Cadavre exquis at Phi Centre- the exquisite corpse of VR

Cadavre exquis at Phi Centre- the exquisite corpse of VR
The setting of Chalkroom and To The Moon; all photos by author
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The Phi Centre in Montreal recently celebrated the opening of its next collection of VR experiences. cadavre exquis at Phi Centre hosts artists of high renown, some well versed in virtual reality endeavours, and some well-known artists- including Marina Abramović- making their first foray into this ever-growing field of expression. The exhibition gathers some inspiration from the titular surrealist artistic method (translating to “exquisite corpse”), which is a form of collective creation wherein each artist or contributor adds an aspect to a piece, sometimes without knowing most of the prior elements. In this way, this eclectic collection that makes up cadavre exquis at Phi Centre evokes what can come from radically different offerings in the same collective space.


Virtual reality still has a novel element to it, retaining a quality of science fiction technology to the uninitiated. The donning of headpieces and first experience within a virtual landscape that you can affect is captivating and surreal, and so it is no surprise that many artists utilize a sense of play and exploration in their works. Rainbow by Olafur Eliasson is the most sparse and simplistic of the experiences, but is incredibly effective visually and audibly- you approach a waterfall of rainbow light, and are able to move throughout it, watching the droplets displaced by your hand movements, and hearing the change in the drops; or you can simply submerge yourself, hearing the trickling of the water and looking up at the prismatic beauty.


Lunatick by Antony Gormley and Priyamvada Natarajan taps into a primal piece of human intrigue and takes you from an island in the Pacific all the way around our planet and off to our moon at 2.5 times the speed of light. Utilizing data collected by NASA, this may be the closest one can currently get to those beautifully lonesome craters and the experience, while rudimentary in visuals, gives an exceptional feeling of serenity. Both pieces do much within the current confines of VR capabilities.


On the other end of the emotional spectrum, and perhaps making up the other majority of today’s VR work, are darker and downright eerie experiences. Some seek to promote technology’s potential for enhancing the human capacity for empathy and change (which is not the first time Phi Centre has hosted such works)- namely, Marina Abramović’s Rising. In true Abramović style, the iconic artist seeks to push humanity to examine its own actions (or inactions). Through this piece, the individual is presented with the facts of our current environmental crisis, and a virtual Abramović in a glass tank slowly filling with water pleads with you to take action to save both her and the planet. With no guidance, at least one possible path leads to the user standing upon a wooden platform as glaciers fall to pieces and tides rise, the controls for movement no longer working, and then flashing back to the drowning Abramović. It’s a bit unclear if this is an inevitability or an issue with the programming, but the urgent intent of the work shines clearly.

C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment Mary and Eve by Paul McCarthy is perhaps the height of disconcerting sensations, utilizing a collection of scenarios with the outdated 3D model of two characters, Mary and Eve, that has countless copies of the models shambling eerily around the user, glitching and overlapping through themselves and you as their repetitive and antagonistic dialogue plays out. While effective in its execution, the piece verges on difficult to handle and its point a bit lost in the dizzying sensation.


Meeting in the middle of these feelings sits Bodyless by Hsin-Chien Huang, an experience of following a man’s spirit after death, travelling through the underworld and across moments of his life where exploration can unveil much of his story. Huang seems keenly aware of what is satisfying within a VR experience, and also carefully treads the line of darker, surreal sensations without it becoming overwhelmingly negative, all while exploring the innovative ways an artist can tell stories through this medium.


Finally, three pieces by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang occupy an entire wing of Phi Centre, with distinct designs of the space very much informing the user’s experience. Dark walls covered in white writing, swivelling chairs with a sizeable half-moon centrepiece, and bench seats with small airplane windows (featuring visuals of passing clouds) usher audiences into Chalkroom, To The Moon, and Aloft respectively. Anderson and Huang’s pieces are without a doubt masterful. The experiences they are catering here are simultaneously playful and thoughtful, filled with humour and a poetical beauty that could keep one in their world for hours on end. Chalkroom is a room of play, comprising multiple sections that each have their own tasks for the user to complete with the VR controls- some light and silly, some absurd and dreamlike. To The Moon takes us once again to our dear satellite, but this time in a surreal exploration of it, focussing in on the strange wonderment of the cosmos. Aloft takes the individual on an aerial journey on a quickly emancipated airline seat, interactive objects slowly floating towards you; it’s certainly the most laid back of all the pieces, which is a nice change of pace in the context of VR. All three of these pieces exude Anderson and Huang’s creative voices, which is possibly one of the strongest in VR artistry to date.


The exquisite corpse of cadavre exquis at Phi Centre is a beautifully varied one. The experiences span a wide range of production value as well as experience, but each piece lends something to the cumulative experience of the exhibit. What can be gained from these works is more than novelty or entertainment, and this tool that is being picked up by so many artists from so many different walks of life is an inspiring new way to share a point of view. If one thing is evident from this collection of works from around the world, it is that VR has the capability to deliver experiences once only dreamed of.

You can purchase tickets for cadavre exquis at Phi Centre here.