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Virtual treading in pristine lands

Marten Berkman has spent a good part of his life photographing majestic landscapes in far flung places, like Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island, Ivvavik National Park and the Nahanni River.

Marten Berkman has spent a good part of his life photographing majestic landscapes in far flung places, like Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island, Ivvavik National Park and the Nahanni River.

In the past, he brought those landscapes back to the urban world for a viewing audience.

That model has its limitations for the artist.

“Its been wonderful to bring what I find joyful in landscape, to share that, and photography is great for that,” said Berkman. “But I’ve also been challenged by the fact that the photograph doesn’t reflect the tensions that are occurring in that place, and often doesn’t include people.”

Berkman wanted to explore ideas about humanity’s relationship to the landscape, in all its permutations.

“The tensions are over values that occur in the same geography. Those who view it for its beauty, those who view it for its spiritual value. Those who view it for it’s mineral potential. Those who view it for it’s tourism and economic potential. Since I moved here 23 years ago, I’ve seen how those aspects of our nature play themselves out on the landscape.”

A beautiful image of a pristine wilderness, devoid of humans or their activity, doesn’t tell enough of a story to satisfy Berkman. “We have this idea of pristine nature and I am challenged by that, because if we leave ourselves out of the picture, are we saying that we don’t belong there?”

Berkman found stereography, or 3-D photography, to be a good way to get closer to immersion, which lends itself to exploring these ideas.

Video installation was another step in that direction, providing more sensory material to hint towards human-nature relationships.

“I really wanted to push it into a quasi-sculptural realm, tactile - for me there’s something very sensual about that. We’re not passive viewers of the landscape, because, in a sense, that perpetuates the very issues we have with the land.”

Now, in his latest evolution, he wants to bring the viewer directly into the landscape with him.

The plan is to do just that, digitally speaking.

Starting today at Arts Underground, projection interieure projection is Berkman’s first experiment with interactive digital installation, and also his first collaboration with tech design wizard Baptiste Bohelay.

Bohelay, originally from Paris, has a background in sound design and music, but he found his niche in interactivity and programming.

When Bohelay recommended investing in a Kinect sensor to the Yukon Film Society, Berkman’s interest was piqued.

“This was the first time I’d heard anybody in the Yukon talking about sensors and interactivity,” said Berkman. “As soon as I learned about his work, I introduced myself and it’s been a blast. He’s incredibly talented in programming and design, and very playful as well.”

Bohelay designed a program, using the Kinect sensor, to bring the viewer into Berkman’s 3-D photos and videos. The viewer won’t actually see themselves in the landscape, but an ghostly animated textural avatar that corresponds to their shape and movements.

“Something I definitely did not want was a literal reflection. I played with the idea of using thermal cameras, to pick up just the low wavelengths off of people in a gallery space. I might still do that, I didn’t want a mirror of ourselves,” said Berkman. “That, for me, can speak more, and allow the viewer to interpret it themselves. It leaves it open. What part of ourselves is reflected in landscape? What part belongs there? What part connects with it?”

“The concept came naturally, projecting people into the space was the natural way to work together,” said Bohelay. “I was really amazed how easily things matched together, and how we collaborate in such a smooth way.”

It doesn’t hurt that they’re neighbours as well. They often conducted their collaborations by skijoring back and forth between their respective cabins in Golden Horn.

“It was this beautiful thing, outdoors, close to the land, and low tech,” said Berkman. “And on the other hand, we’re working with media that is the other end of the spectrum, it is very technologically intensive, and I just love that combination of those two worlds.”

Contact Ian Stewart at