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Spheres, Rockefeller Center, 2019. Credit: Kat Harris

PHI in New York: Making Space for Art

  • Article
  • PHI Studio
By  Lynne Faubert

A long hall. A black hole. A timeless space opens, unlike any seen before. Long black curtains line the room evoking the boundlessness of infinity—are they the beginning or the end of what’s visible? Spheres of light orbit overhead, celestial bodies almost within reach. Below, glassy concrete creates the illusion of floating in the atmosphere. A giant mirror catches and reflects every wave of light in a visual echo loop. Welcome to the world of Spheres, a three-part virtual reality experience directed by Eliza McNitt and staged by PHI.

You can feel the pride in the air. PHI’s artistic and technical team had created a striking exhibition in Echo: The Sound of Space for the Canadian premiere of Spheres. And now none other than the Rockefeller Center has invited them to come down from Montreal to recreate their original installation for the work’s public premiere in New York City. The must-see experience will be in Montreal until February 3 and in New York from January 18 to March 3, 2019. “We were absolutely blown away by the installation at the PHI Centre, so we really wanted to work with them at the Rockefeller Center. I’d never seen such a viewing room for a virtual work, such a vision of what’s possible with this medium,” says Jess Engel, producer of Spheres. And apparently the Rockefeller Center agrees. On their invitation, the PHI team met with them in October 2018, and flew to the Big Apple in January. In a matter of weeks an empty space at the iconic address would be transformed.

"VR technology is cold. My job is to warm it up."
Spheres, Rockefeller Center, 2019. Credit: Kat Harris


To the eye, the Spheres installation is deceptively simple, says producer Julie Tremblay. “In fact, it’s the simplicity of the design that makes this installation so beautiful and compelling. It was conceived for the PHI Centre, which already had curtained walls and a reflective floor.” At the Rockefeller Center, the installation is presented by Tishman Speyer, one of the world’s premier real estate development and management firms. “Here, Spheres is set in a space that has been vacant for several years, where the walls were not even finished, let alone painted, with a lot of ductwork to navigate—the challenge was largely technical.” While technology is always a challenge, transforming a space is definitely among the talents of PHI designer Sarah Migos and artistic director Vincent Toi. “VR technology is cold,” says Migos. “My job is to warm it up. With virtual reality, everything happens in the headset, not around you. So the designer has to imbue the space with a certain warmth, and make people comfortable.” Since each installation comes with its own limitations and possibilities for creating an experience, for Migos the question is: “How do you make viewers feel comfortable and know what to expect? How will they know how to move in the space? With a headset on, you can’t just wander about. You have to stay within a certain perimeter.” The designer must also think about older guests and people prone to dizziness or motion sickness, who might need a bench. Ergonomics are part of any good designer’s job. The technology itself becomes a real mindbender when juggling the countless elements of any installation. “As the producer,” says Julie Tremblay, “my role is to take the artistic director’s mockup and make sure it looks even better in real life, to bring the piece to life within the confines of the technical realities.”

"You step into the experience before you even put on the headset."
Spheres, Rockefeller Center, 2019. Credit: Kat Harris


Here you step into the scene before you even put on the headset. “The idea behind the hall leading into the exhibition was to recreate the magnetic pull of a black hole. The mirror too,” explains Migos. “Since we knew Spheres was going to be the centrepiece of Echo, once we had that concept of attraction, the rest of the design just fell into place. The flow within the exhibit funnels you into Spheres.” For Vincent Toi, “a good artistic director has to create shows that are ‘Instagrammable,’ if I may use the word. It’s become an important factor for museums and exhibition spaces. We wanted to create an engaging, attractive space where viewers will want to take a selfie so the work can travel farther on social media.” The Rockefeller Center installation is a turning point for Spheres, says Jess Engel. “There are no standard practices in VR for ‘how’ to bring these expensive works to life. The design of the space should always be an extension of the work, but it’s not. At festivals, the artists suggest certain creative settings, but there are limitations due to cost and space. PHI has a real understanding of the entire VR experience and technology, which enhances what you see when you put on the headset.”

Spheres, Rockefeller Center, 2019. Credit: Kat Harris

While PHI was developing the Echo design, the Spheres team was on the other side of the world, taking the Grand Prize for Best Virtual Reality at the Venice Film Festival. “We had to leave it in their hands,” confesses Engel, “to the point that when we got to Montreal, everything was already done. And it was perfect! So beautiful, so elegant—right away you could feel their profound respect for the artistic work and a desire to create a full-body experience for the viewer. A lot of times, as the producer, I’m the one who has to push, push, push. I spend my time saying, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ or ‘No, that’s not how we do it!’ But not this time. The PHI team really know how to present a work—and its artists!—in the best light with world-class design.” Spheres was presented until February 3, 2019,  in Montreal and until March 3, 2019, in New York. The New York production was presented by Tishman Speyer with the support of PHI and RYOT Studio.

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