New virtual reality app puts user in the shoes of ecological destroyer


The environmental activism game Unceded Territories is a new facet of the Vancouver Biennale app. Vancouver Biennale

By Mina Kerr-Lazenby

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As individuals, it can be difficult to understand how one’s own seemingly innocuous actions can have such a calamitous effect on the environment. Especially when those actions, no matter how accumulative, are meagre compared to those of big corporations and companies.

So what if you could witness first-hand the devastation caused as a result of your own actions and decisions? What if you could see, directly in front of you, the flora and fauna ravaged at your own hands? Would it make you think differently? Take responsibility?

Unceded Territories, a facet of Vancouver Biennale’s mobile app, is a hybrid of game and activism art that is designed to force users to think about their own role in the destruction of the environment.

It is an extension of its Oculus-based, namesake VR experience that world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, the brainchild of First Nations artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and VR filmmaker Paisley Smith.

Miriam Blume, producer of the app and director of the Vancouver Biennale, said Unceded Territories is a call to action to be more conscious of both environmental destruction and systemic racism.

“The message about the intersection of the environment, colonialism and Indigenous human rights well, relevant doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she said. “It is an important message to bring to the world, and when you can do that through art, that is a really important and special thing.”

The game begins by transporting its user to a beautiful and verdant landscape, with flourishing greenery and sparkling waters brought to life via Yuxweluptun’s vibrant, surrealist artwork. Orcas splash in the ocean nearby as wildlife flits between the trees.

 A spirit bear appears as a warning of the user’s perilous role but it is too late, they have already become the villain. An ominous drumbeat by The Halluci Nation amplifies as the user drains the environment of its resources, shattering the picturesque scene until all that remains is the skeletons of wildlife and a forest aflame.

“You’re too greedy, leave it alone” a voice booms over the quickening drums. “Can’t you see you’re hurting Mother Earth?”

It is provocative and confrontational, a not-so-subtle representation of the environmental chaos mankind is wreaking on the planet.

Yuxweluptun said he made Unceded Territories to force audiences to recognize their role in the destruction of the environment by having them embody the greedy Super Predator.

He said he wants the user to feel the anger of the Indigenous communities who have watched their lands be put in peril, to fight for change.

“Are we that different than the pipeline executives sacrificing Mother Earth for their own wealth?” he said.

While by now we shouldn’t need an app to be made aware of the effects of environmental degradation, Vancouver’s own changing weather and recent wildfires is enough evidence of that alone, it does provide a more accessible way for people of all ages and backgrounds to engage.

“If we can engross a school child that is otherwise not interested in textbooks or traditional learning, or adults who think it’s a conversation that they don’t need to engage in, then we have succeeded, and Lawrence’s art activism does that so beautifully, and so poignantly,” she said.

“The idea of bringing Unceded Territories onto an app gave the project more extensibility. It allowed us to bring the artwork to where the audience was, and the audience is on their phone,” she said.

Vancouver Biennale’s founder and president Barrie Mowatt said the app, “in a playful way,” re-emphasizes how history has “gone wrong.”

He said it’s high time we all confronted our history, and took the time to realize that there is much to learn from the Indigenous communities who are more connected to, and thus have a greater respect for, the land.

“That land shouldn’t be used to amass wealth or to enhance their lifestyles, but for survival and collaboration, communication and connection,” he said.

The interactive experience is available through the Vancouver Biennale app, available on iOS and Android. Visit the VB website for more information and to download.


Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.





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