I’m standing in Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto City Hall. It’s a little before sunrise, but even in this pale light I can see that the buildings around me are derelict and covered with moss. There’s a tent made of translucent hide on the weed-filled pavement, a woman digging in the earth, and tobacco leaves drying on a rack. The scene could be seen as apocalyptic, but in spite of the evidence of ruin in all directions, it feels less like an ending than a new beginning.
This is a scene from Biidaaban: First Light, a virtual-reality piece by Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson and a team at the National Film Board. Jackson is one of a number of established Canadian artists – theatre-maker Jordan Tannahill is another – who are turning to the headsets and customized software of VR for an immersive extension of their disciplines. Their explorations are part of what could be the long-anticipated breakthrough of VR as an artist’s medium, a quarter-century after a young Canadian painter named Char Davies created pioneering immersive works while co-founding the Montreal animation software dynamo, Softimage.
The stage for VR as art is still being set, but it is already international. The Venice Biennale launched its first competition for VR works last year. Last fall, Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons committed their first VR pieces to a new website called Acute Art. And Laurie Anderson made her debut in the medium last year; her piece Chalkroom is on show now at Montreal’s Phi Centre.
Jackson’s previous works include Savage, a harrowing Genie-winning short about residential schools, and a 360-degree video piece about B.C.’s Highway of Tears. She was drawn to VR because of the medium’s ability to create immersive environments. She figured out early on where she stands on one of the main questions about VR, which was first posed to me by Hugues Sweeney, a producer at the NFB’s Montreal studio: Is VR about telling a story or making an experience?
“As a filmmaker, I’ve always been really interested in the mood or the tone of a space you put somebody in,” she said, while preparing Biidaaban for its recent display at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival Storyscapes. “VR offers a way of projecting Indigenous values into an imaginary future that feels physical and real, and of getting through this intractable sense that we’re relegated to a past that is dying.”
If there’s a story in Biidaaban, it’s one provided by the implication of a new future, and perhaps by the viewer’s idea of how we got there. Jackson, who lives in Toronto, is less interested in the events that may have led to the dereliction we see than in showing that come what may, “the Indigenous roots of this place continue even here, in the city centre.”
Jackson went against the grain of the intensely visual medium by insisting that printed text be a central element in her piece. In each of Biidaaban’s three environments (the others are the starry sky, and a subway station where canoes ply what has become an underground canal), Indigenous texts are recited and displayed, with English translations. They include the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, a text she had to seek permission to use.
“I’ve had a long-term interest in how Indigenous languages give us a window on a different way of being in the world, different experiences of time and relationships,” Jackson said. A credible vision of an Indigenous future, she said, must include land and language together.
She wanted to map her vision of the future onto an urban environment, in part because about half of the Indigenous peoples in Canada now live in cities. Biidaaban’s Toronto is based on Hypnagogic City, a meticulous 3D imaging of the overgrown urban centre by artist Mathew Borrett.
Jackson was reluctant to give up some forms of control available to her in filmmaking, especially the shot selection. She and her team had to build triggers for the Ojibway texts, each of which is cued when you look in a particular direction. It was a hassle and a challenge, and viewers who don’t look all around may miss some material. “But the environment carries so much weight,” Jackson said, that the loss of storytelling control was worthwhile. Her favourite comment from those who have experienced Biidaaban: “I feel like I went somewhere, not like I watched something.”
Scott Benesiinaabandan and Montreal’s Ab TeC Lab worked in a more fantastical vein for Blueberry Pie Under a Martian Sky, which was on view this week at the Symposium iX in Montreal. The visually cosmic piece spins a tale of regeneration on another planet, with a voice-over in Ojibway and English that describes the painful adaptations required. Its quest for a fresh start resonates uncomfortably with the well-documented dislocations of Indigenous peoples during the residential-school era.
Working from a live-performance background, Jordan Tannahill hopes his debut effort in VR will tell a story while also constructing an experience unlike anything possible in a theatre. The prolific Toronto playwright is working with the NFB and Britain’s National Theatre on a VR piece called Draw Me Close: A Memoir, parts of which have shown in Venice and Tribeca. The viewer enters a white space in which a detailed environment quickly forms through animated line-drawings, created by Teva Harrison. Drawing is also an element in Tannahill’s personal and unusually tactile story related to his mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. The tactile part comes in the use of real props and a live actor, whose actions register as a line-drawn character moving through the scene.
“It’s the first time a live performer has been motion-captured and rendered in animation in a live context,” Tannahill said on the phone from England. The feeling of disembodiment common in VR is radically disrupted when the actor, playing the mother, embraces the viewer, a stand-in for her son.
“That hug is kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” said NFB Toronto producer David Oppenheim, who helped develop the piece. “People tend to relax into it. That’s when they realize they can let themselves go into the story.”
Tannahill was initially wary of VR as a “techno-fetishist gimmick,” till he saw Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, a suggestive VR project led by Peter Middleton and James Spinney, based on John Hull’s book about losing his sight as an adult. Tannahill continually measures his piece’s effectiveness against what he could hope to achieve with a two-hander on a stage. In Draw Me Close, the thoughts and feelings of the mute character (the person wearing the headset) must all be suggested through the actor’s text and the voice-over.
“It’s very hard to improve on theatre’s sense of liveness, intimacy and corporeality,” Tannahill said. “But VR is able to play with space and time in ways that are very theatrical. It can conjure spaces that feel metaphoric or liminal.”
Tidal Traces, a VR dance work by filmmaker Nancy Lee and choreographer Emmalena Fredriksson, involves the viewer by dropping them into a performance space that is initially as broad as the horizon, but which gradually shrinks till it encompasses only a few bodies standing close together. The three dancers in this photographic work, which was also on view at Symposium iX, perform in a shallow surf all around the viewer. By the end, the dancers’ proximity to the camera implies that the viewer has become part of the performance.
“When you mix VR with another discipline, it takes it to the next level,” said Myriam Achard, curator of regular VR exhibitions at the Phi Centre, which began a partnership four years ago with Montreal VR production powerhouse Felix & Paul Studios. The Centre’s current show includes Anderson’s Chalkroom, made with Hsin-Chien Huang. The viewer tours various iterations of a large chalkboard cube, with things written on and in it. “Everything is made of words,” Anderson coos, telling you fantastical and sometimes unsettling stories, while things that look like solid objects in her greyscale world dissolve into letters. Somehow the medium ends up underscoring in visual terms how immersive Anderson’s storytelling art already is.
In some ways, the apex of VR as an environment for experience-making may have been touched at the very beginning of its use as an artist’s medium, in a pair of works from the 1990s by Char Davies. Immersive visual technology was still in its infancy: The first headset display was made by NASA in the late 1980s. Davies sensed that the transformative power of the medium lay not in its potential for depicting a hard-edged likeness of the world, but for proposing alternative experiences of space and of their own presence in it.
“What was important to me was to create a spatial ambiguity,” she said, in a rare interview at her estate in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “When people aren’t sure what they’re looking at, they pay more attention.”
In Osmose, her debut piece from 1995, a natural world is evoked, but everything is semi-transparent, and there’s no horizon. Viewers can pass through everything, and control their movements the way scuba divers do, rising as they breathe in and sinking as they exhale – movements monitored by a special vest. Leaning in any direction moves the viewer laterally. Philosophic and poetic texts appear, as prompts for the kind of psychic realignment Davies hopes to provoke.
About 50,000 people saw Osmose, which was first shown at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain, and travelled for two decades. Its sequel, Ephemère, debuted at the National Gallery of Canada; neither piece has been displayed in Canada since. In both works, Davies said, she wanted the altered experience of space to throw the viewer back on their own sensations of existence. Her favourite comment about Osmose came from someone who said it gave her “an experience of her consciousness occupying space.”
Davies dropped out of VR (though she prefers the term “virtual immersive space”) in part because the wide-angle Division headset she preferred went out of production. For the past eight years, she has been developing a new work, based on 3D laser scanning of the woods around her home. Prints of her scans show more or less dense clusters of dots outlining the forms of trees and rocks. Rather than give those forms photo-realistic surfaces, she’ll present them as empty volumes, translucent and ambiguous. Instead of a single viewpoint, the viewer moving through those shapes will experience a quasi-cubistic shattering of perspective.
“I want to take objects apart and show a world that is space with no objects in it, a world in flux,” she said. The viewer will perceive the spatial co-ordinates of objects, and the textures of what Davies “the flesh of the world,” but nothing will have mass or offer resistance. She estimates that it will be another two years before the piece is done.
In its original form, Osmose was run by a $500,000 Silicon Graphics supercomputer, required a separate sound rig and travelled with a technician capable of setting it all up. A remastered version can fit into a consumer-level PC. The quality of tracking and image rendering is ever-increasing, which means that the degree of attainable photo-realism is getting higher and higher. The non-photo-realistic work of Davies, Tannahill and others poses the question of whether what is de rigueur in the game-oriented field of VR is useful or desirable in VR as an artist’s medium.
Other questions remain, about the accessibility of a medium that you need a $500 headset to experience and about what happens to the concept of the audience when something can only be experienced in solitude. Much of the public is still unacquainted with VR, which is why Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma last year offered free showings of VR works in a downtown shopping mall. The NFB’s Sweeney says VR has yet to have its “Pokemon Go moment” – when some particular use drives public VR literary to a level of common knowledge.
On the other hand, it took several decades after the invention of photography for the new technology to be understood and valued as an art medium. We’re still at the beginning of VR’s life as a creative instrument, with many wonders yet to come.