Bursting Bubbles

More and more, Toronto’s Media Arts festivals are incorporating Virtual Reality into their programming. And rightly so: the new medium has the potential to push media arts into unprecedented bounds. In Bursting Bubbles, part of the Rendezvous with Madness Festival presented by Workman Arts, Wendy Whaley presents an interactive, biometric VR piece

Nestled in a simple cube of a room, Coenesthesia takes the interactive component of a VR experience a step further. I was greeted by an attendant who instructed me to stick on electrodes onto my body (like an EKG test). Once I connected to the electrodes and the headset, I was instructed to face the fuzzy ball on the floor (another piece called Frisson Portal which visitors are encouraged to hug!), after which I was promptly plunged into Coenesthesia’s universe.

Wendy Whaley, Coenesthesia VR video still. Courtesy of Bustling Bubbles

It’s quite hard to describe everything in this universe. Massive planet-like objects float in outer space, surrounded by an even more massive ring made up of waves. I put my arms out and twist it in order to fly forward, and the first stop I make is to the red heart that is beating to the beat of my own heart, due to the electrodes. I fly into the heart, which is so giant it envelops me whole, and watch and hear my own heart beat – in my own heart. It’s an indescribably surreal sensation – to be outside and inside my heart at the same time. Embodied by my own heart, the extension of my body becomes hazy.

Installation view with Wendy Whaley, Coenesthesia VR video still and Frisson Portal (right). Photo: Sunny Kim

I fly through the other objects. Some are vague spheres of moving water, some are abstract shapes. There’s even a brain I can fly through. If not for the motion sickness and tired arms, I would have explored this universe for hours. In this universe, I am simultaneously my original physical body, a fellow planet, and a soaring star. Fragmentation in the most intriguing sense.

Installation view with Kat Singer’s sculptures (in the middle). Photo: Sunny Kim

The main exhibition space is not without its merit as well. Presented are more poignant works about the confusing nebula that is the mind-body relationship. On the wall facing the entrance, notes written by those living with mental illnesses are displayed along with their prescription medication bottles. Kat Singer’s Message in a Bottle is a collaborative project about the stigma of mental illness, but in a broader sense it comments on the common human condition. The emotions underlying the writers’ personal stories are things that everyone feels in a lifetime – isolation, hopelessness, pain, and shame.

Kat Singer’s Message in a Bottle. Photo: Sunny Kim

Through these shared emotions, these messages connect the readers to not only the writers, but also the people in the reader’s lives. In a small but significant step, Message in a Bottle gently soothes the helplessness, impatience, and misunderstanding that comes from seeing loved ones suffer, but not being to help, running out of sympathy, and lacking compassion because it blurs the dichotomy between self/other; those living with/without mental illness.

Installation view with Kat Singer’s Message in a Bottle (in the back). Photo: Sunny Kim

Bursting Bubbles collectively work to cultivate empathy and blur this dichotomy. Investigations into identification, embodiment, codependency, autonomy are explored in this dynamic group exhibition. Thanks to these investigations, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of others’ madness – as well as our own.

Sunny Kim

*Exhibition information: Bursting Bubbles / Creative Context for Evolving Solitudes, October 12 – 21, 2018,Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC), 32 Lisgar Street, Toronto. Gallery hours: daily 12 – 6 pm

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