Thanks for clicking through to Part 2 of a IDFA Doclab VR Cinema review from 2019. Better late than never!
Disclaimer: These notes are based off of audio recordings of Fi(me) and Tessa’s conversations. Please bear in mind some films are only available at festival screenings, or simply we haven't seen them in a while. My writing is reflective of our immediate responses recorded at the time.
Symphony of Noise
Michaela Pnacekova, Jamie Balliu (Germany, UK) 15 minutes
Every sound is potential music, but sample artist Matthew Herbert extends the musical spectrum further than usual. He builds compositions using sounds you wouldn’t think existed, or even think possible. For example, he made an entire album using sounds produced by products from McDonalds and clothing retailer Gap.
Herbert’s everyday sound sources are the inspiration for A Symphony of Noise VR. This interactive virtual reality experience is a journey through four sonic landscapes. The first centers on breathing, which immediately makes you focus on listening to the world differently. This is followed by an arctic environment full of scraping and crunching sounds, and finally a shop interior. Using the controllers or by blowing or singing, you can add sounds to the audio palette, which is visualized as waves and colors in three-dimensional space. In the fourth and final landscape, all the sounds are combined in an ultimate symphony.
THE HOW This piece’s main focus is sound and visuals, using computer generated content to take you somewhere impossible. Kitchen-sink poetry narrates the experience, whilst awe-inducing visuals swirl and envelop the audience, reacting to their own movement and button pressing. Whilst at IDFA's showing we weren't encouraged to sing, but it is possible to create your own unique addition to the symphony through interaction using movement and voice. Promotional material indicates the piece is possible to experience standing up, and likely makes an immersive addition to the freeing and participatory feeling the film looks to produce.
Being a sound-based CGI piece, Symphony of Noise was already not to Tessa and I’s taste. Unfortunately, the content of the piece did not engage us so much either, and we failed to see much harmony in the combined elements. The poetry and visuals felt almost disparate, “A woman checks her purse, and finds she is missing her keys”, “a dog barks” lines like these are delivered in an understated fashion, juxtaposed with futuristic matrixes, swirling bubbles, and eye-popping graphics. We found these elements clashing, and wondered if one side of production could have heightened or lessened to meet the other.
The interactivity did not feel playful or as reactive as we anticipated. As the piece encourages play and interaction, I found myself trying to "break" the surroundings to see what would change. As much as each individual set piece had it's own beauty and wonder, it was difficult to feel the tether that bound everything together.
CONCLUSION The sound design was the highlight, of course being a sound-focused piece. The interaction we did experience was enjoyable, and the supermarket scene did successfully evoke some primal alarm (rows of a surreal supermarket get real jazzy, see image at the top of this page.) Overall the project felt like it was victim to its own technology. Sound and interaction was the focus, and we often discuss how "Make Noise", a similar interactive sound piece does this well. Perhaps gaze-based interaction has less space for errors, and more space for natural participation?
It’s true Symphony wasn’t our cup of tea in the first place, but unfortunately we failed to find much unity between the words, visuals, and interaction, and are now left with not much of a lasting impression, especially after revisiting a year on.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
Usually we like to say “if you saw flaws in a VR piece you liked, that's good news for your own work!” I think it’s safe to say be wary of making things too lo-fi or too grandiose if they jar with other elements. The dramatic visuals looked too impressive coupled with narration that was understated and reduced.
Feedback is ~muy~ important when making anything, and producing multiple iterations before the final product is essential in VR. Find out what people like, don’t like, and how controls and buttons feel to “non-VR-users”. Sometimes not everyone can like your work (sorry to the makers), but the more feedback received means the more likely you can appeal to a wider market.
The angle of an interactive sound piece is to give the audience agency, and a feeling of joining in. Justify your creation in VR, produce a strong feeling of cause-and-effect through the interaction.
Lena Herzog (US)
Duration: 7 minutes
At the start of the 21st century, about 7,000 different languages were spoken in the world. Nevertheless, the areas in which languages are used are often small, and as communities disintegrate, they shrink even further. Cultural assimilation leads to a language shift, whereby indigenous languages are supplanted by a lingua franca such as English or Spanish. An estimated 90 percent of the languages that are currently used will be extinct by around 2050.
Last Whispers is a monument to languages that leave nothing but silence once the last speaker has died. It’s a journey across a virtual globe, constructed from satellite images of the natural disasters that are a common reason for migration and the disappearance of native languages. Along the way, we pay visits to speakers of endangered and extinct languages. The sound clips are from specialized archives from all over the world. In this three-dimensional VR production, they come to life as they rise slowly from the virtual landscape and draw nearer to immerse us. For a moment we become one with the language, until it ultimately dissolves meaningfully into white light.
THE HOW: Here is a video which puts to light the purpose behind this artwork from the artist herself. In this video Herzog mentions binaural making the experience feel real and how it is used to evoke presence in the audience. It’s described as a lyrical poem, an Oratorio, to address the issue of language extinction and express wonder. Languages are mapped upon a spinning globe, and their voices are (literally) whispered to our ears.
THE WHY On the website a video/audio installation is mentioned, in addition to the VR film. This piece is described from a fine art perspective, existing to beautify these lost or near-extinct languages, and to shake the viewer’s foundations, sharing knowledge on the silent linguistic-genocide. After our own viewing we found it harder than expected to enjoy Herzog's piece - Tessa and I watched VR with a harsh critical eye and were left feeling a little short changed for deeper meaning, or more specifically a call-to-action. Last Whispers does well as an ode to the beauty, wonder, and sadness of languages that face eradication. However we feel that as an audience member , we were not asked to engage with the voices spoken, or peoples featured. Without knowing what is said we are far removed from the individuals speaking, and the words merely turn into exotic sounds. It is interesting in the description to mention natural disasters being a reason for migration and for native language disappearing - a new and fascinating fact to learn - however we are not told this in the film, nor is westernisation or colonisation mentioned, two other driving forces of language-extinction. The passive, non-educational aspect of Last Whispers can be read as problematic, and after viewing we considered a missed opportunity to learn how VR can benefit these languages beyond addressing the problem through art.
CONCLUSION Tessa specifically would like to analyse this film through a comparative lens to Darren Emerson’s Common Ground, reviewed in the Part 1 of my blog posts. (She may well have in her Phd writings, but I’m going to surmise what we both agree on here.) Common Ground has a clear purpose for taking the audience to the Ayelsbury estate, the audience are moved here to learn about the physical setting and visit points in history to engage with the reality, and learn about how politics can affect real people that we meet face-to-face. Understanding this so viscerally in Common Ground mobilises the audience. We are left thinking critically about housing policy. In Last Whispers, we do not meet or understand the people spotlighted, and we are left with no critical understanding. Instead the spinning globe and passive engagement left us feeling rather empty.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
If we make work that is an accompaniment to an exhibition, performance, or another medium, it is perhaps worthwhile to keep the integrity of the original artwork. By this I mean keeping the mediums of your artwork together when shown at festivals. Much like with Symphony of Sound, I would prefer if there were further steps taken to get audience members to understand any context or pretext; eg standing up or singing is involved in Symphony, or the inclusion of satellite images of natural disasters and why, in Whispers.
You may know the phrase "Not About Them Without Them": Were any indigenous groups involved in this production? Will the voices featured be able to see this VR as intended in a headset? Do we know who they are, do we understand them, or are we observing "pretty-sounding voices"?
Hsin-Chien Huang (Taiwan)
Bodyless is a surreal VR experience based on the director's childhood memory during Taiwan’s martial law period in the 1970s, when human qualities were simplified and quantified with few characteristics recognized and measured by the ruling class.
Although the era has long gone, the emerging digital technologies follows suit. Governments started to use new technologies like digital surveillance, big data and AI as means to monitor and control people. Powerful world leader uses tweets less than 140 characters to set the course for his country. Human beings are reduced to a few pixels on the screen and left to the military drone pilot to decide for their lives.
In Bodyless, the retrospective martial law governing and ultramodern digital technologies are fused into a dark oppression against folk’s living and beliefs. The audience experiences the journey through the eyes of an old man who was a political criminal under a government’s secret experiment. After his death, he became a ghost and descended to the underworld. In Taiwanese folk belief, during “Ghost Month”, the hell gate will open for ghosts to visit their families. The old man’s ghost makes up his face and ascends to earth. Through his eyes, the folk culture forms a rich spiritual world interwoven with nature. However, a mechanical force starts to deteriorate the spiritual world and eventually reduces human forms and memory into simple geometrical shapes that can be easily processed by the technologies.
A wild roller coaster through the underworld and back to earth, pieced together by surreal CGI scenes that put the audience in a dream landscape, either forced on a moving track, or with freedom to fly as they would like. When viewing the experience on Steam, Bodyless can be explored in a guided or free mode. (For IDFA, I thought perhaps we watched it in guided mode to keep the time slots regimented, but now I’m not so sure...)
For us, the journey begun on rails, intended to keep the viewer helpless as they swing around an overgrown jail cell, faced with the deceased body of an old man clutching a photograph. After we have had more than our fill of ghostly floating, we are forced into a tunnel, and reemerge with control to navigate the new bizarre worlds ourselves. The flying mechanic in this experience is janky, tiring, and there are no end-goals in mind. We, the audience, float amongst these strange landscapes and try to decipher what is happening, what they mean, and where to go.
Virtual Reality is used in Bodyless to explore Taiwanese cultural heritage, rituals, folklore, myths and cultural practices, while also symbolically visiting Huang’s childhood in 1970’s Martial Law.
Huang pushes immersive storytelling in VR with new and different practices, which we found fantastic to see and try. Further artist intentions and context becomes clear in this podcast by Kent Bye with Huang:
Bodyless explores not only culture, Huang's history, and politics but new digital technology. In the interview above, Huang feels new technology is used to simplify others, rather than understand them - the geometrical shapes the characters degrade to represent this. This kind of elevation to the VR artform really shapes an experience to the next level.
The experience nails cryptic, symbolic storytelling through dreamscapes. Personally, I’m also a big fan of horror video games; I appreciate the frightening and disturbing aesthetics of Bodyless, and it works very well to put the viewer into uncomfortable places. However, both me and Tessa found the experience not our preferred experience physically. Forced through walls by the camera, dunked underwater, “touched” by characters and placed at great heights, these are all encounters that cross a line for us, personally.
To fly is a dream we can realise in VR. The intention of agency was given to the audience by way of flying - unfortunately I found this action much too tiresome after 30 minutes of raising my arms and flinching.
If there were manners in which to make this experience less unpleasant and more smooth - maybe by ways of technological progress - we would have rave reviews for Bodyless. Content-wise however, I'm sure the Oculus store would love to pigeonhole this unique work under "Game, Horror".
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
The uncomfortability of our real-life bodies made us lose some love for the narrative and the meaning. Always be wary of movement, new VR users and if everyone watching has sea legs.
Symbolism and metaphor is such an exciting way to storytell in a virtual space. Context before and after the experience did bolster our appreciation for the film.
Similar movement was used in Huang’s previous films. It could be true over further iterations the motion-sickness will cease. I can say for sure that we will definitely be first in queue for his next production.
The Waiting Room
Victoria Mapplebeck (UK) Duration: 15 minutes
This autobiographic, poetic work narrates director Victoria Mapplebeck’s treatment for breast cancer and its emotional creep through all aspects of her life, culminating finally in capturing her last radiation session in real time and immersive 360-degree VR.
Through multilayered soundscapes—stitched-together snippets of voicemails, advice, doctor visits, discussions with friends, family and her young son—she tells the story of negotiating daily decisions and fears, giving shape to the world that surrounds her as it is transformed by her diagnosis: an experience that is fundamentally solitary and yet inevitably social. She links genetics and generations, wondering about the state of her cells, and exploring the scientific development of mustard gas that has brought her to her present moment.
In a calm yet futuristic confrontation with mortality, she breathes rhythmically in and out, “moving her heart out of the way” of the radiation. The Waiting Room VR offers a meditation on the organic body and the limits and possibilities of our technological age, despite its unimaginable advances, in the face of the unknown.
Victoria Mabblebeck delivers a masterclass in VR through The Waiting Room. Creatively fresh, made for a purpose, and beautifully slotted together with a small palette of resources at hand. Mabblebeck uses her remarkable writing to paint her real and intimate journey with breast cancer. Real assets from her life are used - we see an ultrasound, hear phone recordings, see 3D scans and xrays, experience discussions with doctors, friends, and family, and physically we are placed with her in her last radiotherapy treatment. The very nature of The Waiting Room’s contents make this story an extremely personal one. We share an enclosed space and hear the world as she has recorded it. Binaural sound feeds the different voices from her life into our ears from different directions, for example Mabblebeck’s son's voice is placed at the centre of our orientation, much like in her own life.
One lone 360 shot is used, confining us with Mabblebeck beneath the radiotherapy machine. We are with her as she experiences her last treatment, with her as she is instructed to breathe in and out. This breathing action is to keep her heart out of the way of the radiation. Us, the audience, find that maybe we are joining in too.
The artist’s own journey as we see it is lonely, scary, and real. Using VR we can begin an understanding of cancer, catching some true-to-life elements that can otherwise be unknown to those not involved. How people speak to you, how nurses physically interact with you, becoming a “patient”, owning cancerous cells.
Not only are we confronted with the nuance and rigmarole of this particular illness, but we are placed in a session, and in a way we receive the treatment too. It can be awkward. It can feel long. In reality the piece only shares a fraction of Mabblebeck’s life, (although 15 minutes is long enough for us to find her and her loved ones familiar.) But how else can we really empathise with someone going through treatment if we can’t feel their illness? One small action that takes us there is the slow, forced pacing of the delicate medical procedure. The audience have time to reflect on themselves, as well as sink into the poetic narrative, and most importantly giving the experience time.
This film is fuel to the “empathy machine” attributes of VR. We are not asked to become Mapplebeck but we are made present with her. Real moments are captured and retold through various new windows by the artist. It’s serious, yet funny. It’s meditative, yet confronting. Although powerful enough to experience as a traditional flat documentary, we love it in VR and it makes perfect sense to be so. Being that this story told is so intimate, it is completely necessary for us, the audience, to be even closer than a film.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
VR films, unlike traditional documentaries, do not have to be action-packed and filled with frequent cuts. The Waiting Room utilises the subject matter to keep the audience at an appropriate pace, putting us in a meditative state, ripe to reflect and consider the morbidity of the artist’s life as well as our own. Experiencing stillness and restrained pacing we are not overwhelmed by it all.
A retelling like this brings not only a worthwhile experience for those in a similar journey, but also with many viewers seeing cancer treatment for the first time. This works as therapy for others, and also for oneself. A strong author-led story like this can hand the creator agency and control through creativity and making. This is an unique benefit of producing art as intimate as this.
Again - one 360 shot used! No moving camera! We see the artist’s body through mammograms, CT scans, ultrasound, and cancer cells. For these visuals, 3D artists were worked with, Mapplebeck having collected the medical imaging herself. Otherwise, voicemails and phone recordings from her real life are used.
Thank you for reading my type-up of our thoughts. These are year-old thoughts, but they feel extremely fresh, and the memory of the IDFA VR Cinema is super vivid.
Stay tuned, and keep an eye out for some more 2020 updates from us...