Washington, DC

Digital Cherry Blossom Exhibit Hits Hard on Environmental Destruction and Renewal

Matthew Koehler

Inspired by the climate change, rampant consumption, and a global pandemic, a new art exhibit in DC paints a bleak digital picture and asks us to examine ourselves.


Photo by Author

Walking into Renewal 2121, masked but amidst a small jubilant crowd of early viewers, I felt lighter than the last time I experienced one of ARTECHOUSE's (DC) cherry blossom-themed interactive exhibits. Much has happened in the past year that has caused intense existential anxiety. Some parts of the world are just starting to stutter-step out of pandemic lockdowns, others reentering.

COVID-19 notwithstanding, here in the States, and especially in DC, there's been political unrest and violence, followed by a contentious election and more violence. Yet, we enter the 2021 spring season with tentative hope.

Renewal transports us to Tokyo 100 years from now, a megalopolis more mega than it already is. Climate change runs rampant and consumption is king. The city has grown and mutated beyond what exists today, and humanity has encroached upon every natural space with technology, pollution, and waste.

Really though, Tokyo 2121 is a science fiction archetype for any future super city.

Here amongst the unchecked technological growth, its requisite human population and waste, is renewal: a lone sakura tree blooming in early spring is the focal point of digital steampunk imagery playing out on the massive main gallery screens. Atmospheric music (by Mario Hammer and The Lonely Robot) with heavy bass booms punctuate the melancholy violin solo while sakura petals flutter and blow in the electronic breeze.

Every several minutes the scenes shift, offering those standing close enough to the big screens a different interactive experience. In one, factoids about the wastefulness of modern society appear and disappear. "An average American produces approximately 1780 pounds of trash every year. That's heavier than two grizzly bears combined," one screen tells me. In the final scene, the megalopolis disintegrates in a flash glitch art, giving way to tranquil scenery. Nature again reigns over the land.

Renewal offers a bleak vision of the future, but, as the title implies, there is hope in nature's resilience and it's tenacity to survive. Four different galleries explore themes rooted in "the city, nature, and ourselves" and "the constant rebirth of cities through human innovation and nature's adaptive resilience."

Created by Takeda Yuya (surname first), a motion graphics designer and artist, visuals in the main gallery offer the standard immersive experiences Artechouse is known for.

To the right of the main gallery, patrons enter Backend – the "mind of the machine." It's the data center of the super city – powering and deciding "what technology can do for us." According to a description of the exhibit at the entrance of the smaller room, that tech is always watching. Pacing about the dimly lit room, TV's placed in the center play back ghostly images of you looking back. Staring at a blurry digital image of myself, the 2005 horror flick White Noise came to mind, and I'm reminded that I never felt comfortable staring into the static on TVs while growing up.

Quickly exiting the haunted data center, I made my way to ATH20XX, a muraled alleyway showing cyborgs in kimonos. The artwork by Fujita Satoshi (surname first), a.k.a Dragon76 (Fujita's birth year), harps on themes of artificial intelligence and biomechanical enhancements. There's nothing to interact with in this section of Renewal, but the artwork is sharp and worth a look.

Venturing deeper into the bowels of 22 century Tokyo, I found myself on a bridge between two massive buildings in View from Above. The back multimedia room transported me back to the early 90s to the inside of a pixelated Super Nintendo game, complete with beep boop sounds. Ever present drones on either side of the bridge tracked my presence and the screen at the back of the room gave patrons another chance to interact...with drones.

No people exist in Renewal. Come to think of it, people haven't existed in any of Artechouse's cherry blossom-themed exhibits I've experienced. It's an experience devoid of humanity, except for the things we created and left behind. Unless you count patrons. Perhaps we are meant to see ourselves as existing within the exhibit?

Taking a different route back to the main gallery, I strolled down Sleepless Alley – a narrow side street chocked full of vendors and interactive vintage games. Scan your hand over an electronic panel and get an advert for water or play a game called "Extinct Menagerie" to see animals and plants now extinct. Minus the extinct flora and fauna, this part of Renewal reminded me of the actual Tokyo I explored all those years ago when I lived in Japan.

Before leaving the horribly mutated and overgrown city Renewal 2121 for the real world, I made my way back to the main gallery to soak it in. A few patrons remained, including a lone child dancing in front of the final scene, nature's renewal – soft, tranquil music played. The scene again disintegrated and the music abruptly changed back to the mechanical booms of super Tokyo.

The innocent muse disappeared, fleeting – not unlike ephemeral cherry blossoms. Her departure, though, promised a different renewal – that of ourselves.

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Essays and reporting. Most of this is true. Bylines around the Web. Editor of a local newspaper in the District. Got a tip? Contact me here: https://twitter.com/MattJKoe.

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