Davidoff Art Residency Program: an Interview with Olivia McGilchrist

by Mara Sartore
November 30, 2016
Mara Sartore
McGilchrist Olivia

On the occasion of Davidoff participation to Art Basel in Miami Beach, we interviewed the French-Jamaican visual artist Olivia McGilchrist, selected artist of Davidoff Limited Art Edition, an initiative which aims to promote and support Caribbean artists.

During Art Basel, this June 2016, Olivia presented her immersive 3D virtual reality video work titled “submerged”.

Mara Sartore: You were born in Jamaica but early moved to France and UK to study and build your own identity and you are now based in Montreal. Could you tell us something about the development of your artistic and personal career across such different countries?

Olivia McGlichrist: I’m very fortunate to be from a multi-cultural family. Born in Jamaica to a French mother and a Jamaican father I grew up in France and the UK before returning to live in Jamaica between 2011-2014. This varied background has definitely had a strong impact on my work.
Mostly, I am very aware that there is always another perspective on any reading of my work. I never take for granted that viewers will know exactly where I am situated when producing a piece, and hope that the work will foster conversations about both the content and the context in which it was created.
Photography became my main focus as I started making work, from the early 2000’s when I was taking my B.A. in Fine Art in London, U.K. I then worked in commercial photography for a few years, both with not-for-profit organizations and advertising clients. It was during my Photography M.A. at the London College of Communication, that I really started working with video and multi-screen installations. Since then, my focus has shifted more and more towards video and experimental screen based work and most recently to virtual reality.
Based in Montréal since 2014, I have been very fortunate to assist in the emergence of cross-disciplinary visual creators that have integrated VR, as well as AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality) at the heart of their production process.
This has influenced my practice and also led me to apply to an interdisciplinary Research-Creation PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, which would allow me to develop larger projects incorporating these new technologies within a critical research framework.

M.S.:  Your art focuses on the investigations of racial, social and gender discrimination in the contemporary Caribbean space, using photographs, video installations and virtual reality. Could you tell us something more about your practice and your creative process?

O. McG.:  Since I returned to live in Jamaica between 2011 and 2014, the juxtaposition of parallel co-existing realities has become an important and elusive aspect of my work. During this time, I created my alter ego “whitey” to portray my uncomfortable feelings as a returning visibly white Jamaican in a predominantly black society. “whitey”‘s placement in the Jamaican landscape questions the role of racial, social and gender based categorization, classification and discrimination in the contemporary Caribbean space.
In 2016, what are the connections between the increase of consumer ready immersive technology and the unfolding cultural polarizations within discourses around identity and sovereignty, selectively amplified through mainstream & social media? What role can an experimental approach play in the current audio-visual landscape?
My practice tackles these issues by creating work that challenges the Western notion of progress (and power) that never looks back using the new audio visual space of immersive & embodied technology such as Virtual Reality and it’s unchartered “magic of presence”( Rift headset on the Oculus Rift website 17 May 2016).
Since 2014, I’ve been investigating the possibilities offered by Virtual Reality within my experimental media arts practice at the intersections of research/ technology / education, as a compelling portal to our ‘prise de conscience’ of Édouard Glissant’s notion of ‘creolisation’, which I see as a pertinent interpretive tool against which to measure the success and limitations of immersive embodied technologies..

M.S.: Could you tell us something about your experience and involvement into the Davidoff Art Initiative program?

O. McG.: Firstly by giving me a commission for a video piece about the Caribbean, which was an exciting challenge. Then by giving the work great exposure. The DAI team supports creative and curatorial practices within a Caribbean centered perspective. From the residencies, the dialogues, grants and the Art editions (which I was involved in) there is a consistency and a desire to keep asking questions about a Caribbean art platform that stands on it’s own in the global context. The production support in the Dominican Republic allowed me to collaborate with Dominican director and producer Ivan Herrera, who was excellent in helping me create shots of this ephemeral Water Spirit in Barahona (in the southwest of the country), more specifically the small seaside town of Bahoruco, where Perla Acosta-Feliz agreed to don the Mermaid dress and mask that I had brought with me.
Then a lot of the magic happened in the editing suite. After spending weeks going through the footage and color grading it, I realised that I had to shape each section into a specific mood and then create an intricate pattern of layers, blending each mood throughout the whole piece gradually and incrementally, so that the overall themes of water and mystery would bring a visual and emotional coherence to this non-narrative and dreamlike visual space.

M.S.: The artwork you presented as result of the commission is the 3d virtual reality video work titled “submerged”: watching this video, the viewer experiences an immersive journey into the fantasy space of the Caribbean landscape. Where did you get inspiration from?

O. McG.:  I wish to continue experimenting with Virtual Reality to ‘de-tangle’ the Postcolonial from a subversive Caribbean perspective. ‘from many sides’ is a single channel video commissioned by the Davidoff Art Initiative. Additionally to the original video, I chose to create a Virtual reality experience, which isolates a selection of video stills and places them in a 3D environment that was created to immerse the viewer in a world where the Mermaid would be comfortable-or at least how I imagine this. This is more of a contemplative VR piece, with minimal interaction when you look at the three circular screens (they move closer to you) and the sound moves with your head as well.
For ArtBasel Miami Beach, I have added elements of text, which are also activated by the viewer. Poetry in VR can be very effective.

M.S.: Any upcoming projects we could look forward to seeing?

O. McG.:  My current research is informed by Elizabeth DeLoughery and Carmen-Beatriz Llenin-Figueroa’s literary analysis of Postcolonial Caribbean writers (both study Édouard Glissant and Kamau Brathwaite) and most recently by Trinidadian Cultural Studies scholar Marsha Pearce’s present research on Caribbean Futurism. Dr. Pearce is currently working toward a series of activities, including an exhibition, under the title “The Caribbean Futures project” in association with several regional institutions.
Since Winter 2016, I have been working on strategies to incorporate one of the mythical female Caribbean figures that have featured in my recent work (the Riva Mumma or Mermaid) in a Virtual Reality environment. I will continue to work on situating my masked adaptations of this character within both immersive 3D and physical exhibition environments, emphasizing her place within a layered and fluid futuristic time /space that allows a glimpse into a possible Caribbean Future imaginary. The re-interpretation of shared mythical figures -embedded but not limited to the Caribbean cultural space- via VR and multi-channel video interfaces aims to establish how a media arts practice can positively address systemic racial and gender discrimination within patriarchal and orientalizing colonial legacies.
Visually and thematically, I’m looking at water and submersion as an immersive device on the threshold of contemplative experience and embodied interaction, at the intersection of traditional art spaces and entertainment arcades. Inspired by specific works across video art and several types of VR experiences, I’m drawing on Caribbean poetry and storytelling and selected dystopian futuristic works –such as British Artist Keith Piper’s ‘Robot Bodies’, 2001 – to design environments where the lines between user experience and co-creation are blurred.

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