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Matt Elson’s Infinity Boxes 

Wednesday, Sep 30 2015

As he wipes playa dust off of one of his mirrored Infinity Boxes, I realize that Matt Elson is the Burner-iest Burner I have ever met.

An "Infinity Box" is a mirrored chamber with up to four viewing portals that is filled with some combination of colored lights, reflective or transparent glass panes, fake flowers, and candles. It's also an "experiment in human interaction and social perception."

Elson has built 14 Infinity Boxes in all, of which eight will be on display at the Exploratorium through Sunday, Oct. 4 (because eight is all Elson could fit in his Mercedes Sprinter). Each box is different, and while it might be tough to wedge a DSL camera in there, several are hospitable to visually stunning panoramic selfies. (The pics don't show the experience accurately, but Elson was eager to photograph me using my own iPhone.) Some boxes afford multiple views of your own visage, or a friend's head, while others use light patterns so that everyone's faces morph together, as if you were benevolently possessing one another's souls.

It's Monday, and the Exploratorium is closed to the public, but employees who've just clocked out are milling all around the exhibit, and we're all quickly reduced to sputtering inarticulate babble: "Cool," "Trippy," Holy shit!"

Elson has long gray hair that falls past his shoulders, and an easy smile with perfect teeth. He used to work at MIT's artificial intelligence lab and also did stints at Disney's animation studio and a long-gone company called Symbolics that had the distinction of owning the internet's first url. While his general demeanor approaches that of a mad scientist, it would be more accurate to call him a cross between Willy Wonka and Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. He wears an infinity symbol on a necklace, has been to the Black Rock Desert eight times, and speaks with a dyed-in-the-wool maker's enthusiasm for creating unmediated spaces where people can connect. In contrast to some priceless Renaissance painting, which looks the same from all perspectives and lives full-time under glass, Elson wants to bring viewers under the glass.

He refers to what the Infinity Boxes create as "subjective images" — which nonetheless feed right back into our technology-dominated modes of cultural consumption.

"You're having an experience that's only happening inside your neural set, in your brain, in that way," Elson said. "You can't take that image and transfer it to another person. You have to experience it ... I want to create an experience that brings us together in a shared space. It's not really complicated, but it's as different as you can get from digital technology. On the other hand, when you post it to Facebook, it goes back into that stream, and hopefully people go, 'What? Where did you get that? Let me go see it!' It's like hyper-local marketing, it just keeps looping around."

There is a sort of 19th-century sideshow element to the Infinity Boxes, which have carnivalesque paintings in garish frames attached to the side to draw viewers in from across the room. While any given box may include materials like Mylar or dichroic glass (manufactured by vaporizing minerals and bonding them to the surface, to scatter different wavelengths of light), they're entirely analog. But when I refer to them as optical illusions, Elson gently objects.

"I don't want to hide," he said. "I want to reveal. Part of it is just to create this space where we get to relate, we get to have a conversation. You're in a world where you can play, you can explore, and you can go on to the next thing." He's particularly excited for After Dark, the Exploratorium's Thursday-night version of a public pool's adult swim, to "see how they work as a social phenomenon."

The dichroic glass in particular illuminates Elson's precision-based yet haphazardly-brilliant method.

"It's the craziest stuff," he said. "This guy in South Carolina called me one day. He said, 'So-and-so told me to call you. I have something you want, but you don't know you want it.' I was like, 'Tell me more!' I looked up [dichroic glass] on the web, and said, 'Okay, I still don't get it, but I'll buy 10 sheets. Send it to me.'"

Dichroic glass has been around since Roman times, and it's used by NASA today. Apparently, it's quite expensive (although Elson got a deal, because the seller "wanted me to play with it"). The facility's own scientists have taken notice, with a few Exploratorium staffers marveling at how they'd never seen such large pieces of it before.

"I'm hoping some people can educate me. I don't know much about it at all. It's super cool, one of those mystery things."


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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