Museums and galleries usually command a kind of reverence — for the artist, the institution and for Art itself — through the austerity and apparent neutrality of their spaces, with their placid white walls and respectful displays. Imagine an exhibition that not only creates an environment for an audience but is fluid enough to allow viewers to affect it — a show that, in the designer’s words, “does work on you, and allows you to do work on it.”

Such is the radical exhibition design of the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s “Dark Places,” which features the work of 76 international media artists — ranging from L.A.-based Jordan Crandall, the Delhi-based RAQS Media Collective and architects Diller + Scofidio — presented in a monster-like architectural armature suspended in the museum’s main gallery. The structure includes four large-scale front-screen projections, four smaller rear-screen projections and eight workstations, with eight intersecting programs of media on each screen. (Imagine a combination hydra and octopus with eyes at the end of its 40-foot tendrils.) Illuminating the monster’s interactivity is a lighting design that fluctuates from light to dark depending on visitor activity. Curated by Joshua Decter and designed by the international design group Servo, the show challenges the idea of a neutral, pristine presentation, and instead creates an environment in which the artworks bleed together and viewers engage with the exhibition design as much as with the art itself.

“Dark Places” began to take shape a decade ago when Decter was teaching a class at Art Center on murder narratives, urbanism and noir. “I was interested in the idea of geographic forensics and how you map out crime in terms of social space,” explains Decter, who now teaches at Bard College. At the time, he was reading James Ellroy’s investigation of his mother’s brutal murder, My Dark Places,as well as Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting and Anthony Vidler’s Warped Space. Ideas about anxiety, trauma and violence, and the way these elements become embedded in cityscapes, rolled around in Decter’s head for several more years until he met members of Servo, and together they began to conceptualize ways of creating an imaginary noir environment mixing art, architecture and media.

“For a typical exhibition, you’d have a template for precisely what you’re going to contain and then you would build a very carefully calibrated architecture around that,” explains Servo’s David Erdman, who works from the group’s Venice-based studio. “You would situate one artist next to another in such a way that the architecture wouldn’t interfere. For ‘Dark Places,’ we rethought that idea and developed more supple boundary conditions between different spaces, conceiving of an architecture that is more a network with interwoven relationships, repetition and redundancy.”

Erdman and his colleagues started by designing the viewing structure digitally using an animation software application called Maya. “Then we had foam molds cut at a custom automotive manufacturer in Orange County and those were shipped to Warner Bros. and vacuum formed. There is a total of six or seven complete shapes that are then recombined to give each of the eight [programming] strands a different form as it moves through the space.” Once the basic shapes were developed, the Servo members fine-tuned the structure, looking for the right fasteners, for example, and, with the help of a structural engineer, exploring ways of making the plastic stronger by altering its shape.

Several of Servo’s projection systems push outward aggressively, like wide, gaping mouths, while the smaller projections seem like orbs of light luring visitors into the body of the structure. Rather than functioning simply as neat rectangles of moving images, the projections stretch the top and bottom rows of pixels, leaving the video intact but turning the projection into a glowing object with a three-dimensional shape. As visitors use the workstations to access more information, the translucent structure around the stations illuminate. “It’s like it actually breathes,” says Erdman, “and the more you do that, the more activated that particular strand becomes. If no one is in there doing work on it, it becomes much more quiet.”

Referencing Walter Benjamin’s idea of the phantasmagoria, Decter adds, “I think there is a sense of immersiveness in terms of both the architectural language as well as the unfolding of the works, and I think this is harmonious in an entirely unique and unprecedented way.” He notes that there’s no mistake that the exhibition is in Los Angeles (and at the Santa Monica Museum, which was willing to take a substantial risk in hosting the exhibition). “The West Coast still functions as a laboratory context, even with the dominance of the entertainment industry.”

Erdman concurs. “This exhibition wouldn’t have been possible from our perspective in a different city. We worked with Warner Bros. to produce a lot of it, and I think for young designers, Los Angeles is where the computer turns into design. It’s no longer the intellectualization or fetishization of the computer itself and you see that in the film industry; you see that in the automotive industry; and you see that in the aerospace industry. L.A. is still the hub of design culture around progressive technological tools.”

Los Angeles has recently been home to several large-scale immersive image environments. A cynical perspective would suggest this is due to museums’ waning importance and the subsequent need to attract viewers with big, sparkling, cinematic images. Further, the easy mixing of disparate cultures and histories in massive mash-ups of artists and image-based technology suggests a utopian global village and a narrative of unity and harmony wrought by digital tools. But Decter and Erdman, as well as Santa Monica Museum Director Elsa Longhauser, resist being subsumed by such a pessimistic view. Acknowledging the increasing presence of technologies of surveillance and communication in everyday life and an ensuing familiarity with technology that makes immersive environments compelling, they instead point to a broader history of exhibition design and the fact that no exhibition, whether overtly designed or not, is neutral. “In a sense, exhibition design is always about amplifying meaning,” says Decter. “And it is always a carrier of meaning, whether it’s done in a conventional way, or if it takes more risks and involves media, immersiveness and interactivity.”

With “Dark Places,” the sense of anxiety, trauma and, in some cases, hopefulness that emerges from the show’s amazing array of artworks (see sidebar) is made material by the organism that houses the images. So, rather than just being about dark places, the show is a dark place, and we’re invited into the monster and left to find our own way through its glowing, responsive body.

DARK PLACES | Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through April 22

The eight programs that make up “Dark Places” vary in length from 45 minutes to five hours, and feature an extraordinary array of works from around the world. One of the delights is Francis Alÿs’ 20-minute video Nightwatch,commissioned last year by London’s National Portrait Gallery (and for which the artist released a fox into the gallery after hours — surveillance cameras tracked the animal as it prowled through the darkened galleries, pawed at some paintings, and finally curled up sleepily on a table). In Fiorenza Menini’s Corridor,a woman lies on the floor in a long hallway, and while very little happens beyond that, there is a feeling of dread, due in part to the way the space recalls the long, scary hallways of The Shining. Other projects include still photographs — the images of delicate, sinuous cement that make up Catherine Opie’s “Freeway” series, for example, appear at 15-second intervals, while Wim Wenders is represented with a single photograph of a Havana street. There is also documentation of artworks, as in images that depict architectural team Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building, the experimental clothing designed by Lucy Orta and Gregor Schneider’s eerie “Die Familie Schneider,” for which the artist duplicated his home, creating an experience of uncanny parallel realities. There are also quick clips from well-known feature films like Taxi Driver. The sensibilities regarding urban existence vary greatly among the disparate works, from the very dark and unsettling to the more hopeful or pragmatic. But curator Joshua Decter is less interested in homogeneity than in collisions and intersections. His show will delight those with curiosity and a willingness to cobble together meaning independent of wall text. —H.W.

LA Weekly