BY Monica Matin & Sandrine Ouellet

Imagine yourself surrounded by whimsical creatures in an endless landscape of stars. No matter where you turn, the characters fill the space dressed in vibrant, peculiar costumes. You hear haunting music that they dance to, flipping and twisting their bodies as if performing in a circus just for you. One of them holds a torch to their mouth and licks the fire—you have to back away from the flame just in time to not get burned. You can almost feel their movements brush against you.

And then you take the headset off.

Alegria: A Spark of Light is one of many virtual reality films created by Felix & Paul Studios in Montreal. It is a reimagining of Cirque du Soleil’s production of the same name.

A still from the immersive art production Alegria production

A still frame from the virtual reality film entitled Alegria: A Spark of Light by Felix & Paul Studios in Montreal. Photo courtesy of the PHI Centre.

From virtual reality to public art installations, the interactive and immersive art industry in Montreal has had to adapt to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.

Since touch and proximity are no longer safe forms of interaction, artists have had to reimagine ways to captivate and engage their audience. The pandemic has accelerated art forms that were already gaining popularity, such as virtual reality.

“It’s terrible to put the words ‘good’ and ‘pandemic’ in the same sentence, but the pandemic has been good for the VR industry in general,” says Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios. “People are spending more time at their places and wanting to travel without having to physically move. They have discovered that there’s value in immersive media.”

The PHI Centre, an art hub in Montreal, has found ways of adapting to the pandemic using VR. They launched the project VR TO GO after the first lockdown, wherein they began renting out VR headsets with a program of films by various creators. Several films by Felix & Paul Studios are a part of this program, including Alegria.

The PHI Centre delivers VR headsets with immersive films in Montreal during COVID-19. Video by Sandrine Ouellet.

“The project was right away quite successful,” says Myriam Achard, chief spokesperson at the PHI Centre. “I don’t have exact numbers, but we have 75 headsets in circulation in Montreal and we’ve been sold out for a little while. We couldn’t ask for more.”

Archard using an immersive VR headset

Myriam Achard uses the PHI Centre’s VR TO GO headsets to watch VR films. Photo courtesy of the PHI Centre.

Although the pandemic has skyrocketed the popularity of virtual reality, other parts of the interactive and immersive art field are more difficult to adapt.

Your walk in the city should somehow be artful and touching. Cities are becoming huge, empty canvases.

Matthieu Gagnon Lamarre theorizes that even long after the pandemic, people will remain reluctant to mingle with strangers and touch installations. Lamarre has worked with professors and guided students in the Interactive Media program at UQAM since its inception in 2005. He has worked on projects such as Montréal en Lumière, and is currently collaborating with the city of Laval on an installation.

“This is not the last pandemic [we will face],” says Lamarre. “I believe that some of these changes will remain because by virtualizing or streaming an artwork, we theoretically have access to a larger audience. In order to better adapt itself and survive in extreme cases like the one we’re experiencing, the industry must try to better predict the blow and be more easily adaptable.”

The pandemic has increased the demand for public art, especially since museums and art centres have had to close their doors. Luminotherapie is an event that meets this demand, presenting a series of luminous and interactive public art installations in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles from December 2020 until the end of March, 2021.

“Public art is the only thing left,” says Bernard Duguay, founding CEO of the multimedia studio Lucion. “Your walk in the city should somehow be artful and touching. Cities are becoming huge, empty canvases.”

Lucion created an installation called Nouvelle Lune as part of Luminotherapie. According to Duguay, the installation aims to make its audience feel nostalgic for a time before the pandemic.

Nighttime shot of an immersive art installation in Montreal

Nouvelle Lune is an immersive installation by the multimedia studio Lucion presented in the setting of Luminothérapie | Coeur Battant in the Quartier des spectacles from December 3, 2020 to March 28, 2021. Photo by Sandrine Ouellet.

“I think these are very luminous times,” says Duguay. “Education was confined to schools and museums held history and cinemas made you see movies—but now, everything is coming to the street. I think it’s really a great time to explore this, especially through the city.”

Over the past year, interactive and immersive artists have begun moving towards what Duguay calls “soft interaction,” like sound and abstract speech.

Spectrum is a Luminotherapie installation created by HUB Studio based around speech.

An interactive art installation in Montreal

Spectrum is an immersive installation by HUB Studio presented in the setting of Luminothérapie | Coeur Battant in the Quartier des spectacles from December 3, 2020 to March 28, 2021. Photo by Sandrine Ouellet.

“The main idea behind Spectrum was to show what the dialogue is by using light,” says Antonin Gougeon, a multimedia and sound designer at HUB Studio. “The idea was to be in communication with someone you don’t know, just to see what speech might become when you imagine it in another way.”

Despite the increase in popularity and demand for immersive media, many artists have faced unemployment. Even one of the most prominent brands of the field, Cirque du Soleil, had to lay off 95 per cent of its staff last March following health restrictions.

“The pandemic has had major impacts on the entertainment and art industry,” says visual designer Louis-Philippe Tardif. “I lost my job last April and was out of work until the end of September. Many artists are out of work at the moment and the majority of interactive projects were stopped during the pandemic. As a result, clients aren’t willing to invest money because they don’t have a guarantee that the event will run.”

There are fewer tourists and others visiting downtown. The decrease in festivals and art events results in fewer opportunities for artists and studios to reach the public.

“Since the pandemic, it’s really dropped,” says Duguay, referencing the number of people visiting Lucion’s installations around the world. “I think we had three or four installations running, but they’re regional, they’re smaller. I know before it was in the millions, and now it’s in the hundreds. It’s dropped tremendously.”

The decline in tourists has allowed Montreal to focus on bringing art to its residential areas. Throughout the summer and autumn of 2020, the city introduced a network of “safe active lanes” (VAS) in an effort to open up outdoor spaces and take advantage of reduced automobile traffic.

The city dedicated over 300 km of lanes to pedestrians and cyclists, many of them featuring interactive public artworks. HUB Studio created an installation for the VAS called Duo in Saint-Henri.

An interactive art installation in a Montreal park

Duo, an immersive installation by HUB Studio, brought art to Sir George-Étienne Cartier Square in Saint-Henri, Montreal in October and November of 2020. Photo courtesy of HUB Studio.

“In normal times, there’s not a lot of interactive media and projects in these neighbourhoods, and now we could do it,” says Gougeon. “That’s the most positive change I see in what we’re living through this past year. It’s less of a touristic exhibit, more about the human connection between people.”

In another effort to liven up public spaces, Montreal has set up 26 outdoor “winter stations” in 18 boroughs since December of 2020. Each station has a unique and interactive installation, most of which include colourful lighting and avant-garde furniture. The installations were created by around 20 teams of local designers, including HUB Studio.

A map of the 26 interactive winter stations throughout Montreal. Media by Monica Matin.

Now more than ever, interactive and immersive art is in high demand. It begs the question of where the industry will find itself in the future, be it during or after the pandemic.

“I think it’s going to become very personal,” says Duguay. “We’ve grown out of a corporate approach to all these installations. The pandemic made us talk personally to people. I think people are more into hearing real stories, real problems.”

As for the world of virtual reality, Lajeunesse believes that immersive media is no longer going to be separate from mainstream culture, but will rather become the default way to engage with media.

“Right now, the way we access the digital world is through interfaces, such as a flat phone or a flat frame,” he says. “That has been the case for a number of years, but there’s going to be a point where flat screens stuck inside a rectangle are going to belong in the past. We’re going to enter an era of full immersion.”

Main photo by Sandrine Ouellet.
Published March 18, 2021.