Polygon Gallery curator Elliott Ramsey is not one of those who makes strong demarcations between real and virtual worlds.
In a phone interview with the Straight, he says that the term meatspace has become part of tech-bro lingo to describe real life but he thinks that the boundaries between this and the online arena are far more blurred than people recognize.
“As someone who grew up playing video games as a kid, one of the only acceptable ways to express gender nonconformity was through the video game characters that I chose,” Ramsey recalls.
There were even genderfluid characters—and that made him think a great deal about impulses behind choosing a certain avatar.
“We think so often about digital technologies as being escapist—as being of another world—but it really made me realize that impulse is really deeply connected to real life,” he says. “It’s a response to society, to our culture, to our environment—and that there really is no such thing as this offline world that exists separately from IRL, or in real life.”
This view of the relationship between humans, technology, and the environment is at the heart of Ghosts of the Machine, an upcoming immersive multimedia exhibition that Ramsey is curating at the Polygon.
It features several international artists, as well as a commissioned work by local Indigenous creator T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss (Skwxwú7mesh), in challenging the widely held view that digital technology is escapist. Wyss is developing a living garden that will have augmented-reality markers that viewers can access through Instagram.
“So digital images will kind of emerge, kind of float out of the garden,” Ramsey says. “This comes back to Cease’s traditional teaching that from an Indigenous perspective, nature and technology are not opposites. Nature is technology. It’s the most advanced technology we have.”
Another Indigenous artist featured is Skawennati. She's a Mohawk woman and former Indigenous Knowledge Holder at McGill University who depicts what Indigenous lives might look like in the future.
Shanghai artist Lu Yang’s Doku: Digital Alaya series features self-portraits with facial-recognition markers, creating a digital complexion. That’s grafted onto the body of a dancer, who created choreography and movements that can be viewed on video.
“Lu Yang really could set themselves anywhere, against any kind of backdrop,” Ramsey explains.
That includes a planet reminiscent of Avatar movies.
According to Ramsey, this taps into people’s imagination around speculative fiction and technology. He’s thrilled that a private collector, who wishes not to be named, was happy to lend Lu Yang’s work for the show after learning what it was about.
Another artist whose work is on display is Colombian-born, Montreal-based Santiago Tamayo Soler. Ramsey says that his video is set on an earth depleted of resources.
"I was looking at artists who, on the surface, are using these very virtual or otherworldly aesthetics but whose works reflect on being alive now in this age of the Anthropocene," he states.
In that vein, Korean-born and Berlin based artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan has a piece showing an extreme close-up of a sea anemone, which appears like it's from another world.
Then there's Singapore's Ho Tzu Nyen, who has gained a great deal of international recognition for his 2D and 3D animation. His work also expresses environmental themes, including with deitylike beings and animals projected onto a mirrored surface.
"At certain times, you'll actually be able to see your own reflection standing among these various entities and creatures," Ramsey says. "The soundtrack is drawn from John Donne's poem 'No Man Is an Island', which to me really spoke to the ethos of connectivity. Of the fact that online and offline worlds are fluid, are continuous.
"You know, there's no simply saying that 'something happened online so it didn't really happen or it didn't really affect us'," he continues. "Looking at how social media has shaped our lives in recent years politically—for better or arguably for worse—we know that that's not true."