By Winnie Wang
Edited by Nam Hoang
In the fall of 2021, I met with writer and media artist Taien Ng-Chan over a video call to discuss Inside the Chrysalis, a 360° VR video created for Hamilton Arts Week. The video begins inside a geometric, dome-like structure covered by bedsheets and other textiles. A figure lies next to their canine companion while watching a news broadcast on a laptop. Her comportment may be familiar, but the scene is marked by a sense of otherworldliness brought about by the strange setting. Assisted by celestial sounds from NASA archives, a visual distortion thrusts us into another room where the next person unveils their space in succession. The cocoons are made of styrofoam, bubble wrap, cardboard boxes, an outdoor furniture set, and other household objects. Books, handwritten notes, yoga mats and lights occasionally appear throughout, adorning these spaces with a makeshift spirit.
I was eager to inquire about this project, having repeatedly explored the video in my attempts to understand it through the lens of a thesis I just completed: embodiment in science fiction media. Equipped with my research, I wanted to argue that Inside the Chrysalis destabilizes a genre that has been preoccupied with external technologies used to conquer planets, extract resources and impose control. The video instead gestures towards reparative futures and highlights the importance of the body to propel us there. Each person is situated in a space that presents a unique view, emphasizing the specificity and experiential nature of knowledge. As a departure from other works of science fiction, this project evaded claims of objectivity and celebrated the personal.
When I sat down with Ng-Chan, she confirmed the project’s promising science fiction premise and shared that she drew inspiration from author Arundhati Roy’s perspective on the circumstances that descended in early 2020. In an article for the Financial Times, Roy wrote that the pandemic is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” She describes it as a force that thrusts humans into imagining alternatives to our current world, ones that are no longer ruled by data and profit. Together, these elements formed a hopeful alternative to a decaying world and presented productive questions. By manipulating and inhabiting our spaces as we wish, what insights can we gather about how to live under isolation? How do these unusual spaces and their inhabitants alter our perception of the pandemic? I hoped to pull on this thread, but demanding hard answers and speculating on Ng-Chan’s motivations based on academic prescriptions led me to a dead end.
When I finally opened up my line of inquiry, she spoke about practical and emotional concerns: conceiving of an accessible art project, collaborating with her friends, the need to find connection and joy during isolating times.
The result was a low-cost video project that served as the centrepiece of her social interactions amid a pandemic that necessitated isolation. Where Zoom parties were the primary alternative to in-person socializing, this initiative was a departure from the excruciating compromise of video lags, accidentally talking over one another, and eye strain. The video collaboration-as-hangout, too, opens an avenue to nurture friendships without the requirement of consumption or spending money. By focusing on theoretical frameworks of genre, media and authorship, I overlooked the material dimensions of art-making – the methods of production and the collaborative process were equally important to the content.
Where discussion and appreciation of art are preoccupied with the myth of the creative genius – a belief that promotes the creative individual as a lone prodigy radiating greatness – this project emerges as an outlier with its numerous participants. Carmela Laganse, Donna Akrey, Leslie Sasaki, Melissa Murray-Mutch, Sam Ollmann-Cham, and Ng-Chan herself feature equally in screen time and all occupy the role of the architect. The non-linear piece circumvents a dramatic structure that highlights any individual as the focal point, vacillating between spaces. It feels generous, reciprocal and perhaps illegible given our previous encounters engaging with art. By centring on friendship, a type of bond that has been largely disregarded in favour of the romantic or familial, the video’s constructive, spontaneous and relational aspects rise to the surface. What unfolds when we relate to each other in a model that distributes power?
During a time when corporations are eager to exploit ideas surrounding community in order to encourage consumption, Ng-Chan reorients this top-down structure and demonstrates the parallels between the generative nature of friendship and artmaking. The result is an opportunity to divert from extractive processes and turn towards what is tangible and immediate. Friendship as an ethos alleviates the pressure of perfection and the tendency to overthink so we can instead spend time reimagining the everyday and fostering joy. It disrupts dichotomies, paves the way for new forms of creation, and begins the work of advancing towards wellbeing, one relationship at a time. We see examples of the principles of friendship permeating the video with its frameless quality that resists boundaries attempting to flatten and contain, with the distinct spaces overlapping and existing on the same plane, with the way that Ng-Chan takes care to facilitate the creation of new worlds.
Though I failed to identify friendship as a central motif in Ng-Chan’s project, I later recognized it in my own creative pursuits as a curator for Insomniac Film Festival. The annual short film showcase was founded by a group of friends in high school and expanded over the years to include film lovers across Toronto. As I began integrating into the team, I realized the significance of community-building in our film and event programming. The way we organized the event, too, demonstrated the ways that cultivating relationships and joy are fundamentally woven into the celebration of film. Our commitment to togetherness was exemplified by the ways we interacted with audiences and our colleagues. Every meeting served as an opportunity not only to conjure up ways of engaging our peers through cinema but to stay in touch and strengthen our friendships.
Seeing my own experiences reflected in Ng-Chan’s collaboration with her friends, I could now appreciate friendship as a driving force for art-making and other creative practices. The video became approachable and familiar rather than distant and opaque, as I had originally felt. With this new attitude, I’m eager to participate in and identify other projects that could emerge from friendships. I look forward to embarking on group photo walks, publishing zines, and discovering alternative forms of knowledge through collaborative processes. Though the video is named after the quiescent stage of metamorphosis, Inside the Chrysalis nevertheless takes up Roy’s challenge to think about the pandemic’s ability to engender change. Ng-Chan offers a glimpse of the work in progress, revealing what might await on the other side of the portal while exciting ideas and movements gestate: a future where we’re given the freedom to shape our surroundings and attend to our needs, and fun is seen as a potent catalyst for artmaking.