A new VR exhibition takes on the big mysteries

“In the Eyes of the Animal” by Marshmallow Laser Feast

Beginning today (March 27) and running till Aug. 12, Old Montreal’s multidisciplinary art/show space Phi Centre presents Particles of Existence, an exhibition of interactive virtual reality and multisensory installations that push visitors past the limitations of their bodies, minds and personal experiences.

While all of the installations utilize similar technology to enable these immersive experiments, the environments they simulate and stories they tell are exceptionally varied. Installations can fly visitors through the cosmos, allow them to explore the desolate chalk world of an inspired artist and come face to face with “The Sun Ladies,” an all-female militia group that is combating ISIS in Kurdistan.

The exhibition offers the opportunity to leave one’s human body behind through “In the Eyes of the Animal,” a VR experience that offers an artistic interpretation of how animals view the world. If you personally don’t feel the need to embody an animal but would like to talk to one with the voice of Bill Murray, perhaps “Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes” is for you — it offers a sneak peek into Wes Anderson’s latest oeuvre with the guiding direction of the film’s cast of dogs, my personal favorite being Tilda Swinton as the noblest of pugs.

“Chalkroom” by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang

In short, Particles of Existence offers such a breadth of experiences even the mere attempt to summarize them would be an immense disservice to the complexity of the exhibit. While many of the simulations could be categorized as fantastical, VR offers a new medium for reinterpreting contemporary issues that are present in our own lived realities, just through the eyes of another.

The VR experience “Roxham” by Michel Huneault (with Maude Thibodeau and Chantal Dumas) synthesizes documentary photography, contemporary visual art and 360 video to create an experience based on Roxham Road, the rural location with the largest number of irregular border crossings by asylum seekers moving from the United States to Canada. In an interview with Huneault about the project, he spoke of “Roxham” as a microcosm of a global crisis, one that pits the international human right to asylum against individual state’s interest for defined and enforceable borders.

While the experience is very much one that enables empathy, Huneault argues that the central affective quality of the work is its confusion. The border is an undefined line between desperation and strict procedure, and the viewer is placed there without a clear role or agency, simulating a feeling of intrusion, unease and a self-conscious reflection of the lengths they themselves would go to secure a home away from conflict.

Phi Centre has curated an exhibition that poses some of today’s biggest questions and challenges guests to the task of answering them. Each installation is so masterful in its artistic use of technology that the highly substantive elements of Particles of Existence may not be immediately apparent. But trust me — this exhibition will stay with you long after you put down the headset and walk out the doors. 

Particles of Existence is on at Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) through Aug. 12.

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