Phi Cen­tre ex­h­bi­tion re­view

Phi Cen­ter’s Vir­tual Re­al­ity Gar­den prom­ises to break bar­ri­ers

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Eléa Regem­bal Culture Writer

Since Jan­uary 2016, the Phi Cen­tre has been pre­sent­ing a se­ries of ex­hibits in its Vir­tual Re­al­ity Gar­den, a per­ma­nent in­stal­la­tion which uses 360° sto­ry­telling to shat­ter the bound­aries of art and tech­nol­ogy. Their new an­i­ma­tion-themed in­stall­ment runs un­til March 12 and fea­tures four short films and one of Ubisoft’s first vir­tual re­al­ity video games, Ea­gle Flight. Through mul­ti­me­dia sim­u­la­tions, the ex­hibit lets the viewer em­body dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and cre­ates a sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence. Such a tech­nol­ogy would be ef­fec­tive in ex­plor­ing per­ti­nent po­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues, which the in­stal­la­tion un­for­tu­nately fails to do.

The ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins as the in­trigued viewer puts on a head­set and is in­stantly spir­ited away into an over­whelm­ingly de­tailed and un­known en­vi­ron­ment. The first com­po­nent, four ten-minute films, cre­ate al­ter­nate ex­pe­ri­ences of ag­ing and growth by ex­plor­ing the re­la­tion­ships formed along the way. Mino­taur be­gins by tak­ing the viewer on an ab­stract jour­ney through life, death, and re­birth. The emo­tional tra­jec­tory ex­pe­ri­enced by the crea­ture por­trayed in the film – and by ex­ten­sion, the viewer – ranges from anger and fear to love and fi­nally seren­ity. The next film, The Rose and I, is in­spired by The Lit­tle Prince, a French novella about a stranded pi­lot en­coun­ter­ing a young prince who fell from an as­ter­oid. Set on an imag­i­nary planet, the film ex­plores the gen­tle re­la­tion­ship be­tween its only in­hab­i­tants: a rose and her hu­man com­pan­ion. The touch­ing and po­etic film was pre­sented at the 2016 Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. Emmy-award win­ning Henry tells the story of a lonely hedge­hog and his lifechang­ing birth­day wish. Nar­rated by Eli­jah Wood, it was brought to life by some of the cre­ators be­hind Brave and Toy Story 3. Fi­nally, Lost fol­lows a ro­botic hand’s quest for its body, in a dark for­est pop­u­lated by fire­flies. This short im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence was equally pre­sented at Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in 2015.

Each work re­veals a po­etic and in­ven­tive uni­verse, where head move­ments be­come sim­i­lar to cam­era mo­tion, pro­duc­ing the il­lu­sion that the viewer cre­ates the work they wit­ness. It sparks a de­sire to move closer, to stretch out a hand, in or­der to feel a phys­i­cal pres­ence within the an­i­mated en­vi­ron­ments. When turn­ing your head means catch­ing a glimpse of a hedge­hog’s bed­sheets through a door­way, or of the move­ment of a dis­tant planet hov­er­ing away, the im­mer­sion is com­plete. How­ever, aware­ness of the vir­tual il­lu­sion is of­ten present as the viewer’s body is never ma­te­ri­al­ized within the screen.

The short films are fol­lowed by the pre­sen­ta­tion of a first per­son-video game, Ubisoft’s vis­ual master­piece, Ea­gle Flight. The player be­comes an ea­gle soar­ing over Paris, fifty years af­ter the ex­tinc­tion of the hu­man race. Em­blem­atic mon­u­ments are over­grown and pop­u­lated by ele­phants, deer, and other an­i­mals who have es­caped from the zoo. The game pro­vides an ex­pe­ri­ence of over­whelm­ing free­dom that cre­ates un­prece­dented phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions. The player can choose to fly through the rusty arms of the Tui­leries Fer­ris wheel, the but­tresses of Notre Dame cathe­dral, or ex­plore the depths of derelict metro tun­nels and gar­dens sur­round­ing the Eif­fel Tower. It be­comes pos­si­ble to catch fish in the Seine or un­cover hid­den pas­sages in nar­row streets, as well as com­plete chal­lenges in story mode or com­pete against other birds in mul­ti­player.

Over­all, the in­stal­la­tion pro­vides an aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. How­ever, the mes­sages the films de­liver prove dis­ap­point­ing in their lack of power and rel­e­vance. The videos demon­strate the bound­less po­ten­tial of im­mer­sive tech­nol­ogy in en­gag­ing the viewer, with­out yet pro­vid­ing a chal­leng­ing con­tent closer to cur­rent is­sues. With such ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy and tal­ented cre­ators, nar­ra­tives could con­vey a more so­cially or po­lit­i­cally rel­e­vant mes­sage, rather than sto­ries of lone­some hedge­hogs and frag­ile roses. The short films, though emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful and cre­ative, failed to pro­vide thought­pro­vok­ing ma­te­rial in­volv­ing the viewer’s vis­ual par­tic­i­pa­tion, who in­stead ex­pe­ri­ences pure phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion with­out the po­ten­tial to act on it.

To un­der­stand the viewer’s re­la­tion­ship to a work of art, it is es­sen­tial to con­sider the art form it­self and how it makes the work ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic. The Phi Cen­tre’s ex­hibit is free, which means that any­one can watch the sun­set hov­er­ing be­tween two imag­i­nary plan­ets or over an aban­doned Paris, though not ev­ery­one has ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion con­cern­ing the ex­hibit, or the time and phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­ity of go­ing there. Th­ese con­tex­tual prob­lems aside, the tech­nol­ogy it­self has po­ten­tial to break so­cioe­co­nomic bar­ri­ers, cre­ate in­ter­ac­tive artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ences for all, and al­low spec­ta­tors to de­fine their re­la­tion­ship to and per­cep­tion of the work. The Vir­tual Re­al­ity Gar­den shows the pow­er­ful and promis­ing re­sults of cre­at­ing a dy­namic re­la­tion­ship be­tween artist and viewer, be­tween art and tech­nol­ogy.

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