PHI. Centre: VR Art-Worlds Vision

by paradoxig

PHI Centre Montreal is one of the early promoters of high-quality VR experiences, and are internationally recognized for being THE Space where you want to be.
If you are a creator, you want to exhibit there; if you are a producer, you would not say “no” to co-produce with them, and if you are an event or festival organizer, you would always invite them to your event. So, shortly, you can admire or envy them, but you will always want to work with them or make an interview…

We are happy that Myriam Achard, Chief New Media Partnerships & PR, accepted to talk with TechvangArt about how PHI Centre started, how is surviving the Covid-era, the new exhibitions and plans for the Future (maybe distribution?), secrets about running the space that showcases VR, but also predictions about future without crystal balls 😊

Myriam Achard
Chief New Media Partnerships & PR

TechvangArt (TVA): I honestly like very much the story behind PHI Centre, and how it all started, firstly with the cultural foundation initiated by Phoebe Greenberg, with whom you work together for so long.
You are pioneers in so many ways. Starting from the fact that you begin to mix different forms of art in an era where art was kind of segmented, if I may say so.
So, my curiosity actually is why the PHI Centre, choose XR? You could have done so many things such as Art and AI, or an art-tech incubator, or the screenplay writing lab…
I understand the need that you wanted to add the tech layer because it was very clear that everything will go digital and art, culture, the creative sectors could not escape that. But, why did you bet on XR?

Myriam Achard: I’ll go back on how everything started. As you said, we first opened the foundation for contemporary art in 2007, in Montreal, Phoebe Greenberg being really the mastermind behind all this.
I’ve been working with her for 16 years. Phoebe is a big fan of contemporary art, so it was clear to her that she wanted to start with the foundation for contemporary art. And once that was created and working well, she realized that all forms of arts would need a space and visibility.
She loves music. She comes from the theatre world. She loves cinema, then she said: “Okay, I gave a house to contemporary art. Now I want to give a house to other forms of art”.
And that’s how the PHI Centre started.

At the beginning when we opened the center in 2012, it was really about hosting concerts, film screenings, exhibitions- a photo exhibition or digital art exhibition – but it was not about XR.
And then, one day, Phoebe met with Felix & Paul Studios they are really pioneers in the VR world. She tried virtual reality for the first time. And she had somehow an epiphany, where she saw the future, she really thought this could be an amazing opportunity for arts and technology to meet. And that’s how we started to host VR at the PHI Centre.
And then, for me curating exhibitions that are at the intersection between art and technology has been my passion, my world for the last six to seven years. That’s why XR is so present because we feel that technology can tell so many interesting stories, and also when technology meets art, it can be very powerful.

TVA: Recently, you just opened again with two exhibitions, but how did PHI Centre survive this COVID period, and from all that you did during this period, what will stay?

Myriam Achard: When we had to close our doors on March 13, 2020, it was like for everybody else a big shock. We didn’t see it coming and I’m sure we are not the only ones. It was obvious that it would last, for a certain time.
We met with the executive committee and we asked ourselves, that if now our doors are closed to the public, they cannot come to us anymore. how can we enter their homes, how can we continue to engage with our audience? Our priority is to democratize access to technology and to have as many people as possible being able to experience VR, AR, MR, so on.
We came up with this idea called VR TO GO where we would bring virtual reality to people’s homes. And that’s how VR TO GO came to life – people are renting VR headsets from us, and it’s delivered to their home. Currently, we have two programs running, that I curated.

The VR headsets can be kept for 48 hours, and then sent back to the PHI Centre, sanitized properly, and then it’s shipped to somebody else.
When we launched during the first confinement, it was an amazing success, because people could access only virtual visits of exhibitions on the desktop, but it’s not the same thing.
The previous year, we had a short window during the summer where we were allowed to reopen. We decided to keep VR TO GO to test if it was a success because of the confinement, or if it could survive while museums are open. It actually survived, and this idea will stay.
“VR TO GO” is a project that came out because of the confinement. We launched a VR TO GO service in Quebec City, Paris, Luxembourg, and we are discussing with other cities in the world to offer this service.

TVA: I think it’s really brilliant and it is really at an affordable price. So, congratulations for the idea!
I was curious if this will stay or not, but I’m happy this will stay, because it might also be some encouragement for people to adopt more VR headsets, and try out really curated and high-quality VR experiences. But, from a business point of view, is it sustainable?

Myriam Achard: It is sustainable. For Montreal, we have 75 headsets in circulation, and it’s almost sold out all the time. Of course, we pay a licensing fee to the artists that agreed to show their work.
Right now, the headsets that we have in circulation is the Oculus Go. If we extend to other cities or countries, we might consider using the PICO, for instance. But the business model is sustainable and interesting.

TVA: Now PHI Centre reopened and you mentioned two big events, could you tell us a little bit more about them?

Myriam Achard: In Quebec, museums were closed last year, reopened last summer, and closed again on 1st of October. `so, we were allowed to reopen at the end of February.
We launched mid-March, CARNE y ARENA, is a virtual reality piece directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a famous Mexican filmmaker, and it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.

When I saw it there, it was a very-very powerful moment for me and it really moved me, I was overwhelmed by it. At that time, I became obsessed with that piece, and I wanted to bring it to Montreal, one day. And it took us three years, but we opened two weeks ago in Montreal and the success is mind-blowing – we are sold out! We were supposed to be open from March 17 to June 20, those tickets are all gone. We extended the dates until mid-July; those tickets are all gone.
So, this is a major success for us. And we will be announcing more dates soon…
We did not only bring CARNE y ARENA to Montreal, but we became partners with Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emerson Collective and Legendary Entertainment in order to distribute the piece.
One issue is that it was shown in a couple of cities such as Milan, Amsterdam, Mexico, Los Angeles, Washington, but that’s it. We discussed optimizing the piece for touring, so now 14 people can view it every hour (previously there were 3 persons every hour). Also, the piece needs a lot of space, it needs 700 square meters to exist, we were not able to show it at the Phi Centre because we don’t have that space, so we launched it in another location in Montreal

In addition, we just launched our new exhibition at the PHI Centre called “Three Movements” It’s mainly a Virtual Reality exhibition, that is really highlighting the work of local creators, but not only.
We launched it at the end of March. And guess what: it is a success!

TVA: Because you mentioned that you will distribute CARNE y ARENA, are you thinking of becoming distributors in the future?

Myriam Achard: Maybe. We are very often approached by creators, and they ask us if we want to take their distribution. Right now, we are mainly distributing our works, or works, where we are involved in like CARNE y ARENA.
We are also involved in another piece called ”The INFINITE” that will be launching in Montreal, this summer. It’s going to be the world premiere.
It’s an exhibition that we are doing with Felix & Paul Studios. They have right now, a virtual reality camera on the Space Station, on the ISS, and we are creating an exhibition around the content they are bringing back on Earth.
So right now, those are the two major works that we are trying to distribute for the world. But we might create a distribution branch, we are thinking about it right now, because there are not many people doing that.

TVA: I know that there are not that many, and it will be good, it will be interesting to have Phi Centre involved as a distributor. And related to the ecosystem, considering that you were involved from the beginning in the history of this early development, how do you see its evolution and what about the future?

Myriam Achard: We are very excited about the future for XR. When I came across virtual reality for the first time, I knew that this medium would have an impact in the near future. It took a while before VR headsets got domestic, it’s still not mainstream. But during the pandemic, we saw an increase.
I don’t know how many headsets the Quest 2 sold, but the numbers were rising a lot. So, I think that this is a sign that it’s going to be bigger, no doubt in the upcoming years.
How long will it take to get mainstream? I don’t know, I wish I had a crystal ball, but I don’t have. However, we are confident that it will be mainstream sooner than later.
For the ecosystem of XR, for VR, right now it’s like if we were like teenagers becoming adults. And that’s my feeling, and I’m very excited about what’s coming for our industry.

TVA: But, as we discussed a little bit about the fact that the ecosystem needs more players when it comes to distribution, what is your opinion, what else is needed for the ecosystem to really transform itself, to really grow, from teenager to adults, as you said, and to really make that quality jump?  

Myriam Achard: I think it needs more spaces like Phi Centre that are exhibiting VR as a priority and part of their programming. I don’t want to say we are unique, but I don’t know any other space in the world that is really focusing on presenting exhibitions that are really focusing on XR.
So, I think that creators need more visibility for their work and so we need more spaces like physical spaces, LBEs (location-based entertainment). I’m really talking about galleries, museums, where XR should be part of the programming of more museums and spaces. It’s not enough for a creator to be present during a festival that is open for 10 days, and it is mostly open to industry and not the general public

TVA: To have museums as allies would be great, but appointing specialized curators that know the field, I guess, is needed.
Myriam Achard: Exactly
TVA: But as you mentioned more centers like Phi Centre, and because you have all these years of experience, what would you advise somebody who wants to open such a center? What would be the risks or the mistakes that you should avoid?

Myriam Achard: If somebody wants to open a space, or gallery, museum, that will showcase mainly XR, this person needs to know that, for instance, just having a few chairs and a few headsets and no contextualization won’t work. Because if people want to have an experience on the VR headset, they can do that from home. What a physical space needs to bring is the contextualization of the works.
And mediation is highly important, for spaces that are presenting the XR. We have mediators that make a difference in people’s experiences- they know that onboarding and offboarding is as much important as the experience itself, almost. So, this is something that I would really recommend to be a priority.
In addition, showing the diversity of works that are being produced should be a priority, and not only focus on one type of works.
It’s really important to know that operational costs are quite high. Because you need a lot of people to manage an exhibition; such as mediators, tech specialists, so this is something that you really need to take into consideration.

TVA: Because you mentioned the context of presenting, I never was at PHI Centre, but looking at the images, it’s really-really amazing how you present the works, it is almost like each piece is a world on its own. I guess you collaborate a lot with the creators themselves, but also with specialized people that work on the presentation…

Myriam Achard: We have an artistic team, a creative team in-house, that works on all the scenography. And yes, of course, we work very closely with the creators behind the pieces.
We want to make sure that we respect their work and the contextualization we are envisioning for their work is adequate.
So, it’s a real collaboration with the artists, with the creators, but we do have a creative team in-house that designs everything.

TVA: So last question because unfortunately, we are running out of time. With whom you would really want to talk to, a person from the XR industry? 🙂

Myriam Achard: I would love to speak with Laurie Anderson. We presented her works at the Center, but unfortunately, she was not able to come, but I heard that she was very happy she saw images of what we did and how we presented her works.
But I would love to be able to sit down with her and hear her about her works. Because now creating VR pieces is part of her practice.
So, I would love to be able to speak with and listen to her and see how she envisions the future for XR for instance.


All visual materials were integrated with the PHI Centre consent ©PHI. 

links and info used for publication

Trois Mouvements Exibition



Felix & Paul Studios

Laurie Anderson

We use photo from:

CARNE y ARENA, Three Movements, VR TO GO, Cadavre Exquis, HUM(AI)N, Spheres,

Photo-credits: ©Phi.Centre, ©SandraLarochelle, ©KimTsui, ©AnneBertrand

About: Phi is a multidisciplinary arts and culture organization that cultivates all aspects of creation, development, production and dissemination. Phi is at the intersection of art, film, music, design and technology. Through eclectic programming and a strong emphasis on content creation, Phi fosters unexpected encounters between artists and audiences. Headquartered at the Phi Centre in Montreal Canada, Phi was created by Director and Founder Phoebe Greenberg. (more info on the website)

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