A Mercer Labs Exhibit Uses Braille. Is It Accessible to All?

While settling in Manhattan after moving from Israel in 2004, the 24-year-old artist Roy Nachum He decided to take on a second challenge: inspired by his grandmother who had lost her sight, and seeking new inspiration for his artwork, he blindfolded himself. For the next 168 hours, he groped his way around his East Village apartment and used a cane to get to and from the nearby grocery store.

That experience of being enveloped in the sounds and chaos of a new city helped inspire the exhibits in their new immersive installation, Mercer Laboratories. It opened for previews in January in a 36,000-square-foot space in an elegant Brutalist-style building at 21 Dey Street, the site of the former Century 21 department store.

Nachum, whose artwork often incorporates Braille, became famous for designing the Grammy-nominated cover for Rihanna’s “Anti” album. features a photo of Rihanna as a child wearing a golden crown engraved with Braille. He and real estate developer Michael Cayre founded Mercer Labs with an ambitious mandate: to be a “place where traditional hierarchies between art, architecture, design, technology and culture are dissolved” and where “diversity and inclusion are celebrated,” according to a press release. The site is expected to officially open on March 28.

One of Roy Nachum’s signature designs is this cover image from Rihanna’s 2016 album, “Anti,” which features a photo of her as a child wearing a golden crown etched in Braille.

The founders advertise Mercer Labs as a “museum of art and technology.” At the moment, it contains 14 exhibition spaces that use high-tech projectors, digital screens, LED lights and sound systems to showcase Nachum’s thought-provoking creations. Some exhibits feature Braille, touch screens, and surround sound intended for blind and low-vision visitors, as well as sighted people. In one room, sighted attendees can put on sleep masks and listen to a series of immersive sounds, to better understand Nachum’s 2004 experiences with touch and navigation. In yet another space, visitors walk through a cave covered in pink hydrangeas that can be explored through touch.

The Nachum facility is on view right now, but when Mercer Labs officially opens in March, Nachum and Cayre intend for it to become a multipurpose site, with exhibits by other artists, musicians and even actors; event spaces that can be rented for private use; and exhibits highlighting fashion brands as well as New York startups. They did not elaborate on which specific brands or artists they have partnered with, citing confidentiality agreements.

“It’s really much more than just an immersive space,” Cayre said. “We are actually working on collaborating with many, many different luxury brands in the market to basically fill the space and with the click of a button we can change all the content in the museum to be whatever brand we want for that particular moment. .”

Born in Jerusalem in 1979, to a painter father and a kindergarten director mother, Nachum grew up painting. As a child, her grandmother developed a rare debilitating disease that weakened her and left her blind, a traumatic experience that Nachum said helped inspire her use of Braille in his artwork.

He eventually moved to the United States to study art at Cooper Union. After graduating, she began selling her art on the streets of New York, until she was introduced to Rihanna, who commissioned a series of Braille paintings from her, including the now-famous album cover. That image became one of Nachum’s signature designs and appears repeatedly at Mercer Labs.

Cayre is an art collector and ultra-wealthy real estate developer whose family owns Midtown Equities, an investment firm with more than 100 properties in New York, Washington, DC, and elsewhere.

The two met in Soho through a mutual acquaintance and Cayre collected some of Nachum’s works. They later traveled together to Tokyo, where they visited the famous immersive installations created by Japanese tech art collective teamLab, inspiring them to consider the rapidly evolving trend of immersive experiences. In the United States, it included Meow Wolf, with shows in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Denver, and Superblue, which opened in Miami in 2021. (Parents include Skyspaces by James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama “Hall of Infinite Mirrors: Phalli Field” (in 1965). The pandemic took its toll on business investors, but investments have proven resilient globally.

Originally, Nachum and Cayre planned to open their Brooklyn location, but the pandemic put the project on hold. When Century 21, in the financial district, went bankrupt, Cayre drew up a plan for a $35 million renovation of the property.

Cayre and his family remain major financial supporters of Mercer Labs and say they have sold more than 50,000 tickets since opening in January. (Adult tickets are $52; student, senior and youth rates are $46.)

Beyond partnering with luxury brands, Nachum also hopes to collaborate with other artists, musicians, poets, actors and architects. A private area of ​​Mercer Labs has an art studio with 3D printers and computers, as well as oil paints, chalk, canvases and other physical and digital art tools. New exhibits are coming to Mercer Labs in May, June and July, including one that focuses on poetry.

“For me it’s about creating a movement,” Nachum said.

On a Thursday in January, Nachum, who has curly brown hair and was wearing a black tracksuit, appeared at the entrance to Mercer Labs to give a reporter a tour. His demeanor was serious as he showed off the first installation, a circular room called The Window, in which visitors cover their shoes with plastic covers and an overhead screen displays an undulating object that looks like a deformed seashell.

The next room, a 5,000-square-foot space with 40-foot ceilings, uses 26 projectors to display shifting, twisting images of Nachum’s artwork: a giant bird flapping its wings, a cascade of flower petals, a person He wears a crown with Braille. in that.

Many of the Braille messages contain lofty statements: “All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights,” reads one.

“Braille is a recurring motif in my work, a tribute to people with visual disabilities, whether tactile or through light. From a source of light is a metaphor and a tool to raise awareness,” Nachum wrote in an email.

“I wanted to do work that talked about equality,” she said. “Because everyone deserves to experience art and the visual arts.”

Some of the Braille messages appear on screens inaccessible to blind people or are projected on the floor. Some advocates for the blind say this use of Braille seems exploitative and may perpetuate hurtful stereotypes about the blind.

“Blindness is a complex human experience and is not an appropriate vehicle for metaphors about ignorance or perception,” said Chancey Fleet, president of the Division of Assistive Technology Trainers of the National Federation of the Blind. “While I am always excited to see authentic representations of blind people and Braille in art, using Braille as a device to produce an experience of illegibility is a cheap trick and does a disservice to the blind community.”

According to Mercer Laboratories website, the image of a child with a gold crown “symbolizes the ‘blindness’ born of displaced values ​​and desires.” But associating blindness with negative ideas can be problematic, he said. Cheryl Fogle-Hatchresearcher at the Ability Project at New York University.

“To me, blindness is a specific physical characteristic,” he said. “It’s the way I experience the world. It’s the way I will always experience the world. It has nothing to do with my moral conduct.”

Nachum said he has worked with visually impaired people for two decades and has collaborated with Lighthouse Guild, an organization that provides services for blind people. He also referred to a series of five collaborative paintings that were displayed in 2023 by Mayor Eric Adams of New York in the town hall roundabout, in which he painted portraits of blind people and then invited them to paint over the portraits. These paintings will be displayed in a new exhibit opening soon at Mercer.

He said he recently installed signs before each exhibit that provide descriptions in Braille.

“We built this museum so everyone can experience art,” he said. “You can touch anything.”

Mercer Labs has already generated a stir on social media, with more than 30,000 followers on its Instagram account. On a recent Saturday, attendees spent much of their time on their phones taking pictures of the exhibits or posing for photos. With its bright, colorful lights, numerous mirrors, and otherworldly images, Mercer Labs feels designed for virality on TikTok and Instagram.

The exhibit that has generated the most buzz online is the mirrored Dragon Room, in which more than 500,000 tiny LED lights, controlled by a sophisticated computer program, hang from the ceiling. Constantly glowing and changing, they create what Nachum calls “volumetric illumination,” or the sensation of walking through a hologram.

In another exhibit, visitors can type a wish into a computer and then enter a space with a series of tubes that send their wish, symbolized by a brightly lit object, sweeping around the room.

Immersive facilities like Mercer Labs are often more about using technology to create something visually impressive than highlighting specific artists, said Sarah Rothberg, assistant professor of arts at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. .

“It’s really about the show and taking a picture of it while you’re in it,” he said.

Parth Patel, 28, and Sonia Sabade, 29, visited Mercer for their first anniversary as a couple after finding out about it on TikTok. They left amazed by some of the exhibits.

“It was very sensory, with sound, light, even fog and texture experiences,” Sabade said. “Now I understand why they call them immersive experiences.”

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