This is the story of the space between people…

Julia Scott-Stevenson writes about her experience of The Collider, the latest immersive work from creative duo Anagram — in its inaugural showing at IDFA DocLab in November 2018.

A fellow participant and I are directed through two separate doors to begin the experience independently, accompanied by a narrator’s voice through headphones. I enter a tiny room, and the narrator describes the machine I am about to enter — the Collider — and asks me to think about a memorable interaction with another person in my life: Where something strong was said, perhaps something difficult. First, I am to craft a small diorama out of tiny plastic people and props and arrange them on a cake stand, representing the interaction. Then I am instructed to move into the Collider, and to put on the VR headset I see hanging from the ceiling.

Making a diorama in The Collider

After a moment, I see two balls of shimmery light appear and start to move in the virtual space around me, and I am instructed to follow them with my hands. After the narrator asks a question about what it’s like to not be the one in control, I twig that the balls of light are my partner, who has entered the room (without a headset, but holding the handheld VR controllers connected to my headset).

Then it is my turn to take the lead, and I marvel at the feeling of controlling the swooping shimmering balls using my bare hands; as well as imagining, from a bird’s eye perspective, the scene that I can’t see — two women curiously conducting a mirrored and joyful dance in a tiny space. There are a series of other interactions between us, involving touch, voice, smell, and a combination of these sensations. These interactions, though, thanks to a nuanced audio script, are only in part about the two of us in the room — they are as much between ourselves and our memories of interactions with other people who are important to us.

The experience ends, and we are directed to a quiet corner with a stocked biscuit tin where we can choose to discuss our responses. We chat, laugh, share our thoughts about what was happening, fill each other in on the differing elements of the experience for each of us. We discover we both work in the field — it turns out my partner is Vassiliki Khonsari, Co-Founder of iNK Stories, an immersive entertainment production company — and so we have a lot to talk about. We move to the bar to grab a drink, which turns into dinner. We spend a good chunk of the following day at DocLab together as well, sharing thoughts about the other VR and interactive experiences we try out.

The Collider cannot take all of the credit for this, of course. Khonsari and I had a lot in common already, without undertaking the experience. But something about being thrust into such an intimate space together, moments after meeting, somehow supercharged our connection. I can’t help but think it is unlikely I would have so rapidly shared the details of the birth of my second child if we had met in a more formal context, nor would I have been the person able to offer support following a stressful interaction that Khonsari had the following day.

I often find, during VR experiences, that I’m in a sort of doubly conscious mode. I’m focused on the visual- and audio-based world I’m being presented with inside the headset, but I’m also aware that there’s a second layer — the chatter I can hear from people standing nearby, the physical sensation of the headset on my head and my bag resting against my leg; in short, the incursions of the outside world.

While in The Collider, though, this double consciousness is, in part, the point. The sensory interactions taking place outside the headset are curated to become an intentional part of the work, rather than an unfortunately encroaching additional layer.

I spoke to Amy Rose and May Abdalla, the founders of Anagram and creators of The Collider. Rose explained that she too was frustrated by this double experience, and explicitly wanted to address it in the work. She said,

“I just could never ignore the transition moment when an usher would sit me in a swivelly chair, just a metre away from the next person, and I would put on the headset. My body remained resolutely in the chair while my eyes were suddenly encountering an entirely different place — real or otherwise. Many times over, this produced a comically bad effect and I would laugh, confused by the multitude of sensory stimuli that I was being subjected to.… The simple practicalities of the experience were absurd and dominating, ruining any chance of the piece of work grabbing my attention in as immersive a way as was claimed. These practicalities, therefore, started to become more interesting.”

Then, the creative question for the duo became, “How could we make a piece that would play with this slippage [between the “real” and virtual worlds]? And what would be the bridge between the worlds?”

Abdalla adds that they were also particularly interested in exploring how to make an experience for more than one person. However, “There was always the reality that when you were with another person in a space that might be looking at you you couldn’t really go into that deep personal space that needed trust — because when someone else is around we have to be ‘switched on’ and aware.” The choreographing of two people on parallel journeys, together but not across virtual and physical space, she says, helped to dissipate the awkwardness somewhat.

Inside The Collider

This approach allows the participants, to some extent, to craft the level of interaction themselves. Some may feel it is a deeply collaborative piece, others may turn more inside themselves in responding to the audio directions to imagine past experiences. “This, for me,” says Rose, “is genuine ‘interactivity’ — when something can be so different every time, depending on who is in the room.… The Collider offers a set of conditions within which to act — and everyone acts differently, particularly depending on the chemistry between the pair of people.”

I spoke to a couple of participants who felt uncomfortable with the intimate exchange, but more who had a fun, joyous experience. Following up with Khonsari later, I asked if any moments stood out to her. She selected the mirroring behaviour segment, “Where I was directing the movements to you (using controllers) and you were mirroring them while in the headset. I remember feeling giddy and excited about how simple yet joyful it felt. I was amazed at how trusting you were, and how easily you seemed to be performing the mirroring — with accuracy and speed as though you were anticipating my moves.”

I suggested to Khonsari that I thought maybe I’d had the better deal — having a sort of additional layer in being able to see the virtual world created for the experience — while she didn’t get to see it. She replied,

I felt like there was a privilege to being able to see and to watch your face as you reacted to the stimuli. The fact that I could see you, right there in front of me, and you were so vulnerable and pleasant — it was probably the most beautiful part of the experience. An intimate peek into someone’s humanity, while also being able to observe my own. And I don’t know what you were seeing inside the headset — but it’s hard to imagine that it was better than watching a human face.

The Collider is set to tour the UK and internationally in 2019 and 2020.

This piece was first published in Immerse.