It’s so 2020: A virtual conversation about Virtual Reality

The Virtual Reality component of the Venice Film Festival comes to the Portland Art Museum for a limited engagement.

By MARC MOHAN and LAUREL REED PAVIC

The Portland Art Museum is the only venue in the United States for the Venice Film Festival’s Venice VR Expanded exhibition. The event began September 2nd and runs through September 12th. Credit for this exclusive honor goes entirely to the new director of the Northwest Film Center, Amy Dotson, who started in September of 2019 (Dotson is also the Museum’s Curator of Film & New Media). Dotson arrived in Portland with a close connection with Michael Reilhac, the Curator of Immersive Media Content and Experiences for the Venice Biennale VR Competition. The Northwest Film Center celebrated Reilhac in March as the 2020 Cinema Unbound honoree.

The virtual reality exhibition is also a piece of the overall vision that Dotson, who took over from longtime director Bill Foster last year, brought to the position. As she related in an interview with ArtsWatch, Dotson has a future-facing emphasis on expanding the definition of “cinematic experience.” That emphasis was evident in the programming for the 43rd Portland International Film Festival (rebranded Cinema Unbound), which viewers didn’t have a chance to fully explore since the festival was abruptly interrupted midstream by the coronavirus. 

VR sets at Venice VR Expanded at the Portland Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

Now, after a months-long shutdown of movie theaters, the post-theatrical world is closer to reality than anyone could have imagined. When erstwhile filmgoers lament the lack of big-screen opportunities, it’s not necessarily the technical aspects we miss. After all, many folks have at-home viewing setups that offer high-definition video and booming multi-channel sound. Instead, it’s the sharing of a communal aesthetic and emotional experience with strangers in a darkened room that can’t be easily replaced.  Does the future of cinema center, then, on strangers wearing headsets in large rooms, six feet apart, sharing a communal but ultimately walled-off vision? Only time will tell. 

Consumer VR headsets have been around since the mid-1990s but are more familiar in the gaming world than in galleries or museums. In 2016, the Venice International Film Festival became one of the first international film festivals to embrace VR as a competition-worthy art form. Though still unfamiliar to many, it is quickly gaining a foothold in the art world. Organizations such as the Art Reality Studio focus on making the technology accessible and available to interested artists. It’s safe to classify VR as “new media,” but it is making inroads quickly.

Neither of us are experts in VR. Laurel had never donned a VR headset before this experience, both due to general aversion to shared wearables (even pre-pandemic) and an embarrassing lack of gaming skills. Marc has an Oculus Rift in his household but has not explored much beyond the rudimentaries. For what it’s worth, if you have a VR headset of your own, it appears possible to experience some of the Biennale works at home, although the instructions for doing so are a bit confusing and some sort of tethering to a PC may be necessary to fully access the program. And if that sentence makes total sense to you, you’re ahead of both of us in the tech-savvy department.

Dotson’s description in the publicity materials proclaimed: “VR is an immersive experience like no other that allows audiences to be more engaged, more empathetic, and travel to places real and imagined—all qualities that are especially valuable at this moment of great change in our community and our world.” We signed up. We hope our experience helps you to feel confident in doing the same.

Signing up and practical concerns

There are three headset types available at the Portland Art Museum: the Oculus Go, the Oculus Quest, and the Vive. Not all of the selections are available on all of the headsets, though. The Oculus Go is billed as the “most accessible” but features the fewest number of selections (nine). The Oculus Quest has “joystick” or hand controls so you can move through and manipulate objects in the space; 15 of the films are available on the Quest. The Vive features the most projects but is already sold out on the website. We both selected the Quest—Marc because of familiarity with Oculus and VR and Laurel because it had more projects than the Go (or dumb luck). Tickets are available for one hour time slots, but in that time slot, you only get 50 minutes of view time.

LRP: I think my advice for this would be to make sure that you look at the program and select which projects you want to see ahead of time. I went in with a list and was only able to get to three of the four because of technical issues with the headset. 

MM: Having a watch list in mind is definitely a must. Several of the projects have running times over 50 minutes, so be prepared to sample some works and then hop over to other titles (although I had difficulty exiting the experiences back to the main menu without restarting my headset). I also wish that I had checked out a tutorial on the basic operation of the equipment, since the brief instruction provided when you get your headset is less than comprehensive. 

Experience in the ballroom

LRP: I had no problem being the complete novice (idiot)—I think at one point, I had four different people helping me—though to be fair, they didn’t seem to be able to figure out what was wrong either. This may be something that is fixed after the preview but not all of the films that the program said were available on the Quest seemed to be loaded on the set I was using. The staff was patient and kind and we eventually figured it out, but it definitely ate into my allotted hour.

Installation view of Venice VR Expanded at the Portland Art Museum.
Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

MM: I’m the sort who prefers to try to figure stuff out rather than ask for help, so I fiddled with various controls or, as mentioned above, restarted the device when that seemed like the best options. One pandemic-specific note: The headsets fit better with thin, disposable face masks than with bulkier ones, but the Film Center does have disposable masks to borrow.

What we watched

MM: I tried to alternate between the more entertainment-oriented, animated selection and those that seemed to push toward using the format for more abstract or documentary purposes. In the former category were Baba Yaga and Ajax All-Powerful, while in the latter were Smagen af Sult (A Taste of Hunger) and We Live Here

LRP: I was particularly drawn in by Dotson’s claim about VR and its capacity to increase viewer’s empathy. I was also attracted to the possibility of seeing new places so I picked projects based on those two criteria. My list, however, was somewhat thwarted by technical difficulties. In my hour, I watched part of One More Minute, Penggantian (Replacements), Goodbye Mister Octopus, and We Live Here

MM: Baba Yaga is a linear narrative based on the traditional Russian folk tale character, a monstrous witch who lives in a hut and walks around on chicken legs. In the first-person story, the viewer is the older of a pair of sisters seeking a cure for their dying mother in the form of the witch flower that grows only in the deep woods. They embark on a quest for it, but end up encountering the titular sorceress. The animation is vivid and spooky, but the interactive bits are limited to a few grabbable objects. The VR aspect actually makes it, in this parent’s opinion, somewhat less suitable for younger kids than it would be otherwise, since the immersive first-person quality makes the scary bits hit home pretty hard. 

Still image from Baba Yaga (2020). Image courtesy of the Venice Biennale.

LRP: It never occurred to me how much more terrifying VR could make films for children. Though I think I’m not inclined to enter any virtual space with a chicken-legged witch. My first animated feature, Penggantian (Replacements), was an animated project but one that was for an adult audience. Set in Jakarta, Indonesia, it chronicled how the rise of Islamic fundamentalism changed a neighborhood. The story was presented visually  with no spoken narrative but was both compelling and charming. I enjoyed gazing around the neighborhood—watching the billboards change and the daily life of the family unfold. The project format was well-suited to showing how small, even seemingly unnoticeable, individual changes build to reveal an authoritarian environment. This was, given the current moment, especially terrifying. 

MM: Although Ajax All Powerful has the look of a kiddie cartoon, the humor and language are more in the PG-13 realm. It opens with an instruction to be seated while watching, but that’s not possible in the ballroom environment, which might explain why the perspectives seemed askew at certain points. The story is about a young girl who acquires a genie lamp (or, as its resident properly corrects, a djinn lamp). When the imprisoned wish-granter is freed, he anticipates being able to twist the child’s wishes in the typically malicious manner of his kind. But our heroine has hired a lawyer, a milquetoast who proves nonetheless to be more than a match for old Ajax. Amusing and creatively animated, but not terribly substantial.

LRP: Oh interesting, I wonder if not being seated was what I screwed up with my other animated feature, Goodbye Mister Octopus. I was standing (because of the ballroom thing) and felt like I was at the strangest vantage point in the virtual space. I found it quite distracting. My initial thought was that it was just because the “reality” was pegged for someone significantly shorter than I am but maybe it would have made more sense if I had been seated. Goodbye Mister Octopus is a family story of a teenage daughter, an overprotective father, and an absent mother. Parts reminded me of Pixar’s Inside Out in terms of processing the loss of childhood innocence. It held my attention but felt more like a short film with 3D components than a VR project to me. The story unfolded through dialogue, and so I didn’t feel as attached to or dependent on the immersive or interactive components (and there may not have been any interactive components).

MM: A more adventurous approach to the VR format involves sculpting the narrative experience to take advantage of its inherently nonlinear possibilities.  A story can take new and sometimes baffling forms in the VR world, as evidenced by Smagen af Sult (A Taste of Hunger), which—I think—attempts to chronicle the evolution of a romantic relationship through a series of brief vignettes. The viewer travels between these vignettes by moving the controllers in different ways, causing one (a kitchen argument, say) to dissolve stunningly into shards of color before reforming into another (a dance in a nightclub, say). I could never quite get a handle on how to fully control these transformations, which may or may not have been the point of the piece. That’s one of the challenges (or gratifications) with a new art form like this: telling whether a potential flaw in the experience is a feature, a bug, or just user error. 

Still image from Smagen At Sult (A Taste of Hunger) (2020).
Image courtesy of the Venice Biennale

LRP: In my case, I would feel quite confident that flaws are due to user error. The one thing that several people mentioned to me upon hearing that I was going to this event was a caution against motion sickness. I am prone to seasickness but I had no problems with this. The only project that I watched that had any motion was One More Minute. This was a documentary about life in China during the COVID-19 outbreak and I picked it both because I was interested in VR as a “travel experience” and, of course, because COVID-19 is so timely and immediate. Reading the subtitles was difficult because they would only appear in one part of the scene and I was often trying to look elsewhere. I ran out of time and didn’t get all the way through this project, but the vignettes described how life had been upended by the pandemic: a motorcycle delivery man explaining how he had no business in a restaurant district; a safety officer of some sort in a full hazmat suit in a train station and a resident marveling at empty urban spaces.

I felt constrained by this project because of the subtitles but also because I wanted to go explore the interview settings. Since this wasn’t the point, it wasn’t an option (or the ever possible user error) but it did pique my curiosity about VR and travel. 

MM: The highlight for me was We Live Here. This project, spearheaded by director Rose Troche (who once upon a time made the groundbreaking lesbian indie film Go Fish) takes the viewer inside a tent of a houseless woman named Rockey. When a police sweep forces Rockey to flee, we are left behind to explore and observe her makeshift residence.  It’s a great example of using the capabilities of virtual reality to create an experience that simply wouldn’t be possible through traditional cinema. It takes the open-world, “sandbox” construct of so many epic video games and boils it down to a core that’s both spatially and emotionally claustrophobic. It feels invasive…because it is invasive, and it really brings home the ability of this technology to create you-are-there moments far beyond anything Cinerama or IMAX could dream of.

LRP: This was the highlight for me as well. The combination of live-action footage and animation took full advantage of the technology to offer a poignant and affecting narrative about houselessness and humanity. After a few false starts, I was able to “pick up” the objects in the tent and get into the various components of the story. Each object unlocked a different chapter in the protagonist Rockey’s past and present, and, taken together, offered a story of homelessness not as the result of a single catastrophic event but a relatable concatenation of circumstances.

It is clear that this tent is a home and it did feel intrusive and voyeuristic. One component of the project that made me especially uncomfortable: one of the object episodes focused on a small box with photographs in it. Taking the photo out of the box activated the narrative, a school portrait, and a gymnastics team photo, among others. My problem was that I couldn’t put the photos back into the box. When I tried, they fell to the floor. I tried to pick them up several times to no avail. I feel so much guilt about leaving this woman’s possessions all over her home and am curious if that was user error or by design. I can see it being an effective tool in creating the empathy that Dotson advertised—was the intention to implicate me in not being sensitive enough in understanding of houselessness? Or is it not possible to put objects back in a box in VR? I’m still thinking about it.

Conclusion 

LRP: Even with my unfamiliarity with the technology and generally feeling ill-equipped for the experience, I’m really glad I had this opportunity. Signing up was a bit of a lark—new positive experiences have been tough to come by in the COVID-world—but I am now genuinely interested in the technology and excited to see where it goes as it gets into the hands of more artists and filmmakers. 

MM: I found it fascinating to attempt to adapt the vocabulary and thematic frameworks that I’ve used in the past to describe and analyze cinematic works to this format. And to have a virtual discussion about these virtual experiences seems like a peak 2020 sort of aesthetic experience.


Here is the full PDF brochure for the event with all of the film titles. Tickets for the event, running through September 12, should be purchased as soon as possible through the museum’s website.

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