The Soul In The Machine: Virtual Reality at Sundance New Frontier

Oscar Naby, Assent

VR artists are blasting beyond traditional electronic media formats into new worlds of first-person empathy, emotion and audience connection. Welcome to ‘Year Zero’ of our new post-screen cultural landscape.

At Sundance’s New Frontier 2015 exhibition, virtual reality has suddenly appeared as a glint in the eye of a future media landscape that eclipses the constraints of screen culture as we know it.  Brought on by smartphone consumer tech wars and the resulting plunge in screen and processor cost, the virtual reality platform has been maturing over the past couple years in the hands of Oculus Rift, Google and other silicon giants.  Now that the engineers have done their work, artists, filmmakers and gamers are stepping up to define the vocabulary for this new electronic canvas. Content is king, of course, and this momentous occasion is the first time in any of our lives that we are witnessing the birth of a new medium.  The breakthrough VR exhibition showcased far and away the best and most diverse collection of new virtual reality cinema and art that has been seen to date.  

'Assent' by Oscar Naby
Oscar Naby, Assent

New Frontier featured a selection of live action VR work from Montreal-based directing duo Felix & Paul. Although the new medium is essentially only a few months old, they first put themselves on the map at SXSW in 2014 with their cinematic VR experience ‘Strangers,’ featuring a live performance by Patrick Watson in a loft in Montreal.  One of their next pieces featured Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in a breakthrough VR experience placing the audience on a rock inside Jean-Marc Vallee’s psychological, minimalist film ‘Wild.’  In Herders, the filmmakers have extracted every trace of their own presence as directors and the viewer is exposed to vignettes of everyday life within a Mongol yak herding family.  Paul Raphael explains the technique behind their particular breed of documentary VR filmmaking style: “The family had to get to know the camera, because it’s such an alien looking thing. We kept telling them, this is a person. Treat this thing like it was a real guest in your family.”  You sit there and watch quietly as the father scoops all manners of obscure organs from a giant grey stew onto plates for dinner. You gaze onto the windblown tundra as high-mountain horses trot by and peer back at you, locking eyes.

Vincent Morisset
Vincent Morisset, Way To Go

As VR filmmakers, the move towards invisibility and a radical ‘hands-off’ attitude towards style creates a quantum-level shift in the intimacy and empathy of audience connection with the digital subjects.  Felix Lajeunesse says, “There’s no room for us as directors there. Virtual reality is not a screen. We love the possibility of putting the viewer ‘somewhere’ and really just being there. And not thinking – oh wow, this is really some great directing.”  

The viewer is, in a very real sense, in a state of oneness with the VR experience.  Shari Frilot, curator of New Frontier, explains the movement towards total immersion: “Stories define who we are and how we understand ourselves and our society.  The reason why people are so excited about VR is that there is now a level of immersion that not only captures the logical mind, but speaks to our unconscious sense of being. It puts us in the middle of it and allows us to occupy a sense of presence and a sense of consciousness and becoming, inside the story.”  The implications of this new cultural paradigm are profound. We are experiencing a radical shift from the ‘third-party’ emotional universe of traditional film and television towards a first-person media format like the world has never seen.  The diminishing constraints of hardware and a novel realm of expression allow us to steal glimpses into a next generation of electronic culture. The glowing rectangle across the room suddenly appears to lose a bit of its seemingly monolithic lustre. 

Morris May, Perspective
Morris May, Perspective

On the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from Felix & Paul’s live action VR lives Oscar Raby’s heart-wrenching computer-generated VR universe.  In ‘Assent,’ the artist retraces his father’s subjective journey into a living nightmare, as he witnesses the execution of prisoners of a 1973 Chilean military regime. Imbued with a jaw-dropping sense of existential dread, he talks and walks you through his own recollection and recreation of his father and the bloody day – right from his personal artist’s studio through to the virtual hill of the massacre itself. Paired with the 360 degree VR environment, the intimacy of the experience is absolutely unparalleled: “I narrate and speak to the audience in the piece in the way you might speak to a close person. You stop posing and let down your defences and you say – you know what, I am frightened. Like when you were a kid. That’s the tone I was going for.”  It’s as close as anyone can get to a walk through Raby’s own mind, a profound picture of a dark closet in the basement his subjective experience.

Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse
Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse

The real-world implications of this sea change in media-induced empathy at Sundance’s New Frontiers are radical.  Across the board, Sundance’s New Frontier artists revealed a genuinely new generation of work that collapses boundaries.  Nonny de la Pena’s ‘Project Syria’ brings immersive journalism to the table where viewers are invited to experience what it is like to be in an actual, recreated Syrian mortar shell moment via virtual reality.  Morris May and Rose Troche’s ‘Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party’ raises questions about boundaries and complicity in the new medium – putting them in the first-person POV of a drunk teenager raping, then from the POV of being raped. Vincent Morisset’s psychedelic primitivism in ‘Way to Go’ is an invitation to lose yourself as a kind of stick-figure in a seemingly never-ending landscape.  Chris Milk’s ‘Evolution of Verse’ takes the audience on a dream-like surreal journey from pristine nature through a glorious flock of birds that morph into ribbons and finally into the serenity of a womb.  Visual culture has come a long way from its very earliest days. From a primal immersion in the caves of Lascaux epochs ago to the dream-like electronic womb of virtual reality, we are free-falling into a future culture that allows us to disappear into our own fantasies.   

Text by David Mullett


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