Electric Desert: Desert Botanical Garden Launches Immersive Light And Sound Experience

By Connor Dziawura

Desert Botanical Garden Executive Director Ken Schutz and visual artist Ricardo Rivera would rather guests see the venue’s new installation, Electric Desert, than talk about it.

“It’s just extraordinary,” Schutz says. “It’s 3-D mapping and it’s – for lack of a better word – psychedelic. It’s sort of Peter Max-ish in terms of its colors and shape and the way it changes.” He says those elements combined with its underlying score make it “mesmerizing.”

Electric Desert was unveiled in October and runs through May 12. The rain-or-shine installation is sponsored by APS, Chase Private Client, The Steele Foundation, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, American Airlines and the Tempe Tourism Office. Doors open at 6 p.m., though it is recommended to view the exhibit after dark.

Designed by Rivera and his Klip Collective, the “light and sound experience” is impressive, combining the Desert Botanical Garden’s plant life with the artists’ projection-mapping techniques and original music. Rivera essentially helmed the project as its creative director while bringing other collaborators on board to bring what he calls his “baby” to life.

“You really have to go there and see it to really understand what it really is, the nuance of it,” Rivera suggests. “There’s seven distinct areas, in my opinion, of pieces, if you will, that people traverse through and explore. Some are big; some are small; some are to be taken from afar; some are to be walked through.”

Upon arriving at the garden, guests will see “Neon Overture,” a mesmerizing barrel cactus display that gives visitors a taste of what’s in store.

Farther into the garden, the Desert Discovery Loop Trail takes guests to locations two, three and four. Location two, “Cacti Synesthesia,” lights up the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus Gallery, while the ambiance of location three, “Succulent Chlorata,” washes over the worldwide plants that comprise the adjacent Sybil B. Harrington Succulent Gallery. Location four, the “Infinity Crystal,” serves as a centerpiece between the two galleries.

After continuing down the Desert Discovery Loop Trail toward the Kitchell Family Heritage Garden, visitors will find location five, “Swhorl.” Pulsing, rhythmic music and hypnotic lighting emanate.

Farther back, visitors to Ullman Terrace can set their sights upon location six, “Desert Chorale,” and maybe even grab a bite to eat at the Patio Café. Colorful patterns and dancing, dazzling lights blast across the butte, which can also be viewed from afar throughout the garden.

A bit east, the seventh and final site-specific location, “Sonoran Passage,” is accessible from the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop trail, where guests can also see the butte light up.

Schutz was inspired to bring Electric Desert to Desert Botanical Garden when he saw a previous Klip Collective garden installation, Nightscape, at Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia.

“I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it,” Schutz says. “I watched the audiences at Longwood respond to it. They just loved it. People lingered and just really enjoyed it and ‘Oohed’ and ‘Aahed’ all the way through the exhibits. I thought this is one I’d really like to bring to the garden.”

The Phoenician take is a different beast. Rivera says they raise the bar each time an installation of this magnitude is constructed. “There are similarities, meaning there are techniques and modalities that I’ve kind of garnered. Certain plants do different things based on those textures, et cetera,” Rivera says. “But they’re site-specific pieces. So this is very different than Nightscape and I’m very excited about it because Nightscape was very successful.”

Rivera considers it to be a “true collaboration” between him and the garden’s plants. “What’s being projected onto the plants is calculated in the sense that we planned for it and certain characteristics of the form of these plants,” he explains. “Not only the color, but their form is reflected in how the projected content manifests itself. There’s definitely something that happens between what I’m projecting and then when it actually hits the three-dimensional form, all these beautiful, chaotic moments kind of explode and happen.”

Though the lights will undoubtedly be the focus for Desert Botanical Garden guests, Electric Desert couldn’t be accomplished without its musical compositions. From ambient soundscapes and meditative pieces to rhythmic pulsations set to dancing displays, the music is essential to the installation’s visuals.

“The sound is a very big part of our work and it’s a very big part of this installation. There’s no narrative thread through my work, especially this piece,” Rivera says. “I mean, there are moments where there’s somewhat of a narrative, but it’s mostly an abstract experiential journey, if you will. But the music is really the backbone to the entire show. It’s everywhere. It’s present in all the installations and it drives a lot of the content, as well.”

Klip Collective was founded in 2003. The Philadelphia-based experiential video shop uses virtual reality, projection mapping, storytelling and soundscapes for its projects, and has done work for clients ranging from W Hotels to Target and Nike. Its global presence has reached St. Petersburg, Moscow, Canada and Mexico, Rivera says.

With all its growth, diverse past projects, and more future projects in store for Klip Collective, “experiential” is ultimately the keyword for which Rivera is looking.

“It’s hard making these things. This work is so temporal,” Rivera says. “It’s sad that I can’t go and see the Nightscape anymore… It’s not there anymore. And, it’s kind of sad, but at the same time it’s really profound and that’s what makes these experiences true experiences, is that you can Instagram them all day but not until you go and see them in person do you really grasp the digital nature of the art. That to me is really important.”

As fall rolls into winter, Electric Desert will become an even more dazzling experience as it crosses paths with the garden’s annual Las Noches de las Luminarias installation. That one is up from December 1 through December 23, and December 26 through December 31. Schutz calls it “two for the price of one.”

“Everything we do we hope is different and helps people see nature in a different way. In the case of this one, I think it’s because the technology uses our plants as the movie screen,” Schutz says of Electric Desert.

“What’s so cool about 3-D mapping is before (Rivera) creates any images to project, he comes and maps the parts of the garden where he will be showing the movies and then that part becomes movie screen. So our plants, even though it’s dark, are front and center throughout the entire show. So it’s people coming to the garden after the sun goes down to see our plants but with an entirely new story projected onto them.

“In some ways they’re completely transformed and then yet in another way the plants are front and center and the backbone to the whole experience. It’s that duplicity, I think, that makes it really cool. I mean, you may have been to the garden 100 times before, but you would never have seen it like this. So it feels familiar and very different at the same time.”