In Egypt this month, President Joe Biden and other world leaders are in talks to tackle a global crisis at the United Nations climate change conference known as COP27.
Starting Saturday, the Portland Art Museum will confront the climate crisis with a different kind of diplomacy — creative.
Fusing art and technology, the new virtual reality installation “Symbiosis” puts the audience in a world that reflects the impacts of global warming. Audiences will visit several imaginary worlds designed to make us all care more about our real planet.
“Symbiosis is this multi-user VR experience that’s really more than VR,” says filmmaker and co-creator Marcel van Brakel. “It’s really like an installation in which the audience get this robotic wearable.”
Van Brakel is a member of the Dutch design collective Polymorf who began seeding the idea for this installation at the Sundance Institute.
“You can be a slime mold. You can be a Colorado river toad, hybrid with a human, a monarch butterfly combined with an orchid and a human,” van Brakel said.
The physical setting of the installation is inside the colorful studio space called PAMcut, the Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow. PAMcut’s goal is to showcase artists — like the Polymorf crew — who peer into the future using the tools and tricks of cinema. Each performance experience lasts about 45 minutes and includes six audience members who will see, hear, feel, smell and even taste fantastical new worlds.
To start, museum staff will help participants zip into costumes that look like space suits, fashioned with tubing, air bladders and VR goggles.
Then the fun begins.
Depending on the character you become, you might find yourself hopping around a lush primordial forest in search of yummy flies in the role of the toad with partially bound hands and feet. The toad is just one of several bizarre characters you can become inside the immersive story. Some characters get to “swim” while others fly or slither.
“With Symbiosis, we kind of explore the possibility of a future —of future scenarios, in which society is not organized in a human-centric way,” van Brakel said.
Polymorf’s inspiration to explore that non human-centric society through art comes from the ecofeminist, futurist writer Donna J. Haraway, whose 2016 book “Staying with the Trouble” explores the good that might happen if we weren’t so quick to ignore a damaged Earth.
“Perhaps offering something else,” Haraway said in a 2014 talk in Denmark. “Something more livable.”
Haraway suggests that “livable” in the future means a world where human bodies and nature fuse together, become one and then collaborate to survive on our struggling planet.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The idea is that humans and other living things, like plants or animals, might join bodies and work together to troubleshoot environmental problems.
Symbiosis means “living with,” but Haraway argues perhaps the more important idea we should consider as humans is “Sympoiesis,” which means “making with” because living with just isn’t enough anymore if we are looking ahead for new ways to survive.
“There has been an explosion within the biologies of becoming with,” explains Haraway, “with an understanding that to be a one at all, you must be a many. And it’s not a metaphor.”
Symbiosis co-director Mark Meeuwenoord acknowledges the concept is challenging, but is quick to point out that the time has come to consider all ideas, even the unexpected ones given the severity of the climate crisis humanity is facing.
“[It’s] maybe not the best strategy to constantly try to solve and clean things up,” said Meeuwenoord. “But maybe adjust ourselves and be adept in a way that maybe we can actually handle the trouble.”
How that works inside the Symbiosis VR goggles and high-tech suits is a mixture of cooperating with the other people in your group while trusting your senses to get you through the story. It’s not a competition. It’s “Symbiosis” or “living with.” Otherwise… well, there isn’t really an otherwise, says van Brakel.
“We are really in trouble,” he said. “Things are really collapsing. We can’t just move forward in the way that we did. We get used to this world where everything is controllable and makeable and changeable, and we have the full power to do so. We’ve kind of lost the ability to accept failure or pain or mischief.”
And while climate change is never a pleasant topic to tackle — even through art — there’s plenty of fun and fancy design to enjoy inside “Symbiosis.” The haptic suits are by a Dutch fashion designer, the scents are custom blends of everything from flowers and food to animal scat, and the vegetarian nibbles are crafted by a Michelin-starred restaurant in The Netherlands. The journey here is all about multi-sensory surprise and finding new ways of doing.
“Definitely rethinking the trouble,” said van Brakel, “without necessarily fixing it.”
“Symbiosis” makes its American debut this weekend in Portland and runs through February. So far, nearly 1,700 advance tickets have been sold.