Fairgrounds St. Pete: An Artist’s Surreal Salute to the State of Florida
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- Treasure Island Beach Resort
- Florida Gulf Coast
- Opal Sands Resort
- Sandpearl Resort
- Belleview Inn
When it comes to art created in the age of Instagram, the recipe for success is that it must be immersive and interactive in order to be indelible. Fairgrounds St. Pete takes that formula one step further by throwing in a heaping helping of technology to create a wander-worthy wonderland that is a hat tip to the state of Florida.
A centerpiece six-foot-tall shrimp cocktail sculpture showcases a few fat pink crustaceans sitting atop a mound of glistening ruby-red cocktail sauce in a larger-than-life martini glass. In the background, projections of animated shrimp dance across the walls. Overhead, a giant silver-studded shrimp-shaped disco ball lazily rotates. There’s even an original soundtrack coursing through the space that plays the loud snap, crackle, and popping sounds that this ocean invertebrate makes in its natural habitat.
No. You’re not experiencing a seafood-induced fever dream. This 600-square-foot ode to all things shrimp is one of the newest rooms to premier in the trippy interactive art and technology museum known as Fairgrounds St. Pete. Housed in a warehouse at The Factory, a creative arts district just off the Pinellas Bike Trail (seven miles from Treasure Island Beach Resort, 20 miles from Belleview Inn, and 25 miles from Sandpearl Resort and Opal Sands Resort), the sprawling space features more than 20 different rooms and open spaces filled with a kaleidoscope of weird, wonderful, and whacky creations from 70+ artists – all with connections to Florida. Opened in 2021, the works tend to defy description – like an upside-down motel pool and a room filled with what looks to be an infinite amount of colorfully lit lamps – and always encourage up-close immersion.
“It’s the definition of an immersive space,” says Sarah Hardin, digital marketing and content manager for Fairgrounds St. Pete. “Pretty much every corner and crevice is covered in art that you are encouraged to engage with – selfies are encouraged, touching the items is permitted, and there’s even a hidden storyline that you can feel free to follow or completely disregard. How you interact with the spaces is up to you. There’s no wrong way to do it.”
WHERE ART & TECHNOLOGY COMINGLE TO CREATE INNOVATION
The idea for Fairgrounds St. Pete was borne from the mind of Pinellas Country native Liz Dimmitt, who grew enamored with interactive art exhibits like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms or the Museum of Ice Cream, resulting in her determination to bring one to St. Pete. However, it really started to come to life in 2019 when she met Mikhail Mansion, who marries his computer programming background with his passion for art to create interactive and immersive installations that have been displayed in places like de Young Museum, Smithsonian Design Museum, Ringling Museum, and even the Pyongyang Winter Olympics. In fact, Mansion is the mastermind who developed all the infrastructure to facilitate whatever kinds of interactions between art and technology Fairgrounds St. Pete artists can dream up, from projections and moving televisions to interactive lighting and scent machines.
“The name ‘fairgrounds’ is actually a hat tip to events like the World’s Fair, where new ideas, creativity, and innovation were traditionally unveiled,” says Hardin. “It’s also a pun – meaning this is a place where artists play on ‘fair grounds.’” That’s because of the museum’s unique profit-sharing model, where artists earn a commission for their work upfront but also receive a percentage of ticket sales while their exhibition is active. That way, they’re able to invest in new materials and push their artistic boundaries. “The intention is to really invest in the local art community,” says Hardin.
A LOVE LETTER TO THE STATE OF FLORIDA
The other key distinguishing feature of the massive interactive art exhibit is that all of the work is somehow related to different aspects of Florida history and culture, not to mention, it’s created by artists who either live in the state or have some connection to it. In fact, your intro to the entire dizzying display starts in a mysterious Florida-based motel, called the “Mermaid Star Motel,” featuring references to fantastical Florida landmarks. Just down the hall, within another space, you’ll find several tiered strawberry-scented cakes rendered in paint that pay homage to Plant City’s most abundant crop. Another room features a spaceship sculpted out of the iconic Florida form of a Twistee Treat building.
But perhaps the most obvious tribute to the Sunshine State is accessed through the mouth of a giant cyborg gator in what’s known as the “Floridarama Room,” where 14-inch-tall by 20-inch-wide dioramas offer peeks into dreamy Florida scenes in miniature. “It looks kind of like a wall lined in fish tanks, only that the fish are replaced with an impressive amalgamation of artistic interpretations of Florida,” says Hardin.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
But Fairgrounds St. Pete is about more than just unusual art to ogle. There are actually hidden questions, mysteries, and scavenger hunts already baked into the playscapes that patrons can opt into. For example, you can feel free to leaf through drawers in the Mermaid Star Motel to uncover clues about what happened to the motel’s missing guests. Or pick up the retro-looking rotary phone that sits on the motel lobby front desk. Or ponder in a plastic lounger beneath the upside-down pool deck. Or crank a hand lever of a “disruptive device” in the “Electric Sky Lounge.” “Kids really like the scavenger hunts,” says Hardin. “They get so excited when they spot something before their parents do.”
Or guests can simply stroll the spaces, sit, and soak all in. Hardin says it’s not uncommon to catch people sitting in the “Everglades Arena” – featuring a wrap-around widescreen that plays an Everglades sunset on loop – for what seems like hours on end. Or to be so mesmerized by the murals, infinity mirrors, and rotating projection lantern in the meditative space known as the “Temple of Cosmic Balance.”
“Our mission statement is art for all, play for all, and joy for all,” says Hardin. “What and how you experience the installations is totally up to you.”