A dancer poses in the MAH’s main hall during Friday’s GLOW: Digital Night.
A dancer poses in the MAH’s main hall during Friday’s GLOW: Digital Night.

When the sun set on downtown Santa Cruz last Friday night, local artists and organizers replaced the darkness with bright lights, interactive digital art exhibits and genre-bending performance art.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) transformed into an alternate universe for GLOW: Digital Night, an environment governed by LED lights, lasers, sculptures and dancers. The end result was a visionary look at the future of art — specifically in the realm of digital arts and new media. The MAH sold thousands of tickets to the public and over 100 volunteers were hired for the annual two-day event.

Outside the museum’s entrance, installations and performances peppered Abbott Square, the MAH’s newest addition. The courtyard is a continuation of the MAH “without walls,” meant to serve as an open-air space for performance art. It will open to the public in 2016, but is being introduced through festivals like GLOW.

Upon exiting the building into Abbott Square, a living sculpture called The Egg spun around endlessly, changing speed and color as creator Joel Dream hung freely from its center, body suspended in mid-air. Dream made the 10-foot-wide sphere out of tree light branches and used flashing lights to manipulate the sculpture’s amorphous form.

“It began to take shape as a fantastical birthing and a prenatal portrait and experience,” Dream said. “An egg is really a universe for the being inside. I wanted to explore the possibilities of this vision, and place myself inside as a living media inside the sculpture.”

Dream fused with his piece both physically and mentally. During his performance, the artist caged himself in a state of hypnosis — the lights and material forming The Egg created an alternate reality around him. He was trapped in the installation, and it created a disorienting experience that Dream hoped those watching on the outside would relate to — if not on a logical level, then on a visceral one.

“I want viewers to empathize with and feel the power of this entranced suspension,” Dream said. “I have been exploring the idea of extending beyond the bipedal human form.”

Dream manipulated the sculpture with wireless gloves, which he wore during each of his three performances that night. He received his MFA in digital arts and new media from UC Santa Cruz this year and continues to play with sculpture and multimedia, bringing forth this three-dimensional experience for himself and the viewers. GLOW is one of many events where Dream has showcased his work. His installations have also appeared at larger festivals such as Burning Man, which is held every summer in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Joel Dream's kinetic sculpture The Egg.
Joel Dream’s kinetic sculpture The Egg.

“I brought [The Egg] to Burning Man a year ago and ran it every night for 10 hours straight against high winds and sandstorms,” Dream said. “I really had to design its mechanics to the next level.”

Dream wasn’t the only artist playing with the mechanics of art that night. Deeper into Abbott Square, Matthew Myers of Futuristic Lights worked with motion reactive lights. The lights respond to angles and speed, allowing the artist to leave trails of light in the air. Myers wore two gloves with LED chips stitched into each finger, which allowed him to perform a light show.

“Gloving” is a growing phenomenon in the electronic dance music (EDM) scene, due in part to the beats complemented by the glove movement. Despite its increasing popularity, gloving is often associated with drug use.
“Event companies like Insomniac, one of the biggest providers of electronic music festivals, bans gloves from its events because of these stigmas,” Myers said.

These tidbits of information gave festival attendees a glimpse into the many uses of LEDs. Teens and grandparents alike gathered around the booth to try out the gloves, while younger kids enjoyed a magic show around the corner.
“The diversity and creativity that people can really bring to this dazzling and modern medium is enthralling,” Myers said.

Inside, each of the four levels of the museum had different art pieces and activities to enjoy under blacklight. From the floor of the museum to its roof, glowing sculptures and bustling children filled the exhibit. On the MAH’s rooftop, there was a bar serving cocktails and beverages for parents who needed a break from the action.

On the rooftop, artists sketched portraits of the attendees with LED “pens” on a makeshift canvas — duct tape layered on cardstock. A fluorescent trail appeared after each stroke of the LED light cursor on the canvas, and faded soon after. Children fidgeted, watching the LED versions of themselves being created, and parents snapped photos of the temporary portrait — even the older crowd enjoyed the arts and crafts.

“[The arts and crafts] may have seemed childish, but I love do-it-yourself art, and really enjoyed making the glow in the dark mandalas and getting my face painted,” said first-year environmental studies major Luba Kaplanskaya.
GLOW generated opportunity to participate in the festival with simple DIY projects. The budget is low for a festival of its size and the amenities offered. The MAH’s director of community engagement Stacey Garcia said the event costs the MAH about $9,500, $6,000 of which goes to the artists. Despite the limited resources, GLOW was a hit — the building even reached capacity on Saturday’s Fire Night. The hands-on activities within the festival injected energy into the traditional museum experience.

“As a culture, we want engagement, not a quiet noble institution, or extension of the ivory tower,” said GLOW volunteer Gregory Pleshaw.

The MAH created a space for local artists and community members to showcase their work in intimate ways — both creator and viewer became a part of the art rather than spectating from afar.

“We really are proud to tell untold stories and highlight people who are not traditionally represented in museums,” Garcia said. “We’re always fearlessly experimenting with things including GLOW.”

The MAH’s experimentation with GLOW has allowed people of all types to take refuge in the world of color and company, right off the streets of downtown Santa Cruz. When the night wound down, sleepy festival goers headed home with chipped paint on their fingers and a GLOW on their faces.

A neon sign welcomes festival goers into Abbott Square.
A neon sign welcomes festival goers into Abbott Square.