Lylee Dahlen in the crowd at the "Orbital Decay" installation at the MAH.
Lylee Dahlen in the crowd at the “Orbital Decay” installation at the MAH.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Find your bandwidth: MAH’s ‘Frequency’ brings nighttime adventure to last weekend of summer

Running through Sunday at the MAH (though with a key installation staying on longer), “Frequency” exists in a realm that invites you to set aside your customary relationships with art and ponder your own place in a world more and more mediated by technology.

Technically, the new four-day event at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz is a summer festival — summer doesn’t end until Wednesday — but clearly its focus is projected forward into the fall. That is, after all, the season when we all begin to notice we’re gradually losing daylight. And this festival is, before everything, all about light.

This weekend, “Frequency: A Festival of Light, Sound & Digital Culture” dominates the MAH and the area surrounding it, including Abbott Square. In the gray light of morning, the setup in the square around the Octagon isn’t very impressive, a couple of boxy blank panels and a giant white pillowy dome betraying nothing of its purpose. But on the festival’s opening night Thursday, those features came alive once darkness set in.

“Frequency” is made up of about a dozen individual installations, designed and constructed by artists from as far away as the United Kingdom and South Korea and as close by as Santa Cruz. The showpiece installation is called “Ocean of Light: Submergence” by a U.K. organization called Squidsoup. “Ocean” is distinguished from the other installations in that (a) it takes up the MAH’s largest gallery space, the windowless Solari Gallery, and thus is not subject to the tyranny of daylight, and (b) it will remain at the MAH long after the other installations are packed up and shipped out next week.

“Ocean” is dazzling in its simplicity. It consists solely of curtainlike strings of LED light, pulsating in color within the black box of the Solari. The light undulates in waves in sync with otherworldly ambient music. The visitor is free to wander among the lights, and from just about any spot, you’re rewarded by a mesmerizing geometric perspective.

"Ocean of Light: Submergence" will remain at the MAH through the end of the year
“Ocean of Light: Submergence” will remain at the MAH through the end of the year, though the “Frequency” festival ends Sunday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Attendance at the indoor portions of the festival is being limited for COVID reasons, and that’s a good thing not only for public health, but for the sake of the art as well. Immersive experiences like this are diminished in direct proportion to the number of people interacting with it.

The good news is that “Ocean” will be at the MAH throughout the remainder of 2021. The best way to experience it, in fact, might be during an ordinary Wednesday morning in November, when solitude would be an enhancement.

The creators of the art piece have this to say about it: “Our work combines physical and dynamic virtual spaces with novel and intuitive forms of interaction to produce immersive, responsive and beguiling experiences.” For many, such verbiage might seem hopelessly vague and abstract, and many pieces in this festival have similarly thorny, difficult-to-grok artist statements.

The point is that these highly technological pieces allow you to interact with and experience light and sound in ways you might not be used to, and that opens up the possibility of playfulness.

Inside the "Entanglement" exhibit in Abbott Square.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Other “Frequency” installations include “Silver Lining,” a couple of enormous cloud balloons hanging in the MAH’s atrium, and “Quilt City,” a tall, blocky structure that at night illuminates the entire corner of Front and Cooper streets with ever-changing random imagery that gives off a vaguely “Blade Runner” vibe to the immediate environment.

Nearby is Santa Cruzan Aron Altmark’s “Zoom Meeting,” which looks nothing like any Zoom meeting I’ve ever been part of. It’s a large, two-sided electronic screen through which people on either side of the thing can see each other and themselves in a colorful, slightly distorted display, perhaps to tickle an insight or two about how screens and electronic mediation affect our person-to-person relationships. At least, that’s my guess.

Also out at Abbott Square is “Entanglement,” like the “Ocean” piece in the Solari an immersive environment, this one in a makeshift dome structure. On opening night, this piece, created by Santa Cruz artists known as The Epicenter, had a queue of people lining out to Cooper Street for a chance to go inside. Pandemic limits — in this case, no more than six masked people inside at one time, for about three minutes — again significantly shaped the user experience.

Inside, a series of lasers reacted to bodies in motion with both light and naturally occurring sounds selected from Santa Cruz locations, creating a kind of chaotic but fun “collaboration” with whomever might be sharing the space.

There is a kind of shallow enchantment to all these flashing, blinking lights and, on one level, you could probably experience a similar bedazzlement with the rides at the Santa Cruz County Fair (actually, probably a better option if you’re entertaining kids not stimulated by the abstract ideas behind digital arts).

Still, “Frequency” exists in a realm of experience you won’t find anywhere else close by, a realm that invites you to set aside your customary relationships with art and ponder your own place in a world more and more mediated by technology.

I enjoyed the buzz created by “Frequency” for giving me a new way to look at the familiar spaces of the MAH, Abbott Square, and even downtown Santa Cruz, where most public imagery is designed to sell T-shirts and bikinis, not to challenge our notions of our role in navigating the urban environment.

Plus, this smart festival of lights provides an easy access point to the change of seasons, when darkness makes a comeback, and our interactions with the people and places of downtown Santa Cruz comes more and more under the cover of night.

“Frequency” runs through Sunday, from 5 to 10 p.m. each evening. Most installations are free. Ones inside the MAH will be subject to museum entry fees. For more information, visit the MAH’s website.

"Zoom Meeting," by Santa Cruz native Aron Altmark.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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