Brownstein: The air we share at core of immersive exhibit


We Live in an Ocean of Air lets you follow the journey of your own breath.

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The only thing that could have topped this latest eye-popping exhibit at the Phi Centre would have been including the classic Police tune Every Breath You Take channeling gently through our headphones. The exhibit, We Live in an Ocean of Air, opening Wednesday and running until Jan. 16, essentially allows visitors to follow the paths of their own breath in an immersive multi-sensory installation that showcases the distinctive bond between humans and nature.

The exhibition is a trip, both edifying and magical, and may conjure up memories for some from another epoch of wild voyages of the mind undertaken through a type of mushroom not used as a pizza topping. The show’s creative director, Barney Steel of the London-based Marshmallow Laser Feast, insists that’s not entirely accidental in terms of the desired effect.

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But this trip doesn’t entail the ingestion of any illicit plant-like, liquid or other element into our systems. Visitors are simply outfitted with state-of-the-art virtual headsets, knapsacks, heart-rate monitors and breath sensors in tracking our body movements. Next thing we know we find ourselves smack in the middle of California’s Sequoia National Park, cosying  up to and even trying to climb ginormous trees more than 30 storeys high. We are not only able to scope our breath in tiny bubble-like forms, but we can also see them interact with the exhalations of the giant trees as well as the other vegetation and animal life swirling around.

The point behind this installation is to put visitors in a position that we can actually see ourselves become at one with nature, without having teachers try to hammer that concept into us. Photosynthesis lectures in high school biology classes were never this instructional, or fun. And all in just 20 minutes, which is roughly the duration of this excursion.

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This is the ultimate symbiotic relationship, and through the wonders of virtual reality, that message is driven home most graphically.

“Too often, we tend to view trees and other vegetation as no different than lifeless buildings,” Steel says.

Those perceptions are certain to change.

“We see the relationships of all bodies of nature with other bodies,” he says. “We often tend to think that somehow we are separate, but here we see the connections we have. We’re taking people to experience the world beyond the limits of their perceptions. And we’re further exploring those narratives. Without breathing, for example, we would all die very quickly.”

Sadly, that latter point is all too real with forest fires now raging in and around Sequoia National Park. Firefighters have tried to protect the famed giant trees by wrapping the bases of some with fire-resistant material or through controlled burns of vegetation, but this is a battle that’s far from finished. All of which, Steel points out, speaks to the ravages of climate change.

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We Live in an Ocean of Air was originally slated to be presented over a year ago at the Phi Centre, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. The Phi Centre had previously collaborated with the psychedelic-sounding Marshmallow Laster Feast in 2018 on the popular immersive presentation Particles of Existence, which incorporated the latter’s two exhibits Treehugger: Wawona and In the Eyes of the Animal, tackling everything from animal migration on Earth to space travel.

The pandemic has largely curbed most of our travel plans to some exotic spots on the planet, and forest fires in California have only exacerbated that situation in terms of taking in the Sequoia National Park. So the next best thing — at a tiny fraction of the price — just may be getting plopped into the middle of the park in this exhibition.

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Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein goes through the new We Live in an Ocean of Air at the Phi Centre on Tuesday.
Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein goes through the new We Live in an Ocean of Air at the Phi Centre on Tuesday. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Similarly, tourists would be hard-pressed to take a trip into outer space these days, unless they were close buddies of billionaire space explorers Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson. So another more viable alternative is a virtual voyage at The Infinite exhibit, the ultimate immersive experience bringing visitors as close as most mere mortals will ever get to outer space — without falling into it. The exhibit, which teleports visitors to the International Space Station, continues until Nov. 7 at Arsenal Contemporary Art Montreal.

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AT A GLANCE: We Live in an Ocean of Air opens Wednesday and continues until Jan. 16 at the Phi Centre, 315 St-Paul St. W. The exhibit runs Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are $22.75 to $24.75; students $17.75 to $19.75; and seniors $19.75 to $21.75. Call 514-225-0525.

The Infinite runs until Nov. 7 at the Arsenal Art Contemporary Montreal, 2020 William St. Tickets start at $35. Reservations:

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