PHI Centre’s latest VR installation allows visitors to find their breath among the sequoia trees

‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’ offers a visualization of deeper connections within the world around us

‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’ will run until Jan. 16, 2022. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery

The newest exhibit at the PHI Centre entitled We Live in an Ocean of Air, which runs until Jan. 16, offers its guests the chance to reconnect with what breathes life into the world along with us.

It’s an experience that will leave you feeling as though you just woke up from the greatest nap of your life, reenergized with fresh oxygen and a deeper appreciation for what has become a fragile ecosystem—without having to leave the city. 

In a society where many of us are absorbed by technology, often detached from our natural surroundings, We Live in an Ocean of Air integrates live performance and virtual reality to deepen our connection with nature. 

Put on by Marshmallow Laser Feast, an immersive art collective based in London, creative director Barney Steel has found a way to visualize the air that flows both from us and from the giant sequoia trees. 

Once you are buckled into a backpack, have a headset secured in place, and are equipped with heart-rate monitors, you suddenly find yourself thrown into California’s Sequoia National Park. With the VR experience lasting 20 minutes, it makes for a quick trip that can only be described as “far-out.” 

“It has you thinking about where you end, and the forest begins,” Steel said. “If you ask many people sort of where the boundary of their body lies and they point to their skin and say, ‘I’m in here, wrapped inside this skin and the world is out there.’” These are the sorts of limitations that Steel is seeking to push. 

“Seeing it in a slightly different way, we think about your body and how it exists in relation to other bodies and other human beings,” he said. “You start to sort of dissolve this idea that somehow you are separate, you start to feel these connections.” 

PHI Centre’s latest exhbition offers its guests the chance to reconnect with what breathes life into the world along with us. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery

As you virtually walk through the dense forest you catch yourself looking up at what appears to be a never-ending tree. With the rhythm of your own breath you can follow bubbles of air that move seamlessly with the visualization of life within the vegetation that surrounds you

This multi-sensory immersive trip is an alternative way to experience what nature has to offer us, and with forest fires becoming more and more common, it is something we may be running short of time to experience firsthand.  

With Sequoia National Park being under threat due to these raging fires, Steel hopes to bring a level of awareness to climate change to those who experience the exhibit.

“[When] you start to sort of dissolve this idea that somehow you are separate, you start to feel these connections.”  — Barney Steel

“Part of this transition towards treating a tree or a river or an ocean in a better way [is that] you need to sort of transition from the idea that you’re separate so, acting in self-interest,” he said. “If that can extend to the self-interest of a tree, you can realize you’re connected then suddenly this is a route through to behavioral change that can actually have longer lasting effects.” 

We Live in an Ocean of Air was originally supposed to be at the gallery over a year ago, but had to be postponed due to COVID-19.  

Myriam Achard, the PHI Centre’s Head of Partnerships and PR, specializes in art and technology. Pre-pandemic she would travel to film festivals with VR shows where she would discover various artists.

“I get to experience various works, I get to meet the artist and I’m staying in touch with artists all the time so I know what’s coming from their studio,” she said. “If I discover a piece at a festival I try to build my programming with what I know [is coming out].”

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The VR experience allows visitors to find themselves surrounded by the forests in California’s Sequoia National Park. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery

With travel restrictions in place for much of the past 18 months, this presented challenges in the PHI programming process. But as the world slowly starts to open up again, she is returning to her travels as she seeks out artists. 

“[The PHI Centre] is really a space dedicated to all forms of art,” she said. “But the core of our programming is really to put together experiences and exhibitions that are at the intersection of art and technology.” 

Archard noted the importance of the environmental issues we face today and said the centre's programming works to reflect this. Along with the PHI Centre, there is also the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art which is also very focused on the environment. The foundation is a non-profit organization that focuses on impactful contemporary art experiences. These exhibits are free of charge to solidify the PHI Foundation’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion.

While many of us may still feel trapped at home, unable to travel and see the world, this is the perfect opportunity to recapture a sense of adventure, and hopefully have you leaving the exhibit with a deeper connection to the life around us. 

We Live in an Ocean of Air will be at the PHI Centre until Jan. 16. Tickets are available on their website