Only a very small handful of people around the world will ever have the chance to board the International Space Station. But in a groundbreaking virtual reality exhibition coming soon to Montreal, the first exhibition ever to feature VR content filmed in space, viewers will get to witness breathtaking footage from aboard the space station as if they were there themselves.
The Infinite is a 60-minute VR experience that will be making its world debut at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art in Montreal from July 21 to Nov. 7. A joint venture created by Felix & Paul Studios and PHI Studio, two Montreal-based companies at the forefront of immersive entertainment and storytelling, the exhibit integrates a free-roaming VR experience aboard the ISS into a highly sensory journey into space and back.
“It’s the most ambitious VR project that has been realized so far,” says Julie Tremblay of PHI Studio, producer of The Infinite. “We talk about it as an exhibit but really, it’s an experience. It’s really a narrative that you’re going to follow through.”
This narrative will begin right at the onboarding, with a sound and light installation simulating blastoff into space. Then, with VR headsets on, the free roaming exploration of the ISS begins. In a room constructed to scale with the real structure in space, viewers will be able to watch exclusive content of astronauts going about their daily lives, not to mention taking in some stunning sights of planet Earth as seen from the ISS.
“The content filmed by Felix & Paul Studios, some of it is very scientific, but some of it is also very poetic,” explains Annabelle Fiset, the creative director of the project. “At one point, for example, two astronauts are playing with a football, and us as spectators, we’re in the middle and we see the ball floating by us. That moment is really fun.”
The content was filmed in collaboration with NASA, TIME Studios and the ISS National Lab with a special camera that is currently still aboard the ISS. Félix Lajeunesse of Felix & Paul Studios controls the camera and directs the astronauts from Earth, continuing to produce content with the goal of creating more exhibitions like this in the future.
After the free-roaming experience, viewers progress into a room featuring immersive artwork by Japanese visual artist Ryoji Ikeda, commissioned specifically for the exhibition. In a black room, Ikeda’s piece, titled “The Universe Within the Universe,” will be displayed on a massive screen on the ceiling, reflected in the mirrored floor, evoking a feeling of weightlessness.
“The feeling when you’re there, there’s a sensation of vertigo because of the mirror and you feel like you’re in space. So you really feel like, ‘Okay, am I going down there?’” Tremblay laughs. “It’s amazing.”
“He is really the perfect artist to be a part of this project,” Fiset says. “He works a lot with data, so his process is very scientific, but creating art that is very impactful and contemporary.”
Fiset explains that this portion of the experience featuring Ikeda’s work is meant to symbolize travel through a black hole.
The experience culminates with a return to Earth through a “wormhole,” and a reawakening of the senses in a room representing the natural features of our home planet.
“It’s like a return to Earth but with a vision changed forever about it. What will be [our view of] this world after all that traveling in space? It’s about nature, a return to Earth but specifically to the natural world,” says Fiset.
Overall, the exhibition promises to be a never-before-seen glimpse into the highly scientific, highly technical structure that is the ISS, but contrasted with deeply metaphorical and poetic immersive experiences that provide a meditation on space travel, humanity’s fascination with the universe, and what the experience of voyaging among the stars can teach us about how we treat our home, Earth.
“For us, it was really important to distinguish ourselves from museum experiences that are more scientific,” says Tremblay. “We wanted to avoid that because there are places that do that really well. At PHI, we have always been more aligned with the arts, so we really wanted to be at the meeting place between arts and science.”
Like all VR experiences, the exhibition includes a disclaimer that it can cause discomfort for people who experience seizures or light sensitivity, who have heart problems or who experience claustrophobia. That said, Tremblay says they worked hard to keep the experience accessible, including for people in wheelchairs or who are hard of hearing.
“We worked hard and really made sure to work on the user experience to make it comfortable for everybody,” says Fiset.
Tremblay estimates that in these last few weeks leading up to the opening, some 200 people including their suppliers are involved in getting everything ready. The internal team that has been working on this project, which began in 2019, included around 70 people from all different fields.
“We have people coming from architecture, we have people coming from theatre, from video games, exhibition, some people that are specialized in entertainment, we have technology specialists, video designers,” Tremblay says, noting that the bulk of the work to put this exhibition together happened virtually, during the pandemic. “It’s something we’re pretty proud of, to come up with a project like this that’s been created during this time.”
After the showing in Montreal, The Infinite will be put up in Houston, Texas, before travelling around North America and Europe over the next five years.
≥ The Infinite is on at l’Arsenal Contemporary Art (2020 William) from July 21 to Nov. 7. For more details and to buy tickets, please visit the PHI Centre website, phi.ca