Roboto Octopodo’s “Fathom” Ocean Art Exhibit Brings the Mysteries of the Deep to Downtown Portland

The art collective’s members include founders of the Portland Winter Light Festival, where Fathom soft-launched in February.

Fathom. Photo by Jean Margaret.

“There’s actually a lot of underwater-themed art floating around Portland,” says Chris Herring, co-founder of art collective Roboto Octopodo. “No joke, didn’t mean to say ‘floating around.’”

Herring is also co-founder and creative director of the Portland Winter Light Festival, the outdoor nighttime art crawl activating the city with sculptures and installations lit by everything from LED panels to fire. In February, PWLF’s oceanic theme, “Glowing Under Pressure,” perfectly fit RO’s first exhibit, Fathom. Guests nearly curved the downtown block in chilly weather to walk through a glowing sea bed.

On Friday, May 17, guests can return to Southwest 4th Avenue and Alder Street for a Fathom leagues deeper than what they may have seen only months ago.

Guests enter Fathom through its orange fur-trimmed hall of mirrors, entering a cove filled with fluorescent tidal pool creatures that lead to impressive installations. Some of Fathom’s best features include an infinity mirror room; a giant anglerfish cove with a disco ball lure; a white cloth whale animatron; an iridescent clam bed begging for an Instagram pinup spread; and an electric plasma vortex gate that looks ready to tear open an interdimensional hole. Herring says Fathom has a loose multiverse storyline which encourages guests to not stick to any one path when visiting.

“It’s about the collective piece, and how everything leads to the next thing,” Herring says.

RO’s team—led by Herring, former PWLF technical director Jean Margaret Thomas, and artists Tyler FuQua, Jason Hutchinson and Kevin Kearns—grew Fathom out to nearly 10,000 square feet of a former CVS Pharmacy. Fathom includes contributions from more than 100 artists, ranging from sculptors and metal workers to digital art and kinetic performers.

Fathom is designed for play, for kids and adults. The artists are used to showing at festivals dedicated to free expression, like Burning Man, Symbiosis Gathering and Maker Faire. But instead of making pieces that last only a few days, RO took inspiration from installations like Meow Wolf and Area15 to make them endure months of roughhousing. Herring says the best advice RO got came from Meow Wolf’s senior creative director, Chadney Everett.

“He said to make art for yourself,” Herring says. “Don’t worry about kids, don’t make it for kids, don’t make it for anyone else. We want adults to play and enjoy themselves. Make it for you and people like you, and people will fall into it and love it.”

Fathom will be at its current location through at least October, with the goal of luring investors to an even bigger dream. RO has fine-tuned Fathom throughout its expansion, offering two soft openings to test where guests flow or fight against the current of traffic. Herring says RO wants at least 30,000 square feet for Fathom’s next iteration, which he wants to see explore other naturescapes, like a volcano, cave or forest. It’s also learning how to accommodate people with sensory needs who might especially benefit from Fathom’s penchant for soft lights.

“We tried to build [Fathom] as sturdy as we could, but you never know until you open it up and see how people play with it,” Herring says.

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