REPORT: Venice VR 2019
- We share our impressions after seeing 41 immersive projects included in the VR section of the 76th Venice International Film Festival
Ever since it was founded in 1895, the Venice Biennale has been branching out, embracing art forms that previously had no place in the esteemed world of fine arts. In 1930, music entered the scene with a dedicated International Festival of Contemporary Music, and in 1934, both theatre and cinema earned that same distinction. Previously discussed as a derivate of theatre, photography and literature, cinema embraced all of those influences while establishing itself as a distinct form of artistic expression.
The establishment of the Venice International Film Festival helped to seal the deal, providing institutional grounds for the cultural ascent of the film art. Since 2017, Venice has actively been trying to provide a space for yet another emerging medium seeking recognition, which most commonly goes under the name of VR. The term itself lags behind the field, which is no longer exclusively focused on virtual experiences separating us from our surroundings, but also includes augmented-reality pieces, dome projections and collective, collaborative experiments facilitated by VR headsets. While in the view of the general public, VR largely sits within a broad spectrum of expanded cinema, as a solitary 360-degree variation on video and film, the rapid development of VR technology shows that it ought to be treated as a medium in its own right.
Much like cinema in its heyday, it holds great interdisciplinary potential, absorbing lessons and means of expression from other fields, but it also creates unique experiential conditions that no other medium can facilitate. If one were to look for the common denominator in that heterogeneous field, after reviewing the works included in the third Venice VR showcase, it would probably be the very state of immersion and a unique sense of physical positioning within the virtual world that would remain standing after the removal of all other creative variables.
Among the works selected by Michel Reilhac and Liz Rosenthal – curators of the section (see the interview) – we find pieces of striking simplicity, composed of a single, spherical shot in 360 degrees (O [5x1]), as well as massive productions, where one’s unconstrained exploration of the virtual world is facilitated by several musicians, voice actors and caterers in real time (Cosmos Within Us). Some of the experiences are more closely tied to games, letting the mechanics and modes of interaction lead the experience, while others, like The Making Of [5x1], consciously investigate their status as expanded cinematic forms.
Not unlike cinema in its early days, the VR field sparks with potentialities, as there is no established economic model that would incentivise works of any particular kind. The festival-goers in and around Venice kept calling Lazzaretto Vecchio – a former leper colony, where the showcase took place – the “island of wonders” or the “magic island”. The wondrous element of the presented pieces would very often lie not in their technical quality, the much-hyped empathy-inducing factor, or even immersion itself, but in the defiance of expectations, diversity and the constant ability to produce a sense of surprise.
This variety is well reflected in the verdict of the jury led by famous artist, singer, director and performer Laurie Anderson, who recently turned to VR herself. The Grand Jury Prize for Best VR Immersive Work went to Celine Tricart for The Key. Tricart previously worked as a camera assistant and a 3D technician on a number of large-scale productions, such as Transformers and Westworld, but has also directed fierce, politically engaged documentary works such as The Sun Ladies VR, which introduces you to a squad of Yazidi female fighters who go up against ISIS. Both of those qualities – technical skills and sociopolitical concerns – come together in her mixed-reality work that deals with memory, loss and displacement. The Key combines performative elements with virtual reality in order to ground you in the experience and evoke a sense of responsibility.
The Best VR Immersive Experience for Interactive Content Award went to Ricardo Laganaro for A Linha. If The Key flirts with the forms of a chamber theatrical piece and an exhibition, A Linha is a spectacularly crafted fable that uses its limited interaction to evoke the childlike feeling of play. Throughout the experience, you follow the footsteps of wooden figures fitted into an elaborate diorama. As if in a more cheerful version of The Truman Show, the puppets keep following their daily routine – until they don’t. Laganaro’s piece does not allow you to exert a big impact on its story world, much like that one grown-up relative who would not allow you to rearrange his model train set when you were a kid, but it does manage to spark that same enthusiasm that you felt as a child when you discovered a mysterious toy up in the attic.
Joel Kachi Benson’s Daughters of Chibok left Venice with the Best VR Immersive Story for Linear Content Award. The simplicity of the documentary piece, which was presented as a 360-degree video, was complemented by the weight of the underlying circumstances. After being slowly introduced to the daily routines of the women of the Chibok area in Nigeria, we learn about the tragedy that befell the village. In 2014, 276 female students from a local secondary school were kidnapped by the extremist terrorist organisation Boko Haram. We learn this only after we’ve been introduced to the brave, hopeful mothers of Chibok, and it prohibits us from dismissing their story and loss.
Another exercise in confrontation was one of the most striking VR pieces in recent memory, called The Collider. Presented in the “Best of” section, it somehow cheekily advertised itself as a human counterpart to the CERN Large Hadron Collider, colliding people instead of particles. Despite the scientific association, the work of May Abdalla and Amy Rose was gracefully simple on a technical level, while facilitating very complex experiences and moderating unexpected interactions.
A lot of the experiences in the programme committed the cardinal sin of advocating interaction, on one hand, and not trusting their audience enough, on the other. In some cases, such as in Keisuke Itoh’s Feather, it was by stripping the interaction of any meaningful elements that could give us agency, while in others, we weren’t trusted enough to empathise or reflect on our own. Instead, we were explicitly instructed and led by the voice-over to feel what the makers had intended. Speaking to one of the members of the Anagram team behind The Collider, we learned that May Abdalla and Amy Rose could dispute a single word within the voice-over for a couple of days. It really shows, as the narrative of the piece is simple but dares you to engage in a complex game, it’s informative while maintaining intelligibility and, most of all, it evokes trust.
Another work that successfully wove the spoken word into its narrative was Porton Down by Callum Cooper. Based on a series of interviews with Don Webb, an involuntary participant in the LSD trials performed on British soldiers, the experience turns you into a subject of repetitive trials that the protagonist himself underwent decades ago. The hand-drawn environments, natively designed in VR, ground you strongly in the subjective memory of a drugged participant, while the monotonous instructions compel you to re-enact his gestures.
While The Collider was interested in confronting two individuals in controlled, intimate conditions, the crew of Loveseat, directed by Kiira Benzing, took on a completely different challenge. By staging a play and putting the cast in headsets, they took a shot at a completely new format that could potentially be a viable solution for the field, which suffers from a lack of distribution models. Kiira’s play not only embeds actors in their digital avatars, but also offers the potential for a simultaneous, interactive live experience that could deliver performative acts right to your doorstep through VR.
On a more introspective note, the Venice showcase offered two new experiences by Hsin-Chien Huang. Both To the Moon, co-directed with Laurie Anderson, and Bodyless were powered by an extremely pleasurable and seamless navigation system that the Taiwanese artist created for Chalkroom (2017, again co-directed by Laurie Anderson). Despite the obvious contrast between the portrayed environments – that of a moon and a ghostly realm infected by the memories of a plague – both works share the same exploratory principle, aided by some intuitive mechanics. Rather than working towards a coherent narrative, both titles employ the logic of a lucid dream that one floats through at one’s chosen pace.
Unrestrained movement was also at the centre of Tónandi, a concept album composed for augmented reality by Icelandic band Sigur Rós and translated into space by Sarah Hopper, Mike Tucker and Steve Mangiat from the Magic Leap team. To get a sense of what Tónandi is, try to imagine a tune that floats through the space around you, morphing into the elements of the environment – blades of grass, spores or flocks of birds. Every time you engage with one of those objects, you intensify the sounds, trigger new samples or change their pitch. By walking, running, dancing and touching, you become a co-composer of the ambient tracks laid out for you by the musicians.
These interdisciplinary experiments were rounded off by Le Cri VR, a stunning ekphrasis of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Scanned in minute detail, the picture itself was the centrepiece of the experience. Exploring it in a sacrilegious manner, the likes of which is not permitted in art galleries, we are constantly offered new tropes and modes of engagement – from painting on the walls of the museum using the colour palette of Munch’s masterpiece to smashing the Peruvian mummy that inspired the painter. While offering a canonical reading of the work of art, Le Cri creates enough space for you to strike up a personal relationship with it.
The more experiential nature of those pieces was balanced out in the programme by experiences that displayed more obvious ties to filmmaking and gaming. On one hand, we saw the beautifully crafted narratives and story worlds of Gloomy Eyes, Battlescar – Punk Was Invented by Girls, Black Bag and Wolves in the Walls: It’s All Over, and on the other, we faced a string of engaging puzzles in A Fisherman’s Tale, which evoked the charm of old point-and-click computer games, while never losing sight of the narrative.
After watching all of the works during the third Venice VR showcase, we’re probably not even an inch closer to deciding the future of the field, but we can no longer call into doubt whether the medium itself is here to stay as a distinct art form.
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