Particles of Existence Exhibit at the Phi Centre

Chalk Room. Phi Centre. Particles of Existence. Chalk Room. Phi Centre. Particles of Existence.

Virtual Reality (VR) hasn’t yet become quite as mainstream as those in the industry might have hoped, but seems to be enjoying a rather healthy existence in the art world still. Alongside film and concerts, with a new exhibition entitled Particles of Existence, the Phi Centre continues to offer a solid show of VR works that explore the possibilities of this immersive medium.

The show is centred around the theme of showcasing the universe at a non-human scale, but I find this somewhat an artificial banner to place the works under. These aren’t a cohesive group of works. As with the prior show, Lucid Realities, the works just seem to be the best of what’s around right now. Even so, a sense of unity is not a requirement for VR, and there is plenty to enjoy.

The two immersive pieces of the show —  Chalkroom, created by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang and Treehugger: Wawona, created by Marshmallow Laser Feast — are wonders. In Chalkroom, one begins in a closed room painted on all surfaces with chalkboard paint and chalk doodles. With the newest version of the Occulus Rift headset and two hand sets, the user is ferried into a virtual version of the “heart” of the space, from which it is possible to fly, craft galaxies from chalk dust, and create sound sculptures. It is enchanting, inspiring, and represents VR at its best.

Cosmic Sleep. Phi Centre. Particles of Existence.

Cosmic Sleep. Phi Centre. Particles of Existence.

Treehuggerr is equally a delight. I am still debating which of the two pieces is my favourite. Although animated as a series of Seurat-like pointilist particles, and therefore less “real” than Chalkroom, Treehugger touches the imagination. The user scales a massive sequoia tree while given the opportunity to take the tree’s inner force and spread it around. Think Fantasia, with a wizard controlling the light paths of fireworks. The opportunity to play and be something entirely unlike myself is what makes this special.

For me, a third highlight is the documentary The Sun Ladies, created by Christian Stephen and Celine Tricart, produced by Maria Bello and Celine Tricart. In this piece, we meet the Yazidi women from the community of Sinjar, Kurdistan, who have taken up arms as a female-only fighting unit against ISIS. Their story has made the news in the last few years, and this piece takes us into their communities and bunkers. They march around us. The storytelling is compelling, while the VR enhances.

Particles of Existence. Phi Centre. Photo G. Harris.

Occulus Rift VR. Particles of Existence. Phi Centre. Photo G. Harris.

Also worthy of mention is Roxham, created by Michel Huneault, with Maude Thibodeau and Chantal Dumas. This piece’s importance is in covering the stream of illegal immigrants who cross the US-Canadian border at Roxham, QC. The storytelling is strong and the message important. Unfortunately, the VR is not necessary to the piece, and detracts from the wonder of using the technology.

After those four pieces, the rest of the exhibit is hit or miss, depending on personal taste. Assassin Creed gamers can swim, boat, and poke around ancient Egypt in Discovery Tour by Assassin’s Creed: Ancient Egypt, created by Ubisoft Montréal.Fans of Wes Anderson will enjoy Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes (In Virtual Reality), created by FoxNext, Fox Searchlight, Google Spotlight Stories and Felix & Paul Studios, where one can watch the dog characters talk and the team create them simultaneously. Despite the fact it uses sound, touch, and smell to immerse the user, Cosmic Sleep, created by Frederik Duerinck (Polymorf), never takes me to another world as the other pieces do.

As with any art exhibition, a few highlights carry the rest. Though the Phi Centre became less crowded during my visit, I needed the full three hours of blocked time to try all the pieces. For those who go, missing out on the two immersive highlights is an error. They are special works that generate a feeling of awe, and allow the visitor to experience the possibility of VR as an art.

Particles of Existence continues until August 12, open Tuesday until Sunday. Time slots should be booked in advance. Contact the Phi Centre HERE. $25/20 students and seniors. Tuesdays and Wednesdays $20 for all.

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