While we’ve grown used to hyperlinks that hurtle us to different corners of the Internet, teleporting too abruptly between virtual realities can cause digital whiplash. “When your body is inside the medium, you need an anchor that makes sense of how you suddenly shift to a completely different environment,” explains Fredrik Hellberg, who co-founded London-based practice Space Popular with Lara Lesmes. And while technology may limit how sophisticated these digital transfer stations can currently be, that hasn’t stopped Hellberg and Lesmes from bringing their early conceptual explorations to London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum.
“Space Popular: The Portal Galleries,” which runs through September 25th, hosts a mix of digital and physical displays that consider how portals have evolved in relationship to media and tech. Apart from the show’s two immersive films, which play out via virtual reality headsets, the main attraction is a table that presents a historical overview of fictional gateways like Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole and The Truman Show’s door in the sky. The exhibition also collects physical objects from the Soane archive, examining the role that portals play in the museum itself.
However, not all portals are created equal: “We see many that are very clear examples of exclusion,” Hellberg says. Consider, for instance, Platform 93⁄4 in the Harry Potter series, where “if you are not born into a specific race of human beings, you will smash your face on the brick wall.” For Space Popular, a consistent concern is how to create a public, equitable digital life. “We’re interested in the spatial experience of passing through borders or thresholds from a purely experiential point of view, but also what it means politically for communities,” Hellberg explains.
Space Popular’s ideal material for a portal? Fabric. “We have a haptic understanding of fabric — basically every human on earth has experienced it,” Hellberg notes. “And we can pass through textiles without too much effort — they’re pleasant on the body.” He and Lesmes share an ultimate vision for thousands of textile layers that allow users to reveal and conceal with ease, peeking slowly or entering quickly, but either way, truly feeling the portal’s presence.
Virtual curtains that mimic sheets of mille feuille may be a ways off, but Space Popular is taking first steps with the suede-like fabric included in its exhibition. Featuring a high-resolution digital print, the material is designed to give visitors something to touch when they’re wearing the exhibition’s head-set or just looking at the IRL images. Perhaps by turning to past narratives, we can start to pull back the curtain on more thoughtful digital doorways.
Space Popular opens a portal to another dimension.