At Portland Art Museum’s Symbiosis, You’d Make a Lovely Tree Frog

“To be honest, this is as close as someone can get to becoming an astronaut,” gushed PAM CUT executive director Amy Dotson.

Although it was far from a black-tie affair, patrons attending the debut installation of the Portland Art Museum’s newly rebranded Center for Untold Tomorrow’s recently revamped headquarters still had to dress for the occasion.

“To be honest, this is as close as someone can get to becoming an astronaut,” gushed PAM CUT executive director Amy Dotson. “We help you put on fully haptic suits—air is blown through them, different soft robotics happens within them—and feed you a Michelin star meal in little bites individualized to the character and their journey. There are custom smells for each one as well.”

Call it a 22nd century Technicolor dreamcoat. CUT calls it Symbiosis. Don’t call it virtual reality. “You do have headset goggles,” Dotson says, “but it’s all eye-tracking that’s a little different from the traditional gamified VR headset.”

After entering Symbiosis during its Amsterdam run last year, Dotson snagged the rights for CUT to host the American premiere from Dutch interdisciplinary “experience design” collective Polymorf. Then the art museum brought over Polymorf’s CEO Marcel van Brakel and CTO Mark Meeuwenoord to tweak upgrades and ensure a proper fit for stateside audiences. The resulting show sold out all 3,000 spots in three hours and launched the former NW Film & Video Center’s new direction with pointed flair.

The concept of the interactive alternate reality? It’s the year 2222, and humans have entered a new, interdependent dance with the plant and animal kingdom. If David Bowie wished he could swim like dolphins can swim…well, Starman hadn’t tried on these spacesuits.

“This isn’t a do-not-touch thing,” Dotson says. “You’re using every sense you have to be a part of this experience. Six people a time come in and negotiate which character’s costume they’ll put on—a slug or a tree frog or an orchid-butterfly hybrid? You can be the front or back end of a sea creature, or you can be a kind of AI-bot tick living in that sea creature’s back.”

In other words, why see Avatar when you can become an avatar? Whatever the virtues and drawbacks of PAM CUT’s new, movies-plus-more approach to film studies, this is an experience you can’t get anywhere else on the West Coast. (Perhaps you can’t get it here, either. Like we said, it’s sold out.)

“We’ll still show movies,” Dotson adds, “we’ll always show movies, but cinematic storytelling means so much more.”

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