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PHI WE Live Vernissage SL 1714 Sandra Larochelle 1
Credit: Sandra Larochelle

We Live in an Ocean of Air: An Exploration of Breath

  • Article
  • Arts
  • Immersive Technologies
  • PHI Centre
By  Jackson Palmer

Despite our dependence on nature, we often struggle to situate our role as humans within the natural world. We Live in an Ocean of Air directly confronts this conflict of modernity through multi-sensory immersive virtual reality, using the technology to produce an innovative portrayal of the invisible, yet fundamental, relationships which tie humanity to nature.

PHI WE Live Vernissage We Live 4 Sandra Larochelle

We Live in an Ocean of Air, which is now open to the public at the PHI Centre, is London-based collective Marshmallow Laser Feast’s latest genre-bending VR exploration of the connections that link humanity and the natural world. Gaining international prominence with their previous pieces In the Eyes of the Animal and Treehugger:Wawona, MLF has since become one of the world’s leading creators of virtual reality experiences. We Live in an Ocean of Air continues their thematic exploration of the hidden networks of nature, this time centering on the process of breathing in natural life.

Set in the Sequoia National Forest in Northern California, the exhibition draws a parallel between the oxygen we need to survive and the life-giving properties of forests. Meditative in both pacing and subject, the exhibition erases the boundaries between the body and the air surrounding us to show how natural processes such as respiration form a symbiotic relationship between humanity and organic life. As I put on the audio-visual headset, strapped motion sensors to both wrists, clipped a heart rate monitor to my earlobe, then put on an electronic backpack to which everything was connected, I was accompanied by a feeling of impending departure from the normal world and entrance to another, different universe.


PHI WE Live Vernissage We Live 13 Sandra Larochelle

The exhibition begins with a command to breathe, and as you exhale, small blue particles stream from your mouth and swirl upward in curling, smoke-like plumes of what I interpreted as carbon dioxide. Light slowly fades in, and ferns, trees, and other forms of vegetation begin to take shape. More blue particles move through the air above, eddying around the massive trunks of the Sequoias in slowly pulsing rivulets. I was drawn to a particularly huge Sequoia which dominated the area. Something about how it towered over me made me feel like I was in a real environment, and though I recognized it was a constructed, man-made image, I could feel my brain register the object as nevertheless real. As I rose into the air the forest began to lose shape, morphing into the branching trunks of a pulmonary tract, the unseen structure inside our lungs. The centrality of air in our biosphere, as well as the initial command to breathe, came full circle.

PHI WE Live Vernissage We Live 7 Sandra Larochelle

We Live in an Ocean of Air shows how natural structures, such as currents of oxygen and the structure of our lungs, are both necessary and invisible, unseen and yet beautiful. I felt myself arrive at a new visual, if not sensory, understanding of how the shared need for air connects us with the organic process of vegetative life. There was a dreamlike quality to the feeling of exploring the forest. Much like breathing underwater, walking through a digital environment defies the software encoded into our brains through millions of years of evolution, not to mention a lifetime of experience. I was at times awed by the novelty of the exhibition, but there was also a tranquility to its vision which made me feel like I was somewhere completely new and yet familiar. Paradoxically, the 20-minute experience was, in a way, an escape from the uneasy relationship I personally have with my phone and computer, and it gave credence to the idea of “virtual travelling,” which may prove a unique way to experience new environments for a fraction of the environmental and financial cost. Though our obsession with technology has severed many of our connections to nature, it is ironic that VR can help us renew those connections without the excessive carbon consumption produced by plane travel. The unique sensory and visual aspects of the experience bridged the gap between nature and technology and asked me to reconsider my role as a consumer of natural resources.

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I can’t remember the last time the acts of walking, listening, and observing felt entirely new and untainted by the patina of everyday experience. Through their innovative approach to multi-sensory virtual reality, Marshmallow Laser Feast reimagines the unseen, providing a fresh method of understanding the hidden relationships which not only make life possible, but beautiful in complexity. By transforming the forest into a malleable, visionary form, We Live in an Ocean of Air enables us to understand our role in the biosphere in a new way, one which brings together the divided worlds of nature and technology into a thoughtful and meditative experience that will challenge you to rethink your relationship with the Earth.

We Live in an Ocean of Air will remain open to the public until January 16, 2022.

Buy your tickets now – go somewhere you never thought possible.

We Live in an Ocean of Air was made by London-based immersive art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast in collaboration with Natan Sinigaglia and Mileece I’Anson. Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) creates immersive experiences, expanding perception and exploring our connection with the natural world. Fusing architectural tools, contemporary imaging techniques, and performance with tactile forms, MLF sculpt spaces that lay dormant until animated by curiosity and exploration. Informed as much by playfulness as research, MLF breaks the boundaries to worlds beyond our senses.

PHI WE Live Vernissage SL 1714 Sandra Larochelle 1

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