Kiran Bhumber and Nancy Lee’s post-apocalyptic UNION is grounded in current world issues

A sci-fi exhibition exploring the divide between IRL and URL interactions

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The exhibit has a significant theme of searching for connections. Screenshot courtesy of UNION

By: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate

The year is 3000. You’re in a post-apocalyptic universe, where cultural memories have been eradicated and humans live in physical isolation, connected only through a new cyberworld. That is the story of UNION, the headline exhibit of Cinevolution’s Digital Carnival Z.  

The Peak had the opportunity to sit down with the exhibit’s co-creators Kiran Bhumber ਕਿਰਨਦੀਪ ਕੌਰ ਭੰਬਰ and Nancy Lee 李南屏,  to explore the narrative and intentions behind their creation. 

Both Bhumber and Lee are interdisciplinary media artists. They met at one of Lee’s electronic music events, where Lee saw Bhumber swinging on one of the outdoor swing sets. Bhumber was interested in advancing the art piece by adding an interactive projection piece and from there, their relationship flourished. 

Bhumber, an Indo-Canadian artist, focuses her work on the linkage between activating memories and the use of interactive technologies. Her art installations have utilized elements of projection, sound, performance, and touch. Lee is a Taiwanese-Canadian artist that centres their work around the inescapable interconnectedness we have with our surroundings. They are an award-winning filmmaker, curator, and WebVR instructor, working in the DIY underground music community and utilizing choreography and a range of technologies in their work. 

Kiran Bhumber. Photo courtesy of Ashley Sandu
Nancy Lee. Photo courtesy of Chris Reed

The dystopian world of UNION is structured so that, in order to succeed and live life to the fullest in this world, humans must give up their memories and information — the more they relinquish, the more currency they earn. Cultural memories are only retrievable when “accessed through [the] sacred ritual of spiritual union, such as weddings, and physical intimacy,” but touch is forbidden. The exhibit follows “two beings discovering their ancestral memories through the longing for touch, and rituals practiced in their post-apocalyptic wedding ceremony.” 

UNION is a deeply personal work for Bhumber and Lee, specifically regarding the role of wedding dresses in our society. As self-proclaimed “queer diasporic subjects,” they understand the impacts of homophobia and sexism on wedding rituals and the rite of passage that comes from them. 

In addition to the focus on weddings and cultural performativity, Lee wanted to explore the manifestation of queerness in our society and understand the deeply embedded influence of patriarchal systems that continue to this day. Weddings with queer people still occur under the guise of a patriarchal structure that “gives permission for these wedding [and] cultural rituals [to happen].” For them, and for so many others, the wedding dress goes beyond being just a garment and instead is yet another tool for the perpetuation of patriarchal ideals, combined with harmful capitalistic practices and xenophobia. In an artist statement, they explain that the wedding dress “compels compliance with oppressive gender norms and social expectations.”

Another element was the commentary on environmental degradation and “what a world 1000 years from now would look like [ . . . ] where air is no longer something that is bountiful,” said Lee.

Bhumber wanted to look into “cultural longing and cultural loss when it relates to the memory and the practice of tradition.” She explained, “Every time a tradition is performed, with the bodies that it is performed with, we see a transition of that fixed tradition.” UNION considers what the tradition of getting married really means for a culture and how diasporic and queer people fit into that. 

Bhumber and Lee began working on the exhibit in late 2018 and were hit with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, both on their artistic processes and having to “reimagine the way the story [would] take form.” Attendees will now engage in a series of experiences — from 3D printed sculptures, two futuristic wedding dresses, propaganda messages, and a 16-channel interactive sound and projection map that operates through tracking the movements of attendees.

The themes they focus on were heightened by the pandemic and led to an increased “awareness and connection.” They felt “even more grounded in the structure and story of UNION

“We’re living through this extraordinary time [and] the current world we live in puts an indent on our work; the work looks the way it does because the process is what archived this moment in time,” they said.

When working on UNION, Bhumber and Lee consulted with elders on cultural heritage and were focused on figuring out a respectful and “proper” way to include queerness and diaspora into their work. However, they were faced with the question, “Why are you so worried about the respect of your culture when your culture has never respected you?” 

This was an empowering moment for them and created a fundamental shift in their artwork. They realized that they couldn’t “keep subscribing to the norms that are in place” in an attempt to feel a connection to their culture when there is already such a disconnect. They understood that they “had the agency to change the meaning of [their] culture.”

UNION encompasses the role of mass-mediated technology, surveillance capitalism, and the “perceived agency” that individuals have, as well as the commodification of an individual’s identity and experience in the digital landscape. 

Digital Carnival Z is running as a hybrid festival, where UNION will be showcased at the Richmond Art Gallery while seven other exhibits will be available for viewing online. This event runs from April 21 to June 5 and is free for all.