The Air Is There: Interactive art installation at the children’s museum lets imaginations soar

Pneuhaus crew doing as they do. Photo by Kate Lester.

One night this summer, I emerged from the darkness of some club I can’t recall and saw something unusual on Washington Street. Puffy loops of light had been hung on a parking garage. Nylon tubing weaved together, floating above the sidewalk, its flesh illuminated by slow streams of color. It was an unexpected sight against a backdrop of streetlights and concrete. The artwork was Pnit, installed by design collective Pneuhaus for PVD Fest. 

The PVD-based trio of Levi Bedall, Augie Lehrecke and Matt Muller who make up Pneuhaus are among the city’s more public artists, with their inflatable domes and installations a frequent presence at local events. They even scored a page in one of Phaidon’s high-end art books, Bubbletecture: Inflatable Architecture and Design, published earlier this year.

Pnit is an ode to night, its snaking colors visible only in the dark, but Pneuhaus’ latest installation caters to a crowd altogether different from woozy, late-night revelers. Their new exhibit, Air Is There, arrives September 28 at the Providence Children’s Museum. The interactive exhibit illustrates principles of gravity, space, volume, movement — things as essential to science as they are to art.  

Air is There invites visitors to toss, in Bedall’s words, “fun and goofy-looking” inflatables into gusts of air, among other follies. “What brings everything together is the sense of play and air,” he said. 

Bedall noted that whereas Pneuhaus’ artworks are often curated around “one simple idea where it’s hard to miss the point,” this piece is a lot looser and busier. Replacing the group’s typical laser focus is relentless experiment — something both kids and adults can enjoy.

Air Is There promises to make the eponymous gas unmissable with a variety of ideas flying free in the exhibit space. Most hands-on are the Pnodes, Pneuhaus’ own spin on Tinkertoy. 3D-printed connectors and dowels will allow kids “to make different geometries,” Bedall said. He expects the flexible tubes will result in “funky angles” and shapes “that are a lot different from what people are used to.” A few fans will provide the necessary wind for these creations to go airborne.  

A wallpaper on the back wall adds a little illusion to the space. Bedall explained it will “create a spatial environment of lines” that he likens to air, “which makes so much visible.” Conceptually, then, the exhibit offers up a slightly heady but fundamental lesson on the overlap between space and air, line and form. That this tiny profundity has been translated into kid-friendly terms makes it all the more impressive.  

Pneuhaus’ previous installations have been crowd-pleasers and attention-grabbers, but they caught the attention of Providence’s Children Museum via a rather ordinary review process.  

The exhibit is part of the museum’s three-year Creativity Initiative, which invites local artists and designers to craft special interactive installations. The initial call for proposals saw 47 submissions,  according to Caroline Payson, the museum’s executive director.

“There are lots of making experiences for children over 10, [but] nothing specifically for children under 10,” Payson said. “It was a great validation that the local creative community would embrace this.”

The point, Payson said, is to get kids to “see themselves as part of [a creative] continuum” that spans a lifetime. 

Air Is There may or may not lead to such epiphanies, but at the absolute minimum it promises a weightless wonderland. A finishing and clever touch comes in the form of the exhibit’s astroturfed floor. As Bedall explained, Air Is There is an effort at “an otherworldly experience.” It’s not meant to be connected “to the world we’re used to being in.”

My first glimpse of Pnit was perfumed with such an elsewhere — a slithering rainbow, bloated with light, the smell of nightlife and city underneath. If Air Is There is anything like that, then the kids should be all right. 

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