As the pandemic and lockdown have eased, there’s been an explosion of new kinds of live, immersive events transforming unusual venues in cities across the United States, giving audiences access to new kinds of experiences far beyond traditional sports, theater and music.
And nowhere does this explosion seem to be happening more right now than Denver, where three non-traditional venues are merging interactivity, video, music, art, images, architecture, performance, and more to create a triangle of trippy experiences across the city’s downtown.
As the ancestral home of the cable-television industry, the Mile High City has a long history of merging tech and entertainment (indeed, I was in town last week to moderate a panel of streaming-video executives at TheStreamTV Show). Now, you can do far more than watch TV while sitting behind a mountain range, as seen at Immersive Van Gogh/Frida Kahlo experiences, a Banksy exhibition, and the vast Meow Wolf: Convergence Station.
The latter is the third venue from the Santa Fe-based artist collective, a massive and distinctive five-story structure that recently opened across Interstate 25 from downtown. Meow Wolf’s building at 1338 1st Street sits in the shadow of Mile High Stadium, where the NFL’s Broncos play.
It offers a unique series of rooms and spaces, generally but loosely tied to a vaguely science-fiction theme. Don’t worry about narrative throughlines, though; the experience is really about taking in visuals, sound, structures, and performers that together transport you to many different places beyond the normal.
Visitors can breeze through multi-story spaces such as the Ossuary, the Perplexiplex or the Cathedral. Or you can dive deep into the lore of the place, carefully examining the dense layers of ephemera, fliers and ads on walls and bulletin boards in various spaces, such as a fanciful version of a laundromat. One good rule: if there’s an unlocked door, go through it. Another trippy experience sits on the other side.
The Meow Wolf building also regularly hosts new artist exhibits, as it did again last week. For those visiting Denver later in the summer, Meow Wolf just unveiled the location of its Vortex 2022 outdoor festival, which will run Aug. 5 to Aug. 7 at a new venue called The Junkyard.
The other two experiences share a connection in Corey Ross, who is co-founder of Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive, which licensed the currently available Van Gogh and Kahlo experiences from Italian creator Massimiliano Siccardi, then sold a whopping 5 million tickets to the Van Gogh in 2021 at venues across America.
Both the Kahlo and Van Gogh experiences (and a third Siccardi creation featuring Gustav Klimt) rely on projection mapping across cavernous spaces, with evolving imagery and background about the artists projected on floors, ceilings and walls as music plays. It’s a decidedly different and distinctive way to disappear into the work of great artists.
If you want to see either of the two experiences (they’re alternating each day at the Denver facility) you have about a month to go in Denver. Lighthouse just announced it will debut a new immersive experience at its Denver space in late July, built around the King Tut artifacts from ancient Egypt, the first non-Siccardi experience Lighthouse has exhibited.
The Denver Lighthouse ArtSpace (3900 Elati Street) is not far from Meow Wolf, and also visible from Interstate 25, just west of the burgeoning RINO (short for River North) arts district. It occupies the former ballrooms and meeting spaces of a high-rise hotel that’s been converted into housing for students of several nearby colleges.
That same adaptive-reuse mindset came into play for The Art of Banksy, for which Ross is an executive producer through his separate Starvox Entertainment company. The exhibit, compiled from a number of private collectors, was supposed to close last weekend, but has been extended into mid-July because of continuing strong ticket sales, a company spokesman said.
Creators modified a palatial former sporting goods store at 1000 South Broadway into a multi-level journey through the distinctive career of Banksy, who rose from a guerrilla street artist scrapping with London bobbies over his puckish stencil art and stickers to become a major collectable creator, all while keeping his identity secret from most of the world.
The Denver exhibition makes it clear that Banksy wasn’t involved in the project (though lots of his merchandise is for sale). Despite that, the show does a good job covering most of his distinctive career, with iconic, typically satirical images involving smiley-faced police, attack helicopters with pink bowties, little girls with red balloons, and more.
The exhibit also contextualizing Banksy’s lengthy career, collaborations, and projects, with the possible exception of his 2015 Dismaland installation, a dystopian “bemusement park” that operated for 36 days in a disused lido in an English resort town, mocking Disney’s far sunnier destinations.
The space also includes a lounge with drinks and works by other street artists, as well as the inevitable gift shop (he was, after all, behind the Oscar-nominated, Spirit Award-winning documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop)
If food is more than mere fuel for your adventures, the Denver region offers some notable options, led by Annette, the restaurant in suburban Aurora east of Denver whose Caroline Glover won a James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Mountain” region last weekend.
For stylish places to hang, shop and dine in the middle of Denver’s immersive triangle, try RINO or the LoDo neighborhood, short for Lower Downtown. LoDo offers several stylish hotels, plenty of shopping and dining options, and easy access to all three of the immersive experiences, each a couple of miles away.
The area is anchored by the beautifully restored Union Station, which still houses Amtrak operations, but also is home to the Crenshaw Hotel, multiple restaurants and bars, a vast light-filled central atrium and more. The station’s outdoor plazas regularly host a farmer’s market, concerts and other experiences.
Half a block away is another restored wonder, the Oxford Hotel, from 1891. Now, it features the Art Deco-style Cruise Room bar, steakhouse Urban Market and a beautifully appointed lobby.
And between Union Station and nearby Coors Field, home of MLB’s Colorado Rockies, is the sprawling Dairy Building complex, which includes another hip boutique hotel, the Maven, along with shops, offices and the Denver Milk Market, a new take on the multi-restaurant dining experience from Chef Frank Bonanno.
In all, 16 venues share the Milk Market space at 1800 Wazee St., including restaurants, a wine and craft beer specialist, gelato maker and others. Plunk down at any table, scan the QR code with your phone to order and pay for food from any of the purveyors, and sit back to watch the people as it’s delivered to your table.
The range of restaurants provide something to appeal to just about any palate, from poke bowls to pasta plates, salad to seafood, tinga and tortillas to hot chicken. The venue routinely houses music and other performances, including a regular Sunday morning“Drag Bingo Brunch.”
Each of the Milk Market’s storefronts typically also sell packaged food, mementos and more, so it’s worth a tour around the space.
For the adventurous wanting a different kind of immersive experience, try out The Fort, in the artsy village of Morrison southwest of Denver and a couple of miles from the much-loved concert venue Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater. Like Red Rocks, The Fort offers stunning views down the foothills to the Denver metropolitan area.
The restaurant’s sprawling spaces are a 60-year-old recreation of Bent’s Fort, an adobe outpost that was a fur-trading center in the 1830s. The menu of “new foods of the Old West” features unique dishes featuring bison, boar, quail and rattlesnake alongside more typical beef, lamb, trout and shrimp.
Appetizers include Rocky Mountain Oysters and the restaurant’s take on the Scotch egg, fashioned from bison sausage and quail eggs. The adventurous (and hearty) eater should try the Game Plate, which features medallions of lean elk and buffalo sirloin, alongside a teriyaki grilled quail, with wild Montana huckleberry preserves on the side. If you don’t mind scorched lips, opt to top the side of mashed Fort potatoes with hot Hatch chiles.
If you’re more into college towns than adobe forts, Boulder beckons with far more than just the main campus of the University of Colorado.
Particularly unique and worth an extended visit is the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, a prized product of the town’s relationship with sister city Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in Central Asia along the ancient Silk Road. Tajik artisans built a version of its region’s traditional teahouses using historic techniques and styles of art, then shipped the teahouse to Boulder to be reassembled.
The resulting structure is stunning, particularly inside, where Central Asian, Persian and Islamic decorative works cover the walls and ceiling beams.
Thankfully, the international menu of dishes and especially the dozens of teas on offer match up well with the extraordinary structure. The teahouse also sells tea ware and a subset of its thick menu of teas. For the true tea connoisseur, at least two other distinctive tea merchants can be found just a couple of blocks away, in and around the pedestrian mall that is Pearl Street.
While the Dushanbe Teahouse may not be quite the immersive experience of Meow Wolf, Banksy or Van Gogh, it can transport you to a different place. And isn’t that the point?