The DHC/ART Education team collaborated with the Phi Centre on a series inspired by the exhibition Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age.
In my work as an educator at DHC/ART, I regularly co-inhabit exhibition spaces with security guards and gallery attendants. In our own ways, we all mediate visitors’ exhibition experiences, and so our respective relationships to artworks inevitably evolve in some way. Over the course of a given exhibition, we might arrive at a new level of appreciation or, conversely, a critical saturation point. Either way, our regular contact with the public and their exchanges with both us and various artworks consistently provide us with new insights.
In preparing educational materials for the exhibition Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age at the Phi Centre, we researched facts and descriptions of a variety of virtual reality (VR) works. This content was, for the most part, derived from the perspectives of creators and the experts with whom they work. As a team we became increasingly interested in the lived experience of users and how they articulate it.
Thus, already cognizant of the unique relationships to the works the people who would occupy the exhibition space on a regular basis might develop, I began to reflect more on the roles of the gallery attendants as users — how would they describe their experiences of the show, and what types of interactions with the general public might illuminate or even shape their perspectives? The following anecdotes touch the surface of these questions, drawing on personal testimonies of two gallery attendants in order to better understand how their respective VR experiences may have evolved over time and in dialogue with others.
Describing their early and most recent impressions, attendants drew on their own and visitors’ responses. In both cases, the newness of the technology – its potential, its limits, and its day-to-day challenges – was the common thread. Commenting on her first ever experience with VR, which occurred in Embodied Narrative, one attendant said: "As soon as I tried the piece out my intimidation towards VR disappeared, I just became excited to experience the other pieces. And it was invigorating to feel so immersed in a different reality… Especially because [the work] features real people, it brought me a particularly affecting experience. I could relate to the people I was watching in a way I never had with film before; the idea that VR has the potential to make us live a very human experience was successful here. I left the piece feeling humbled."
Both attendants remarked on the sensitivity – both emotional and physical – that many visitors experienced with VR. One was captivated by how visitors let themselves go, how their curiosity compels them to look in all directions. Another observed how often visitors stand up, walk around, reach out, exclaim, even yell – in surprise, fright, or delight. Other, more visceral, responses also drew attention to the extent to which visitors are immersed: a person holding his arms, experiencing chills at the sight of a glacier in The Turning Forest; another person feeling the warmth of a cup of coffee they could only smell in Famous Deaths.
New to VR but well-versed in sound and image, one attendant shared how her perception of the potential impact of VR was shaped by a pair of somewhat contradictory experiences. At one point, the intimacy she experienced in LeBron James - Striving for Greatness led to a critique of VR’s potential to isolate when she reflected on young people who form celebrity crushes. Conversely, at another moment, she was marked by the comments of a visitor who was particularly moved by Nomads: Sea Gypsies, and who pointed to the positive potential of VR to connect people suffering the effects of physical or social isolation with others around the world.
Numerous testimonies also demonstrate the tension between critiques of VR and the very deep ways they can impact users. For example, one visitor stopped mid-way through a work, pushing a panic button not out of fear but distaste. This, combined with another visitor’s comments about the same work, drew one attendant’s attention to questions of voyeurism. At another point the attendant in question was particularly moved by another visitor who, after hours in the exhibition, found the courage he needed to experience Famous Deaths from start to finish: "C’est intéressant de voir comment les gens se comportent… de se rendre compte qu’à tout âge on peut aller au-delà des nos peurs."
Questions of fear and hesitation around technology, thematics, and mises en scène speak to the relationship attendants have formed with the general public up to now. This show is different than others to the extent that visitors and attendants are in constant exchange. Whether in the form of passing statements, profound disclosure, or dynamic group discussions, the human connection sought and found in many of the VR works in Embodied Narrative extends to visitors and attendants. This difference may very well be grounded, again, in the newness of it all. It is, according to one attendant, in large part due to a dynamic that is put into place from the very start; as visitors arrive, the team of attendants assists visitors with the headsets and software required experience the works. An interaction has been established, and in turn it continues.
So I wondered, once the technical logistics of such exhibitions are no longer new to the average visitor, will they still have the urge to share, to connect? Indeed they might, depending on the depth and nature of the themes and experiences proposed to them. To conclude with the words of an attendant who over the past weeks has closed the door to a mortuary cabinet on countless hesitant participants: "Il faut les accompagner, il faut leur parler. Nous sommes des accompagnateurs, nous ne pourrions pas être distants. On parle de la mort, les gens ont besoin de quelque chose… d'humain, de vrai."
Article by Emily Keenlyside (DHC/ART Education)
Special thanks to Madison Dinelle, Marion Guidon, and Philippe Mathieu (Phi Centre)
Photo credit: Martine Lavoie
The interactive exhibition Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age, at the Phi Centre until August 21