PXR 2021: An Arts Conference without limits

Single Thread, a Kingston theatre company, is on the cutting edge of using augmented realities in performance, and this week they are hosting a Canada-wide conference to share and explore the world of performances and collaboration in extended reality. Now in its second year, PXR is a series of interactive presentations and discussions by Canadian artists and digital content creators on how they are using virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (collectively known as XR) in the creation of live performance.

An image from a VR workshop during PXR 2020. Submitted photo.

Just a few years ago, attending a conference without leaving home was not something on many people’s agenda, however, the global pandemic forced many people to change the way they think about work. Now, not only are most people used to holding meetings over the computer, but virtual teamwork has become the basis of many collaborative projects. This is what makes the Performance & XR [PXR] Canada Conference, being held in virtual reality this week, so timely. Its delegates meet and interact in an immersive non-traditional conference space.

Liam Karry the founding and current Artistic Director of Kingston-based, Single Thread Theatre Company, explained, “Performance and XR is a conference that brings people from all over Canada and beyond together to talk about how live performers are using XR or extended reality — that’s augmented reality like Pokemon Go, or virtual reality like throwing on a headset and you’re in another world. All those things are under the umbrella term of ‘extended reality.’ That’s sort of like the catch-all term for all that type of technology.”

The entire conference is being held “in another world”, in virtual reality [VR].

“We’ve got a few filmmakers, we’ve got a lot of theatre people, we’ve got dancers, we’ve got circus performers, got musicians. Like everyone who cares about and loves live performance, but is looking to extend their practice into those realms or augment what they do with that, is coming to the conference,” said Karry.

The Canada Council for the Arts is funding the VR-based conference, “and that’s really exciting for us well,” he pointed out. “The fact that it’s Canadian, the fact that Single Thread Theatre is a Kingston organization, this is where we started and we’re still here 15 years later and we’re throwing a national conference with partners from all over the country.”

“We’ve got some educational institutions like York University, George Brown College, Lethbridge College in Alberta. Our main producing partners are Electric Company Theatre and they’re in Vancouver. We’ve also got partnerships with Prairie Theatre Exchange, Creative Lab North, Canadian Stage, the Stratford Festival, the Blythe festival and so on and so on. Yeah, not bad for tiny little Kingston,” he said.

“I think it’s it speaks to the timeliness of what we’re doing. That so many partners from all over the country — and not to belittle us we are very proud of our company but we’re a pretty small organization — and we’re leading this conference that is backed by some of the biggest players in the Canadian cultural scene. That’s incredible. And it is great because it’s very timely.” 

A virtual presentation with attending avatars. Photo submitted.

“Another component that we’re really proud of this year is we have three educational initiatives that we didn’t have or we had or we expanded,” Karry continued.

“One is the IBPOC fellowship. We’re offering support for IBPOC artists where they applied for a fellowship position and we, in return, are giving them some funding and honorarium, a headset and mentorship and support to create their own work. So we’re pretty proud about that. 

“Another program that we’re doing is the Northern Fellowship. We’re providing like a week of educational opportunities to indigenous youth that live in Canada’s north.

“And then the last educational program that we’re doing this year is the artist linkups. So we’re connecting performance artists, most of whom are in the northern part of Canada like Nunavut and the Yukon, with technologists from all over Canada. So students in technology and students in live performance are meeting and collaborating during the conference under the mentorship of industry experts to create their own live PXR,” he explained.

Karry said that not only is PXR “super cool”, but it is very advantageous for Canadian theatre artists. With such a large landmass, funding for Canadian theatre can be difficult. For example, he points out that in European countries, “Everyone in a small country can get to their National Gallery or National Theatre or National Archives, they can drive there in three hours. Whereas in Canada, arts funding is a bit more tenuous because if the federal government gives money to something in Vancouver, most of the country won’t see it right? Canada is marvellous and huge but [it’s hard to get to a venue] if you’re separated by hundreds of kilometres.”

“XR is the answer,” he explained. “What this technology does is it’s very possible to collaborate with people all over the world in real-time and with a sense of space because the technology provides a sense of being in a place. There are some great things on Zoom, but it’s not quite the same in a bunch of ways. And I think most of those ways, and I’m speaking as a theatre artist, is because you don’t have space, like the sound [on Zoom] is great but it’s a flat-screen, whereas VR allows you to feel like you’re at a place moving around. And if you’re a live performer, that’s a huge part of your act.”

To find out more about PXR 2021, or to participate, visit the Conference website. The conference is live now through Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, and features a series of interactive presentations and discussions by Canadian and International artists and digital content creators, exploring how virtual reality, and augmented realities are integrated into the creation of live performance.

One thought on “PXR 2021: An Arts Conference without limits

  • This will come in super-handy when our real world has been laid to waste.

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