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Elizabeth Matheson: Communities and Immersive Technologies

(Banner photo: Becoming Sky Woman, Machinimagraph from She Falls for Ages by Skawennati)

I am Elizabeth Matheson. I was raised in several countries that have been influential in shaping my cultural practice and ways of working with communities. In Canada, I have learned how to incorporate this lived experience into my role as a cultural advisor to art galleries, governments, and research programs at universities on the value of immersive art, cinematic experiences, public dialogue, and the importance of democratizing cultural and public spaces, including the digital realm. My cultural practice also stems from the original meaning of “to curate” which meant to take care of people and communities. At times, it has been challenging to work in this way, as it is easier, and at times more expedient for organizations not to engage, to leave behind any contextualization or acknowledgment of the systemic issues that shape the art world. I have shown organizations that there is a different approach and have had opportunities to lead projects focused on how art and culture can connect communities, make a change, and ensure transparency, accessibility, and inclusion.

Regarding the post covid situation, how do you see digital tools working with communities? Is there any rethinking or redesign going on?

Since the emergence of Covid-19, people are re-thinking alternative spaces. With social distancing, technologies like virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR) and augmented reality (AR) have been extraordinary in bringing people together. There are several outdoor art fairs and festivals in Canadian cities, like Saskatoon’s Nuit Blanche, that are working right now with university researchers to create new augmented reality artworks and apps driven by democratizing possibilities. When the Vancouver Mural Festival launched in 2016, audiences connected in person and explored city streets together to look at street art. Today, digital artists are adding additional layers of information that are reaching audiences in meaningful ways and educating people about the diverse histories and realities of public spaces.

What kind of help do artists need to transfer from the physical domain to the digital one?

That is a very good question. During Covid-19, there has been a wave of interest in creating virtual experiences and artist-created digital content as a way for people to come together. Government programs here in Canada, like Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategy Fund, provide funding for cultural research, artistic expression, and digital audience technologies, but also encourage artists that are unfamiliar with AR or VR to become digital innovators. This is an incredibly important role for government to play right now; helping artists not only adapt to these unprecedented times but also provide funding to freely experiment and really push creative and technical vision.

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Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver

Who are the artists, artistic groups, or maybe communities that are on this transformational path? Can you share the Canadian context?

Every country is different in its approach to virtual media. I appreciate how versatile some countries can be in the digital arena. Certainly, in Canada, there is strength in digital marketing and entrepreneurialism, however, there is tremendous exploration taking place in university research programs across the country. This includes the newly established Critical Future Studio/Lab at the University of British Columbia working on new types of AR that enable you to place yourself inside immersive environments. Another program indigenous matriarch 4 lab (IM4 lab) at Emily Carr University in Vancouver has been instrumental in bringing digital stories to life and amplifying Indigenous perspectives and understandings. Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, or AbTeC, a research network and computer lab at Montreal’s Concordia University, has been influential in Canada, giving rise to artists like Skawennati – who is pushing boundaries and opening new possibilities. In some ways, universities are just beginning to scan the digital landscape and it will be exciting to see what develops in the next few years.

“If a ‘machinima’ is a movie made in a virtual environment, then a ‘machinimagraph’ must be an image made in a virtual environment.”
–Skawennati, 2016

Do you think that colonialism is transforming into the digital domain as well?

Oh yes, and how pervasive this system is in the art world! I think that it is challenging for cultural institutions and the broader art world to dismantle colonial frameworks – and this includes looking closely at practices such as digital media. One of Canada’s most discussed NFT projects has been the sale of designer Krista Kim’s Mars House to a collector who will share the work on the metaverse. Like elsewhere, digital artists here are involved in the very opposite of reciprocity, by creating a virtual real estate that appeals to a colonial impulse to divide and sell “land” that leads to abhorrent costs and eventual exclusion of others.

With NFTs and cryptocurrencies and no middleman in between, where do you think the market is heading?

It is such a fascinating time to see digital acceleration happening right in the middle of a global pandemic! With technology, like crowdfunding and blockchain banking, there has been discussed here in Canada around greater democratizing access to art investment. A potential downside of advances in the digital realm is that they could deepen inequalities. For instance, from being involved in international conferences, I have heard artists from various countries speak about their work being stolen and sold on NFT sites without their knowledge or permission.

Whatever the future of the art market, there should be a focus on not just transactions, but a culture of innovation with digital artists placed right at the center of this transformation.

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Krista Kim, Mars House NFT sold on the art marketplace SuperRare for 288 Ether (over $650,000)

How is the art market responding to digitalization and nft golden rush? With these turbulent times, when one tweet from Elon Mask can crash the market and cryptopunks sell like crazy, how can one adjust to this madhouse?

What a great descriptor! It is a madhouse. Within the art world itself, there are systems that are not egalitarian. That comes with its own challenges, like a lack of social protection. It is safe to say that the value of art will increasingly be based on digital models – yet nearly half of the world’s population is not digitally connected! And the pandemic has only exacerbated social inequalities, making it harder for all artist communities to access technology. I would say that planning for disruption, like the volatility of cryptocurrency, will be critical for any art market including crypto art, not only to ensure a response to market shocks but to ensure that any adaptation is inclusive of digital artists, not just collectors.

Meanwhile, we have Christie’s which basically opened up for the crypto, which is basically a signal for the market that this is the real thing.

True. I am curious to see to what level the currency itself will reach in the artworld and how it is incorporated into existing models and power dynamics. There is no denying that we are now deep into this technological revolution, with digitization and cryptocurrencies shifting the balance of the art market. This dovetails with artist demands, which call for systems, like the art market, to be inclusive and productive for artists. One example of this adaptation is the auction house Sotheby’s partnering with digital artists to create NFTs that give artists the opportunity to do more and do it in a way that supports their well-being.

As a person who works closely with the artists and communities, how do you see all this transition to virtuality plays out? Are we entering the new paradigm of digital generation alpha?

The pandemic, incredibly, has shifted traditional art and culture patterns with greater opportunity for disruptive ideas to take root. We are beginning to see virtual exhibitions and online viewing room platforms becoming commonplace in Canada. And this makes me hopeful that galleries and community organizations will think of digital applications and virtual spaces first when designing cultural programming to reduce isolation as we adjust to pandemic life.

Before Covid 19, the space for VR and AR experiences were almost treated as an afterthought in galleries. I recall seeing Anishinaabe artist Lisa Jackson’s First Light virtual reality installation about futurism and the collapse of time in a gallery setting. Viewers were asked to wait in a line, like at a post office, to engage for a few minutes with a VR headset before being ushered onto the next artwork.



After my turn viewing First Light, I stood outside the exhibition space, where people had grouped together in an impromptu fashion to talk about their virtual reality experience. It was incredible to hear how the artwork impacted people in varying ways – from seeing the future effects of climate change to hearing an Indigenous language for the first time. From this, I learned the importance of bringing people together as part of the immersive experience – to provide space and incorporate this understanding and thinking as part of re-designing gallery spaces, so that it is more inclusive.

I think it is inevitable that galleries will reach beyond traditional viewing experiences, especially as younger generations, who are immersed in on-site experiences, are keen on understanding the capabilities of virtual reality. It is also incredibly important for this new generation to have experiences that build community and belonging as part of an equitable future. And in a pandemic world, this is true for every generation.


About the author

Inclusive Leadership, Cultural Developer, Curator and Cultural Spaces Specialist

Program Advisor since 2019, Elizabeth Matheson is an accomplished curator for 20 years & former Cultural Spaces Specialist & Cultural Development Coordinator for City of Regina. She has been recently appointed to Capital Regional District to advise on funding and City of Victoria Art in Public Spaces Committee to advise on public art & cultural spaces.

 Elizabeth Matheson



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