Film

At Tribeca Film Festival, Experiencing Submersion, Blindness, and Incarceration in VR

Festival goers experience "Notes on Blindness" (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
Festival goers experience “Notes on Blindness” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The communal experience of watching a film in theaters is a prime part of moviegoing, but at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, solitary visual consumption is receiving ample attention. Virtual reality programs loom large, explored in a number of video narratives and projects and even a VR arcade with 13 offerings. Many of these experiences are presented at Storyscapes, which this year features mostly projects that use the medium to engage viewers with pressing social issues.

The Ark,” for instance, transports you to Africa and the San Diego Zoo to tell the story of the world’s most endangered animal, the Northern white rhinoceros, and brings up heavy concerns over our conservation of the planet. At the festival, where it’s made its world premiere, viewers wear VR headsets while sitting in a room resembling a dark animal cargo crate, establishing a feeling of captivity (even if for a brief moment, since you can’t see your real-life surroundings as the video runs).

Still from "The Ark" (image courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)
Still from “The Ark” (image courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

The most isolating and confining of the Storyscape projects, though, is probably “6×9,” which invites you to experience solitary confinement in the prison system. As with The Ark, you don a headset inside a small, physical room — this one resembling a sparse, bleak space. Presented by The Guardian producers Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton, the nine-minute video that unfolds before you places you in a barely furnished concrete cell modeled closely on an actual, typical one. As you sit on your digital, stiff bed, the voices of seven former inmates, interviewed over the course of eight years, share their personal experiences in solitary confinement and discuss their daily rituals that got them through each day, such as washing themselves or anticipating the arrival of food. At times, only silence fills your headphones; even in those brief moments — a blink of time compared to the months people may actually serve — I couldn’t help but think, What am I supposed to do now? On the other hand, when the voices returned, they made me think of the kinds of voices that supposedly fill your head when you’re on the verge of going insane.

Beyond giving you as close of a first-hand taste as possible of forced isolation, 6×9 also aims to educate. Accompanying the former inmates’ memories are audio clips from academic psychologists Drs. Terry Kupers and Craig Haney, who discuss the psychological effects of solitary confinement. In another moment, words and phrases are plastered against your surrounding peeling white walls listing various reasons why someone may receive such a punishment; they range from assaulting a guard to simply not eating your food.

A festival goer experiencing "6x9"
A festival goer experiencing “6×9”
Installation view of "6x9" at the Tribeca Film Festival
Installation view of “6×9” at the Tribeca Film Festival

The main appeal of VR is its ability to drop you in a foreign world, particularly an inaccessible one, but Storyscapes presents one realm to which you would never want to escape. Based on the audio cassette recordings of writer and theologian John Hull, who went completely blind in 1983, “Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness” is an unexpected but smart VR creation: here are the experiences of a man without sight, playing out on a technology centered on seeing.

Produced by Ex Nihilo, ARTE France, and French startup AudioGaming, “Notes on Blindness” is based on the short film of the same name. Rather than complete blackness, the six chapters of this 20-minute-long, poignant experience presents dark spaces lit by firefly-like specks that form shadowy outlines of figures and objects. Selections of Hull’s recordings, which he amassed over three years, guide you as you navigate the scenes, each devoted to a specific memory, moment, or location. The first chapter, for instance, situates you in a park, where noises play as Hull notices them, building on each other and looping to form a lively soundscape. Footsteps — with Hull distinguishing between heels and sandals — fill your headphones, followed by the rustle of a newspaper, the breeze rustling through trees, the cries of children playing, the rumble of a nearby expressway, and the quacking of ducks in a pond. Accompanying each sound are faint visualizations of the source, highlighting the connection between sound and the visuals we may take for granted.

This is exceedingly clear in one chapter that chronicles one of Hull’s early moments of panic: when he steps outside and loses his acoustic references as it is snowing heavily. While the park scene shimmered, here you feel utterly alone and lost, as if in a tunnel with no exit, drifting in a dark, infinite space. While certainly beautifully rendered, “Notes on Blindness,” like “6×9,” stands out for its measured storytelling that draws viewers into a state of heightened awareness rather than simply focusing on the flashy and visually sexy possibilities of immersive technology.

Still from "Notes on Blindness" (courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)
Still from “Notes on Blindness” (courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

Storyscapes, of course, did offer less intense experiences, such as DEEP VR,” created by Owen Harris and Niki Smit. A stark contrast to my prior experiences, DEEP VR places you underwater, where you swim through gleaming caves and encounter marine life, such as sharks or sea creatures that resemble aquatic shooting stars. The only sound you hear is soft ambient music.

“DEEP VR”‘s distinguishing feature is that the video is connected to your own breathing, synced courtesy of a sensor mechanism you wear like a belt against your diaphragm: as you breathe in, you rise through the waters, and vice versa. Less a story than an experience, it has no definite beginning or end, intended for users to simply concentrate on deep breathing and enter a state of meditation — representing a kind of VR therapy. Unlike other projects at Storyscapes, “DEEP VR” gives you complete command of the experience, and I initially found it a little difficult to get the hang of navigating without bumping into walls or aquatic plants every few seconds. But as I guided myself through the space, my awareness of my power to control made my experiences in “6×9” and “Notes on Blindness” resonate more deeply; this is, in the end, all human-coded, and as real as these experiences may seem, you always have the freewill to take off the headset when you’ve had enough.

A festival goer experiencing "DEEP VR"
A festival goer experiencing “DEEP VR”

Storyscapes continues at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Hub location (50 Varick Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through April 17.

comments (0)