Bodysuits, custom scents and snacks: the symbiosis at Portland’s PAM CUT challenges our view of reality
Imagine donning an elaborate custom-designed jumpsuit and embarking on an immersive journey, 200 years into the future, where you’ll have to adapt to a collapsing ecosystem. That is Symbiosis, an extended reality experience that includes not only sight and sound (as in a traditional VR experience), but also touch, smell, and taste. Symbiosis had its US premiere last month at the Center for an Untold Tomorrow at the Portland Museum of Art (formerly the Northwest Film Center).
It was created by the Dutch design collective. polymorphic organism. Oregon Art Beat producer Eric Slade spoke with Symbiosis co-directors Marcel van Brakel and Mark Meeuwenoord about art’s role in environmental crises, its love/hate relationship with technology, and a future where you could experience the happiness of your dog.
eric slades: What do you hope people take away from Symbiosis?
Marcel van Brakel: I think that within Symbiosis people have to put aside 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 study is that it not only changes how you experience your body but also how you experience reality. Open a new space for new perspectives.
Of course, we are very concerned about what is happening to the world now. And I believe that the current state where everything is built and created just to serve humans and their human needs is no longer sustainable. We have to change that. You have to do something fundamentally different.
brand meeuwenoord: I think that as artists you have this opportunity to explore the possibilities of rethinking with the tools and knowledge that you can actually do. For example, we really notice that virtual reality is supposed to be the “empathy machine”. It’s what can really put you in this other perspective. and can for your head. But what about the body itself? How do you get into that other perspective? So I think that’s the concept that we’re trying to challenge.
slade: Tell me more about how you approach complex social issues from your perspective as artists.
of Brakel: I think that by playing in this virtual reality of what could be you train yourself for future scenarios. And I think the greatest importance of being a storyteller is that you offer that to humanity.
And if you do it right, some things will stick around and transfer to other people. If the thing is really powerful, it will copy itself into other brains like a virus. And it will spread and people will help it grow.
As an artist, sometimes you feel like calling out to the desert and no one listens to you, but I think that’s not true. If you create powerful stories, you actually have the power to change things.
slade: It looks like a very complicated technology that 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 encoding part, there’s the hardware part and I try to explore everything. But I think the starting point is always to challenge ourselves.
We use seven different computers. They have to talk to each other, they have to serve the RV, they have to serve all kinds of pneumatic systems that are connected to the RV itself. We have to write our own software to be able to do all of that interactive.
And we really like that this technology, you can touch it, see it work and see yourself connected to it.
slade: What do you see as the future of this type of technology or this type of experience? Where do you think it’s going to go?
of Brakel: I don’t know about the future of XR (extended reality) because that’s the fun of 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 the most fun to do.
meeuwenoord: Many of the technologies being developed right now try to predict what will happen next. And I think maybe we shouldn’t know some things 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 amazing forms of technologies in the future.
of Brakel: With Polymorph we did an experiment with hormonal narratives, like totally in the body, with hormones directly influencing the brain rather than something outside of the body. But the science is not there yet. It is too difficult to predict what happens if we mix hormones to create an emotional trip. But I think maybe in the future we can do an emotional transplant with you and your dog. So if the dog is really happy, you feel the same way. I’m looking forward to that kind of thing (laughs).
So I don’t know if that’s the future, but we definitely think the future of tech will be more feminine. It will be more chemical, biological, hybrid, fluid than the current one.
meeuwenoord: We hope so.
of Brakel: We hope so.
Symbiosis was sold out until the end of its PAM CUT run.