Imagining a futuristic Earth in 'Symbiosis' at museum's PAM CUT
The words "trippy" and "freaky" and "scary" come to mind when considering "Symbiosis," the new virtual and extended reality (XR) storytelling experience hosted by Portland Art Museum and its film and new media arm PAM CUT.
"I was sharing some Instagram posts, looking for fun stickers, and I typed in the word 'trippy,'" said Jon Richardson, PAM CUT associate director of creative programs. "It is trippy. Yes, if you are perhaps under a hallucinogenic substance, it would enhance this. You are taking a trip into the future. Why not 'trippy?'"
"As far as the freakiness part, it's an optimistic look at the future," Richardson said. Such as: Imagine life, in a positive way, after climate change has wreaked havoc on our planet, he added.
And, scary? Nah, said Marieke Nooren of Polymorf, the Dutch experience design collective that created "Symbiosis." She's in sales and partnerships with Polymorf, which found a more-than-willing partner to bring "Symbiosis" to the United States for the first time in PAM CUT.
"It's really artwork. We don't want to make entertainment," Nooren said.
So, what is it? Well, put on your creative cap, folks. Think about a post-human future — 200 years from now where climate change has seriously affected Earth, and human beings have merged with such things as butterflies and orchids to form unique living creatures.
You enter the immersive biosphere through donning a soft robotized haptic suit, being hooked up to a computer and engaging the senses — smells through injected scents from a pneumatic system in the haptic suit, food through mouth, sounds creating the mood and eyes trying to make you believe what they see.
"Symbiosis" opens Wednesday, Nov. 9 and stays at PAM CUT through Feb. 12, 2023, and tickets are still available. Taking part will require a bit of trust for a person to go through the entire experience with other people. You become a hybrid character in the extended reality world — there are six different characters available, including the aforementioned human/butterfly/orchid, named Camille.
The project was inspired by the Donna Haraway book "Staying with the Trouble" and the chapter "The Camille Stories: Children of Compost."
The characters in "Symbiosis" are quite different. One is even a slime mold, which can't see but navigates in sensory ways. Toad is a combination human/toad.
"It's all about how we connect in different ways with other critters and life forms. You're really identifying with one of the characters," Nooren said. "It's really about storytelling."
Said Richardson: "Each character has a different storyline and they all intersect."
Polymorf founders Marcel van Brakel and Mark Meeuwenoord have experimented with smell and sounds in virtual reality. And, it's nothing new for people to go beyond sight and sound in media — think of John Waters' "Odorama" (1981) and "Smell-O-Vision" filmmaking. But, like everything nowadays, it's an art being refined.
Said Nooren: "It's all connected to each other, to get you to see and feel as a different animal and creature. We use all the senses. It goes beyond VR technology, because that's just visual; it gets your whole body into this experience. And it's a multi-user experience. You're connected to other participants. … It's fun to see conversations afterward."
The hosts for a particular journey are the leaders, making the trepidatious participants more at ease.
"The way technology all works in synchronicity, making it work as one — computers, air compressors, pneumatic tubes, body suits with VR trackers — is incredible," Richardson said.
"It's quite a lot to absorb. We train you to think differently and how you think about other creatures. There's a connection to sci-fi and speculative fiction."
"Symbiosis" takes place at the Portland Art Museum Center for an Untold Tomorrow (PAM CUT) gallery and headquarters, 1219 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets are $30 per participant. Each session runs for 45 minutes with up to six people participating.
For more: pamcut.org.
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