I'd like to write about two powerful VR projects that I saw at CPH:DOX Festival this week.
Out of Exile puts you right in the centre of an ugly and intimate family drama, as a young gay man, Daniel, is confronted by his family who give him an ultimatum - change his sexual orientation or get out. The conversation swiftly descends into intense emotional, physical and psychological violence.
The soundtrack is audio recorded by Daniel at the time of his real encounter with his family. This direct document of the event is vivid and alarming - as voices are raised in anger family members begin to talk over each other, with all the brutality and cruelty that families save for each other at their worst moments. Voices stammer and break as they struggle to articulate their rage and hurt. This dramatic and unpredictable soundtrack brings a sense of instability to the piece, imbuing it with a spontaneity which is not often found in animated documentary.
The immediacy of the audio finds a counterpoint in the uncanny visual environment. The family are reconstructed as 3D animated figures, in a regular living room that you, the viewer, can navigate in real space. You can examine the details of the protagonists an inch away from their faces, or circle the room looking at details of ornaments and family pictures. A character jumping up or reacting violently can happen so close to you it makes you scream and jump back. You can stand alongside Daniel as he faces off against his mother or kneel down and see the view from the sofa where other family members sit. Different positions in the room create a different perspective in all senses - seeing the argument from each person's literal point of view makes you consider it more deeply than you might in a conventional film.
The alienating effect of the 3D animated characters - both real and very unreal - evokes a strange sensation alongside the raw and real audio. It is as if you, the observer, are inhabiting a vivid memory. The characters are like ghosts stuck in time - or maybe it is you who is the ghost in their world.
Nothing Happens, by animators Uri and Michelle Kranot, is a completely different experience. While in Out of Exile the viewer is a powerless observer of a dynamic scene, in Nothing Happens your role feels more complex. Rather than existing in this world as an invisible presence, you are placed in the centre of a mysterious scene and asked to deduce or decide your role. From a bleak and empty landscape characters slowly appear and stare silently at you, challenging you to take your place in the story - and in history.
The way in which the work is presented at the festival adds to its power. Before being given the VR headset you are given a large, tattered 1930s winter coat and heavy shoes to wear. You are then asked to choose from several rocks. Once the headset is on your are guided to the centre of a perfectly round mound of earth and given your chosen rock to hold. These physical objects anchor you in the experience throughout and engage your body and sense of responsibility and autonomy in a different way from most VR. There were several times during the experience that I felt close to throwing my rock at a bird or a person in the landscape, either in defence or in a desire to create change.
The piece has been called a 'living painting' by its creators and this is certainly the first impression you get, as you are immersed in a painted landscape that slowly reveals itself. The 'scenes' cycle through three different perspectives, with subtle interactivity affecting the action, depending on your focus and movements. As the scene unfolds you become both spectator and spectacle, and are forced to confront uncomfortable questions about both positions.
And despite the title, a lot happens over the course of the slow 10-minute piece. The environment, time and place is so potent, feels so researched and real in a dreamlike way, that it demands complete attention, complete commitment. The story plays out with a slow, heartrending inevitability, and the denouement is gentle and devastating, subtle and stark.
Like the great films of Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr, this piece creates a vast sense of space and time and allows the viewer to experience it in their own way - with enough room to think, to feel, to consider and to find their own relationship with the work.