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Virtualian Festival unites artists in Canada, Italy during the pandemic

Brunella Battista, former executive director of the Hyack Festival Association in New West, launched the festival as a way to bring art to the world through the COVID-19 crisis
Virtualian Festival
Clockwise from top left: Yixuan Zhang, Stephen Spender, Blanxis and Brunella Battista are all part of the Virtualian Festival. The next event, which brings together artists in Canada and Italy for an online participatory performance and social session, is on Saturday, April 4.

The images have captivated the world: Italian citizens on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, singing together from their balconies.

It’s that spirit Brunella Battista wants to capture and bring to the world courtesy of the new Virtualian Festival, an online arts festival.

Battista, former executive director of the Hyack Festival Association, has launched the festival from her Chilliwack home. Every Saturday at 4 p.m., audience members can attend the festival – from the safety of their own homes anywhere in the world – via Zoom, a web-based videoconferencing tool.

Artists are taking part from both Canada and Italy.

The idea came as Battista, a multi-disciplinary artist herself – she does stand-up comedy, photography and video work – pondered what she could do while stuck at home.

“All my artist friends are really struggling right now, and, thinking long term, how can I keep art in the minds of the people?” Battista explained.

Battista, who’s originally from Naples, said she saw the kind of connections being built in Italy through the arts – be that singing from balconies or making visual art online together.

“We used to do that even on Sundays when we’d get together with our families,” she said. “We would jam, we would play, we would paint, we would draw.

“We need to recreate that familiar feeling of hanging out and experiencing the arts in a way that everybody can participate at their own level.”

The name Virtualian is a play on words, combining “virtual” and “bacchanalian” and also paying homage to the poet Virgil. It reflects Battista’s commitment to offering up a wide range of both visual and performing arts during the festival and also incorporating social aspects. Each event ends with an “on-nomi” event – the Japanese word for a new trend of getting together online to drink wine.

“I thought what a great idea; this would be like a festival beer garden,” Battista said, noting those who choose to stay online after the festival ends can enjoy open chatting with people around the world.

Every festival will have participatory components, so audiences can take part if they want to, but those who don’t are welcome to remain unseen online and simply enjoy the show.

The first Virtualian evening, on March 28, included the talents of New Westminster’s own Nina Wilder, who performed some of her stand-up comedy and showcased a comedy sketch filmed for her Bare Naked Comedy show at the Cultch. It also included Italian recording artists Blanxis, from their home in Tuscany, and visual artists Gala, from Italy, and Sylvie Roussell-Jennssen from Chilliwack, along with an audience-participation movement piece from Montreal.

The next one, on April 4, will include U.K./Canadian musician Stephen Spender, comedian Yixuan Zhang and author Lori Sherritt-Fleming, who’ll lead a participatory piece. Angela Brown will also conduct what’s being billed as a “theatrical engagement piece.”

The festivals are all free, but donations of any size are accepted by e-transfer, and funds are distributed among the artists who take part.

Though the festival is just getting started, Battista is already eyeing the future.

“I think it’s going to continue until this whole COVID situation is over,” she said.

After that, she’d like to continue it as an online festival with sanctioned live events around the world to accompany it.

Battista is hoping audience members will sign up ahead, so she can get an idea of who’ll be attending and provide any technological assistance that may be needed. But this Saturday’s event won’t require a code, so anybody who wants to attend can just turn up online to take part.

Battista also welcomes inquiries from arts associations that would like to get involved and sponsor an event, or from vendors and businesses who might be a fit for future upcoming festivals.

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