Even long before this period of isolation began, humans have been hardwired for connection. So when the mysterious-looking PHI_portal appeared on the main floor of the PHI Centre in 2020, Montrealers were given the unique opportunity to connect with people located halfway across the world. Inside this big gold box–the first of its kind in Canada–immersive live stream technology helped make spontaneous encounters transcend oceans, borders and even languages.
While the public was able to take part in socially distanced connections during season one of the PHI_portal last summer, this was no longer possible when Montreal’s second lockdown was announced. Our curatorial team had to quickly adapt the fall programming for season two, making a pivot towards intimate encounters between artists instead.
By inviting Montreal-based artists to connect with international artists, located in portals around the world in cities like Berlin and Milwaukee, season two allowed art to triumph over the current global predicament. Season two gave the power back to the artists. No matter if the connection was based around music, community, research or experimentation, the result was always the same: the two creatives involved felt closer to one another by the end of the experience.
In an attempt to forever capture the influence of these fleeting yet powerful moments, The Artists are Present video series was born. Filmed behind the closed doors of the PHI Centre, it gives an insider’s look at the human connection that was experienced inside of the gold box in season two. A connection so deep it was almost palpable in the room, even through the slight glitches of technology that sometimes occured.
The series also shines a light on how these curated encounters have impacted the artistic visions of those involved. After speaking with several of the Montreal artists featured in The Artists are Present, the below stream of consciousness was edited together based on their personal recountings of their PHI_portal experience.
Jai Nitai Lotus | PHI_portal | The artists are present
"I think that human connection is really everything. Art is for the people. It’s for feelings. It’s for understanding. It’s one of the most powerful tools for building collaboration."
"I do art to connect with people and I chose dance because it’s a universal language. I’m an immigrant from South America, so my mother tongue is Spanish. But I speak French because I now live in Montreal, a Francophone city, and I also speak English. The amount of times in my life that I have been lost in translation is incredible. By using the body as a medium, it gives me complete freedom to connect without having barriers."
"Human connection has always been at the core of what interests me. When you’re in the studio, working on a sculpture or a painting, there’s only the relation between you and the work of art. But as soon as a new person, like a friend, comes into that studio, everything changes. I’ve always been interested in that kind of energy between people. The idea of the encounter has always been essential for me."
Bettina Szabo | PHI_portal | The artists are present
"The portal definitely makes it feel like we’re the only two people somewhere in space and time. I had done some of my earlier research on Zoom, which was really difficult because it’s hard to forget the small screen. But the portal provides a dark room that completely blends in with the screen. And it’s full body, so it really puts us in a bubble, creating this little microcosm that belongs only to us during the time that the portal is activated."
"In the beginning, I would observe the two people put into the portal and they’re almost in this state of fragility. They’re being asked really personal questions by a computer while standing in front of a stranger. But then, maybe because the algorithm is saying things they don’t understand, people start to negotiate against it and they realize that they’re together in negotiating something that’s artificial. Even something as simple as, “What did she say?” makes them realize that they’re together in their humanness. I think that is when openness starts to happen inside the portal and this really intimate bond starts to form between them."
Adam Kinner | PHI_portal | The artists are present
"For me, music is an antidote to speech in that you can say something more nuanced and meaningful. My connection happened in October 2020 and I remember having this distinct feeling of there being an avalanche of meaningless words in the political realm. So I felt a sort of sense of relief to have someone in the portal tell me something through music, something that was specifically meant for me. It was very moving. I felt like I could hear something true."
"There’s always a gap of a second or less than a second in the portal. We initially wanted to try having two guitar players for Adam Kinner’s connection, but this little gap doesn’t allow you to keep a stable tempo. We realized that it would be better to find an instrument that was more organic in the air. Adam’s saxophone was perfect for that and we decided to have him connect with a trumpet player friend in Berlin. However, we still ended up encountering very specific technical problems, such as the little gap or the instruments being too loud for the microphone. But for me, that’s exactly the kind of experimentation I want to see: how the technique becomes the limit of what we can do. And through the process, you start asking yourself why something doesn’t work. Not just technically, but why historically and what does it mean? It’s very interesting because then the process became a bit like two people who were talking too loud. So that meant that you had to have one person talk while the other person listened, and then vice versa."
"We decided it would be best to improvise in a way that was like, “I will play sounds for you with my saxophone and then you will play sounds for me.”
"Through our connections with Portland and Mexico City, the Montreal artists of the NBS collective were exposed to some really different fusions of sounds that they hadn’t heard yet. And even though they might not have understood every word during some of the exchanges, due to language, I think the experience of playing their music for these international artists really surpassed the explanation of words."
"There was a woman during XLOWW’s portal connection who was merging video game sounds with music. And I’ve never heard that before, it was amazing. The experience really helped widen my perspective on music. It inspired me to not be scared to be different, because there are lots of people around the world who are doing just that."
"One of the great things about the portal is that it shows that we can allow ourselves to experiment and just let things happen. Like, yes, let’s produce a condition through some parameters, but let’s ultimately let the thing make itself, you know?"
"I mean, it’s 2021 and we do have Zoom to facilitate that one on one connection with someone. But through the portal, we were able to connect with someone in Milwaukee who’s experienced some of the same things as us here in Montreal but under a completely different context." "We did have a few glitches during the conversation and we were aware of the technology, but it was interesting to speak with someone with the same mindset as us who grew up in a completely different environment. We really just want to show the youth in our communities that there’s a world of possibility out there if you just go outside your bubble. But, at the same time, we know that it’s not always that easy."
The Artists are Present is now available to stream in its entirety. The video series invites you to experience a piece of the PHI_portal through the lens of the artists involved in season 2. A big thank you to all of the local and international artists that allowed their creativity, vulnerability and light to flow through the PHI_portal in 2020.
About the author
Julia Borsellino is an actress and freelance writer based out of Toronto. She finds people endlessly fascinating and loves analyzing what makes them tick. In her downtime, Julia can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee while working on her first feature-length script Paper Bag.
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- Art & Society