud and Philippe Belhumeur combined their creative and technological abilities under the name Turbine. In 2013, Sébastien Grenier-Cartier joined as partner and general manager, and two years later they changed their name to “Normal.” Matieu says, “Normal” means being ourselves. It speaks to our human centered approach to connecting with clients and audiences.”
Normal they may be, but they have the outsize ability to spark wonder with their multisensory, interactive installations, 360-projection and architectural mapping. Their team of over 30 employees transforms urban spaces into full-on immersive experiences for artists and companies of all sizes.
We interviewed Mathieu St-Arnaud to find out more about creating the exhibit during Covid.
Why do you think it took 100+ years for Van Gogh to become one of the most revered (and pricey) artists in the world?
Though Van Gogh sort of encapsulates the myth of the struggling artist – which he undeniably was – he was gaining some traction in the years leading up to his death. Strongly inspired by the Impressionists, Van Gogh went against academicism and suffered the consequences for most of his lifetime. Unfortunately, he took his own life when things were starting to change. And while some artists like Monet lived long enough to know fame and fortune after going through misery, Van Gogh disappeared too soon to tell whether or not he would have known a similar success in his lifetime. One thing is for sure: he was light years away from imagining the kind of fame he has nowadays.
What were the challenges of opening the Van Gogh exhibit during Covid?
As a Canadian, I would say travelling! Because we create large-scale projection spaces, it was a major factor in the feasibility of the project. The base format of this type of experience is very covid-friendly: It enables social distancing naturally. We consciously tried to make it as “open” or “free-roaming” as possible so that people can maintain proper and safe distance from one another.
How many multimedia experiences have you created?
The term multimedia encompasses many type of projects. Most of what we do has many types of mediums layered together and the notion of technology is omnipresent. So it’s hard to say how many experiences and projects we have created since we started in 2009, but I would say more than 20 of various scales. That would include creations in domes, museums, outdoor, on stages, etc., all featuring different ways for the audience to engage with our work.
How many multimedia art experiences?
Directly related to the art history, I believe this is the first. We have explored many subjects like science, history, social and cultural. All of our work included some reference to art (artists, movement, etc.). Many of our projects collaborated with artists from different disciplines like music, film, and photography.
What are some other immersive experiences you’re most known for?
That’s a very good question and a hard one to answer! The ones we are really proud of are the experiences we designed with symphonic orchestras, like Life Reflected with NACO (National Art Center Orchestra) or the various concerts we did with OSM (Montreal Symphonic Orchestra).
Maestros have such a vision of music; it’s a creative collaboration that is unique. Even during the pandemic, we were asked to design a series of unique concerts for which we are re-imagining the classical concert setting using cutting-edge tools like AR. They are set to be released starting this summer and we are really excited!
How do you take an urban space with all of its quirks, such as the Ice Palace Studios (which may not have been in use as an exhibit space for awhile during the pandemic) and turn it into an immersive experience such as “Beyond Van Gogh?”
You have to look at the space as a whole and make the most of what it as to offer. Simply put, use what the space as to offer to your advantage. You cannot create without limitations so embrace all those quirks and make something out of it. The Ice Palace has a lot of space, so we expanded some areas of the experience since we had the space, adding more content. The limited ceiling height is always a challenge. The Ice Palace’s ceiling is all black and very clean looking, which actually makes the whole experience better even if it was missing a few inches to our liking.
What is the behind-the-scenes secret to how you ‘drive the experience as a narrative along projection-swathed walls wrapped in light and color that swirls, dances, and refocuses into flowers, cafes, and landscapes…flowing across multiple surfaces?
You have to tell yourself a story you like and that you feel passionate about, first and foremost. If you do not ‘feel’ your own ideas and narrative, then who will? For me, art is about communicating something in the language that our minds speak which is emotions, truly feeling and believing what you want to say is key. It’s easy to get lost in technology or production limitations but it always needs to come back to the story.
SoFlaNights: How did you choose the symphonic score to accompany Van Gogh’s words?
Mathieu St-Arnaud: We wanted to steer away from the expected classical music playlist; it felt so obvious and uninteresting to us. We want the audience to enter Vincent’s world in 2021, not in the past, as he is still very relevant today. Our idea was to create a contemporary soundscape composed of music made by artists from various style, origins, and genders, to reveal this timelessness of Vincent’s art and vision of the world.
What technological methods did you use to collaborate closely with your “Van Gogh Experience” clients during Covid?
Apart from emails and video conferencing services we used our preview tool (made with mix of Adobe After Effect and Unreal Engine) a lot. We integrated previz from the start, as we were looking for ideas that would drive our narrative. (“Previz,” or Previsualization is used to describe techniques such as storyboarding, either in the form of sketches or in digital technology, in the planning and conceptualization of scenes.)
An image is worth a thousand words so it makes a lot of sense to ‘show’ instead of trying to explain ideas and concepts. Once in production, we simply plugged-in a VR headset to ‘feel’ the story and space in advance: we reworked 95% of the show virtually before setting up in Miami and it was a huge upgrade, all thanks to VR. #BeyondVanGogh #VanGoghMiami #GoghBeyond @VanGoghMiami