By Matt Koehler
Walking into Renewal 2121 (https://www.artechouse.com/program/renewal-2121/), masked but amidst a small jubilant crowd of early viewers, I felt lighter than the last time I experienced one of ARTECHOUSE’s cherry blossom-themed interactive exhibits. Much has happened in the past year that has caused intense existential anxiety. Some parts of the world are just starting to stutter-step out of pandemic lockdowns, others reentering. COVID-19 notwithstanding, here in the States, and especially in DC, there’s been political unrest and violence, followed by a contentious election and more violence. Yet, we enter the 2021 spring season with tentative hope.
Renewal transports us to Tokyo 100 years from now, a megalopolis more mega than it already is, where climate change runs rampant. The city has grown and mutated beyond what exists today, and humanity has encroached upon every natural space with technology, pollution, and waste. Really though, Tokyo 2121 is a science fiction archetype for any future super city.
Here amongst the unchecked technological growth, its requisite human population and waste, is renewal: a lone sakura tree blooming in early spring becomes the focal point of digital steampunk imagery that plays out on the massive main gallery screens. Atmospheric music (by Mario Hammer and The Lonely Robot) with heavy bass booms punctuate the melancholy song of a violin while sakura petals flutter and blow in the electronic breeze.
Every several minutes the scenes shift, offering those standing close enough to the big screens a different interactive experience. In one, factoids about the wastefulness of modern society appear and disappear. “An estimated 124.5 billion dollars worth of masks will end up as waste. That is more than 31 times the cost of the One World Trade Center in New York City,” the screen tells me. In the final scene, the megalopolis gives way to a tranquil scene where nature again reigns over the land.
Renewal offers a dark vision of the future, but, as the title implies, there is hope for nature’s reemergence and the renewal of life. Four different galleries explore themes of “the city, nature, and ourselves” and “the constant rebirth of cities through human innovation and nature’s adaptive resilience.” Created by Takeda Yuya (surname first), a motion graphics designer and artist, visuals in the main gallery offer an immersive experience.
Moving off to the right of the main gallery, patrons enter Backend – the “mind of the machine.” It’s the data center of the super city – powering and deciding “what technology can do for us.” And, it is always watching. Pacing about the dimly lit room, TV’s placed in the center play back ghostly images of you looking back.
Quickly exiting the eerie data center, I made my way to ATH20XX, a muraled alleyway showing cyborgs in kimonos. The artwork by Fujita Satoshi (surname first), a.k.a Dragon76 (Fujita’s birth year), harps on themes of artificial intelligence and biomechanical enhancements.
I ventured deeper into the bowels of Tokyo 2121 and found myself on a bridge between two massive buildings in View from Above. The back multimedia room transported me back to the early 90s to the inside of a pixelated Super Nintendo game, complete with beep boop sounds. Ever present drones on either side of the bridge tracked my presence.
Taking a different route back to the main gallery, I strolled down Sleepless Alley – a narrow side street chocked full of vendors and interactive vintage games. Scan your hand over an electronic panel and get an advert for water or play a game called “Extinct Menagerie” to see animals and plants that are now extinct. Minus the extinct flora and fauna, this part of Renewal reminded me of the actual Tokyo I explored all those years ago when I lived in Japan.
Before leaving Renewal 2121 for the real world, I made my way back to the main gallery to take it all in. Few patrons remained, including a lone child dancing in front of the final scene, nature’s renewal – soft, tranquil music played. The scene disintegrated and the music abruptly changed back to the mechanical booms of the super city. The innocent muse disappeared, fleeting – not unlike ephemeral cherry blossoms. Her departure, though, promised a different renewal – that of ourselves.
Renewal 2121 is showing at Artechouse (1238 Maryland Ave. SW., dc.artechouse.com) through Sept. 6, 2021. Admission ranges from $17-$24; $20 for students, seniors, military and first responders; and free for children under the age of 4. See the link above for tickets and more information.