With many physical spaces still closed because of the COVID-19 quarantine, people are looking to alternative models of artistic expression and interaction. One intriguing avenue is VR and interactive art, and American Documentary has released a timely set of such works to view for free. POV Spark, billed as public media’s first interactive media service, has launched Public Update, a new series dedicated to timely nontraditional documentary work. The series’ first volume, “Interact,” presents five short works that make effective use of simple premises to explore complex topics.
Each piece in “Interact” pairs a simple idea with an intuitive interactive feature. They require no VR headset or complicated set of controls to work with. Rosalie Yu’s A Ritual of Habits and Kimi Maeda’s A Journey with a Camera in Five Movements both work similarly to Facebook 360 videos and photos, allowing the viewer to drag their mouse to position the camera’s point of view however they want as the films play out. Lucia Hierro’s Mercado and Zun Lee’s Fade Resistance assemble a series of objects for the viewer to inspect at their own pace. Ng Sze Min’s Reason to the Moon is even more basic, letting you pause and unpause an audio clip while a video continues unimpeded.
From these basic interactive possibilities emerge fascinating, more complicated ideas, giving each part of “Interact” more depth than one might suspect. For A Ritual of Habits, Yu created 3D scans of every dessert she ate for two years. In the photogrammetric process, an object is photographed multiple times from every angle, and then the various pictures are melded together to create digital 3D replicas. Her short begins by surrounding the viewer with rings of such photos, as if you are in the middle of a zoetrope. It then creates a veritable mountain of desserts surrounding the camera. This reframes a seemingly everyday part of life, making you consider how treats, once a luxury, are now freely consumed and available. The context of her native Taiwan — for centuries a colonial tool of sugar production — adds more to consider.
Hierro’s Mercado assembles translucent bags filled with materials, as if freshly brought home from a shopping trip, each color-coded (there’s a pink one filled with coupons, and a yellow-green one with Vicks products — a staple of many Dominican American households like Hierro’s). By clicking on each bag, the viewer’s mouse cursor is turned into a magnifying glass, which they can use to scrutinize the contents. A mosaic of consumer goods and their attendant class and cultural implications will lead many different viewers to different conclusions about what this assemblage does and doesn’t suggest.
Similarly, Fade Resistance presents its host of materials and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions and ideas about what they mean. The digital exhibition consists of dozens of Polaroid photos Lee has gathered over the years from different yard sales, online auctions, and the like, all taken of Black families. The result is an intimate archive of (normal) everyday life, a host of different perspectives from all over recent history cohering into a more archetypical portrait of different familial experiences. There are also some clever questions raised about digital versus physical archival efforts, as its presentation subverts the original “quick and easy” printing idea of Polaroids.
Min’s Reason to the Moon pairs silent “overview” footage (that is, footage from the point of view of orbiting the Earth, usually taken by astronauts) with audio musings on the power such imagery has, and how it drastically recontextualizes our idea of where we are in the cosmos. That audio can be toggled on and off at will as the viewer watches the overview (there are 20 minutes of footage), essentially allowing you to control the narration of the piece.
Each of the “movements” in Maeda’s A Journey with a Camera in Five Movements consists of one extended shot, generally of mundane moments from the filmmaker’s travels in Japan. The 360-degree POV means that the viewer can act as a secondary cinematographer, choosing what part of each scene to focus on as Maeda discusses the relationship between a photographer and their environment. For a shot of a plane on a runway, for instance, one can choose to look out the window or at Maeda looking out the window — two drastically different ways of framing the situation, each with distinct thematic subtext.
This is a promising start for Public Update, and it will be interesting to see what else POV Spark commissions as the series continues. With creations such as these, being stuck at home is no impediment for venturing out into the world.
All Public Update works can be viewed on the POV Spark website. The “Interact” series is available through October 2020.