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Immersing Myself in Centuries-Old Panoramic Paintings Was Better Than Watching Any TV Show

Burnt out on the modern world? Put down your cell phone and go back to a form of entertainment from the 1800s.

I was first brought to the Velaslavasay Panorama sight unseen. My friend Evan assured me I would love it, but gave no further details. I had walked by the theater a million times when I used to live in that part of LA, always wondering what lay within. The panorama, I discovered, had been sitting there, waiting for me to witness it, for ten years. I had no idea. No external signs indicate that the building is operational. The marquee is cryptic.


We entered the lobby, which was filled with ancient, crumbling Intuit artifacts and photographs. At this point, I still didn't know where the hell I was; Evan had led me there blind. A window opened to our right; through it, a bespectacled woman awaited our approach. She seemed to recognize Evan. She handed us two tickets, which read, "Effulgence of the North, an Arctic Panorama, Admit One." They were designed to appear as though they were printed at the turn of the last century; the only clue that we were in modern day was a web address at the bottom.

I followed Evan down a darkened corridor, the end of which held a gorgeous, glorious, waxed wooden spiral staircase that ascended up to further darkness. At the top sat the panorama—360 degrees of an arctic scene in a low-ceilinged circular room. It took some time for my eyes to adjust; as they did, a soundscape of wind played above us, and air blew from unseen ducts. The lights began to subtly change, illuminating and darkening areas of the panorama based on where the sounds took them. This shift was slow and gradual, but not tedious in the slightest—the opposite, actually. I sat on the circular bench connected to the staircase and stared. Evan lay on his back beneath it and listened to the soundscape with his eyes closed. We didn't speak. We didn't look at our phones. We didn't need to.

The more I stared, the more the scene appeared to come alive. I began to hallucinate in a way that suggested it was not simply a painting.


Panoramas, large-scale landscape paintings augmented with three-dimensional elements and ever-altering light cycles, were incredibly popular forms of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries. The artist Robert Barker patented the panorama in 1787; it quickly became a widespread novelty in both Europe and the United States. Panoramas offered a fully immersive look into worlds that were foreign to them.

These publicly consumable displays predated the advent of moving pictures, which were arguably the largest nail in the panorama's coffin as an entertainment powerhouse. Today, panoramas are few and far between. The Velaslavasay Panorama, which was first opened in Hollywood in 2000 and moved to Los Angeles's West Adams district in 2005, is among the few venues keeping this antiquated art form alive.

The arrival of cinema, however, doesn't fully explain their decrease in popularity. Ruby Carlson, co-curator for the Velslavasay Panorama, believes the true cause is the fact that "panoramas take a lot of resources—space and time, two things which are hard to come by. Panoramas are very large in scale and often difficult to assemble architecturally."

Modernity, obviously, is also a factor. "From our point of view," Carlson said, "a lack of fiscal sponsorship of panoramas limits their growth. Also, people cannot be interested in things they do not know about. Perhaps it is due to the fact that many panoramas are somewhat off the grid when it comes to modern methods of knowledge diffusion—Twitter, Facebook, social media—or because they require patience and imagination."


Related: VICE spends a day with artist Matt Mignanelli on this episode of Art Talk.

The longer I stared at Effulgence of the North, the panorama on view, the more I felt the isolation of the tundra; the ceaseless wind enveloped me. It's silly, but I felt as though I were actually there. The painting I was staring at was not photorealistic, but the environment in which I absorbed it made up for that. The isolation felt smothering, yet liberating. There was no one else in the room with us. I knew no one else would come—Evan told me every time he had visited, he was the only one there. We could spend the rest of our lives up there, it seemed, and no one would be the wiser. It would be like living, and dying, in the actual arctic. I found these thoughts as exciting as they were terrifying.

The more I stared, the more the scene appeared to come alive. I began to hallucinate, watching the moon shine and the plaster chunks of fake ice under it sparkle in a way that suggested it was not simply a painting. I have no idea why, but the damn thing put me in a state I have never felt while not being drugged. It was otherworldly. Were I a spiritual person, I suppose I would find it to be a spiritual experience. The wind, the isolation, the darkness—the void it created instilled a profound feeling of peace within me, something that is very difficult to achieve naturally while mindlessly scrolling through my iPhone. I can't remember the last time I've felt something akin to it.


After a while spent in the darkness, we descended back down to the hallway and entered a theater, which a wonderfully designed pamphlet later told me was built in 1915. It, too, was beautiful, containing red velvet curtains and semi-decaying blue seats and taxidermied heads and a piano and another panorama—this one in an enormous box with a crank, all about California's first dreamers, the gold diggers. The woman behind the counter later told me the panorama belonged to a man who would cart it around America via horse and buggy in the late 1800s, taking it to churches and fairs and using it to dazzle packed audiences who wanted to know what the uncharted, exotic, golden West held for humanity.

Beyond the theater was a garden, with trees and bees and flora and fauna and cryptic plaques and a small room, up a staircase, where you could sit and watch a small fountain's ceaseless flow. And a gazebo, where we chatted as we watched the bees pollinate the huge pink flowers that hung from an unidentifiable tree.

I walked back to the window and gave the woman $20. She confusedly asked if I wanted change; I said no. I started reading the pamphlets on display, of which there were many. One described the perks of membership, up to and including unfettered access to the facilities whenever they were open, and the ability to come to events they put on—film screenings, talks, things of that nature. She gesticulated toward a poster in the corner of the lobby, advertising a film titled Eskimo Wife-Traders. She said they were close to procuring a print of it, which they would show in the theater. Holy shit. I was in love.


I wanted to give her all my money. Everything I had. All $2,000 of it. Do you know how hard it is for me to feel what I felt in that joint? Very. It only cost $35 to become a "True Enthusiast," but I gave them $100. (Which makes me a "Devoted Enthusiast." People who give $5,000 are "Eleemosynary Enthusiasts.") I've never donated money to any cause, as I've never been able to. As she ran my credit card, I asked myself, "What the hell are you doing?" but I did it nonetheless. I don't regret doing so.

Afterward, Evan and I walked down the street that holds USC's frat houses; I've always liked walking down that street, because it feels like getting a front-seat pass to de-evolution. A shirtless college kid flipped over a sofa for no reason as his cohorts, who were actually drinking out of red Solo cups, watched in amusement. I looked at the windows of the frat houses, once grand, that had been decimated by decades of modernity. These beautiful Victorians, now filled with broken mini blinds and foosball tables on the roofs and interior furniture used as exterior furniture on their lawns. Anything that wasn't a decimated Victorian was a new, sterile stucco building standing where something beautiful once stood.

It made me love the Velaslavasay Panorama even more. But it also terrified me. Because the panorama is not long for this world. Red Solo cups, however, are. As it takes eons for them to decompose.

"Effluence of the North," which has been on display at Velaslavasay since 2007, will be closing at the end of 2015 to make way for a new panorama.

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