Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Connor McInerney
I usually don’t spend my Wednesday evenings playing in a ball pit with strangers. But when the National Building Museum keeps the BEACH open late, I’m willing to make an exception. Especially when there’s the promise of a performance by local surf rock outfit Shark Week.
The BEACH is a new exhibit at the National Building Museum, the main feature of the institution’s Summer Block Party series of programming. Seeking to emulate the energy and senses of a shore within the confines of downtown D.C., the BEACH uses mixed materials to come as close as possible. A pristine white synthetic foam material forms the shape of a long pier, surrounded on all sides by the “water” of the installation, which comes in the form of one million translucent plastic balls. And while the exhibition is always open during the museum’s business hours, it was recently announced that every Wednesday (starting this week), the museum would host extended hours from 5:30 to 9 throughout the summer.
The contained nature of the ball pit (and the lack of a shortage of translucent plastic balls) informs the feel of this makeshift ocean. Visitors are encouraged to swim around the pit, pushing the orbs past them as they explore nearly 10,000 square feet, take a jump into the sea, or lazily hang their legs off the pier while enjoying the playful ambiance of the interactive ocean.
Closer to the “shore” of the installation, the National Building Museum provided chairs and tables, for those who prefer a more casual beach-going experience. Patrons present could sit and relax or cop some refreshments from the Union Kitchen Snack Stand, which included snacks and drinks in line with the nature of the summer. From the stand I sampled a bottled “Gnarley Tea,” a mix of hibiscus and aloe that helped refresh me in between bouts in the ocean.
Playing at the BEACH is highly visceral, but it’s also incredibly fun. The nature of the installation inclined me against going alone, so I invited a few friends to join me Wednesday evening. While I opted for slowly wading my way into the pit, my colleagues almost unanimously decided to jump in, feet first, erupting a volley of balls to those within the vicinity. While the clear orbs constituting the Beach’s ocean resemble water in clarity and fluidity, I found it a little more difficult to wade through this water than at the actual beach. Still, it was hard not to laugh as I was splashed in the face by other attendees, which in this case meant buried by a wave of semitransparent orbs.
The artistic dichotomy of the BEACH and its location within the National Building Museum added another layer of depth and interest. The BEACH is extremely contemporary in its design and inception; the interactive nature of the exhibit combined with a choice for a more minimal aesthetic is thoroughly modernist. This contrasts with the large, Renaissance Revival columns of the NBM’s architecture, as well as the style of the building’s interior, that surrounds the installation. While the contrast is stark, it did not detract from the quality of the BEACH, for the shared energy of the ball pit remained constant and fun. If anything, it contributed an atmosphere of unrestrained delight; museums are typically reserved for stoic observations, so playing and yelling and rule breaking provided a nice break from the usual activities.
As promised, Shark Week played around eight, reinvigorating the dying energy of patrons who had been at the BEACH since the start of the late night at 5:30. Appropriately dressed, frontman Ryan Hunter Mitchell shouted, danced and sang in a speedo and sailor hat, the band’s warmly vintage sound filling the museum with a crazy echo. While the set had a rough start technically, the group’s vocals cutting out occasionally, Shark Week adjusted into a solid groove that perfectly incapsulated the already present energy. Beach-goers danced on the sand and some, perhaps inspired by the quartet’s energy and thematic lyrics, took another jump back into the pit and started their own ocean party.
The playful nature of the music and the installation coming together made for a near perfect day at the artificial waterfont. And as the set finished and the exhibit came to a close that evening, the crowd exited the museum hurriedly, carrying the warm vibes of a day at the BEACH out into a humid, Washington night.