Biennale College Cinema VR: a new, promising edition (part 2)

Presentation of the 12 projects selected for the first 2019 workshop of Biennale College Cinema VR (part2)

(part 1 and first 3 criteria here – synopses here)

On the 15th of January, La Biennale presented the 12 VR projects selected for the first workshop of the Biennale College Cinema Virtual Reality.

I joined the event expecting a press conference and found myself at a class on virtual reality that literally made me yearn for more.

The afternoon was dedicated to discussing the seven criteria that should be taken into account to make the audience of VR experiences feel as if they were part of the installation, mentally and physically. In part 1, here, I went through the first three criteria presented by Michel Reilhac, co-curator of the Venice VR section at the Venice Film Festival, and Stefano Tealdi, director and producer. They were:

  • presence design (introduced by Gino Ventriglia)
  • interactivity (introduced by Carl Guyenette)
  • liberty of action (introduced by Amaury La Burthe).

Six installations has been examined to explain these criteria and possible solutions to manage them, specifically Ways to School (Dir: Zohar Kfir – Prod: Katayoun Dibamehr), Frontera(Dir: Emiliana Ammirata – Prod: Helena Carpio), Feather (Dir: Ito Keisuke – Prod: Katsutoshi Machiba – Ass Prod: Tetsuya Oohashi), Sublimation (Dir: Karolina Markiewicz, Pascal Piron – Prod: Astrid Kahmke – Tech Director: Fabrizio Palmas), Queerskins Ark (Dir: Illya Szilak, Cyril Tsiboulski – Prod: Kathleen Fox) and Doubts of a genious (Dir: Matteo Lonardi – Prod: Francesco Lonardi).

All proposals I would like to see at the Venice Film Festival this year and, with them, the following ones.

Challanges in VR experiences: the other four criteria identified during the Biennale College Cinema

The same method was applied to present the other four criteria: first, an introduction by one of the workshop tutors; to follow, the director and/or the producer of one or two of the selected projects explained how they decided to face the challange under consideration in their specific project.

The remaining four challanges were:

  • Empathy
  • UX Design
  • Collective/Individual
  • Experiential

Let’s see how they were discussed during the event.

Criteria: 4 – Empathy

One of the topics people in VR talk the most about, is also one of the most studied: experiments such as those conducted by Stanford University show a strong impact of VR in the experience of empathy by the audience (see here for example).

Aida Holly Nambi during her speech

To have an impact, to change not only your mind but your heart, to create an experience that matters, this is the power of building empathy in virtual reality“. With these words Aida Holly Nambi (story developer) hits the nail on the role of empathy. As director of an art-culture organization that addresses the criminalization of the LGBT community in 35 African states, she emphasizes the urgent need for social change and that building empathy is the only effective way to do it. “Art and culture is the avenue, and storytelling is the vehicle, no matter what the media […] I see not better way to do this than by literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and this is what VR can offer“.

This incredible power of VR was highlighted by the two projects presented for this fourth criteria: How is the water (Dir: Ninja Müller, Prod: Michel Lovecky) and Goliath(Dir: Barry Gene Murphy, Prod: May Abdalla).

How is the water (picture above) faces the issue of human impact on environment. “Plastic pollution, sea-level rise, overfishing: we have the knowledge, still nothing is changing. So it is not a lack of knowledge that prevents us from changing something, but a lack of empathy“. Through their VR experience, its creators want to put the user in the skin of an animal that is affected by these threats (a dolphin). Empathy is built in four steps the user goes through (from passive observer becomes the dolphin itself through embodiment) that allow them to go through challanges and moments of joy, sorrow, drama and even death these animals have to face daily.

Goliath (picture above) is an experience where the user can empathize with a man with schizophrenia. “We sometimes view people with mental ilness as weird, to be avoided, feared even. Our experience brings us visually into the world of John, combinining the physical space, the virtual architecture, sounds and voices“. Watching John reflected in a mirror you are in front of, you’ll have the feeling you are controlling him (“you move to the left, he moves with you”), but soon you’ll notice that something is not quite right and you’ll end up having “the uncanny sensation that there are rules, here, but you are not somebody who can master them“.

Why I loved them: 

Both were incredible proposals to me. How is the water touches an important topic that we should definitely get more involved in. I have the feeling this installation will be an emotional rollercoaster: tender and happy when we’re interacting with dolphins, but physically painful when we experience their sufferings. Hopefully, it could really move the audience to a more conscius participation in solving environment issues.

Goliath… well, I have to admit it: Goliath is probably the work among those presented that I’m more invested in from a mental and emotional point of view. Mental illness is, indeed, something that is still a mystery to most people. Having a VR installation that shows its user, in such an effective and yet disturbing way, what it really means to suffer from something like schizophrenia… it could really give us a glimpse, as the director said, “on how fragile our own reality is”.

Criteria: 5 – UX Design

Avinash Changa (visual advisor) presented the fifth criteria, UX Design. “Watching science fiction movies and fantsy movies, reading comic books, I imagined what it would like to go beyond the frame and step into the world of experiences. So, what would it be like if I could sit next to James Bond? […] We can now give film lovers, gamers, tv-viewers experiences that they never thought would be possibile“. But audiences and people can be quite different in what they want. While Changa mentions videogames as a media people in VR could look at to find a new path to face this challenge, Coline Delbaere (visual advisor), who joined Changa in his introduction, underlines the impact of mixing real elements with virtual ones through the creation of performance-based installations where the users themselves become actors.

Open the door (Dir. Zsolt Magyari, Prod: Tamas Olajos)is a work that connects the present with the past through the role it gives its user, who is invited to a journey through Villa Scitovsky during a tragic day in history, September 3, 1939: the day British and French declared war to Germany. “The goal of this piece is to create awareness of our present reality and also to urge us for consciousness about decisions“. Real actor performances challenge the user, both intellectually and emotionally, to agree or disagree with them. At the same time, the sense of presence and immersion is facilitated by the detailed historical reconstruction of the space of the villa, through photographs and paitings, interior design, costumes, the way people talk, what is on the radio, what can be read in the newspapers.

Why I loved it: 

I loved the idea behind Open the door and how it will be conveyed. To take responsability, to become aware of how much the choices of the few influence the destiny of many, to find a connection with the past and learn a lesson for the present… all concepts I am rather eager to experience, especially through an installation that adds a theatrical element to my presence in it

Criteria: 6 – Collective/Individual

Tupac Martir (visual advisor), introducing the concept of collective/individual in VR, mentions the path VR had to take to go from a very individualistic art form, due to a technology still in development, to what he calls “a communal effect. Now, creating an individual experience has become the artist’s choice. “That’s the beauty of what we’re doing. It’s beauty that now we have choices“. Leen Segers (creative technologist) joins Tubac in the introduction with a speech about WEB Vr, which democratizes accesso to virtual reality and, by its nature, allows multiple players to join an experience and notice each other, therefore making the experience itself more social.

Tupac Martir on the left, Leen Segers on the right

My Room (Dir: Uta Arning, Prod: Tina Lin) is a criticism of the current use of social media and the dangers it entails. Its narrative arc revolves around a social media star who lives in an apartment that she cannot leave, with a robotic cat as her only companion. The user plays the role of a social media user and therefore both the collective and the individual experiences are present: “as soon as the user enters the space, he or she feels the presence of the collectivity“, perceived in the floating comments and reactions in the space and in the possibility to engage them in specific versions of the installation.

So the impression is that we are not the only person present in the room. Yet, there is an increasing feeling of claustrophobia, that we perceive when we start to empathize with the main character whose destiny we are actively asked to decide.

Why I loved it:

the effects of social media can be disastrous. We are intellectually aware of them and yet, to hide behind a screen often allows us to ignore the real consequences some online behaviors have. My Room makes the users face these consequences and could be a strong educational instrument to educate digital media user to a more respectful use of them and a more human interaction with the people on the other “side”

Criteria: 7 – Experiential

” The experiential nature of VR encompasses everything we’ve tried to talk about so far. This is about recognizing that, as it has been said in different ways, in different locations, when you enter the VR story, the VR world, you are in for the global experience. As opposed to sitting in front of a screen and watching something which is at a distance from you and that you can disconnect yourself very easily. In VR you cannot escape the impact that the experience brings”

Michel Reilhac

Naomi Roth (story developer) introduces the final criterium, the experiential nature of VR.

We have some experience now on the impact of this technology on the users and on the narrative. […] It’s real experience. Once you are in virtual reality, I’m able to hack all your senses. […] I am pure immersion and then it becomes really difficult to make the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual“. So the impact of this technology is something that’s under investigation by many and, as most technologies, it’s an impact that can have incredibly positive consequences (see the aformentioned “empathy”) but also negative ones.

Whispers (Dir: Jacek Naglowski; Junior Prod: Joanna Skupinska) and This is for you (Dir: Mercedes Arturo; Prod: Gabrielle Floquet) presents the concept of experiential in two different ways.

Whispers (picture above) is an installation about a whisperer, an eastern european witch who is going to guide the user in the experience. “During this trip you’re confronted with sounds, spaces and situations […] that are real in this context but that are put together not in a narrative way but in an abstract way“. The experiential element in the project is facilitated by the use of a non-regular structure where, “instead of thinking what’s the meaning behind what the user sees, what you want to put the emphasis on is how the user feels during the experience. There’s no direct cause and effect relation“. Emotions are stimulated by a skilful construction of the scene in which you are lead and by the whisperer herself, with whom the user creates a sort of connetion. “At the end of the experience you are put in front of this old lady, she’s very close, she looks directly into your eyes, she whispers directly into your ears and she performs the ritual using their hands which are going directly next to your head“.

This is for you (picture below) was the last project presented: a peculiar installation where the experiential element is transmitted without the use of a headset. “The user is standing in a room where on two walls and on the floor you have three projections that will tell you the story. They understand your point of view and will act accordingly“. During the experience you receive an old passport that triggers a time travel to the beginning of the 20th century in Italy where you find out you are an Italian emigrant to Argentina. When you return to the present you’re faced with the reality of contemporary fellow emigrants facing similar problems. When you leave, you take with you something concrete from the experience: “You have to give back this old passport we have given you to get back to your bag, your coat“, whatever you gave to get into the experience. “With your belongings you will also receive a contemporary passport with your own photo, your name, your signature and it will have the stamp ‘migrant’ “. Therefore, an experience that goes beyond the experience itself.

Why I loved them:

Whispers is incredibly catching even just listening to its creators talking about it. You can imagine yourself in this strange environment where sounds, music, scenes have “a rhythm” but “are not meant to be understood”. A concept that fascinates me to no end and that I have no doubt can be disturbing and mesmerizing at the same time.

This is for you is something different. Both in the narrative (it touches a significant topic and makes a parallelism between migrants that is very interesting) and in the way it gives life to it: the idea of no walls between me and the experience, whether the headset or the “going back home”, is something that I need to try.

Keep calm: the projects are coming (hopefully all of them)

So, what is going to happen now? The Biennale College Cinema Virtual Reality will select, by the end of February, a maximum of 3 VR projects that will receive a contribution towards production and will be presented at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.

Does this mean we won’t get to see all the 12 incredible works presented during the event? Although I am no expert in production processes, I know some projects will seek further funding possibilities and I definitely hope they will get them.

Listening to their directors and producers talking about them, imagining what these works are going to look like… it was like a leap into the future, one that made me say, yes, please, let’s do it. Although I certainly have my favourites, I hope all of the proposals will have a chance, because such inspiring visions should be rewarded and they should definitely be shared with an audience who could learn something from them, and dream a little more simply by experiencing them.

I’ll get back to you with updates in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, in bocca al lupoto all of you.

(cross-posted on linkedin)