The very first thing that you see when visiting the Republic of Tartupaluk is a blinding white expanse of snow and ice, 1.3 square kilometres in size.
Soon you are greeted by the President of the Republic, a larger-than-life woman sporting polar-bear pelts and an infectious smile, eager to introduce you to this new land of “Inuit lovers,” and whisk you away in a surreal swirl of technicolored mist. Sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, right? The only thing is that this nation, such as it is, comes from the imagination of Canadian Inuit artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, and this trip arrives courtesy of a virtual-reality headset set up inside Berlin’s Canadian Embassy.
Tartupaluk (Prototype) is a startling, rich and dizzying new VR experience that blends 360-degree live-action video, motion-capture animation, and cutting-edge visual effects to explore the real history and fictionalized future of Hans Island, a barren and uninhabited parcel of land located in the middle of the Nares Strait that has been the source of political contentions between Canada and Greenland for decades.
Also known as Tartupaluk (“looking like a kidney”), the tiny island has long been a subject of fascination for Bathory, a multidisciplinary artist who, with this new project, brings together elements of Inuit theatre, Arctic cinematography, and state-of-the-art VR to create a singular cinematic experience.
“We’ve all heard about the island for decades, but I kept on thinking about how the Inuit are united by sea ice, and this is a polar-bear hunting territory. There was never a border there until Canada and Denmark decided to put an imaginary one there,” Bathory says. “This gentlemen’s war, as they call it, is much more surreal than the idea of an imaginary republic of Inuit lovers.”
The Sobey Art Award-winning Bathory is in Berlin as part of the Berlinale film festival, which programmed her production in its Forum Expanded program, a prestigious slate of work that tests the boundaries of the cinematic medium. Throughout the Berlinale, festival attendees stream into the gleaming and ovular Marshall McLuhan Salon located on the first floor of the Canadian Embassy, where they can strap on one of four VR headsets to experience Bathory’s vision of what an Inuit “utopia” might look like.
“I’m a political scientist by training, so this idea comes from looking at a utopia as a type of futurism, a yearning for a better world that can be translated into an artistic sense as much as a political one,” she says. “But it also comes from the deep need to decolonize Inuit homelands. To imagine a utopia is setting a path to walk toward, and whether that future is actually realized or not is besides the point. It’s the process that matters.”
The production was put together by a Nunavut team working, as Bathory says, “Inuit-style” – a method of intense collaboration that emphasizes generalism rather than specificity. With a group of artists, writers, hunters, seamstresses, even neighbours and family members, Bathory headed to an island on the outside of Iqaluit to shoot the production, which runs a tight eight minutes. (She is currently in the process of raising funds to eventually film a longer, 25-minute version of the experience on the actual island of Tartupaluk.)
This prototype edition, a Canada-Denmark-Greenland co-production, is just one of several VR projects from Indigenous Canadian artists to make a splash on the international film festival circuit. Last year, filmmaker Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon) debuted This Is Not a Ceremony at the Sundance Film Festival, to critical acclaim and strong industry word-of-mouth.
“Indigenous storytelling isn’t limited by the constraints of colonial infrastructure or institutionalized ideas of what that looks like, so there’s a freedom available through virtual reality that gets at that non-linear way of storytelling that’s very much suited to Indigenous narratives,” says Kerry Swanson, chief executive officer of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, which helped support the cost of showcasing Tartupaluk in Berlin.
While there are challenges that come with accessing VR projects – expensive VR headsets have yet to penetrate the home-entertainment market – touring Tartupaluk to more remote communities has its advantages, too. Not only are they bringing the story directly into people’s homes, it also doesn’t require any pre-existing movie-theatre infrastructure.
“The capacity to envelop a person in a completely new world is such a beautiful thing about VR,” says Bathory. “I find it very romantic.”
As to whether she feels that her future as an artist rests in VR – or that it might be considered the dominant medium for the next generation of Indigenous artists – Bathory says that thinking in such terms can limit creative expression, and possibilities.
“I’m never an advocate for people having one primary expression in art, especially Inuit art. We need to use as many different platforms and genres to invent and collaborate as possible,” Bathory says. “But I would love for people to look to VR as a way of exploring. You can make people fly through the air or have strange creatures standing right next to you. Anything is possible.”