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Space Explorers Exhibit to Kickoff Programming at New Blumenthal Facility

Iron District warehouse will host series of immersive experiences

Two people hold hands while wearing VR goggles in a darkly lit room during Space Explorers
Patrons experience Space Explorers: The Infinite, which Blumenthal will bring to Charlotte in September. (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

I stand on the girder-stitched International Space Station as astronauts drift about their business. I look up to see solar panels stretching hundreds of feet above me. A wave of vertigo engulfs me as I glance down at the blue cloud-streaked orb of Earth wheeling 250 miles below. 

The virtual reality headset I’m wearing gives me a foretaste of what patrons will experience when Blumenthal Arts launches Space Explorers: The Infinite, an immersive outer space adventure that will use VR technology to place visitors in various locations inside and outside the space station. 

Space Explorers: The Infinite, set to run from Sept. 20-Nov. 10, was announced on Monday at a media event that coincided with a partial solar eclipse, which covered 80% of the sun in Charlotte. Blumenthal staff handed out dark glasses to safely view the crescent-shaped sun as the moon blocked much of the solar disc.

Held at 904 Post St., a former Charlotte Pipe & Foundry (CP&F) warehouse just outside of Uptown’s Third Ward, Monday’s media event also served as a teaser for a more broad announcement from Blumenthal Arts, as the warehouse will serve as a venue for Blumenthal’s continuing immersive experience series, with more events like Space Explorers to come.

“Immersive is a hard word to understand,” said Blumenthal Performing Arts CEO Tom Gabbard. “It’s about active engagement in the arts. People want to touch, feel and be in front of [art].”

The warehouse sits on a 55-acre parcel of land in Uptown and South End that served CP&F for more than a century before the company relocated its foundry operations in 2023 to a new facility in Oakboro. Bordered by I-77, I-277, South Clarkson Street and West Morehead Street,  CP&F dubbed the parcel the “Iron District” in a nod to the area’s history in cast-iron manufacturing

An overhead drone look at the Iron District
The Iron District, located on the former Charlotte Pipe & Foundry property. (Photo courtesy of CP&F)

“We are over the moon to announce the future of Blumenthal Arts programming,” Gabbard said. “For more than two years, our fans have been wondering, ‘What’s next?’ Charlotte has cultivated a growing international reputation in the immersive space. We’ve traveled the world to prepare for this moment and usher Charlotte into the future of experiential art.”

To that end, visitors to Space Explorers: The Infinite will explore a life-size reproduction of the International Space Station (ISS) via VR headsets while engaging with immersive VR content filmed inside and outside the real ISS. 

A rendering of the Space Explorers experience.

Made with the collaboration of NASA and 12 international astronauts, the exhibit is designed to give visitors the experience of being one of the astronauts living and working onboard the ISS, with patrons having the freedom to explore the project in any order they want. 

Charlotte is one of just five U.S. cities that will host the exhibit.

In 2021, Blumenthal launched the immersive Vincent Van Gogh exhibit at Camp North End, selling more than 300,000 tickets during the show’s six-and-a-half-month run. Gabbard said the exhibit showed a path for Blumenthal to attract folks in the area who don’t usually engage with the organization’s run of theatre showings and other performance-based art.  

“What really captured our attention was that 80% of those folks never bought a ticket from us before,” Gabbard said. 

Space Explorers is a way to build on that idea with the use of another type of immersive tech. 

“One reason we wanted to try VR after Van Gogh was that VR was totally different,” Gabbard told Queen City Nerve. “The next steps after that will be totally different. Some things will use technology, other things will be more pure theatre, but all [will] focus on active participation.”  

Space Explorers: The Infinite will be produced under the banner of Blume Studios, a new brand launched by Blumenthal Arts.

“Blume Studios productions will be outside of our main stages,” Gabbard said. “That’s part of why we have a different brand. These are going to be in unique and unusual spaces.”

As with the Van Gogh exhibit, Space Explorers: The Infinite will include local art as an integral component of the experience. Bree Stallings, director of artistic experiences at Blumenthal and the one who recruited local artists to showcase their work at the Camp North End during the Van Gogh exhibit, will also bring local art and artists to Space Explorers and the Iron District.

“We found when we were doing Immersive Van Gogh that it wasn’t just the internal exhibition space,” Stallings said, “the external exhibition space really added to the experience.”

Tom Gabbard speaks at Monday’s event, with Luke Gerram’s “Gaia” behind him. (Photo by Pat Moran)

In addition to its VR centerpiece production, Space Explorers: The Infinite will feature British artist Luke Jerram’s “Gaia,” a large inflatable earth sculpture first presented to the Charlotte public in 2021 at Founders Hall, Stallings said. Jerram will attend the exhibit’s opening weekend and “Gaia” will be accompanied by a soundtrack by Charlotte composer Jason Hausman of Hot Sake.

“As always, I’m going to see how much I can get away with on hiring local artists to activate the space,” Stallings said. “Similar to Van Gogh, it will be murals, sculptures and installations.

“I’m hoping to tie in local artists’ merch again, so they can find some revenue streams that way.” Stallings added. “Then, we have the pleasure and challenge of activating this whole space … in the Iron District, so that people will know that it’s moving from an industrial park to an entertainment district.”

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