We were delighted for the opportunity to sit down and chat with award-winning documentary filmmaker and multimedia artist, Elizabeth Canner, for this latest Vesper Spotlight interview. Canner is known for her hard hitting looks at social and political issues (“Orgasm Inc.,” 2009) and recently has focused her lens on raising awareness and inspiring action around climate change, sustainability, and conscious lifestyle choices in her interactive educational VR game, Lost City of Mer, as well as supporting artists and art institutions in this new virtual climate through The Arts Oasis platform, a calendar and guide of virtual events across 14 creative disciplines- the perfect remedy for cabin-fever and way to discover happenings, live streams, classes etc... accessible from wherever you are (ie. your couch)!
Canner is also a recent cycling fan and long-time Vespertine NYC wearer! Canner was inspired to start riding to get around the city after reading our Ebook, “Conquer Your Fear and Fall in Love with City Biking.” Let’s take a dive into her inspirational projects and cycling lifestyle.
Evelyn: Lost City of Mer, your cross-platform interactive experience that combines Virtual Reality with a smartphone app, is a great way for people of all ages to be aware of the devastation being wrought by climate change. What drove you to combine environmental awareness and virtual experience?
Liz: Whenever I do a project I always try to choose a format or medium that will present it in a new way in order to inspire people to take action. We get used to stories being told to us in a specific format that often allows us to hear the story, feel we learned something and move on, but not actually do anything about it. Climate change is something that's so critical to the survival of humans and the planet, I wanted to use a form that was completely different from traditional, single channel film or even an interactive documentary online. The thing about the oceans is that many people have never gone diving or snorkeling, never experienced the incredible world that exists under water. With virtual reality people can explore on their own and have that sense of discovery one has underwater, snorkeling or diving on reefs. They can experience the incredible beauty that exists there, and actually navigate themselves. In fact we tried to reproduce the experience so accurately that we developed swimming navigation. The player literally swims through the environment and explores it on their own, as they would as if they were actually underwater. But we didn't want to make it completely real either, so we based it on fantasy, because it's been shown that fantasy will often encourage people to change their biases more than reality within gameplay.
We chose mermaids because they are one of the few cross-cultural myths that exist in almost all cultures, and are certainly perfect when you're talking about the health of the oceans. The story is really about the extinction of the mermaids and you're charged with trying to bring them back to life by changing your carbon footprint.
Evelyn: When playing the Lost City of Mer, our actions in real life have a direct correlation to how well we do virtually, in the game. Could you explain how this works and offer some beginner tips for someone wanting to be more environmentally conscious, ie. reduce their carbon footprint IRL and ace the game?
Liz: Chapter one of Lost City of Mer is finished, and basically at the end of it you learn that by 2050, if we don't change our carbon footprint as a world, if we don't reduce CO2, and if we keep going the way we're going, that at least 90% of all coral reefs will no longer exist. They'll die off. Reefs support 20% of the oceans species, so we have no idea what the fallout will be from that, never mind the incredibly tragic loss of such an important part of our landscape and environment. In terms of acing the game, we've completed chapter one and we're working on chapter 2, we're planning to release them one right after the other. We're asking people to lower their carbon footprint in the real world, and that will have an impact on the virtual world. One of the things with climate change is that we don't see how if we decide to ride our bike for instance or walk instead of driving the impact that that has on the environment, it actually doesn't feel like you're doing anything. But if all of us changed our carbon footprint it would have a tremendous impact. People say individual action doesn't matter but collective action really does. So combined together we could have a big impact. I think it also helps people to think about what are the policy changes that we need to make and -that's included in our game as well. It's not really a game that is about winning or losing. It's a game that is about creating an incredibly vibrant ecosystem that is user generated and brings the merfolk back from distinction. So now it's a game that all of sudden makes you feel like "oh I won" but you're winning all the time when you earn blue energy points that then you can use within the game, and that's when you actually take action. (A little confusing- when you actually take action during the game or meaning, you earn them when you take action in real life?)
Evelyn: What does The Arts Oasis entail?
Liz: The Arts Oasis was started in response to the impact of the pandemic on the creative community. Very early on, a study was done that discovered that almost 90% of artists had lost income due to the pandemic, because of closures, shows not happening, etc.... The arts were dramatically impacted. We wanted to do something, we being Astrea Media, to take action to try and help the situation. Many organizations like museums and theaters like The Public Theater in New York, were starting to do virtual talks, virtual plays. Film festivals went online. But, there was no place to go to really find out what was happening, no calendar or guide to all these different virtual events, nowhere artists could post their own events. A lot of musicians turned to doing online concerts. We thought this would be a way for them to increase their audience base, if they could post somewhere. So The Artist Oasis is a calendar and guide to the virtual world, the new virtual sphere, cultural sphere. It also has resources for artists along with guides for each discipline on the best sort of ways to go virtual. We did a whole deep dive and a lot of research into what are the best platforms to help artists as they move into the virtual sphere. It's both for art lovers and art makers.
Evelyn: The Arts Oasis offers plentiful resources, such as healing arts, that can be viewed from the comfort of one’s home. Could you explain why you created a platform that interconnects visual art and health?
Liz: As we were social distancing, we started making it when everything was shut down very early on in the pandemic, in April of 2020. The concern was that people were having trouble staying home, they were getting bored. There were a lot of older people, and other people, living alone. The virtual world gave them something that they could do where they would actually interact with other people. A lot of these virtual happenings are actually live and you can ask questions and sense a connection to a bigger community. That was part of the impetus, was thinking about how we can use the virtual sphere to help those that are socially isolated and lonely at home. Also, make them aware of all of these incredible things that are going on, cultural events, and encourage people to stay home, at that point we didn't have a vaccine, and let them know about all the things they could do without leaving their couch: go to the met, go to the pompidou in Paris. Go to the public theatre in New York, but you could just do it all from your own living room.
Evelyn: Is there anything you can say regarding your newest documentary and how it compares to your finished projects?
Liz: My newest documentary on campus violence, I would say how it compares is that it tries to look at an issue and follow those that have solutions and are trying to change it in a positive way. It documents their experience so that some of the mistakes will not be made again and some of the things that worked can be replicated on other campuses. It dives into structural problems that our government needs to fix, that the education system needs to fix. I tend to look at structural issues in my projects, anddo a deep analysis of the history of those problems and the context surrounding them culturally. This project does a similar thing, providing a deep dive into an analysis that gives people a lens through which to better understand what's happening on college campuses. Because there is quite a bit of violence on them, especially in gender segregated spaces.
Evelyn: Alongside creating safe and inspirational spaces online, we believe you also enjoy sustainable travel. Do you have a stance when it comes to cycling or e-biking? If so, why?
Liz: So I have become a huge fan of biking everywhere I possibly can. I went to a friend's house for lunch this past weekend and it was 17 miles away, and I biked there! And it was just a glorious ride, I went along the Connecticut river, it was a sunny day. It just made my whole day. Biking there as opposed to driving because I felt so much more connected to the landscape and had just a much more sensual experience. And I have an e-bike, it's a pedal assist bike which I just adore. Ithas made the mountains of Vermont; where I live it's very hilly and mountainous- no problem. Whereas before I would just be like "oh I don't want to go out on my bike because it's so hilly it won't be as enjoyable, I might have to walk my bike I don't want to have to do that " (because it's embarrassing to walk your bike). But now I don't have any of those concerns! I'm a free spirit on wheels. I just love it. It's my favorite form of transportation.
It's also a lot more pleasurable, I feel healthier. I see more of what's going on in my community. I feel more apart if that. Seeing the landscape is gorgeous. Even when you're cycling in New York- there's always poetry. I always find whenever I go out biking in New York I come across some poetic moment. When you're in a car or public transportation you're not necessarily going to have that same experience. It’s like being a tourist in your own community. You keep seeing something new every time you're out on your bike. Always seeing new things.
Evelyn: How was your experience reading the e-book "Conquer Your Fear and Fall in Love with City Biking”, and what is something that struck you?
Liz: Well I have to say I think that more than anything it changed my ideas about cycling. It was so important to have a better understanding of cycling within a gender framework. Reading the data, seeing how safe it actually is to cycle, and how important it is for your health, for the environment, being reminded of all that, it got me cycling. I started cycling everywhere in New York City that I possibly could when I was living there after reading that book, and have been going since then. It really changed my life.
Evelyn: Any advice to those hesitant to join the world of cycling?
Liz: I think that the thing to do if you are hesitant is to just start doing it slowly. Ride some place close when you're doing an errand, like going to the doctor, the pharmacy, or shopping. You can get a basket for your bike. Just start off slowly. Once you do that you realize how easy it is. It's the best way to get around New York City. You can find parking right away, unlike when you drive a car., You can pass all the cars that are stuck in a traffic jam. You don't have to wait for the subway if it's delayed or if something happens along the way. It's just so much more reliable and really the fastest way to get around. So I just think Just start off slowly and you'll realize just what a joy it is and want to keep going. If you live in a place that is mountainous and very hilly, I recommend getting an e bike, a pedal assist bike, you're still getting exercise but those big hills aren't such killers and they're not deterrents from going out and cycling.
I just wanna say too that I always wear my Vespertine clothing when I go out. I have a vest that I wear that makes me feel very safe. I think that it's very important that people wear safety clothing so that you're more visible. I love the Vespertine vest that I have because it goes over jackets, I can wear it over shirts, it just fits over everything that I have. I have a big collection. I'm a huge fan.
Evelyn: Tell us about your favorite Vespertine styles and how they alter your sustainable travel.
Liz: I always take my Reflective Vespert Vest with me when I go places because I use it walking, I use it biking if I rent bikes. It comes in handy wherever I go. Lately I've been traveling with my bike so it's just fantastic to have it. We were even cycling up here in the winter, when it was 30 degrees and above, and I would wear it then. I recently purchased the Reflective Vesper Jacket . I was just wearing it to go play tennis, it was cold outside and I thought "oh maybe it won't be warm enough" but it kept me warm and so protected from the wind. We played tennis until late and then I felt really safe riding back at night in that jacket. It’s great because it covers part of your legs. I think that's now my second favorite- but I love all of the designs. The Blazing Blazer I have two, Black Flash and the Cinnabar Flash, it’s like a suit jacket. I wear them to work all the time. They’re really comfortable. I get so many compliments on them because they look so unique, and are so well tailored. And all of it has held up! I've had the Blazers a long time. They wash really well and have held up incredibly well.
The Reflective Vesper Jacket is my new favorite jacket. But I also-what I wear all the time and what I'm wearing now- is the Reflective Blazing Blazer. I wear that alllll the time, the Cinnabar Flash and the Black Flash, and I love them.