This past winter, virtual reality “exploded” at Sundance. VR technology is not new thing, but in the first part of this year it seemed as if every other film-related article was about it.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical. With most new formats and technologies, I find that people get really excited about the bells and whistles, but don’t spend as much time focusing on quality content. It takes a little while for the “fervor of the new” to die down, and for people to realize that just because something uses a new technology, it doesn’t automatically mean the finished product is actually interesting.
I had my first experience with VR at last year’s Tribeca Interactive, when I saw Nonny de la Peña’s Use of Force. It’s an immersive VR experience, where the viewer is observing a deadly beating of a migrant by Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s chilling. I mean, I’ve seen dozens of docs about border and migrant issues and am well-read on the subject. But this was gutting. You’re watching this altercation, and the fellow observers “on-screen” are yelling to stop and trying to intercede, but there’s nothing that they – or you – can do. And you feel so at a loss. It is in your face, and you are powerless. And you realize that people of color face situations like this every day, and not just on the border.
Returning to Tribeca Interactive this year, I saw another piece that blew me away. It was Chris Milk’s Clouds over Sidra, which follows a twelve-year-old in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. Unlike the animated Use of Force, this is documentary footage, taking you on the streets and into homes at the camp. You feel like you’re there. Maybe it was so striking because I have been there, and it captured the essence, the presence, so well. It brought it all back. Would it have the same poignancy for someone who was witnessing it from the outside.
Both of these pieces show the potential for a new kind of journalism – sharing reality with viewers through a visceral immersion that writing or photography can’t provide. But what makes this possible is the very thing that VR is often criticized for – that it isolates the viewer from others and the experience is only possible as a solitary experience.
I do see this as an issue, but wonder how different this is from so many other platforms. Does watching Netflix on your phone with headphones not do the same thing? Viewing something on your computer, even without headphones, is still mostly only for single consumption. And say you could create “theaters” for VR exhibition – would a bunch of people sitting in a room with headsets really be very different from wearing 3-D glasses? Even though the glasses don’t make it a personal experience, just the presence of something that stands between you and your neighbor adds a level of distance. The difference with VR is people can usually affect what they see by the movement of their heads, making the experience no longer collective, as a 3-D movie would be.
But recently I discovered an interesting angle of “crowd participation” for virtual reality material. A few months ago, I visited the Museum of the Moving Image’s Sensory Stories exhibition, a diverse collection of virtual reality and interactive pieces. When you first entered the museum space, the Birdly installation was set up. You don a headset, lie down on a platform and get strapped into wings, which control your movement onscreen. And thus, you have the chance to be a bird flying over Manhattan, dipping between buildings and soaring over Central Park in the wind (a.k.a. a fan).
Here’s the funny thing – being in line (which of course was quite long) was almost as fun as being in the installation. Watching the movements (something flailing, sometimes smooth) of others and experiencing the reactions of what they were seeing (smiles, exclamations of wonder, pleas of help because they were about crash) was enjoyable as its own “experience.”
Another section had four stations featuring immersive experiences – including Evolution of Verse (another piece by Milk) and Herders. Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael’s Herders is an amazing fly-on-the-wall observation of a community of nomadic yak herders in Mongolia. You have 360 degrees to observe the landscapes or the family in their yurt. Like Sidra, it brought back memories for me and captured the essence of place, particularly in details – the vastness of the landscape, the ceiling of the yurt.
I generally am moved more by the reality pieces than animation or graphic demonstrations, but Evolution of Verse is filled with magical moments. And as I sat waiting, I was again caught up in people’s experiences. You see their heads turn and lift and feel their sighs of wonder as they are watching. There’s a dynamic moment where something special happens on screen and observing viewer’s reactions over and over from viewers is kind of magical. Especially because I hadn’t seen it yet. What were they seeing? Would I feel the same way? When I got to that moment in the piece, I had the same reaction as the others, and felt like I was sharing something with those viewers, even if we weren’t watching it together.
So, in a weird way, there IS a communal aspect to VR, in the sense that the process of watching something becomes an installation of its own.
– Karen Cirillo