WNDR-ful for downtown Seattle: Inside the new immersive museum that blends art and tech

WNDR-ful for downtown Seattle: Inside the new immersive museum that blends art and tech

GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser captures himself in the reflections of “Hyper Mirror,” an art installation at the new WNDR Museum in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

If you’ve been wondering what it will take to entice more people to visit downtown Seattle, it might just be WNDR.

The new high-tech art museum opened Wednesday along the Seattle waterfront and GeekWire stepped inside to witness an immersive, multi-sensory experience showcasing a mix of video, audio, interactive and AI-generated artwork.

WNDR (as in “wonder”) is a 5-year-old Chicago-based collective of creators working at the intersection of tech and art. Along with that city and San Diego, Seattle is the organization’s third permanent location. Another is set to open in Boston.

At the corner of Alaskan Way and Marion Street, WNDR has moved into a 13,000-square-foot space in the Maritime Building, which previously sat in the shadow of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Past a gift shop and cafe, the exhibition space is a maze of black-walled hallways and rooms lit by colorful art pieces of varying scale, some of which pulsate under foot or with the wave of a hand or by simply standing in front of them. (Watch the tweeted video below for a glimpse.)

David Allen, a creative director with WNDR, said the museum was attracted to what he called a “beautiful” art scene in Seattle. They were conscious about coming into a tech hub and not hitting people over the head with too much technology.

“We wanted Seattle to be a little more fun, as opposed to ‘let’s show off the tech,’” Allen said. “What if we use the tech as a tool to augment content or something more?”

Zac Hall, who is half of the Chicago artistic duo HAZE, was on hand to describe his piece “Hyper Mirror,” an infinity room visitors step into to lose themselves in visuals projected into mirrors on all sides. The work speaks to technology from the get-go, with a touchscreen outside designed to look — fittingly for Seattle — like a decades-old PC desktop loaded with Microsoft programs.

Artist Zac Hall of HAZE inside his “Hype Mirror” infinity room at WNDR. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Inside, visions of smartphones and a robotic hand gripping a thumping heart race by on the mirrors for two minutes, conveying a connection between our physical and digital selves.

“This whole series is about the increasing entanglement between humanity and machines,” Hall said. “When it cuts to the beating human heart and the robot, that’s a metaphor for the way that we feel like we are being held in the hands of technology. It really is driving the heartbeat of daily lives and the world around us.”

Hall has been having fun with generative AI, ChatGPT and other burgeoning tech that is already changing his perspective of how he’ll create art moving forward.

“I’ll draw out concepts and then just feed it into Stable Diffusion and have it generate 20 iterations for me,” he said. “I’ll take design notes from that. It’s very useful, but also very scary.”

Space Needle “paintings” in the style of Edward Hopper, created using an artificial intelligence program in an interactive artwork called “Untitled By You.” (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A program by Stable Diffusion is also used in a piece called “Untitled By You” (above), created by Wolfbear with design by Flower. Users can type in a specific imaginary artwork description and five examples are generated on nearby screens. I typed in “Space Needle as imagined by Edward Hopper” and appreciated seeing a couple of the renditions, which did have a Hopper-like quality.

“Starry Pumpkin,” by Yayoi Kusama, on display in a corner window at WNDR, along Western Avenue. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In appreciation of an artist who was around long before tech integration, WNDR Seattle also features a piece called “Starry Pumpkin” (above), a sculpture by legendary contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” work was previously on exhibition in 2017 at the Seattle Art Museum. The pumpkin “represents comfort, humility and stability” for Kusama, WNDR says on its website.

“Insideout” is a small structure that explodes in light by artist Leigh Sachwitz. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Fans of Seattle weather will want to immerse themselves inside “Insideout” (above) by Scottish artist Leigh Sachwitz, where visitors step inside a glowing garden shed of sorts and watch and listen to digital rain fall before the sun rises.

Seattle artist Andy Arkley’s interactive installation “You Can Do Most Anything.” (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle artist Andy Arkley‘s colorful installation “You Can Do Most Anything” (above) is controlled by visitors who push a series of buttons on a nearby keypad to activate music and light in the piece.

The museum may help attract more visitors to a downtown rattled by the pandemic. Increased arts and culture options are often listed as potential drivers to get more people to visit Seattle’s urban core.

The Mjolsness family from Vancouver Island, B.C., — Barb and Andre and their teenage kids Tea and Nate — were drawn down to WNDR on Wednesday during a visit to see family in Lynnwood, Wash.

The Mjolsness family from Vancouver Island, B.C, visits WNDR Museum in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Asked if they were weary about coming to downtown Seattle given the steady stream of stories about crime, Barb said no.

“No apprehension, other than parking and traffic,” she laughed. “Parking was expensive and we’ll figure out traffic later.”

With a camera around her neck and a growing interest in photography and visual arts, 17-year-old Tea agreed that WNDR could be the type of attraction to get people downtown.

“I like that it involves you, you’re part of the art,” Tea said. “You can interact with everything, which is really cool.”

WNDR is located at 904 Alaskan Way in Seattle, and open noon to 9 p.m. daily. Ticket details here.

Keep scrolling for more photos from GeekWire’s visit:

The WNDR Museum has taken over a 13,000-square-foot space in the Maritime Building along Seattle’s Waterfront. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
A mural by Seattle artist Stevie Shao between the gift shop and cafe at WNDR in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
“Dream Sequence” by artist Patrick Ethen. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Inside “Immersive Theatre” at WNDR, which showcases a curated selection of ever-evolving 360-degree content. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
GeekWire reporter Kurt Schlosser on the “Light Floor” at Seattle’s new WNDR Museum. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)