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July 28th, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

"THE INFINITE exhibition is a collective, immersive and original choreography" - Julie Tremblay, Myriam Achard (PHI Centre)

Since July 21, Montreal has been hosting the immersive exhibition THE INFINITE based on virtual reality films shot on the International Space Station (ISS) thanks to a partnership with NASA and a collaboration between Felix & Paul Studios, PHI Studio and Times Studio. We took a look inside this special event (which aims to travel in the US next) with producer Julie Tremblay and Myriam Achard, in charge of new media and public relations at the PHI Center.

THE INFINITE, a larger than life exhibition

Julie Tremblay - THE INFINITE was initiated by Felix & Paul Studios, in the form of documentaries shot in space aboard the ISS: SPACE EXPLORERS, THE ISS EXPERIENCE. They have gathered more than 200 hours of content in total: The first two episodes are available on their Oculus application. Obviously they wanted to go beyond the availability of online content to reach more people through an immersive live experience. Because of our very close relationship with the studio (since 2014), we started in the fall of 2019 to imagine together the setup for what would become THE INFINITE.

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J. T. - For a large-scale XR project like this one, with several people simultaneously in VR and in real time, we had to find a large place to host it. We actually chose to reproduce the ISS in real size! For the PHI Center, it was a real desire to bring together a real audience, a community of people in a single exploration. But we were too small to accommodate the 12500 square feet needed. Our choice naturally fell on a place in Montreal that was quite similar in its artistic desires related to contemporary art, between creation and technology: the Arsenal Contemporary Art.

Myriam Achard - Yes, the synergy with the exhibition space was important for us. This year we also presented CARNE Y ARENA at the Arsenal, where, as with THE INFINITE, we occupied the entire available space. THE INFINITE will remain in Montreal until November 7th, before travelling around North America in other places, and ideally the rest of the world afterwards. Our schedule already includes 12 cities over 5 years in order to present the event to a maximum of spectators: 4 months in each place, and 1 month transition. Our next destination is of course Houston (from December 2021 to April 2022), the city of space adventure.

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Credits: Sean Mollitt

J. T. - Hosting a project like THE INFINITE is obviously a logistical challenge. We need to find spaces that can accommodate free roaming, so no columns or physical constraints! The PHI team has developed its own expertise in this area, and we are already in advanced discussions with different venues that can host the exhibition. We can be operators on site, or train the teams locally - we then need a minimum of 2 weeks for this. This is an important point to ensure the smooth running of the whole set up.

A cosmic adventure in virtual reality

J. T. - THE INFINITE is a rendez-vous with real astronauts. Only 250 people have had the chance to go into space since now! We wanted to give the general public access to this project, which is primarily a documentary. In partnership with NASA, Felix & Paul Studios was able to design and take a 360 camera to the heart of the ISS. But up there, it was the astronauts who filmed (notably the Canadian David Saint-Jacques)! They captured very human moments, even very intimate, and not only the official part or the experiments. We have designed a tour in this sense, with parts without virtual reality before and after the exploration. But at the center, there is a real free roaming in the ISS.

J. T. - The public is invited to activate 360-degree content bubbles, clips of 1 to 2 minutes. There is also a movie to watch while seated, a 7-minute space landscape that offers a view of Earth from the station. The whole thing lasts 35 minutes. After that, each spectator can discover 3 thematic rooms presenting contemporary artworks. In the first part, the Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda is interested in the microscopic and the macroscopic. In the second part, we are faced with a room filled with mirrors, a form of vortex that brings us back to Earth. Finally in the third, the Origin, is a view of the sky in the middle of the day. Light is an important part in each experience.

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M. A. - We can accommodate up to 100 people per hour (or rotation). Theoretically, until the beginning of November, we can open our doors to 93,000 spectators - even if the fall will probably be quieter than this summer. Our set up, beyond the scenography, imposed to organize the advance of each one in an intuitive way. We guide the spectators through each step, like an almost invisible group choreography. And THE INFINITE offers new contents compared to those of SPACE EXPLORERS available on Oculus; it's a real new proposition! Each content discovered during the exhibition is original, but also exactly in its place in our reconstruction of the ISS.

Taking the PHI Center's immersive expertise on the road

J. T. - For THE INFINITE each part was carefully thought out in order not to propose only a VR experience, but something more universal - and that already worked very well with CARNE Y ARENA. It is necessary to accompany the spectator in the emotion, the sensory. The immersive experience is lived in the sound, the smells... On a smaller scale, it is an existing approach at the PHI Center in onboarding and offboarding (before/after the exhibition). We make everyone "land" gently.

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J. T. - At the PHI Center, we've been offering VR events for 5 years. Our expertise allows us to take on new ambitions, such as THE INFINITE or CARNE Y ARENA, because our operators are trained for this. Our teams can consider more monumental exhibitions. How far can we go?

M. A. - This was our goal since we presented an event space during the Biennale of Venice in 2019. And we were in charge of the scenography of 2 works present at Venice VR: BATTLESCAR and A LIFE IN FLOWERS. With our experience, we want to propose new things at the PHI and outside our walls. VR TO GO continues this summer, as all cultural venues have reopened in Montreal (see interview). We will be there to welcome Venice VR again in September, and other exhibitions are proposed at our place as usual - up to 2 or 3 exhibitions per year.

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Credits: Sean Mollitt

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