Sheffield Doc/Fest Alternate Realities 2019

Maturity in craft, thoughtful use of place and the power of deep fakes – just some of the takeaways of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s 2019 Alternate Realities exhibition (6-11 June), as observed by the i-Docs team – Judith Aston, Sandra Gaudenzi, Mandy Rose and Julia Scott-Stevenson.

What follows is an abridged and adapted version of our conversation about some of the immersive and interactive works on show. 

Sandra – I think the topic of Spectre is essential, it’s great someone is addressing privacy and what we do with our data. Spectre, the festival commission by Bill Posters and Daniel Howe, is a touchscreen based installation, imagining a future in which a fictional commercial organisation enables the viewer to tailor and target an algorithmic ad-campaign to an ordinary person. It involves ‘deepfakes’, the generation of fabricated video of real people so they appear to say things they have not said. I think it reaches a public that is not particularly aware of what is happening. I probably do not fit in the target audience (as someone already thinking about these issues), so when I experienced it I thought it was a bit simplistic in the choices given and it felt too game-ish. It didn’t ever bring me to a space where I was thinking deeply about the issue.

Spectre (festival commission), by Bill Posters and Daniel Howe

Mandy – I want to push back a bit on that, and point out that this project is designed to be exhibited in public space. The touchscreens are built on monoliths or totems, presented as a street video interface. This gives an expectation of live public engagement that is often all too rare on the festival circuit. So the way it is accessible and rather blunt in its message, to me seems quite appropriate – and it has translated into press coverage for the deepfake elements.

Judith – those are the debates I think are hugely significant, if we can now fake videos in such a convincing way, that’s the end of believing anything, isn’t it?

Julia – I was listening to creator Bill Posters present at Sheffield’s Alternate Realities summit, and he talked about generating discomfort in viewers about having to rate people in a binary way – although I didn’t really see what undertaking the rating led to. I wasn’t sure how any of my choices actually mattered – maybe this was the point, but the algorithmic wrangling all seemed to happen in a black box. I tried it a second time and the outcome was mostly the same. Was there actual data analysis going on?

Judith – I’d like to try a project like this out on my children, someone new to the area, and see what the impact is. It’s contributing to a national debate and is the first time I’ve seen something like this reported so widely in the news.

Echo, the winner of the interactive prize, by Georgie Pinn and Kendyl Rossi, has the viewer sit in front of a screen and camera, select a character’s story and then see the face of the storyteller begin to morph into their own face as they tell the story.

Mandy – This one was a bit of a puzzle, as it seemed there was one story at the start – ‘I’m a machine, help me become more human’, and then selecting videos produced something completely different, with my face being superimposed over those of the people telling their stories. I found that latter part really interesting, and watched four or five of the videos, they were compelling. I thought the idea was interesting.

Echo, by Georgie Pinn and Kendyl Rossi – winner of the Best Digital Experience Award

Judith – If someone tells me ‘this is going to increase empathy’, I immediately switch off. Why not just talk to people? But I only chose one story. If it had been presented as an experiment, it would be a different proposition.

Julia – I did think there was a bit of padding around it that maybe didn’t work, but that one hook or device of making your face speak the words of someone else, that was a really interesting investigation to do, or experiment to try.

Sandra – for me it was more of an art project – an interesting visual effect that is quite powerful, but the narrative was detached from it. People weren’t listening to the interviews, they were just seeing the visual effect. The real narrative is what happens after, once you merge into someone else.

Common Ground, by Darren Emerson, is a VR journey through Aylesbury Estate, exploring social housing and gentrification. 

Judith – I really liked Common Ground, I’ll remember that piece. It stuck with me like Assent (an earlier work by Oscar Raby) did, when I first saw it. It grabbed me.

Common Ground, by Darren Emerson

Mandy – I think it really shows a maturity. It’s Darren Emerson’s third VR work, it felt like he’d really found a form to do what documentary has often done – to draw on archive, address a contemporary theme, make a rhetorical argument, but he’d also taken advantage of the VR space.

Judith – I really gained a sense of how people had made these their homes, I got a real sense of community.

Julia – It shows there are specific affordances of VR and these have been drawn in really well, they clearly show why it makes sense to be in VR.

Sandra – And it also managed to incorporate flatties in a way that really worked – projection on the walls for instance, that didn’t feel like an afterthought. I still got sick flying around though! Maybe for once the length was also enough to tell a real story, instead of the usual 8 minutes. Enough to feel the different layers – historical, human … Also the finesse of the editing and the tempo of the story are key.

Judith – I liked the juxtaposition of past and present, seeing the building plans overlaid for instance. I was totally in that world.

(For more on Common Ground, see this interview with Darren Emerson in Sight & Sound).

MandyTraveling While Black is the other piece that stands out as demonstrating experience in the medium. Felix & Paul Studios, seasoned VR creators, were paired with the director Roger Ross Williams. It’s also strongly about place.

Traveling While Black, by Felix & Paul Studios

Sandra – It is about place, but also about more than place too. It’s a sense of presence towards the people that are in the place. Sitting at a table, I’m there listening to the interview. Suddenly I see the whole bar is also listening – I was part of a community, I was co-witnessing with those other people, we really were together. That was such a clever shift. This was a secret moment and I was participating. I had a feeling of belonging, maybe.

Mandy – It’s about place at multiple levels, and is extremely powerful. You find yourself sitting on the bus, in a part of the country that could be hostile – so it played with place, community, belonging, threats, segregation, in a really subtle way.

Judith – Similarly to when I talk about emplacement, that’s a piece where I really felt emplaced, within a community. It felt like a shared experience.

Sandra – It’s great that we finally saw pieces from diverse countries, it’s not the same people (creating these works). The technology is also advancing. Nevertheless, as viewer or spectator or whatever, I found it fascinating to see that the thing that really makes a story work is the finesse in the way the story is told, and when this happens we don’t see the technology any more. You’re now part of a story, and that’s the crafting of the director. That’s where Common Ground and Traveling While Black work, we’ve reached a maturity in the directing.

MandyBauhaus in Bavaria was beautiful, it made great use of the spatial dimension, and crisp clear archive.

Sandra – Yes it worked neatly with the architectural plans. In a way it was a soft entry to the piece, while you orient yourself – rather than works that catapult you straight into a strange place. The tempo was slow, that allows you to understand the vision, to be in the space. The pieces that work are the ones that give you the time to enter into that other dimension, somehow. It’s not the technology that does this, it’s the combination of the technology with the storytelling and the visuals.

Mandy – But that’s what we’d expect – for it to take many years for people to understand how to use a new medium.

Judith – Occasionally you do get an artist who gets there straight away, some pioneers.

Julia – Finally, I really enjoyed Through the Wardrobe, by Rob Eagle (a colleague and friend). (Through the Wardrobe is a Mixed Reality (MR) work where the viewer dons a Hololens headset, and enters a space set up like a wardrobe with real clothes on rails. They select a character to hear the story of their genderqueer journey, and can choose clothes and shoes to wear while listening and viewing overlaid animations). It was refreshing to see a connection with physical objects and the existing space around me, the stories were thoughtful, and of course I got to clomp around in an amazing pair of heels while listening.

Through the Wardrobe, by Rob Eagle

Judith – Yes – it was refreshing to experience an MR as opposed to VR piece. It was well thought through and a nice touch to take off my shoes before entering through the metaphorical wardrobe into a physical space. I liked being able to interact with the objects in the room whilst listening to the stories and I liked the fact that the imagery projected through the Hololens enhanced, as opposed to detracted from, my physical engagement.

Mandy –  Well I’m not exactly neutral on this as Rob’s [PhD] Director of Studies, and Through the Wardrobe is his PhD practice, but I do think it is beautifully paced and choreographed. I’m also very interested in the Mixed Reality form of immersion. And it worked to make me think deeply about my own feelings and experience of clothes and gender, which is a significant achievement.

Sandra – Definitively, seeing some mixed reality storytelling was refreshing. Using all your senses while listening to someone on your headset makes a difference. I could touch clothes, move freely and look at my transformation on a mirror.  It felt more embodied as an experience. The Hololens are still a little clunky because the enhanced view is very minimal and one spends a lot of time trying to adjust the gaze in order to see the superimposed visual layers… this being said, I think that a technology that can make visible the multiple layers of our complex mind is super exciting! I hope to see more work in this direction soon.