In the summer of 2017, Pacific salmon swam on the underside of Vancouver’s Cambie Street Bridge – on film, anyway, their images projected onto the large structure. Uninterrupted, a site-specific cinematic art installation by director Nettie Wild, wowed crowds nightly – and demanded an encore.
Another run had been planned for 2020: A summer when, of course, it became impossible for people to gather – even outdoors. Even to view a work of art that was not only spectacular, but in documenting this natural migration, a tribute to resilience.
But COVID-19 couldn’t stop the salmon. And it couldn’t stop Wild, or her producing partners, Rae Hull and Betsy Carson, either.
They had always hoped to create an immersive experience with their salmon; the pandemic brought a new urgency to their vision. So, last year they began working on a virtual reality version of the work. Synchronized, socially distanced outdoor screenings for small groups of people wearing VR headsets began this summer, wowing Vancouver audiences again.
Wild, Hull and Carson – they have started calling themselves the Salmon Sisters – have been taking Uninterrupted to outdoor venues in Metro Vancouver, with crates full of VR headsets, medical-grade sterilizing equipment and stacks of swivel stools.
“It’s a liberation,” says Wild, who, when she originally built the show for the bridge, used virtual reality as an editing tool. It was a much more rudimentary VR experience, but it demonstrated the possibilities. “It was really clear that at some point, the fish really wanted to swim in VR.”
Still, the dive into VR was challenging on many fronts – not just the technology and artistic aspects, but also finding venues and funders willing to take a chance on this as a pandemic raged and evolved and twisted.
Even as the exhibition itself moves, the location of the artwork remains the same. As a viewer, it’s as if you are standing exactly where people stood in 2017 to watch, under the Cambie Street Bridge.
“Uninterrupted needs that bridge,” Wild says. “Because the core, what’s driving our story is that we’re bringing a wild river into an urban city, into the heart of the city. So of course, the bridge whether we’re in Toronto or Paris or Dubai ... it’s a perfect canvas.”
VR allows for some extra magic – always in line, though, with the artistic vision.
“We decided that we weren’t going to go the route of a fish coming out and licking your nose, partially because of budget, but also because ... we wanted to augment this story elegantly,” Wild says.
While the work is in no way didactic, it does convey a strong environmental message – part of the work’s intent and ambition. “Giving people a little taste of wonder and beauty is the start of making them care more and act,” Carson says.
The project has also allowed participation from a perhaps different demographic than one might associate with this medium.
“With VR, I think most of us think of gamers locked away in their basement into this incredible interior world,” Wild says. “We’re now saying to people: check this out. You don’t have to buy a headset, you don’t have to do anything except to be curious and to fall into your spinning stool. We’re going to take you to a really amazing place.”
It’s also free – although reservations are required; it’s become one of the hottest tickets in town.
And while this summer’s venues have all been outdoors, the women hope to bring the work to art galleries in the future.
With more than 100 years of work experience between them, Wild, Hull and Carson are veterans in the arts world – if not exactly in the tech space. They recount a pitch session last fall, where the women – streaming live from Hull’s porch, outside – were competing with tech bros (and others) from around the world.
After their pitch, there was one polite question. There was also a comment, Wild recalls: “That it was so wonderful that we were there because we provided equity. As in age equity.”
Two weeks later, they heard from Microsoft: they had won.
The prize – time at the Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture Studios in San Francisco – will help them take their salmon to the next level, with plans to create an augmented reality experience involving Indigenous artists and storytellers.
That’s for another time, after the border opens up.
For now, the salmon are staying home in Vancouver. After runs at the Museum of Vancouver and then North Vancouver’s Shipyards – where you could feel the ocean breeze as you were immersed in this VR wonder – Uninterrupted travels to Burnaby this week, to the veranda of the Burnaby Art Gallery. New dates have just been announced for a return to downtown Vancouver, where the spinning stools and headsets will be set up on the plaza next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
And after this summer? Liberated, as they say, from the original location, the women are hoping to take it across the country and internationally – both to outdoor venues and to galleries. They say they’ve had some bites, from as far away as Europe and Asia.
“The salmon have legs,” Hull says. “They’re not only travelling across the Rockies; they’re going elsewhere around the world.”
Uninterrupted is at the Burnaby Art Gallery Aug. 3-13 and at šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn, the plaza next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, beginning Aug. 17.
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