Fairgrounds visitors aren’t required to do anything but walk around and take it all in.
And there’s a lot to take it at St. Petersburg’s new art “experience,” consisting of a series of rooms both cavernous and intimate, each done up in a different style, real, surreal or unreal, all of them tied to a central theme: You’re in Florida, checking into the roadside Mermaid Star Motel.
Done up in fluorescent paint, UV lights and neon signage, it’s a fantasy motel, somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Hieronymus Bosch. Turn another corner and you’re in a scene from Yellow Submarine.
With its constantly-moving lights, techie visuals and funhouse music wafting from somewhere or other, it’s really and truly got a fairgrounds atmosphere. All that’s missing are the caramel corn and elephant ears.
Opening Thursday after a lengthy incubation period, made longer by Covid-caused delays and material shortages, the 15,000-square-foot Fairgrounds is the brainchild of Liz Dimmitt, who’s produced similar immersive art experiences in other cities. She conceived Fairgrounds more than two years ago as the anchor tenant at The Factory St. Pete, in the Warehouse Arts District.
“I’m really blessed to say that it’s actually better than I expected it to be,” Dimmitt said during a media preview Wednesday morning. “You have a dream, and for so long you’re thinking about it … because there are so many wonderful creative people involved it’s actually come together and been better than I imagined.”
More than 60 bay area artists contributed to Fairgrounds’ inaugural experience (the exhibits will change periodically). They were all compensated for their time and talents, and will receive a percentage of ticket sales.
Co-founder Mikhail Mansion created the inaugural exhibit’s technological center, a sort of video arcade that looks like a Twistee-Freeze ice cream stand on the outside, and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise inside.
Video screens show a series of fast-moving images, most of them synched to a multi-channel disco beat.
“Interactively, what we wanted to do was create these as artist platforms,” Mansion explained. “One of our artists, Eddie Lohmeyer, brought in this glitch-style video art. He hacks old Nintendo 64 video game cartridges and comes up with these video compositions.”
Some of the sounds can be modulated, and the images altered, by the push of a bottom or the application of a palm.
Chris Parks, a.k.a. Palehorse, designed what could be described as the “trippy” Fairgrounds room.
“The ‘motel owner’ is very much interested in metaphysics,” Parks explained. “He’s also a scientist who became very interested in exploring various fringe experiments. From there, he became very interested in metaphysical experimentation through astral projection and dreaming … and eventually became interested in kundalini meditation practice. That’s the narrative I’m working with in mind.”
Sculptor/photographer Matthew Campbell designed the Mermaid Star “pool,” a video installation suspended from the ceiling, although the deck chairs and cheesy, ‘60s style pool enclosure tiles are very much connected to the floor.
In the beginning, he says, the Fairgrounds team “gave us narrative information – what kinds of things they were looking for as far as tone and scope – so we could design things that would kind of fit with that.”
The artist’s original proposal called for an actual pool on stilts, with a tiny bit of dripping water, illuminated with effects, to cement the illusion. “But there’s no water in Fairgrounds,” he said. “That’s one of the rules.”
In some ways, the suggestion of a pool – through a video installation of moving blue water and floating toys – is better than the real thing. That’s the power of art and, in a way, the whole point of the Fairgrounds experience.
In the “lobby” is one of those ubiquitous stands full of loud brochures for local attractions, all vying for the attention of incoming guests.
Of course, none of them are real attractions.
Another function of art – among many is to blur the lines between the real and the dreamed-about.
“It’s really a love letter to Florida,” Dimmitt explained, “and of course a big part of our state is tourism. And what all these visitors coming to see it experience.
“There’s that dichotomy of native Floridians who get to live in this vacation land all the time. So we’re celebrating that.”
Fairgrounds information and tickets here.