Inside the ethereal dreamscape of immersive art exhibition, ‘Tidepools’

The experience begins by blinking your eyes the necessary 20 seconds to adjust to the darkness. The reception room walls are painted black, a fact only evident by a single red spotlight shining up high from behind you.

An ambient soundscape drones through hidden speakers, the composition akin to the pleasant hums of a sound bath. Whooshing. Rhythmless. Meditative.

The tour guide, in this case Allison Wall, proceeds by clicking a pocket flashlight, which beams an unobtrusive red light.

“Watch your step walking up,” she says, raising her voice to speak slightly louder. The resonant soundtrack projects at a volume that would be overbearing were it any other genre.

You’re led down a dark hallway. The clad-wood floor creaks with every step, as if one were walking on an old ship deck punished for decades by sun and sea. Combined with the music, one might imagine they’re walking through a portal to an ancient, faraway temple.

The auditory illusion is charming, considering the floor and the conjoining installation yet to be seen were only recently constructed by artist Glenn Kaino.

You turn left into an open room, brighter than the hallway but still dimly lit. The walls are covered from the floor to the structural ceiling beams in the same wood cladding you were treading moments before. But that observation comes later, as your head immediately swivels left, eyes trained on two transparent boxes that appear to be glowing.

Phase one of the “Tidepools” exhibition features “cloud chambers,” that allow guests to see physical manifestations of air particles. Photo by Joshua White.

Scrunching down to eye level with the bright, rectangular beacons, you see…salt? Or what looks like the granules, but holographic, without substance. They seem to be falling, some more steadily like misty rain but disrupted by darting grainy streams whizzing aimlessly in the confines, disappearing split seconds after appearing over and over.

“The cloud chambers are scientific devices that are designed to let you see air particles that we normally can’t see with the naked eye,” explains Wall, Compound’s exhibition coordinator.

Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory assisted Kaino in crafting the cloud chambers, sculptures that are emblematic of the LA-based multimedia artist’s fascination for science and obsession with illusion, the latter a skill he studied for over a decade that awarded him a membership at the exclusive Magic Castle.

The base of the cloud chamber is charged with a layer of frozen isopropyl alcohol. When immersed in the evaporating mist, onlookers can see the grain-like manifestations of the neurons, protons, muons and alpha particles swirling inside.

“It’s mesmerizing,” said Hiroko Kusano, Compound’s Chief Operation Officer.

Wall directs your attention left, toward a wall-hung 3D art composition encased behind glass.

Shiny bits of golden-colored metal deconstructed from model car kits explode around a spiky sea urchin placed in the center; Kaino calls it “Tidepools.”

“Tidepools” is also the name of the entire immersive art installation currently on display inside Compound’s Laboratory room. Every four to five months the art venue and wellness center will commission an artist to take over the 1,900 square-foot warehouse and transform the space into something wholly unique.

Glenn Kaino was commissioned for the venue’s inaugural show, which formally opened its doors July 15 after not one, but two COVID-19 related setbacks.

The Laboratory is meant to be experimental, Kusano said and awards the artist absolute creative freedom. A second, more traditional-style gallery is inside the venue’s main building, titled “Radical Empathy.”

Reservations are required to see “Tidepools,” and only groups from the same household may enter together, masked while indoors. Guests are encouraged to roam Compound’s main complex and sculpture garden freely as a text notification will alert guests for their turn.

The “Tidepools” tour is about 10 minutes long and consists of two phases. The cloud chamber is the first, the second is the bioluminescent wishing well. The ambient soundtrack by musicians Nosaj Thing and Jacques Green is considered the third component of the installation, but only the first two are participatory.

A wood cladding partition separates the cloud chamber from the wishing well. Rounding a corner, you spy six slim strips of red light emanating from the wood floor. The lines stop at each point of a transparent hexagonal container about three feet tall that slants upward at the top, creating a smaller six-sided opening.

The second phase of “Tidepools” is the bioluminescent “wishing well.” Photo by Joshua White.

“This is the wishing well,” Wall says. “Step forward and you can make a wish and drop it in the well. The water illuminates the path of your wish and it’ll rest on the foundation of all the other wishes.”

You’ll have to sanitize your hands momentarily. Wall will hand you a ceramic “coin,” a white palm-sized oval disk that’s smooth to the touch. You take a few steps to approach the well and suddenly the red lights go out. After a moment you notice the wishing well’s beckoning subtle blue hue.

The water erupts upon contact with the disk into a bright, glittery aquamarine ripple. As it descends in the water the blue path is traced in a shimmery neon stream that lingers momentarily.

“The water, it’s got bioluminescent flagellates—it’s a type of plankton,” Wall says. “Any disturbance in the water and they will light up.”

This micro replication of the red tides, a natural phenomenon that sporadically occurs in Southern California beaches, including Long Beach shores, is another scientific collaboration, this time with the Scripps Institute.

In the artist’s press release Kaino explains that his desire to create these magical, ethereal moments of visibility is a vehicle for empathy.

“They’re intended to create moments of visibility for things that are invisible around us. Most people don’t feel seen, understood. Making things visible is a form of empathy,” he said. “And the glowing trail — you can actually visualize your wish!”

The experience ends when you’re back at the dark reception room. This time though, Wall points out a projection of a 3D printed seashell dangling in front of the red spotlight. No one notices it when they first enter because their eyes are still adjusting, Wall explains.

The “Tidepools” exhibition will be up until end of the year, organizers said. Entrance and exhibitions are free, however RSVP is strongly encouraged, click here. Compound is open from noon to 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

Compound is at 1395 Coronado Ave.

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Cheantay Jensen is reporter and award-winning videographer who covers entertainment, art, food and culture for the Hi-lo section of the Long Beach Post. And sometimes breaking news, you know, just to keep things interesting.
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