• G1: Francisco González-Rosas, Nico Williams
• G2: VahMirè (Ludmila Steckelberg), Ilana Yacine Harris-Babou
• G3: Nation to Nation, Skawennati, Dara Birnbaum, Brendan Fernandes
• G4: Mara Eagle, Shanie Tomassini
• G5: Wu Tsang
• G6: Chun Hua Catherine Dong
• G7: Helena Martin Franco
• Entrance - 465 Saint-Jean Street: Quentin VerCetty
Cheryl Sim: Hi, my name is Cheryl Sim and I’m the Managing Director and Curator of the PHI Foundation.
CS: The PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art is a non-profit cultural organization dedicated to the presentation of impactful experiences with contemporary art.
DF: Each year we present two to three major exhibitions, a dynamic program of public events, and a forward thinking education program.
CS: All of these are offered free of charge, to underscore a commitment to breaking down entrenched perceptions of what art is and who it is for, to affirm that art is for us all, and part of our everyday lives.
DF: Together we’ll walk you through the exhibition, and share some entry points and ideas on each of the works on display.
DF: I was thrilled to receive the invitation from you, Cheryl, to co-curate this exhibition, since technology has been a running theme in my doctoral research, which focused on contemporary photography and the philosophy of technology. That very specific interest spilled over, in a broader sense, into my work as an educator and cultural worker, and the term became a key concept for thinking critically and communally about all the things we do today as citizens, workers, family members, friends, and lovers. It seemed necessary, in that context, to dislodge technology from its hi-fi and hi-tech incarnations, and to imagine it more broadly as a means to help us enter into contact with the world. Technology is, first and foremost, a tool—so how do we use it? And, as a counterpart, how does it use us?
CS: As someone who’s been critical of technological fetishism, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell was a major revelation, showing me that online spaces can be places of emancipation. With all of these thematics in mind, the process of selecting artists was really smooth actually—we were very much in sync with our desire to have a multiplicity of voices and approaches that were also intergenerational. What we experience throughout the exhibition are works that reveal, as you so beautifully put it, “the complex feelings generated by daily interactions with technologies both celebratory and critical: between the opportunities to connect and to imagine other spaces, and the constant pressure to perform within and for these spaces.”
CS: So let’s get started by going into G1, the first floor gallery in the 451 Saint-Jean Street building.
G1: Francisco González-Rosas, Nico Williams
DF: So here we are in the G1 space, which serves as the entrypoint to the exhibition. The two works we have selected for this gallery do a wonderful job of highlighting some of its key themes. Visitors are welcomed by Dismembered Fixations, a large-scale five-channel video and sculptural installation by Francisco González-Rosas. This dense and rich work takes as its starting point images of the artist in performance. A large wall has been covered in a patterned wallpaper created by González-Rosas, obtained from different scans of the artist’s fragmented and twisting body, while the video presents González-Rosas in various guises, reading a script that seamlessly blends critical theory and catch phrases borrowed from “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” or Paris Is Burning. Dismembered Fixations is a sharp and vivid commentary on the mediatization and performativity of queer culture of the last few decades, especially as it engages with forms of docu-reality. The artist’s body also seems to be struggling with representation in the piece—a fight for power, or control over norms and codes of the portrait.
Another work presented in this room counterbalances the scale of González-Rosas’s proposal. It is a beadwork sculpture from Nico Williams, entitled Special Delivery. It consists of a meticulously hand-beaded Amazon delivery box, complete with all of its ordinary details: a strip of packing tape with a grease stain on it, the varied textures of corrugated cardboard, and an address label. The piece is exemplary of Williams’s practice, where Indigenous beadwork meets everyday objects. The painstaking work needed to complete the piece offers a stark contrast to the most often invisibilized labour that is needed to make a conglomerate like Amazon run: it offers a re-reading of an object that has become so commonplace in our lives that we do not take time to consider its materiality, and, more broadly, its immense impacts on the world around us.
OK, let’s go up the main staircase to G2, the second floor gallery.
G2: VahMirè (Ludmila Steckelberg), Ilana Yacine Harris-Babou
Cheryl: So here we are on the second floor, and we’re now entering the darkened space of an installation by VahMirè called Dé[faroucher] which is loosely translated as Un[wilding]. VahMirè is originally from Brazil, and this work is an expression of her experience adjusting to living and being in Montréal, an experience that was full of ambivalence. As part of a process of reconciling her place in the city, the artist identified six places in which they felt a sense of belonging. She then used photogrammetry to capture images of each of these places. Photogrammetry is the process of extracting information from two dimensional photo images which can then be transformed into three-dimensional objects or environments. Using computer software to do this, VahMirè discovered a glitch that gave the selected environments a strange, deconstructed look that actually better expressed the poetics of their experience of coming to terms with living in this city and culture. Within each of the selected places is a 3D scan of the artist’s body, which she refers to as ‘allegories’ as opposed to avatars. These allegories appear monumental in the environment, and speak to the artist’s desire for agency within these spaces. At the same time, the allegory is quite fixed and rigid, which for me, speaks again to the ambivalence of feeling at home in these spaces. The soundtrack of birds altered by the artist contributes another layer of sensorial strangeness to the work. The audio-visual component of the installation is offered in two ways; as a video projection, and a virtual reality experience that you access through a disorienting array of colourful ribbons in the gallery itself. In the other part of the space, the artist presents elements of the work in another form, through 3D and textile prints. I like the way VahMirè uses different technologies to activate my interpretation of the work, and the complicated feelings that they are expressing. These approaches show how technology is an apparatus that forces you to situate yourself, playing with the glitches, putting the body in relation to the apparatus—like in González-Rosas’s installation—and offers insight into experiences of migration and diasporic existence.
Daniel: G2’s alcove space is host to Decision Fatigue, a video by Ilana Yacine Harris-Babou. Created in collaboration with the artist’s mother, the piece is a cutting parody of a makeup tutorial, a now-ubiquitous genre of videos within the YouTube ecology. Harris-Babou’s send-off follows a surreal ‘clean beauty’ routine, which starts with the wiping of a mirror and ends with the application of ground-up Cheetos dust, as a face mask.
Beauty tutorials occupy an interesting position in contemporary culture, and reveal the ways in which self-care has been tied to logics of late capitalism. On the one hand, they offer a sometimes playful space of liberation, especially when it comes to the expression of gender norms. On the other hand, they invite overconsumption of material goods which ‘supposedly’ provide users with better versions of themselves, and they encourage the monetization of all aspects of our lives, including the most intimate. The work also nods to the pressures felt by people who identify as women to perform care and nourishment, either for the self or for their kin.
OK, let’s go up the main staircase to G3, the third floor gallery.
G3: Nation to Nation, Skawennati, Dara Birnbaum, Brendan Fernandes
CS: Upon entering the G3 space, or third floor gallery, we encounter a room filled with natural light, plants, two vitrines, and a large round table upon which sit three late 90s-era computers. By sitting down at a computer, you can experience the re-activation of a project called CyberPowWow. This was a project that was conceived in 1996 by the artist Skawennati and produced by Nation to Nation, a Tiohti:áke/Mooniyang/Montréal based Indigenous artist collective co-founded by Skawennati, Ryan Rice, and Eric Robertson in 1994. Using a chat software called The Palace, this project allowed artists to create customized graphical chat rooms, in which visitors could interact with each other in real time. Between 1997 and 2004, 24 Indigenous and non-Indigenous ally artists were invited by Nation to Nation to create these graphical chat rooms. Akin to immersive art installations, visitors could enter and explore these online spaces while chatting with other visitors, as avatars that could also be customized. For many of the artists, this was their first time creating digital work for an online immersive environment, and for many visitors, CyberPowWow was their first time experiencing art in this way. This pioneering project explored the internet as a space for Indigenous sovereignty, and has become a precursor for the metaverse and VR more generally. As researcher and scholar Mikhel Proulx has written, CyberPowWow “was among the earliest exhibitions of internet-based art, and remains the most expansive platform for digital art made by Indigenous artists.” Accompanying this work is a machinimagraph, which features the Skawennati’s own avatar, born from CyberPowWow. A machinimagraph is a term coined by Skawennati and refers to an image captured in the virtual scenarios that she has been creating since 2010.
Off of the CyberPowWow room is a darkened gallery space with two seats facing a television monitor on which we can view Dara Birnbaum’s circa 1978 video work entitled Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman. Comprising a montage of clips from the 1970s American Wonder Woman television series and featuring a Wonder Woman disco song, this work remains one of the most affecting feminist readings of television, a technological medium of representation that has immense power to shape perception and reflect societal norms and apprehensions. As a groundbreaking work, this re-appropriation of images from popular culture also predates the re-appropriation technique used to make the modern day meme.
Leaving this gallery, we pass the elevator and head to the alcove to view the video documentation of The Left Space, a performance work by Brendan Fernandes. This is a prime example of how artists appropriate technologies to do things they were not originally intended to do, pushing their limits, finding the glitches and opening up new terrains for expression. Fernandes used Zoom, the video conferencing software and webcams as tools of representation and gathering, as well as custom backdrops by graphic designer Jerome Harris in front of which multiple choreographed sequences were performed by a group of dancers. First commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic, this work was originally performed on Zoom only, with the dancers each participating from their own spaces. For this new iteration, The Left Space was performed at the PHI Foundation in front of a physical audience as well as live streamed on Zoom, during this year’s Nuit blanche à Montréal event. The choreography presents a reaching out and signalling to one another as the dancers engaged with protest slogans incorporated into each other’s changing backdrops. The custom backdrops use historically significant patterns to tell stories of power, camouflage, and resistance. Evoking a sense of urgency and emergency, “dazzle” patterns, which were painted on warships to intercept their target, are coupled with purple and magenta plaid, which at once symbolizes British colonial rule in Kenya, a warning to predators in the wild, and the flashing of police lights. All these layers taken together inspire a deeper consideration of the visible and invisible, framed and unframed, and the potential for online platforms to re-create the social solidarity experienced in physical gatherings.
Let’s now head up the stairs to G4, the fourth floor gallery.
G4: Mara Eagle, Shanie Tomassini
DF: The G4 space is host to two projects by Montréal-based artists Mara Eagle and Shanie Tomassini. Upon entering the gallery from the staircase, visitors encounter Unholy Ghost, an installation by Eagle that includes a video mixing live-action and 3D animation, playing on a gigantic TV monitor. The video is accompanied by four sculptures of cherubs, bathed in red light and placed on a triangular plinth. These cherubs are made of ceramics, but they have been 3D-printed rather than hand-shaped or molded: their heads twist as if watching the video along with the visitors of the space. The figures echo a cemetery monument represented in the video, recalling the passage from 2D to 3D representations and back.
In the video, we follow a protagonist receiving an experimental treatment through a VR headset. The work offers a strange and disturbing account of this protagonist’s experience, where the real and the virtual are indeterminate. The piece is also interested in reproduction as a key gesture that is enabled by all of the technologies around us—these technologies are both the conceptual drive of Eagle’s project and its formal conditions, and they point towards a blurring of boundaries between what is made by machine and what is made by hand.
The work is contrasted by an installation by Shanie Tomassini, presented in two parts in the space. One part of the installation shows 2 shot-concrete sculptures, which are 3D-scanned and blown up versions of small pieces the artist fabricated by hand using clay. In this change of scale, one can sense the amplified artist’s touch as she’s working through the material. The other installation proposes richly decorated ceramics. Their presence nods to Aristotle’s theory of the 4 causes, which he used to explain what a “technology” is or does: he used a silver cup as the canonical object to develop his argument.
19 incense phones are placed on the installation—one for each week that the exhibition is presented. One phone will be lit up for each week of the exhibition, ritually burning and letting smoke and perfume waft in the air. This is a poignant metaphor for technology as a sort of sacred rite—the smartphone being an object of devotion for contemporary life, a new icon, a guidepost, a beacon of light. But it also speaks of our desire to let it all burn, to see it fully disappear as we try to get rid of the way it ties us to our work and controls us. This beautiful ambivalence is exemplary of our complicated relationship to technology—caught between the pleasure and the pain of living “technologically.”
CS: And now let’s exit the 451 Saint-Jean building and head over to the 465 Saint-Jean Street building just up the street.
G5: Wu Tsang
Daniel: The G5 space is host to a massive 2-channel installation by artist Wu Tsang, done with frequent collaborator, performance artist Tosh Basco. Entitled The Looks, this piece follows a day in the life of a pop-star character named Bliss, who we meet the morning after a club performance, as they are getting ready to take part in an event organized by an fictitious tech conglomerate named Prism. Flashes of the last evening’s performance pass by, as the narrator of the piece wonders if events are now fully conditioned by our constant documentation of them. The work closes with an intensely glittery performance by Bliss in front of the conglomerate’s employees, where a crystalline light radiates from their mouth—an extrapolation of their desire to be seen at all times.
G6: Chun Hua Catherine Dong
CS: Let’s now go into the G6 space, which is filled with light and offers a condensed presentation of three recent projects by Chun Hua Catherine Dong. Entering the gallery, on the right hand wall, are three performance photographs from the artist’s Reconnection series in which she wears various Beijing Opera costumes and a VR headset to perform a series of gestures and movements. While the artist was in Charlevoix, Québec, with the St. Lawrence river behind her, in her headset, she was viewing the Great Wall of China. Already we get a sense of her attempts to connect worlds via technology and through her own body, which is itself a technology.
Opposite the set of large windows is her multi-channel VR video installation Meet Me Half Way. Bands of colour are a backdrop for vertically mounted, large flatscreen monitors which present the documentation of a VR experience that the artist made during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mix of abstraction, figuration, and pop colours are based on her own vivid childhood memories. Losing herself in this VR work was a way to find solace in a time of separation and isolation.
On the wall opposite the photographs is another VR project calledMulan. Mulan is a Chinese folk heroine who, according to legend, disguised herself as a man in order to take her ageing father’s place in the army. Her success is honoured by the emperor, who offers her a top position, but she decides to return to her hometown where she reveals her true identity. In this VR work, the artist’s rendition of Mulan is coupled with her fascination with the ‘nudibranch’, a colourful hermaphroditic organism that lives deep in the ocean. Bringing the legend of Mulan together with the nudibranch, Dong explores her feminist inquiries as well as notions of hybridity, and binary relationships. What brings all of these works together, is the artist’s use of technologies to consider the capacity of the digital to free us from the limitations of physical space, allowing one to make contact with faraway spaces and identities, even for a fleeting moment.
G7: Helena Martin Franco
DF: G7 offers a chapel-like space devoted to Helena Martin Franco’s project Absence à main levée/Freehand Absence/Auscencia a mano alzada. This installation was initially conceived during a micro-residency offered to the artist as we were closed to the public due to the pandemic, in the Winter of 2021. During this residency, the artist explored the Foundation’s Education archive and proposed a project that ties her own interests with objects and concepts encountered in the archive. She was particularly struck by the ways in which the archive is both the container and the content itself—by the accumulation of boxes, bins, books, glasses and cups that can be found in our Education Room’s closet, which were either holding on to morsels of our past, or emptied out and waiting for something to be filled with.
The project also ties together many things that were happening during her residency, as if they were ghost-like spirits existing outside of the Education Room, haunting its frame: a wave of renovictions within Montréal, including the artist’s, as well as coverage of the growing rate of femicides within Québec and beyond.
The end of Martin Franco’s research process resulted in a performance that was initially broadcast live on the Foundation’s website and now reactivated here in an installation. Visitors can see the performance from two different points of view, as well as the end drawing which shows a zone placed on the floor, which delimitated what the camera could see from above, and is fully covered in pastel and charcoal. The artist placed herself in the centre of the frame, and drew the contours of her body. Anytime the artist’s body touched the limits of the video, a bell would ring, reminding her to get back within the frame of representation.
Entrance - 465 Saint-Jean Street: Quentin VerCetty
Cheryl: While we’ve visited all the gallery spaces, we’re not quite finished with the exhibition. Here in the reception area of the 465 Saint-Jean Street building is an image by Quentin VerCetty, which provides an invitation to experience the work Missing Black Technofossils Here, which is a project that brings the exhibition beyond the Foundation’s walls. This art project addresses the lack of representation of people of African descent in the public sphere by revisiting select public spaces and monuments in Montréal, through an augmented reality experience. You can rediscover narratives that have been excluded from history and digitally disrupt, decolonize, and insert your own speculative landmarks in public space, using the augmented reality experience created by the artist. These landmarks can subsequently be documented and preserved forever in digital form, either on your device (which then become technofossils of their own) or on the internet. In this Montréal iteration, Missing Black Technofossils Here will feature six historical sites and several prompts for activities, including taking pictures and videos to add an Ancestral Technofossil to any chosen public space. This project is informed by the Afrofuturism movement, which uses technology, speculation, metaphysics, and, in some cases, science fiction together with African diasporic and continental legacies to explore healing and evolution from an African perspective. VerCetty refers to this concept of connecting the past, present, and future as “Sankofa,” and the practice of it is called “Sankofanology.” Afrofuturism and AR highlight the potential and power of the speculative as a catalyst for change and transformation of a person’s reality and experience. As a Sankofanology practice, augmented reality connects to Afrofuturism by allowing for shared imaginative experiences through a platform where time and space are altered. To experience this final work, simply follow the instructions on our website.
DF: Through the presentation of these artworks, which oscillate between the celebratory and the critical, we hope the exhibition may challenge our entrenched notions of what technologies are, highlighting both the pleasures and difficulties of mediating oneself in these hybridized, semi-virtual worlds. Since one of the exhibition’s arguments is that nothing technologically is ever done alone, we’d like to take some time to extend gratitude to everyone who’s helped put together this exhibition. Our deep and sincere thanks to all of the artists in this show for their trust, and for their incredible works. Massive thanks go to the marvelous team of dedicated professionals who all came together to make this exhibition a reality, including the Foundation team, our colleagues at the other entities of PHI, the technicians, conservator, and suppliers.
CS: Enormous thanks to our visitor experience coordinators who take care of you and the works in the show, a huge shout out to our Education team who expand and deepen our thinking about the artworks. Thank you to our founder, Phoebe Greenberg, and of course, there’s you, the visitor. Thank you so much for coming to the PHI Foundation. It is you who complete us!
Thank you for listening.