In an emerging landscape marked by dynamism and evolution, it doesn’t take long for new actors to become old stalwarts. Which goes a long way in explaining how Montreal’s Phi Centre – a multidisciplinary arts and culture organization with a gallery front in the city’s historic core – has gone from VR novice to one of the nascent art form’s institutional pillars in the span of a few short years.

When the Phi Centre started programming VR titles in 2014, it took to the task with a convert’s zeal, sending curators to showcases all across the globe and mounting the piece they brought home with care.

“You would not come to the center and just see a chair and headset,” explains Myriam Achard, Phi’s chief of new media partnerships. “The way we show the pieces is almost theatrical. We do a lot of scenography and contextualization, giving artists the opportunity to show their work with specifically designed and dedicated installations.”

Phi’s showman’s flair has won the exhibition space plenty of supporters, whose high expectations in turn have kept Achard ever on the road, looking out for new projects. “In normal times, I’m travelling a week out of every month, discovering new works, meeting artists, and visiting studios,” Achard explains.

That has created a kind of feedback loop that only strengthened Phi’s reputation. As Achard notes: “It’s important to continue building international links, both so we can bring the best projects to Montreal but also so that we can use the expertise we’ve developed over the past five years and to export it to other places.”

Initially, 2020 was supposed to be a victory lap, as Achard and team looked to consolidate their past five years of travel, discovery and networking into a touring VR exhibition with planned berths in London, New York and Milan. While global events scuttled those plans – at least until next year, they hope – Phi has nevertheless staked out a unique slot in the XR ecosystem.

Benefiting from the same institutional legitimacy as the major artistic VR showcases without the inherent need to compete, the Phi Centre has become an organizing pole within the (still very limited) community.

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Courtesy of Kat Harris

“We’re not a festival, so we don’t play the same role as Tribeca or Venice or South by Southwest,” Achard explains. “[Instead,] we federate, we bring those diverse actors together.”

Recently, those partners have asked Phi to coordinate an ambitious project that would unite the various festivals under a single online label, turning to the Montreal organization for its independence and heft.

Meanwhile, the Phi name has proven advantageous even further up the supply chain, as producers have touted Phi’s interest in a project as a key to unlock additional sources of funding and development grants for potentially challenging work.

“It’s clear that [we play a growing part],” Achard says. “We have signed many letters of intent, only signaling our interest in a project. We don’t even have to confirm that we will present a specific piece. Just the fact that we are interested – that there’s potential for it to happen – can sometimes really help.”