Olivia McGilchrist: The Artist Recreating a Jamaican Tradition in VR

Olivia McGilchrist's “Jonkonnu-Gens Inconnus” is a VR installation exploring the traditional Jamaican Jonkonnu parade. We spoke to her about ancient rites from new perspectives, masking, and white male supremacy in tech.

Olivia McGilchrist, “Jonkonnu-Gens Inconnus”, 3 screen video still, 2017

Even within artistic contexts, tech remains a heavily male-dominated industry. And when you add intersectionality to the equation, western perspectives and experiences receive the lion’s share of representation. However, there is a handful of women who are challenging this. From artist Elisabeth Sutherland to designers Faustine Steinmetz and Anouk Wipprecht, women have been challenging the status quo, while have gradually been coming up through the ranks in this very broad industry. Among them is Olivia McGilchrist, the visual artist using virtual reality (VR) to tell stories from her native Jamaica.

Born in Kingston to a French mother and Jamaican father, McGilchrist moved away from the island when she was four, only to return decades later. Having started her career as a photographer, she moved onto video, and is now working with immersive technologies. “I got into the possibilities of VR mostly because of its masking aspect and the potential of having infinite gallery space,” she says.

Olivia McGilchrist, “Jonkonnu-Gens Inconnus”, Oculus Rift and wooden structure, 2017

In one of her latest pieces, “Jonkonnu-Gens Inconnus” (2017) on show at Screen City Biennial in Stavanger, the artist created a virtual video installation of traditional Jamaican carnival Jonkonnu performers. The piece is experienced using the Oculus Rift headset while sitting on a wooden platform the artist built especially for it. “Not many people outside the Caribbean know about this particular carnival,” she explains. “They are usually more familiar with the more flamboyant kind. But in fact, carnival started out with being about celebrating identity and role play.”

For the project McGilchrist worked with Carlton Walters, head of the Carlton Walters Jonkonnu Band, who got the team together and gave them Gopro cameras so they could also film themselves. “We walked from the top of the hill down Constant Spring Road towards downtown,” she says. “Jonkonnu is a practice of dance, dressing up and hustle, so the band collect money for the performance while interacting with the people along the way.”

By filming such an ancient practice with the latest technology, Olivia McGilchrist is forcing the viewer to think about it differently, as well as giving a new perspective on the themes of othering and masking. Masking is a subject that permeates the artist’s practice. She’s used it to investigate her own identity as a white-passing person of mixed heritage via her alter-ego Whitey, as well as exploring the role of different masks, including the VR headset and the structures she builds.

Olivia McGilchrist, “Jonkonnu-Gens Inconnus”, 3 screen video still, 2017

“The main idea is to give you a sense of privacy and intimacy and make you become an art object as a viewer,” she says about the wooden structure. Yet she found more reasons for it when showing the work in Jamaica. “A lot of VR experiences on a larger scale can seem very alienating,” she says. “I find that odd and a very western thing. In Jamaica there’s a lot more emphasis on security and personal safety and I don’t think people would embrace the idea of blocking your vision in such an open environment.”

The artist is also vocal about the way new technologies sometimes exclude other cultures and their experiences and particularities. For instance, McGilchrist highlights that the VR headsets don’t account for voluminous hair. “I’ve only dug into that recently, but because of my heritage I’m constantly questioning why there’s this sense of white male supremacy in tech,” she says. However, there are signs of hope. “I really feel that both the software and hardware will benefit from being developed outside of the western context,” she concludes. ”I hope that will generate a very different form of engagement and results both commercially and artistically.”

Screen City, the Biennial dedicated to video art in public spaces, continues in Stavanger, Norway, until 31 October 2017

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