The first solo exhibition by Vancouver-based artists Nancy Lee and Kiran Bhumber, UNION is a speculative sci-fi narrative about two characters discovering their ancestral memories through the longing for touch and the rituals practiced in their post-apocalyptic wedding ceremony. UNION is an immersive trans-media gallery experience that simultaneously unravels and reconstitutes cultural memory through the sacred ritual of spiritual union and physical intimacy. Through an interrogation of diasporic and queer identities, the exhibition investigated how immersive technologies can transform ritualistic performances into living cultural memories. In this paper we will present UNION, outlining Canada’s historical and socio-political context in relation to diaspora, and discuss themes that motivated the project. Finally, we reflect on the cultural impact of UNION for queer and diaspora communities and offer a possibility where intimacy, solidarity and survival is possible.
Between the screens sits a life-sized, 3D printed portrait of the two characters embracing. In collaboration with Ian Nakamoto, the initial poses were captured using white-light 3D scanners Artec Eva and Einscan, refined via digital sculpting in Zbrush, 3D printed using SLA and FDM processes, and hand-finished. Presence and intimacy were central to the development of the sculpture, as we tried to find a way to convey a longing for touch and vulnerability in this precarious world. We began by developing over 30 poses that signal intimacy, upon which the final sculpture and many of the XR assets are based. We chose this pose for its ability to communicate a sense of touch.
The project emerged from a conversation about when we would be able to wear wedding dresses and participate in wedding ceremonies as a cultural activity without submitting to misogyny and patriarchy. We had a series of conversations about our individual relationships to ideas of weddings, marriage, and wedding dresses. Through these conversations, it became clear that both of us wanted to experience belonging by participating in this traditional heteronormative practice. The wedding is arguably one of the most important rituals in our respective cultures: Nancy of Han-Chinese/Taiwanese descent, Kiran of Punjabi Sikh descent. However, due to our individual identities and familial backgrounds, we do not have access to realize such an important event. Through the futuristic ceremony, we both wanted to overcome barriers of acceptance; language and mental health stigma for Kiran and gender acceptance beyond normative constructs for Nancy. Collaborating with designer Adam Lin-Bungag, we reclaimed aspects of the cultural tradition by borrowing forms from Punjabi and Han dresses, and subverted them to fashion our identities and to reflect the futuristic story. Made out of vinyl, the dresses point to the materials available in our imaged dystopia, where culture and tradition have been sterilized. However, the red colour of the material signified cultural continuity between traditional Punjabi and Han dresses. Kiran’s futuristic dress alluded to the traditional lengha, through the incorporation of two-pieces (top and skirt). Nancy’s dress incorporated the traditional style of hanfu through its long trailing sleeves.
While other gallery pieces portray the narrative of the two characters in UNION, the installation invites audience members to become characters and interact with their surroundings by inhabiting the worlds of UNION. Collaborating with Aleksandar Zecevic, we filled the space with sound using a 16-channel speaker array. We built a speaker virtualization system that has the option to declare what type of 3D panning to encode to (VBAP, HOA) and how many speakers the system will decode to. Intel Realsense D435 and Isadora were used to develop a motion tracking system created by Sammy Chien. The tracking system sent xyz positions of audiences to the audio system via OSC, which generated sound objects and visualizations that moved based on the position of the participant in the 15x15ft floor projection. In consultation with ethnomusicologist Conner Singh Vanderbeek, we shaped a sound framework based on idioms of Guqin playing to create 3 movements in this experience: Earth (plucked sound), People (sliding sounds) and Heaven (harmonics). These idioms were cross-mapped onto the UNION worlds where Earth represents dystopia (where touch is forbidden), People represents the cyberworld (where everyone congregates), and Heaven represents the ritual union (wedding). The combination of acoustic and electronic instruments, recorded ambiences and sound effects created an immersive aural experience for each world, where participants experienced their individual and collective relationships through movement.
Collaborating with Venom-S, we developed three lightboxes as speculative ads inviting new users to join the GAEA cyberworld. The first ad encourages users to “Play the memory game” in the mind casino - spending and earning ARCs (coined after the arc protein that carries human memory.) The second ad “A deeper way to connect” entices new users to receive the GAEA SEED implant. The third ad depicts the “Four pillars of enlightenment” – levels within the memory game where each pillar is named after a different happy hormone: dopamine, endorphin, serotonin and oxytocin. By highlighting the neurological responses associated with pleasurable experiences, we wanted to draw the audiences’ attention to the explicit connection between their physiology and their activities in virtual spaces.