I was groping my way through curving corridors inside what appeared to be an enormous extraterrestrial's intestinal tract. The rubbery floor felt spongy beneath my unshod feet – my shoes were stripped off before I could even crawl inside – and the walls around me seemed to throb with living energy. My friends were somewhere up ahead, hypnotized by the psychedelic colors flowing from the sinuously curved ceiling, and as I struggled to breathe the humid air pressing against my eardrums, I realized that I couldn't remember which of the pulsating pod-like chambers around me led to the one and only exit.
The experience I'm describing isn't some new extreme haunted house attraction, although with the addition of some fake fog and strobe lights it could have fit right in alongside the Halloween freaks of Plant City's Ominous Descent. Instead, the ginormous cross between a bounce house and circus big-top that I was exploring was a "luminarium" art installation built by British-based Architects of Air, brought to downtown Orlando as a centerpiece of the Creative City Project's Immerse 2019.
Katie Gee, the luminarium manager who accompanied the inflatable to Florida, travels the world with these oversize soft sculptures, visiting Indonesia, Budapest and Australia in the last year alone. She told me – during the first interview I've ever conducted inside a balloon – that her job requires being "an all-arounder, because you don't just need the technical side of it to set it up; you need communication skills to work with the local crew [and you] have to be responsible for the safety of it."
Architects of Air founding designer Alan Parkinson uses natural forms in his creations, such as the abstracted tree in the center of one chamber, or the soap bubble-like spherical voids in the ceiling of another; other elements recall Gothic cathedrals and Islamic architecture. The luminarium structures take his 10-person workshop about eight months to build, and the one in Orlando, dubbed Dodecalis, is their latest creation. It made its debut over the summer in Sweden, then visited Cincinnati before coming here.
The structure sometimes seems more like a living being than an inorganic building. "If you're lying against the wall, you can feel the structure come up and down as the airlock is opened and closed," explains Gee. "So I set [visitors] a little challenge sometimes and say, 'Hey, see if you can feel the luminarium breathing.'"
Installing the inflatable on the Dr. Phillips Center's Seneff Plaza took Gee's crew two full days, including laying Astroturf underneath and ballasting it well enough to avoid blowing away during Saturday's tropical storm. "We have to be quite adaptable to varying circumstances, and different weather conditions as well," says Gee. "These structures will go on tour for five years, so inevitably there will be damage or seams will split, and the luminarium managers will just repair them on the road. We're all trained by the workshop on how to mend and construct them all."
"A lot of people do experience it now though a cell phone, which is nice because they get to share it with other people," Gee says when I ask if luminarium guests in other countries are as Instagram-obsessed as the Americans around us seemed to be. "We also enjoy the times when they put that away, and have the experience for themselves, because once you enter a luminarium it takes everything else away from your mind. It's a completely new experience of light and color and sound, and we want people to just relax and enjoy something different."
If you missed last weekend's spectacle – which also included performances from L.A.'s Diavolo dance troupe and the Blue Man Group, along with nearly a thousand local artists – you can still enjoy Architects of Air's luminarium through Oct. 27, along with the neighboring "Worlds of Corkcicle" exhibit of shipping container selfie stations. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until next year's ninth annual event, which will be even bigger if executive director Cole NeSmith has his way.
"The length of our festival is not limited by talent, because we have more artists who want to be part of this than we have space for at this point," NeSmith tells me after I re-emerge from the luminarium. "It's really limited by the expectations of the people who call Orlando home," he says, noting a backlash in local media against the days of downtown road closures caused by Immerse. "We would love to add another day next year, because we definitely have a need for it. It's just an issue of whether or not our city is ready for it."
– This story appeared in the Oct. 23, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.