The Culture Show: Art Morphs into Immersive Digital Experience

Interactive exhibits on everything from Pixar to Pompeii are transforming the city’s cultural landscape
Life-sized characters of the movie Inside Out greet visitors in the immersive exhibit Mundo Pixar, which attracted 200,000 visitors in its first three weeks.
Life-sized characters of the movie Inside Out greet visitors in the immersive exhibit Mundo Pixar, which attracted 200,000 visitors in its first three weeks.
Sena Segbefia

Over 25 kilometers from Madrid’s city center, 26-year-old Mario Jabonero cautiously adjusts and readjusts the positioning of a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the characters from the animated film Inside Out, making sure that it won’t fall forward into the long line of children waiting to take pictures with it. As an employee in the recently opened immersive exhibit Mundo Pixar, his days consist of scanning virtual tickets, taking photos for excited families, and seeing visitors’ reactions when they leave the experience.

“My job is a little bit like experimenting with magic,” he says, grinning before grimacing at a child near him who sits on the floor wailing, waving around a stuffed Buzz Lightyear as her mother tries to pick her up. “I’d say that about 90% of people who come love it.”

Mundo Pixar, which attracted over 200,000 visitors in its first three weeks, is only one of many “immersive” or “interactive” exhibits that have recently opened in Madrid. All around the city, buses and billboards advertise the sale of tickets for thematically-diverse experiences like this, ranging from walk-throughs of ancient civilizations to pixelated renditions of the work of dead painters to, of course, photo opportunities with Mike Wazowzki of Monster’s Inc.. Tickets sell for anywhere between 14 and 25 euros.

The immersive trend is taking over Madrid’s cultural and entertainment scene.

The Matadero, a state-owned arts and culture center, has devoted a specific space for these high-tech exhibitions. Their most recent is about Pompeii, and receives over 10,000 visitors every week, a spokesperson said. The city also inaugurated NOMAD, an immersive and interactive museum that applies AI technology to art, last April.

The craze has even permeated the gastronomic world: Sinestesia, an immersive restaurant, just opened in the center of Madrid. The price per-person for a seven-course, rainbow-colored meal ranges from 195 to 270 euros.

Customers interested in immersive experiences are abundant, but not always easily pleased. Occasionally visitors don’t enjoy Mundo Pixar and complain that it was underwhelming or that they had higher expectations of what they would get for their money. Once, a client leaving the exhibit told Jabonero that “nothing in there moved.” He took it as a sign that she had found it boring.

“People let me know when they’re disappointed sometimes, and their issue is almost always that it’s too short or too simple,” he said.

Set up in the IFEMA, an event venue in the suburbs of Madrid, Mundo Pixar consists of a walk through 12 rooms that each recreate the set of a well-known animated film, amongst them Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Ratatouille. It features life-sized figures of characters, scenic music from each movie, and scents sprayed from the ceilings in accordance with parts of the stories– From above a life-sized figure of Remy the rat, for example, the scent of fresh cooking herbs mists into the room.

Different private venues, museums and government-funded cultural facilities have taken to housing these kinds of attractions for both locals and tourists to enjoy.

El Matadero was once Madrid’s main slaughterhouse. Now turned an artsy hotspot beloved by the city’s youth, it has dedicated a 2,000 square meter event space, the Nave 16, explicitly to hosting these interactive exhibits.

Nave 16 is the largest establishment for digital experiences in Spain, and their exhibits have attracted more than a million people, according to a spokesperson for Madrid Artes Digitales, the company that manages the exhibits. The shows cover a range of topics, including the work of artist Gustav Klimt, the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankamon, and most recently, life in the lost civilization of Pompeii.

About three weeks after she first moved to Madrid in 2021, college student Kamila Ramirez went to El Matadero to see the immersive exhibit El Jardín de las Delicias. Named after and based on the work of famous Spanish painter El Bosco, the exhibit included 3D animations, AI-generated additions to the original painting, and accompanying sound effects.

The walls in the large, dimly-lit room were covered by black curtains that gave it an outer-world, floating feel, and the pieces in display were arranged as a path. Framed GIFs, neon statues of creatures in the original painting and bright-colored, abstract posters led to a movie-theater sized screen that played a psychedelic-induced-looking animated version of El Jardín de Las Delicias. Visitors could sit and watch the film for as long as they pleased.

Ramirez remembers being amazed. In her home country, the Dominican Republic, she had never encountered a cultural attraction that was as modern or innovative.

“I think I was silent for a whole hour after we exited the exhibit. I was so shocked and impressed,” she said. “It made me realize how much Madrid has to offer culturally.”

Ramirez does not typically enjoy going to art museums, but the high-tech element of this exhibit made the artwork easily digestible and entertaining.

“Seeing so many modern re-interpretations of a single piece of art was really interesting,” she said.

While Ramirez found it inspiring, the high-art-turned-fun trope is not for everyone. Madi Von Luft, an American college student living in Madrid, went to an immersive exhibit called El Mundo de Van Gogh that featured three-dimensional installations of the artist’s major works created with artificial intelligence.

“It was really small, and immediately pushed you into an overpriced gift shop,” she said. She had paid 20 euros for her entrance ticket.

The ticket for the Jardín de las Delicias exhibit Ramirez went to cost her 14 euros. General tickets for El Matadero’s Pompeii exhibit cost 22 euros on weekends and 17 on weekdays.

Many of these experiences have general entrance prices and offer variations of them for specific demographics. El Mundo de Van Gogh offers a 33% discount from their general 21-euro entrance fee to college students and senior citizens. Mundo Pixar is free for children younger than three.

Madrid native Rocio Palomino paid 21 euros for her ticket to Mundo Pixar. She is certainly not part of the 90% of visitors that employee Jabonero sees leave the exhibit satisfied. “I wouldn’t pay 10 euros for that,” she said, shrugging. “It was definitely not worth the money it costs.”

Regardless, business is booming, and the presence of immersive experiences in Madrid is only growing bigger.

MAD is opening its next exhibit named “Titanic” in El Matadero this fall, according to a spokesperson of Madrid Destino. The NOMAD museum will also inaugurate new experiences soon, including one called “The Happiness Museum.”

Many are content to passively ride along the interactive-experience train see it as one of Madrid’s many positive features. Just outside the exit of Mundo Pixar, middle-aged Fernando Cacera sits with his 8-year-old son in front of a cart selling snacks and drinks. The little girl holding Buzz Lightyear has now calmed down, and Jabonero is still taking family photos somewhere in the background.

Cacera did not have high expectations coming to the exhibit. His son couldn’t stop talking about a Harry Potter theme park they had been to in England the year prior, and while he knew this wouldn’t be as impressive, he was willing to invest in the kinds of activities that could make his family happy.

“It was a gamble I think, but he liked it, didn’t you son?” he asks, looking down at the child next to him. His son grins, nodding while sipping on a large cup of soda through a straw. Cacera smiles at him.

“You have to come into these things with an open mind, and just enjoy whatever they turn out to be.”

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