Phi’s “Theatre of Virtuality” at the Venice Biennale

VR experiences that take participants through time, space and emotion

Venice is a reality apart. Every time you arrive in the city you’re catapulted into reflections on water and glass, too many tourists along small crowded streets, palazzos and alleys and gondolas. It’s a place where senses are constantly stimulated. It’s real, but somehow imaginary. Perhaps that’s the reason a virtual reality experience like Phi Immersive‘s The Theater of Virtuality at this year’s Venice Art Biennale becomes an even greater perceptive leap.

by Paolo Ferrarini

Phi, an art organization based in Montréal, organized the show with the aim to explore the boundaries between art and technology, without forgetting their social impact. Their Venice exhibition is not simply a display of high-tech stamina, but a very accurate journey through experiences that can give extra meaning to technology.

by Paolo Ferrarini

Taking place across two spaces at Ca’ Rezzonico Gallery, the experience is quite breathtaking. The first gallery focuses on visual art and showcases original works by beloved and well-known names in the art world—from Marina Abramović to Antony Gormley, Nathalie Djurberg and Olafur Eliasson.

by Paolo Ferrarini

Marina Abramović’s avatar is the protagonist of her installation, which was produced by London-based Acute Art. The piece Rising refers to sea levels and offers the opportunity to emotionally experience the effects of the climate emergency. After putting on an Oculus visor, the visitor is immersed in a sort of warehouse in the center of which is a glass box. Inside we see Abramović and as we approach her, the box slowly fills with water.

If the viewer tries to reach out and touch her, they are transported to a platform in the middle of the sea, next to mountains of ice, in the midst of a terrible storm—wind blows and icebergs collapse all around. Then, they’re back at the beginning, where Abramović is drowning, but the viewer is helpless. From a technical point of view, the video feels a little rigid, but the message is strong and the artistic content is so effective that it makes viewers forget the limits of the medium.

Lunatick by artist Antony Gormley and astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan is a different kind of journey. Beginning on a deserted island, it takes the viewer to space and it ends on the sun. The experience is realized using computer graphics combined with real data and images from NASA. Gormley turns sculptural solidity into lightweight poetry, and this experience is dizzying.

Courtesy of Olafur Eliasson

Artist Nathalie Djurberg and musician Hans Berg joined forces for It Will End in Stars, which feels like a dream that becomes a nightmare—a Kafka-esque fairytale in black and white with flashes of acidic colors. On the contrary, Olafur Eliasson’s “Rainbow” is an ethereal walk under a virtual waterfall. After so many strong emotions, is a soothing moment for the senses.

Courtesy of Felix & Paul

The second gallery focuses on VR cinema and showcases works produced by Felix & Paul Studios. Four 20-minute videos explore the future of entertainment and documentary using real footage rather than computer graphics. Both Space Explorers: Taking Flight and Space Explorers: A New Dawn are spectacular. The two videos are teasers for an upcoming series that will take the visitors to the International Space Station (ISS), where the producers have been placing cameras for more than two years.

Courtesy of Roger Ross Williams and Ayesha Nadaraja

The most touching and emotionally intense experience is Roger Ross Williams and Ayesha Nadarajah’s Traveling While Black which we saw at Sundance earlier this year. It takes place at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington diner that was included in the Green Book—the annual guide for African American travelers that was published from 1936 to 1966. The viewer sits with travelers, some of them activists, and witnesses their stories. A deeply moving experience, it’s one not to miss.

by Paolo Ferrarini

The Theatre of Virtuality is on now through 28 October at Ca’ Rezzonico Gallery (next to the Ca’ Rezzonico Museum, Dorsoduro 2793 and 2793A, Venice). On 29 October, the Phi Centre in Montreal will open Cadavre Exquis, a new exhibit focused on exploring, once again, how VR and art can unite to help us imagine the future.