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Image of app displaying photograph.
Photograph: Courtesy John Mack and Isle Royale, digitally manipulated photographs on duratrans, 2022 | Objects on screen may not be as they appear.

This new Chelsea gallery show will make you rethink your relationship with your cellphone

"Gamified meditation experience" may sound like the most 2022 phrase ever, but it's legit very cool.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

If you, like I, feel gobsmacked by your phone’s ever-ballooning screen time report, then this immersive new exhibit in Chelsea is a must-see.  

Called “A Species Between Worlds: Our Nature, Our Screens,” it’s a free exhibition running through September 30 at Skylight Modern (537 West 27th Street) that explores our relationship with our smart devices. The two-story show features photography and poetry by John Mack presented alongside a month-long forum with high-profile speakers, including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Mack conceived the exhibition as a way to examine the intersection between humanity and technology. When you arrive at the gallery, you can download an app to begin the augmented reality experience. You’ll pick an avatar, then start walking through the show’s 17,000 square feet. Sixty-five photographs of natural wonders line the walls on large screens—but they’re not exactly what they seem at first glance. 

The photos are divided into different sections starting with places where Mack had full cellphone signal as he took the photographs. Those pictures are presented as Pokémon Go images and connote feelings of completeness or fulfillment. When you hold up your phone in front of the screen, you’ll see the actual photograph of the real natural wonder on your device. 

Canyonlands digitally manipulated photographs on duratrans.
Photograph: Courtesy of John Mack, Canyonlands digitally manipulated photographs on duratrans, 2022 | Now entering spotty signal land.

As you wander through, you’ll enter places where the photographer had a spotty phone signal, evoking feelings of angst, and eventually places with the dreaded “no signal.” In each location, hovering your phone in front of the image creates a dual experience—what’s on the screen differs, and your avatar even starts to look wonky, too.

That is, until you wind toward the end, and the app experience fades. Finally, the photographs appear as bold, bright and vibrant as the real world with its verdant trees, rushing waterfalls and celestial wonders. It’s reality. Forget the pixels.

If you’ve ever visited a national park or any beautiful landscape, you’re likely familiar with the urge to immediately open your phone’s camera and document everything around you. 

“This thing is taking precedence over nature,” Mack said while holding up his phone during a tour of the exhibit with Time Out.

The gamified meditation experience aims to restore the balance between ourselves and our smart devices. But that doesn’t mean Mack—who also founded The Life Calling Initiative in response to the eroding boundaries between humanity and technology in the Digital Age—is anti-technology. His exhibition centers on an app, after all. 

“I’m very consciously not anti-technology, but rather I aim to foster mindfulness so that our devices serve as our tools and not the other way around,” he said in a statement. “The exhibition is an invitation to contemplate our relationship to our devices and the surrounding world while inspiring the introspection needed to prevent the loss of our humanity.” 

A man holds up an iPad to play Pokemon Go in front of a beautiful mountain and lakeside scene.
Photograph: Courtesy of John Mack | Paradise and pixels.

He got the idea for the exhibition after the Pokémon Go craze and a stampede in Taipei in 2016 apparently caused by a rare Pokémon Snorlax. Mack became fascinated by how the phenomenon blurred the boundaries between virtuality and reality. 

So he spent the past six years developing “A Species Between Worlds,” photographing more than 50 U.S. National Parks and the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, then manipulating them with artificial landscapes from the Pokémon Go app. 

While the exhibition ends with a lounge where you can charge your phone and post photos from the show, perhaps when you step out onto the sidewalk in Chelsea, you’ll be more conscious of the feeling of the sun on your face or the sound of birds chirping. And maybe you’ll leave your cellphone tucked away in your pocket or bag for just a little bit longer than usual.

John Mack poses with his photographs of natural wonders.
Photograph: Courtesy of John Mack | John Mack poses with his photographs of natural wonders.

See the exhibit

A Species Between Worlds is open from Tuesday-Friday (noon-8pm), Saturday (10am-8pm), and Sunday (noon-5pm) at Skylight Modern (537 West 27th Street).

It’s free to attend, but special events require reserving tickets online. Here’s a full list of the programming this month.

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