Photography by Zainob+Mathew Create

Rachel Rossin Builds Theatrical Underground Worlds

The multimedia artist and self-taught programmer embarks on a wild flight of AI-fueled fantasy at Houston’s otherworldly Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern.

The multimedia artist and self-taught programmer embarks on a wild flight of AI-fueled fantasy at Houston’s otherworldly Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern.

With its thickets of some 200 concrete columns, each 25 feet high, the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern more resembles Istanbul’s Roman cisterns than a public park in downtown Houston. Developed by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership in 2010 as a space with arts programming, the cistern this spring will again transform, this time into a wild flight of AI-fueled fantasy by the artist Rachel Rossin.

Haha Real, Rossin’s site-specific media and sound installation, carries on her investigations into the overlapping territories of game programming and high-tech worldbuilding. In 2023, she showed the eye-popping digital artwork THE MAW OF at the Whitney, which co-commissioned it with Berlin’s KW Institute of Contemporary Art. Rossin has also shown at venues including the New Museum, K11: Shanghai, and Kiasma Museum of Helsinki. She recently emailed with Surface to talk about her childhood inspiration, awe, and work without beginning or end.

Rachel Rossin. Image courtesy of Art21

What was it about The Velveteen Rabbit that inspired you for this particular work?

The Velveteen Rabbit was my favorite book as a child and the idea for making art from it was circling me for a while. There’s a beautiful idea at the heart of the story that’s embedded in the etymology of “Haha” for the title. In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag argues that we can often lose the valuable human aspects of art when it’s forced into the disciplines of pedagogy.

As an artist working with technology, I’ve encountered a similar hazard where work can be valued solely for its technical novelty. In Haha Real, I wanted to employ the massive scale of the Cistern as a foil for this tiny rabbit. This involved a complex technical production, where spotlights comb the cistern’s vast architecture in conversation with 8-channel video.

Much of your work involves virtual reality and/or gaming platforms. What did you learn from those moments of world-building that helped conceive this “real-world” piece?

This work operates like a three-act psychological theater piece. The narrative follows an impossibly large storm, focused around The Velveteen Rabbit, which rotates throughout the space in three acts. I often work in video game engines and theater production software. There’s a main stage in the narrative of Haha Real but, like a video game, you’re rewarded with easter eggs hidden in the margins. There’s always some reward for those who travel off the map.

Photography by Zainob+Mathew Create
Photography by Zainob+Mathew Create

The cistern is a remarkable place—what about it inspires you? Was it intimidating to figure out how to utilize it?

During my first site visit, I happened to be researching the psychological and neurological mechanisms of awe. I was curious to understand why art, like nature, can create the feeling of the sublime. The origins arise from something called “perceptual vastness,” the unique sense of being overwhelmed when encountering space or sensory experience that is too great to measure. The cistern was the perfect setting for the content of Haha Real.

How did you build the show?

It’s built on theater software. We had to orchestrate the components of spot lights, the grid lights in the Cistern, LED screens, water pumps, and sound. As you can imagine, you’re controlling a lot of moving parts at once. To bring those together with accuracy and timing was a challenge. I spent months in my studio in New York animating and simulating the environment of the Cistern in Unity to plan ahead and find issues on site we hadn’t prepared for. Conceptually, the Cistern is cast as the antagonist. I wanted to anthropomorphize it into the antagonist against The Velveteen Rabbit—an agent symbolizing chaos where we’re along for the ride as a tiny being.

Photography by Zainob+Mathew Create

Tell me how you organized the piece spatially. How did you decide what goes where?

When you visit the Cistern, there’s a narrative built into your experience as they can only allow 40 people in for pre-scheduled time blocks. Here, you have to enter at the beginning and leave at the end. That aspect lent itself to the narrative aspect of what I wanted to pull from. I leaned into this as an opportunity as most art experiences cannot have a true beginning or end.

“Rachel Rossin: Haha Real” will be on view at Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern (105-B Sabine St, Houston, TX) until November 10.

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