An Instagram-Ready Immersive Museum Uses Braille. But Is It Accessible?

An Instagram-Ready Immersive Museum Uses Braille. But Is It Accessible?

While he was settling into Manhattan after moving from Israel in 2004, the 24-year-old artist Roy Nachum decided to contend with a second challenge: Inspired by his grandmother who had lost her sight, and in search of new inspiration for his artwork, he blindfolded himself. For the next 168 hours, he felt his way around his apartment in the East Village and used a cane to navigate to and from the nearby grocery store.

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

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

One of Roy Nachum’s signature designs is this cover image for Rihanna’s 2016 album, “Anti,” which features a photo of her as a child wearing a gold crown embossed with 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 display Nachum’s perception-teasing creations. Some exhibits feature Braille, tactile displays and immersive sounds intended for blind and low-vision visitors as well as sighted ones. In one of the rooms, attendees with vision can don sleeping masks and listen to a set of immersive sounds, the better to understand Nachum’s experiences from 2004 with touch and navigation. In still another space, guests stroll through a cave covered with pink hydrangeas that can be explored through touch.

Nachum’s installations are on view at the moment, but when Mercer Labs officially opens in March, Nachum and Cayre intend for it to become a multipurpose site, with exhibitions by other artists, musicians and even actors; event spaces that can be rented for private use; and displays spotlighting fashion brands as well as up-and-coming New York companies. They would not elaborate on which specific brands or artists they have partnered with, citing nondisclosure agreements.

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

Born in Jerusalem in 1979 to a father who was a painter and a mother who was a kindergarten principal, Nachum grew up painting. When he was a child, his grandmother developed a rare debilitating disease that weakened her and left her blind — a traumatic experience that Nachum says helped inspire his use of Braille in his artwork.

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

Cayre is an art collector and ultrawealthy real estate developer whose family owns Midtown Equities, an investment company with more than 100 properties in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

The two met in Soho through a mutual acquaintance, and Cayre collected some of Nachum’s works. Later they traveled together to Tokyo, where they visited the famed immersive installations created by the Japanese tech-art collective teamLab, which inspired them to consider riding the rapidly evolving immersive experience trend. In the United States, it included Meow Wolf, with extravaganzas in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Denver, and Superblue, which opened in Miami in 2021. (Progenitors include James Turrell’s Skyspaces and Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field,” back in 1965.) The pandemic took its toll on entrepreneurial investors, but the immersives have proved to be globally resilient.

Originally, Nachum and Cayre planned to open their site in Brooklyn, but the pandemic put the project on hold. When Century 21, in the Financial District, went bankrupt, Cayre put together a plan for a $35 million renovation of the property.

Cayre and his family continue to be the primary financial backers of Mercer Labs, and say it has sold more than 50,000 tickets since its soft opening in January. (Adult tickets cost $52; student, senior and youth fees 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 featuring 3-D printers and computers as well as oil paints, chalk, canvases and other physical and digital art tools. New exhibits will arrive at Mercer Labs in May, June and July, including one that focuses on poetry.

“To 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 sweatsuit, appeared at the entrance of Mercer Labs to take a reporter on a tour. His demeanor was earnest as he showed off the first installation, a circular room called The Window, in which visitors put plastic covers over their shoes and an overhead screen displays an undulating object that looks like a malformed seashell.

The next room, a 5,000-square-foot space with 40-foot ceilings, uses 26 projectors to display shifting, contorting images from Nachum’s artwork: a giant bird flapping its wings, a cascade of flower petals, a person wearing a crown with Braille on it.

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

“Braille is a recurring motif in my work, a tribute to people who are visually impaired, whether tactile or through light. From a light source it is a metaphor and a tool to create awareness,” Nachum wrote in an email.

“I wanted to do work that talked about equality,” he said. “Because everybody deserves to experience art and visual art.”

Some of the Braille messages appear on screens that are inaccessible to blind people or are projected onto the floor. Some advocates for blind people say this use of Braille feels exploitative and can perpetuate hurtful stereotypes of blind people.

“Blindness is a complex human experience and not an appropriate vehicle for metaphors about ignorance or perception,” said Chancey Fleet, president of the Assistive Technology Trainers’ Division of the National Federation of the Blind. “Although I’m 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 no favor to the blind community.”

According to the Mercer Labs website, the image of a child wearing a gold crown “symbolizes ‘blindness’ born from displaced values and desires.” But associating blindness with negative ideas can be problematic, said Cheryl Fogle-Hatch, a researcher with New York University’s Ability Project.

“To me, blindness is a specific physical characteristic,” she said. “It’s the way I experience the world. It’s the way I will always experience the world. It has no bearing on my moral conduct.”

Nachum said he has worked with people with visual impairments for two decades and that he 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 City Hall rotunda, 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 that will open at Mercer soon.

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

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

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

The exhibit that has generated some of the most buzz online is the mirrored Dragon Room, in which more than 500,000 tiny LED lights, controlled by a sophisticated computer program, dangle from the ceiling. Shimmering, constantly changing, they create what Nachum calls “volumetric lighting,” or the sense of walking through a hologram.

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

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

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

Parth Patel, 28, and Sonia Sabade, 29, visited Mercer for their one-year anniversary as a couple after finding out about it on TikTok. They left marveling at some of the displays.

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

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