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VR from Venice: Portland Art Museum Goes Back to the Future (with Mixed Results)

The virtual-reality extravaganza has bright moments, but is often brought down by ... technology.


A still from the VR experience “Reeducated.”

There are two aspects to the Portland Art Museum’s second stab at hosting the American iteration of the Venice Biennale’s virtual reality component, which continues at the museum through Sept. 19. One is the quality and variety of the VR programming, which ranges from expansive narratives to abstract experiences to journalistic immersion. The other is the logistical and technical challenges inherent in staging the event, some of which are exacerbated by COVID protocols.

The ability to evaluate and enjoy the former is necessarily impacted by the latter, most notably in the fact that a ticket to the exhibition grants a one-hour window in which to explore several dozen virtual realities. Most titles have running times (a nebulous concept sometimes) between 10 and 30 minutes, and some can take several hours to fully delve into. Folks who have access to the requisite headsets at home are the only real audience for those epic experiences.

We each spent an hour with the Oculus and Vive headsets. The Vive headset is tethered to a computer and has flip-down headphones for sound. The Oculus is untethered and has sound incorporated into the headset. The event also features HP headsets, which Amy Dotson, the director of the NWFC and PAM’s curator of Film and New Media, likens to “driving a Ferrari.” Neither of us was considered Ferrari-driving material. 

MM: For me, the highlights were the entries that let me experience a part of the natural world that would otherwise be fully off-limits. Caves (Oculus) delivers exactly what it says, as you accompany three intrepid spelunkers through a network of claustrophobia-inducing subterranean caverns. The 360-degree effect is used to great effect here, as the limited light sources illuminate various geological nooks and crannies. 

A still from the VR experience “Caves.”

Similarly, Genesis (Vive) presents an even more inaccessible environment—the early Earth, presented over a 13-minute span through the familiar trope of treating the planet’s formation as a single day, with humanity only appearing in the final seconds of its final minute. Obviously, this is a computer-generated version of the last four billion years, but it’s detailed, immersive, and impressive. The Starry Sand Beach (Vive) uses clever and vivid animation to explore the folklore and science behind the phosphorescent grains that make beaches in the East China Sea glow like starlight. And Micro Monsters (Vive) will be a must-see for fans of David Attenborough, the silver-tongued naturalist who narrates this opportunity to observe an up-close battle between a centipede and a scorpion, plus other creepy-crawly antics.

LRP: I was equally smitten by virtual access to things I would never experience otherwise. Space Explorers: The ISS Experience was the first VR project filmed inside the International Space Station and unfolds as a sort of “day in the life” of the astronauts. There are multiple episodes, each clocking in at about half an hour. I watched Adapt and was as impressed by the astronauts weightlessly flipping through their cord-cluttered domicile and the ingenuity required for a zero-gravity treadmill as I was agitated that they were invading my personal space. I backed up and reprimanded, “You are too close to me!” more than once. 

What I was especially interested in exploring in VR, though, was the possibility of being immersed in history. I’m an art historian, so this is perhaps to be expected. There were three projects in that category that I saw in the program that I wanted to check out, but only one of the three, Angels of Amsterdam, was available in the ballroom. 

A still from the VR experience “Angels in Amsterdam.”

I wanted to like Angels of Amsterdam, which was set in a 17th-century tavern in Amsterdam and told the stories of four female characters. My engagement with this project, however, was marred by technical difficulties. I couldn’t make out the dialogue, and at one point even asked the attendant if they thought that overwhelming wailing was part of the experience. They demurred. 

Angels of Amsterdam was the only project I experienced that had any sort of interactive element. The premise was that the viewer was to make eye contact with the character and then that character would launch into her story. In reality, the viewer looks at a dot near the character, so it didn’t feel as authentic as advertised. As far as I know (and I could be wrong) there was no opportunity to use the hand controls to manipulate anything. 

MM: I also felt that too few titles took much, if any, advantage of the interactive capabilities of VR. Those that do are sometimes difficult to explore in depth within the time limitations. The Maskmaker (Vive), for instance, has you investigating a mysterious mask shop and trying to learn its secrets. Mare (Oculus) involves a mechanical bird in a mysterious adventure. And in Jurassic World Aftermath (Oculus), you’re a passenger on an airplane that crash-lands onto the titular dinosaur-populated island. I didn’t have time to venture much beyond the starting point of any of these narratives, however, despite the promise that each of them showed.

A still from the VR experience “Mare.”

LRP: The interactive components were the ones that I felt least proficient at last year, but they were also what I found most memorable about the experience. None of the projects I viewed this year incorporated any interaction. That’s not to say they weren’t impressive or innovative, it just was more of a cinematic experience. 

One project that was decisively cinematic was Montegelato, which was a 28-minute compendium of every film representation of the Montegelato waterfalls in Lazio, Italy. It starts with a single image of the waterfall and then continues layering in additional films so that the space visually overlapped – a bush in one clip matched the bush in the next and then expanded the field of vision until the viewer had a 360-degree view of the waterfalls. It reminded me of being in one of those planetarium IMAX-style theaters.

A still from the VR experience “Montegelato.”

Perhaps familiarity with the Montegelato waterfalls and their myriad of film references would have increased my engagement with this project. It was frustrating that I couldn’t hear the sound very well. The volume on my Oculus headset wasn’t high enough, and what I heard the most was the attendants explaining how to use the headsets and navigate around the menus.  

MM: I had a similar issue with the Oculus – even with the volume cranked, you still get a lot of ambient distraction. Logistically, I wish that less time was necessary for the viewer to get oriented and set up. Perhaps ticket buyers should be provided a link to a video providing the basic info on setting up the respective headset and how to navigate the menus needed to access the programming. Or a group orientation session could be held prior to each session. As it is, the first several precious minutes of an hour-long window are spent getting (a little) familiar with the headsets and controllers.

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LRP: While I was mesmerized by space, the project that will stick with me is Reeducated, a journalistic project sponsored by The New Yorker that explored Chinese prison camps in Xinjiang (the autonomous region in northwestern China most associated with the Uyghurs). Based on the recollections of three former prisoners, the project takes the viewer inside a line drawing-style animation of the camp and the dehumanizing experiences of the prisoners. The walls close in on the viewer as the narrators recount their utter incomprehension as to why they were detained in the first place. At one point the view was obscured to simulate the experience of the prisoners being hooded for transfer: the impression of mesh in the VR headset was so effective that I started to hyperventilate. The piece ends with live footage of each of the three prisoners.

VR excels at making stories and places that would otherwise be inaccessible feel immediate. It’s one thing to read an article about prison camps in Xinjiang, but bearing even virtual witness to their experience is more visceral, more affecting, and therefore more effective in raising awareness of something that may otherwise seem distant.  

MM: Agreed. Being transported in such a visceral, if virtual, way showcases the immense potential of this still-nascent storytelling medium. And this is only the second attempt by the Portland Art Museum at mounting this Venetian collaboration, so if it continues these issues should presumably resolve themselves to a large degree. But as it is, the Film Center can’t count on the novelty of the VR experience to make up for the clumsiness of some of the presentation for very much longer.

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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