IDFA DocLab 2019: Field notes

Dancing with yourself, quease-inducing yet marvellously ethereal Taiwanese VR, dinner with Puffy the cat, and an affecting and surprising take on the MH17 disaster – just some of the experiences of Verity McIntosh at IDFA DocLab. Verity is Senior Lecturer for Virtual and Extended Realities, and Programme Lead for the MA Virtual Reality at UWE Bristol. Here, she shares her thoughts on the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) DocLab exhibition. The exhibition is free to the public, and runs until Sunday 1st December at various locations around Amsterdam. 

The theme for this year’s IDFA DocLab is ‘Domesticating Reality: examining the nature of physical space in computational times’. In recent years, immersive experiences, especially those using virtual or augmented reality have been presented as so sci-fi, so Tron-like, that they have been consigned by many to weird kind of ‘future past’. One that is too alien and fantastical to feel familiar, yet too much of a throwback to a Robocop, Johnny Mnemonic dystopia, steeped in 80s and 90s techno-phobia that can make modern VR and AR feel somehow outdated, off-putting, and a version of a future we have already decided that we don’t want.

DocLab seems to be on a mission to change that. Much of this year’s work offers images of family life around the world, dwelling on and revelling in the little things of everyday life. Eating together, taking the bus, dancing in the kitchen, choosing what to wear. I have only managed to see a handful of the 40+ experiences available at DocLab during my brief visit this year, but I have scribbled down some field notes that will help me to remember what was what, and hopefully to provide a bit of a window into the domestic bliss for those not able to attend:

The Inhabited House
Diego Kompel, Argentina, Samsung Gear VR, 15 mins
A deceptively simple but lovely idea. Kompel has recorded 360 videos of his grandparents’ beloved and now abandoned family home. He has then painstakingly lined up 2D home movies taken during and prior to his childhood in each scene, superimposing the noise, liveliness and loveliness of his family onto the exact spots where the shaky camcorder films were shot so many years ago. The contrast between the dancing toddlers and poodle perms of his youth, and the dark and dusty home of his present, the one we now occupy is palpable. A sweet and sad piece about family, memory and longing.

Ali Eslami and Mamali Shafahl, Netherlands, Vive Pro and Subpac, 20mins
This is an experience in two parts, the first is a visceral, meaty romp through the parts of our body that we use to experience the world. Giant eyes, mouths, hands and unidentifiable human appendages loom above and all around me as I travel through this cornucopia of human viscera, clasping a jarringly shiny phone in my large, clammy virtual hand.

Moving into the second chapter and I am literally ‘on rails’ and zooming through something that I can only think to describe as Instagram’s disturbing inner monologue. Images of body augmentation, provocative live art performance (including some impressive spinning laser vagina work) and the ubiquitous IG face filters fill this inescapable and fantastical world. A series of giant emoji-esque objects (smiley faces, pills, aubergines) veer into view and I use my new giant hands to bat the objects away in time to an increasingly more-ish soundtrack. All of this grotesquery is starting to feel pretty cool as I exert my power over the objects and feel in command of something even though I realise that I am not, which ultimately I suspect is the point. Towards, the end, when my virtual thumb, unbidden by me, creepily caresses the screen following a webcam style encounter with a very young woman, I am left feeling horrifically complicit in her exploitation, and wishing I could somehow erase my digital behaviour. Bleugh, and also wow. Congratulations to the creators, this lucid dream/nightmare is the strangest combination of joyousness and hideousness that I have experienced in a long time!

Nienke Huitenga-Broeren and Lisa Weeda, Netherlands, Vive Pro, 20mins
One of my favourites of the festival. Rozsypne is a village in Ukraine that became the subject of media attention when flight MH17 was shot down in 2014. This piece elects not to place you in a TV-familiar gun-smoked chaos of a war zone, but in the centre of a calm and colourful field of towering sunflowers. In the company of an older woman in her kitchen, and with the voice over of a niece who loves her, the intrusion of tanks rolling through the fields, and the violence of shells falling from the sky is all the more stark.

Although the piece is experienced entirely in a headset, I appreciate the thought that has gone into the staging of the work within the festival. The walls are hung with soft, sunflower-print fabric that gives a sense of the world to be encountered prior to going in, and gave me something familiar to touch, reconnecting with the outside when I inevitably transgressed the edges of the virtual world. I had a really strong and gleeful reaction when I reached out my hand in VR to ‘touch’ a sunflower (fully expecting to foolishly push my hand through thin air) and found my fingers brushing a fern that had been strategically placed in the corner of the installation, just in case of just such foolishness.

As the story progresses, the older woman who is the subject of the piece becomes our solemn companion, sitting quietly beside a grave whilst I helplessly walk amongst the seats of the doomed aircraft in its final moments, and ultimately she bids me to follow her to bear witness to the wreckage left behind amongst the singed sunflowers. Heartbreaking. Accomplished. Beautiful.

Through the Wardrobe
Rob Eagle, United Kingdom, Microsoft HoloLens, ~30mins
Masquerading as a fabulous shop in Amsterdam Centraal Station, Through the Wardrobe invited me to thumb through racks of beautiful clothing, contributed and inspired by the subjects of the piece. I am asked to choose something that intrigues me, and I opt for the silver sparkly mini-skirt that I spotted hanging in the window. I am then led to an adjacent space where I am fitted with the MR headset, shown how to scan the tag on the skirt by looking at it, and given a clear and reassuring briefing about how I might navigate the bedroom scene now before me (note: serious bonus points to Rob for working out how to make the space feel like a real pop-up shop, whilst avoiding my nightmare scenario of doing XR stuff in a shop window like an awkwardly moving mannequin. The play space feels connected to the ‘shop’, but safe, private, unhurried).

Through the Wardrobe, in Amsterdam Centraal Station

I start to walk around, lured by glowing digital globes that appear above five objects of interest in the room. As I approach, the voice of Jamie, the person to whom the skirt belongs, starts to play in my headset and I hear stories of their personal experiences dealing with gender, self-expression and the need to be understood as more than just the label on your skirt. This is not the first time I have experienced this work, and it never fails to move me. It is fair to say that this is a piece that has taken firm root in my mind, and is actively influencing the way I now think about myself and my behaviour towards others.

Ana Wijdea and Cosmin Nicoara, United States and Romania, Samsung Gear VR, 30 mins
A surprisingly intimate and relaxed piece in which I found myself as an invisible guest at the table of a number of families from around the world as they sat down to dinner. It is one of those experiences that feels like such a natural and well-suited use of the medium (in this case 360 film) that it’s hard to imagine no-one has made this piece before.

The footage selected is lovingly and playfully chosen to highlight a breadth of family traditions, foods and cultures that differ from family to family, whilst also highlighting those intimate moments of family politicking that I can’t help but relate to my own life. The ‘we are different, but we’re all the same’ message is present throughout, but as trite as that feels in the writing of this description, the authors do a good job of not labouring the point with unnecessary exposition or hyperbole.

There was a nice moment when I looked down to see if I had a body (I did not) and discovered that the names of the people around the table were written on my stool. I’m not sure if many people would have done the same, and whilst it’s not really important, I feel bad for those who will never know that the fancy white cat, sat on the pristine white tablecloth, being fed a delicious looking dinner from its owners’ plates was called, Puffy.

Hsin-Chien Huang, Taiwan, Vive Pro, ~45 mins
Let’s just get this out of the way quickly; this experience made me feel q-u-e-a-s-y-A-F. My movement through space for much of this work was (as the name implies) as a bodyless, ghost-like character. I had the designed-in quality of wafting about the scene, moving effortlessly through metal bars, through furniture, through floors and ceilings. Whilst it quickly got me into the eponymous mindset of being an ethereal being, I felt pretty green around the gills a lot of the time, and the floor swam long after I left the experience.

That aside, this is a stunning, original and thoughtful work, set in an unnamed future when a mysterious epidemic has broken out and citizens are dying. In death they are being reduced to geometric, digital shadows of their former selves and an omnipresent threat is coming for us all. The world is one of dream logic, where the solidity and scale of objects is not fixed, where villages rest underwater in the tangled roots of a waterlily, and paper deities dance, coax and combust before your eyes. Time is amorphous, and ancient Taiwanese folklore melds with references to the 1949–1987 dictatorship, which in turn overlaps with contemporary anxieties about surveillance capitalism. There is a lot going on here, but the whole thing is held together by the sheer virtuosity of the storyteller, Hsin-Chieng Huan, who cut his teeth designing games for Nintendo and Sony. Huan is clearly at home designing an expansive and interactive world in which narrative is not something to be told, but to be accumulated through experience.

One of the most effective (and sickness reducing) facets of this piece, is the ability to clench your fists, outstretch your arms and fly like the spirit that you are, through a series of extraordinary scenes. The frisson of choice, of vulnerability and of control that comes with this act cannot be underestimated. My prevailing memories of this piece are of soaring to a temple to dance with a deity, the shame I felt when my clumsy attempt to shelter a lifeless body translated into knocking them out of my way, and of flying headlong into a burning boat because when you are already a ghost, that’s the sort of deliciously l’appel du vide thing that you can do.

Vast Body 22
Vincent Morisset, Canada, Live camera and screen, as long as you want
This is flat-out beautiful. Morisset has invited a large group of people, including several choreographers to attempt to make every gesture that the human body could conceivably make, capturing each pose as a unique image. That library of motion is used to deliver the image that offers the best approximation of my own movements as I prance around a small black room in IDFA, overlaying them one frame at a time as my digital twins. There is something magical and joyous seeing my mediocre motions manifested by a melee of magnificent mobil-a-buddies. I find myself contorting into all kinds of odd shapes just to see if it had occurred to my predecessors to do anything similar. When I managed something that had no equivalent in the bank, I was left with just the singular image of myself, simultaneously isolated and triumphant in my own uniqueness, yet craving the companionship of my perfectly synchronised partners.

The bank of people who have been catalogued thus far is pretty large from what I can tell, but small enough that I started to notice familiar faces popping up time and again. I started choosing my movements according to what I thought my favourite mover might have done. I was particularly happy to see one amazing woman who was clearly a dancer crop up repeatedly, making the most glorious asymmetrical, angular shapes with her arms, chest and neck, and nothing made me happier/more homesick than when a little girl started dancing and playing across the bottom of the screen, cheekily imitating me whenever I stooped a little lower than the average bear.

As you can probably tell, this work is right up my street. The only criticism I have is that a live feed of the participants’ actions (including the pas de deux with their digital dance partners) is relayed to passers-by outside of the room. To give the artist/curator their due, this is probably to provoke curiosity, and help people to anticipate the experience, working out if it is for them before committing their time in a bustling festival environment. I, however, had not spotted that the screen was any more than a pre-recorded trailer when I went in, and when I emerged to find that several people had been watching me, one guy had even been filming me, it made me feel embarrassed and affronted. Needless to say I was more…erm… physically gregarious than I might have been had I expected my enthusiastic flailing to become a public spectacle. Ach well.

To give you, patient reader a reward for sticking with me thus far, I am happy to reward your staying power with this wobbly video of me in Vast Body 22 (I did not film the bit where I tried to turn myself upside down to see if anyone had — they had not). You are welcome to watch with my full and informed consent.

In Event of Moon Disaster
Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund, United States, installation incl 1960s era TV, ~15 mins
I am sitting on a G-plan style sofa in the midst of a lovingly recreated 1960s living room watching adverts about spray-on carpet cleaner to assist the modern housewife, and ‘elegant cigarettes’ sure to impress the right sort of gentleman. The broadcast is interrupted by President Nixon. He musters an uncharacteristic level of earnest sincerity and gravely informs me that:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace, will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

This is, of course, a deep fake. A remarkably convincing deep fake with the video and voice realised in a way that reminds me to regularly pinch myself to check I am real. What perhaps is all the more compelling about this particular piece of video trickery, is that it comes from a very real historical context. As we learn from the newspaper on the coffee table, Nixon’s script writer, William Safire did in fact compose an alternate public address for Nixon to deliver in the event that one giant leap for mankind became a tragic step towards the abyss. Apparently landing the lunar module was always going to be a lot easier than taking off again and docking with Apollo 11. There was a very real possibility that Neil and Buzz would find themselves stranded on the moon, faced with a choice between starvation and suicide. A protocol was agreed that in that event, communications would be cut to preserve their dignity, and Nixon would give the speech written by Safire . And in funny kind of way, now he has. See for yourself:

A few mentions need to be shoehorned in here at the end as there were some extraordinary pieces at IDFA that I have tried and loved before so did not take up slots that should be available to others. As it seems possible you might have read bravely to the end to work out what you want to see — please immediately book a slot for:

Only Expansion
Duncan Speakman, United Kingdom, site-responsive audio, 60 mins

The Waiting Room VR
Victoria Mapplebeck, United Kingdom, Oculus Rift, 25 mins

Common Ground
Darren Emerson, United Kingdom, Oculus Rift S, 45 mins

This article was originally posted on Verity McIntosh’s Medium page, you can see it here.