Imagine stepping into an elaborate custom-designed bodysuit and embarking on an immersive journey, 200 years in the future, where you have to adapt to a collapsing ecosystem. This is Symbiosis, an extended reality experience that includes not just sight and sound (as in a traditional virtual reality experience), but also touch, smell and taste. Symbiosis had its U.S. premiere last month at the Portland Art Museum’s Center for An Untold Tomorrow (formerly the Northwest Film Center).
It was created by the Dutch design collective Polymorf. Oregon Art Beat producer Eric Slade spoke with Symbiosis co-directors Marcel van Brakel and Mark Meeuwenoord about the role of art in environmental crises, their love/hate relationship with technology, and a future where you might be able to experience your dog’s happiness.
Eric Slade: What do you hope people take away from Symbiosis?
Marcel van Brakel: I think within Symbiosis people have to let go of their human body position, their body architecture, and move towards a different perspective, not only in a mental or philosophical way but also in a physical way.
And what I noticed during the early experiments in the studio is that it not only changes how you experience your body but also how you experience reality. It opens up new space for new perspectives.
We are of course very worried about what’s happening to the world now. And I think that the current state where everything is built and created only to serve humans and their human needs is not sustainable anymore. We have to change that. Something needs to be done fundamentally differently.
Mark Meeuwenoord: I think as artists you have this opportunity to explore the possibilities of rethinking with the tools and the knowledge you can actually do. For example, we really noticed VR is supposed to be the “empathy machine.” It’s the thing that can actually put you in this other perspective. And it can for your head. But what about the body itself? How do you get in that other perspective? So I think that’s the concept we tried to challenge.
Slade: Tell me more about how you approach complex social issues from your perspective as artists.
van Brakel: I think by playing around in this virtual reality of what might be you train yourself for future scenarios. And I think that’s the biggest importance of being a storyteller is that you offer that to humanity.
And if you do that well some things will stick and will be transferred to other people. If the thing is really powerful it will be copied into other brains like a virus. And it will spread itself and people will help it grow.
As an artist sometimes you feel like calling in the desert and nobody’s hearing you, but I think it’s not true. If you make powerful stories you actually have power to change stuff.
Slade: It looks like some very complicated technology you use to create Symbiosis.
Meeuwenoord: I really like and hate (laughs) the complexity of all the facets of this. There’s the sound part, there’s the visual part, there’s the coding part, there’s the hardware part and I try to explore it all. But I think that the starting point is to always challenge ourselves.
We use seven different computers. They have to talk to each other, they have to serve the VR, they have to serve all sorts of pneumatic systems that are connected to the VR itself. We have to write our own software to be able to make that all interactive.
And we really like that this technology, you can touch it, you see it working, and you see yourself being connected to it.
Slade: What do you see as the future of this kind of technology or this kind of experience? Where do you think it’s going to go?
van Brakel: I don’t know about the future of XR (extended reality) because that’s the fun thing about it -— it will change all the time. And that’s really what it should be. It should be changing in places where we don’t expect it to be. That’s what we find most fun to do.
Meeuwenoord: A lot of technologies actually being developed right now are about predicting what’s going to happen next. And I think maybe we should not know some stuff and be surprised sometimes and not be in control. Because all these technologies are about control, control, control and predict and predict and predict. I would like to see more surprising forms of technologies in the future.
van Brakel: With Polymorf we did an experiment with hormonal storytelling, like totally in body, with hormones influencing the brain directly instead of with something outside of the body. But the science is not there yet. It’s way too hard to predict what happens if we kind of mix up hormones to create an emotional journey. But I think maybe in the future we will be able to kind of make an emotional transplant with you and your dog. So if the dog is really happy, you feel the same thing. I’m waiting for that kind of stuff (laughs).
So I don’t know if that’s the future, but we definitely think that the future of technology will be more feminine. It will be more chemical, biological, hybrid, fluid than the current one.
Meeuwenoord: We hope so.
van Brakel: We hope so.
Symbiosis is sold out through the end of its PAM CUT run.