Mathew Borrett: Sourcing Minecraft


The Banks of Ring River, 2021

Mathew Borrett: Sourcing Minecraft

Originating from rural Ontario, Mathew Borrett grew up on a farm that included a grand barn complete with hay bales and the space to construct/envision hay bale mazes, hiding places, fantasy modular dwellings and elaborate forts at an early age. These early design origins evolved from stacks of hay to drawings and Lego, eventually progressing to the digital realm through the video game world.  

Borrett often attributes much of his intricate, otherworldly concept creations for galleries and the film/television industry to 3D rendering software and the much-loved Minecraft video game that has won several awards and is recognized as one of the “greatest video games of all time”.  Wikipedia describes the digital pastime as a “blocky, procedurally-generated 3D world with virtually infinite terrain”, where players may “discover and extract raw materials, craft tools and build structures of earthworks”. The game features a variety of play settings including the “survival” mode where players compete to acquire resources to build the world they are fabricating while maintaining their health or the “creative” setting where participants have unlimited resources and the ability to fly. Hay bales and Minecraft now coalesce to propel Borrett’s work into a realm of elaborate limitless digital “fort” possibilities.

In 2016, I curated Borrett’s work into a group show of local Toronto artists at First Canadian Place Gallery called City of Dreams. It was here that I witnessed the bewildering effects that his large-scale prints such as Fever Dream and Ancient Mars had on viewers who were literally stopped in their tracks from their maddening office tower pace.  Groups gathered in front of the prints to “watch” the stationary, intricate collision of mythological habitats adorned with sky-reaching spires, minarets and cavernous rotundas. Viewers were utterly absorbed by the ancient dwelling shapes united by curved paths, roads and futuristic rail lines.

Ancient Mars, 2015

This was more than a game or TV series. Here the artist was offering a world of seemingly limitless possibilities, evoking a cinematic vista/scale through contemporary fantasy that incorporated medieval structures and otherworldly realms that conjure the popular HBO Game of Thrones television series through stationary, immersive, static prints.   

Borrett builds his seamless environments from a matrix of familiar forms that can be textured/altered/ pivoted and lit through 3D rendering software such as Clarisse IFX which is often used in the video FX industry for film and television.  His combination of contemporary structures with historical, phantasmagorical, futuristic components digitally fabricated to human scale and lit to perfection, pull viewers into a believable world of wonder, whether through a still print on dibond or immersive images stitched together for a VR ecosystem.    

In 2018, Lisa Jackson (Anishinaabe), one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists working in film and VR, joined forces with Mathew Borrett, Jam 3 and the National Film Board of Canada to create an eight-minute interactive VR experience called Biidaaban: First Light. Jackson envisaged a possible future for Canada’s largest urban centre from an Indigenous female perspective while Borrett adopted work from his Hynagogic City series, employing to-scale architectural models of Toronto’s City Hall, the buildings surrounding Nathan Phillips Square and the Osgoode subway station to manifest Jackson’s poignant vision into the VR realm.  

The press release for Jackson’s project states that Biidaaban is an Anishinaabemowin word that means “the first light before dawn”, referring to her concept that the “future collapses into the present”. The VR experience incorporated Indigenous languages that face the risk of erosion, emphasizing their crucial role in sustaining present and future cultures. Through a visual engagement with the original text and symbols of the complex thought systems of this land’s first people such as “Tkaronto and the written text of the Wendat, Kanlen’keha:ka (Mohawk) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway), viewers were asked to think about their “place in history and their role in a possible future”: a future on the brink of losing a much-valued cultural heritage and way of life, represented through sound and symbol. 

For the Biidaaban project, Borrett simulated a vision of a future Toronto City Hall reclaimed by nature where mature trees and renegade vegetative vines push through cracks of concrete cement slabs while surviving resident dwellers commute on canoes through flooded urban corridors and grow to sustain urban gardens on condominium roofs. The Biidaaban collaborative vision is not a far cry from a possible COVID-19 future outcome where the combination of catastrophic climate change and a global pandemic lay the groundwork for an eventual urban erosion prophesized by Jackson’s poignant vision realized through Borrett’s VR/3D rendered immersion. 

Hypnagogia City, 2017

The artist’s October 2021 Breaking Through the Clouds exhibition at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto offers more intimate, unique archival inkjet framed prints. Employing his Minecraft building blocks and his 3D rendering soncient Marftware to adapt, alter and mystify the natural shores of East Coast Nova Scotia, the prints once again convince his audience of futurist land dwellings. In Aquino City Level 4, sky-high forest tree pillars harbour condo dwellings stacked vertically along the length of the majestic trunks like remnants of bark left to the elements. Far beneath on the ground below, where the land meets pockets of the sea, luxurious stand-alone manors sprout like giant mushrooms budding amongst the shores.

On the Banks of Ring River, the rock formations of the descending forest shore hug the riverbank and gleaming water as semi-circular, shale-like habitations fold into the shoreline. When these 3D Minecraft digital Lego block systems fuse effortlessly with the natural environment, Borrett seems to probe the consequences of dwelling design adaptations, multi-cultural architecture and feasible futuristic habitations that all co-exist through societal formations within which we dwell.   Through his digital proficiency, Borrett seems to ask his audience to question how we currently live and additionally, how we want to live.

Aquione City, Level 4, 2021