Each spring Chromatic, a Montreal-based team of artists and entrepreneurs, organizes a festival to celebrate Montreal’s art scene and connect it with the art scenes of other cities. This spring they’ve partnered with artists from Toronto. The 2016 festival is running from May 19th to the 22nd in Hangar 16, a former hangar-turned-chic venue. The location of Chromatic therefore exemplifies a process that much of the artwork explores: new forms emerging from older ones.
Marilou Lyonnais, one of the artists, touches upon this in the statement for her piece, Étude no’1 – Plier des sites internet, when she writes, “The relationship between the image and society has changed.” The internet, digital media, and virtual imaging now monopolize visual representation. It is due to a similar belief that Alec Mathewson, another Chromatic artist, created his sculpture: The Video Fires: Archives Edition. In a ring of cinder blocks, a heap of planks flickers not with flame, but rather images from “vintage educational propaganda and promotional films,” thereby creating a strange feeling of anachronism. At a trendy art exhibit that prides itself on showcasing the latest local artists, we stare at a playfully old-fashioned campfire where retro images taken from internet archives are contemporary art.
Ubisoft’s virtual reality game, Eagle Flight, further shows how digital imaging is expanding into familiar realities. After donning a clunky headset, you adopt a bird’s-eye-view—literally—of an idyllic, post-apocalyptic Paris. Deer run over cobblestone roads and boats clog the Seine. The graphics are so good that I felt vertigo soaring near the Eiffel Tower. Other installations also drive home the fact that digital technology has triggered a societal paradigm shift, and that the aesthetic potential of both cyberspace and newly irrelevant technologies are uncharted territory for artists. Edwin Janzen, for example, takes extreme close-ups of remote controls, an increasingly outmoded technology, in Remotes. In the photos, dust, hair, and grime cover buttons. Ruin porn, the (at times unethically fetishistic) genre of photography that finds the grandeur of impermanence in crumbling buildings, now finds expression in what was once a cutting-edge technology.
Likewise, Cadence, by The Doodys, is a glowing print in which fuzzy, multi-coloured striations overlap ambiguous body parts. The piece explores the poetic nuances of distortion, showing that there is as much beauty in the glitch as in the bygone. Lauren Pelc McArthur’s films, Twisted Light Clearance I & II, do something similar. They feature shapes reminiscent of Cubist renditions of cells under microscopes, or misshapen double-helixes coated in the sort of iridescent gasoline seen in puddles. They’re strange, hypnotic.
Chromatic is like a thought-provoking digital playground. It is clear that some pieces, like the Collectif Black Box’s Mémoire Collective, surpass the mere rhetoric of cyberspace—namely that the internet is a place that expedites forging connections—and actually do foster them. Huge interconnected screens reflect viewers as humanoid grids, and as a result, people dance and laugh together in front of the piece. But other displays verge on feeling alienating. “Deep Inside Hong Kong,” by Charline Dally, features bleak, slowed-down shots of Hong Kong, people walking, and snippets of a jungle, all set to eerie electronic music. Charline Dally explains on her Tumblr that her intention is to take us on a “strange voyage” to a Hong Kong that she wants to depict as, “a wild city where jungles and buildings, rituals and high technologies, coexist.” She wants us to experience the same mystifying estrangement that “an alien ignorant of all life on Earth” would feel, but the film instead seems like a conversion of people’s quotidian lives into a voyeuristic, slightly dehumanizing thought-experiment for her Western audience. I felt uneasy watching slow-motion clips of people in Hong Kong set to unnerving ambient music, as if they were vaguely menacing creatures to be studied. It reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s colonialist, exoticizing short stories.
Other exhibits, like Eagle Flight, made me wonder about the nature of virtual reality. After all, Eagle Flight was so immersive that it became strange to think that there were actual people all around me. Will virtual reality ever stop being the fun and exciting getaway from real life? Will it become the next big past-time, the way television once was and the way the internet is now? Could it ever become bigger? How will digital technology, this cultural and economic juggernaut, shape society?
In addition to showcasing a suave art exhibit, hosting late-night parities, and facilitating workshops and panel discussions, Chromatic raises many important questions. Now it’s up to those lucky enough to attend to ponder them.