By Harold Goldberg
It happens every year. There are issues with the Tribeca Film Festival (like waiting outside the Stella Artois Theater for a delayed event, in the rain, for an hour, without being given a reason by staff). But, despite the challenges, this was the second best of the festivals I’ve been to (the best: the year I was thrilled and honored to moderate the Beyond: Two Souls sold out panel with Ellen Page and 3.5 million people watched). Ultimately this year, there were just so many films talks and VR experience. There were too much to take in. That’s a luxurious and odd feature of the time in which we exist; there’s generally too much media for anyone to consume. At Tribeca Immersive, the wildly artful, often social-justice oriented VR gathering of exhibitors, there were dozens of pieces of media pie in which festival-goes could indulge. Here below are the most important entries. What makes them stand out? Yes, these were feasts for the eyes. More saliently, they made me think about what I had seen long after I’d had the initial encounter. Finally, they led to some of the most extraordinary conversations I’ve had in some time.
Last year at the festival, I moved through war ravaged Syria in Hero, Inkstories’ look at what happens to a small village at the moment a bomb hits. It wasn’t simply VR, it was an all-body experience – and the moment of the explosion was so affecting to some, Inkstories added a cool down room afterward.
Even more dramatic is the walk through the front lines of World War I that is War Remains from MWM Immersive. In the beginning, you don you a headset and move slowly forward into a chiaroscuro flight upon a military hot air balloon. High in the sky, you feel a strong wind and despite the looming gray clouds, a feeling of wonder and peace fills your mind as you gaze around thousands of feet above the ground. (If the balloon scene in Red Dead Redemption 2 had had this VR aspect, it would have resulted in a far more appealing plot point.) Even today, a trip such as this might be out of reach for many, cost-wise.
But there was menace within those clouds, and enemy planes soon tried to shoot me down. The narrator, Dan Carlin of the Hardcore History podcast, added a little too much drama to this moment with his words and manner. But that’s his ‘let’s get ready to rumble’ style. You roll with it.
Soon you’re on the ground on the front lines, the dead, maimed and injured everywhere. In a gruesome moment of ubermedia, you reach out and feel the lifeless hand of a fellow infantryman, hanging in front of you. There’s a rosary there, too, hanging, as if prayer is useless or useful, depending on how you choose to hope.
In moments, you’re in the hole, viewing the trench warfare that was so much a part of the Western Front. Sounds of bombs hit nearby constantly. And their blinding flashes break through the night. You’re told that troops endured the blasting for days and weeks, leading to what’s now known at PTSD. It’s a stunning revelation, told as you’re placed in the midst of these holes which were so exposed to mass slaughter, they became indicative of the futility of battle. 10 percent of all soldiers in the trenches were killed. Almost 100 percent of those with abdominal injuries perished.
After, I wrote this in the ‘guest book,’ kind of the equivalent of the cool down room in the sense you can write the horrors of the experience out of your body – or at least try to. It’s raw and not well-written, but it is evocative of the emotion I was feeling.
As VR becomes more immersive, i.e. real, there’s nothing more provocative than the horror of war. Here, you are part of World War I, inside all the blood and treasure as it moves and falls around you. To say it’s stunning is an understatement.
The Collider was one of the most wonderfully unusual experiences I’ve had in VR. Inspired by the Large Hadron Collider built the French-Swiss border, among other things, project creators May Abdalla and Amy Rose begin by asking you if you want to have power or be one who is less powerful. I chose the latter. Since I lead The Circle, I felt it would be good to have another in power for a short while.
I was asked to move into a small room. Another person, a male, was placed in another room. Both looked like decades-old doctor’s offices. With tiny figures and furniture, I was asked to recreate a moment I have had with another person, one that changed you, one you remember well. You have 90 seconds to complete the scene. Once done, you move into a room and put on a VR headset. Through the headset’s speakers, a woman talks to you, almost in a whisper. It’s soothing. Inside your headset, there are blue lights, sometimes seeming like constellations, sometimes moving around and around like a will o the wisp at jackrabbit speed – an artistic interpretation of the real Large Hadron Collider. Sometimes, the other person controlled the movement of fireworks-like lights around me. Then, the smell of perfume was added. And then, I felt a brush of – what was it? A branch? At one unsettling point, the person moved me a bit.
At the end, we settled into another room. We were supposed to ask each other certain question about our experience, but we didn’t see the pamphlet that held the questions. Still, as we sat across from each other, we asked each other about our different activities. My partner was curious about what I’d seen with the VR headset on. And then, this stranger said, “Had I known I wouldn’t have seen anything in VR, I’d have chosen the less powerful route during the experience.” Both of us wanted to leave the power to technology, at least during this adventure with machines.
Instead of crushing atoms in the Large Hadron Collider, this Collider “hurls people against each other…to identify and understand the invisible material that passes between people—the corrosive, delightful, and mysterious matter that keeps us together and pulls us apart.” I spoke for a long time about what the creation meant with May Abdallah. If David T. Bazelon was right when he wrote hat the strongest power comes with the give and take of communication and that the greatest communicators end up with the most power, then it was up to my partner to create the best experience for me. But here, it was also up to the soft voice I heard, the unseen actor who whispered into my ears in a zen kind of way. It was clear to me that my experience in The Collider was importantly aural even more than it was importantly visual – and certainly more than it was importantly physical via my partner. In the end, though, all of the senses combined to offer, at difference times, feelings of peace and tension. I was sure the voice held the most sway. And beyond the experience, the talk I had with my partner and before and after with co-creator May Abdalla made the experiment all the more richer.
The Collider is supposed to decode the mysteries of human relationships. Those will always be mostly unknown – and they should be. But I think I learned about the emotions and feelings of others here more than I did about myself. Perhaps that’s because I think others are often far more interesting, certainly while you’re passing through an experience of an hour or less. This was all about the baryons, protons, neurons, mesons, pions and kaons of others, a deeper party talk, a percussion of scientific and social ideas.
One of the brightest and most artful VR experiences was Unceded Territories, a short game in which you use rift controllers with unexpected consequences. Based on indigenous art of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. You enter the new world by donning a colorful alligator inspired mask inside of which is the Rift headset.
As you shoot small black blobs throughout a lush Canadian forest, you you’re told to stop in no uncertain terms. You’re not sure why this person is so angry until you realize you’re tossing oil onto virgin land, land that doesn’t belong to you.
By then you’ve created a massive amount of oily waste.
At the end, you’ve spoiled the land and there is no way on earth to clean it up. “Don’t take what’s not yours!” says the voice in your headset. The commanding, unseen utterance is a terse warning, almost god-like. When it’s over, you’re left to contemplate what’s done in real life to mercilessly hurt our world and what you’ve done to add to that mess.
Where There’s Smoke
In a location on Canal Street away from the hustle and bustle of the festival hub, Lance Weiler created a multimedia experience with escape room and game elements. Weiler is the founder of Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab and he has an impressive resume that includes work for everything from the Sundance Institute to IBM. Weiler’s project is about a tragic arson at the family’s home; his “father was a volunteer firefighter and amateur fire scene photographer, and the project explores two mysterious blazes that forever altered a tight-knit community.”
Four of us, two women and two men ranging in age from their early 20s to early 60s, sat in a room with chairs and small tables. We were asked by Weiler to imagine awakening with smoke filling the room. If you took one item and left the smoky environs, he posited, what would it be? Draw it, he said. I drew a computer before I was cautioned that the item could not include digital items. So I chose a photo of my mother as young woman. My mom is dead, and that photo is meaningful to me.
We moved into a darkened, burned room where the smell of smoke was in the air and were asked to search for items like a walkie-talkie to place on lighted square panels. When placed properly, the items told the story of Weiler’s family, primarily through slides of the family history – along with audio narration that included taped interviews with Weiler’s father. It was in a way like objective journalism, yet it was touching to hear these stories, one of which included loss and abandonment.
Yet when we were finished, we had not placed an item properly to hear about the family’s house burning down. We were in this burned out room that smelled of smoke. A cushioned chair was singed and blackened. But we heard nothing of the burning. There should have been a way for this portion to have been witnessed by all those who ventured into this exhibition. I felt we had missed something significant that perhaps was the reason for the creation of this piece of immersion to begin with.
The four of us were asked to talk about the items we had chosen to keep after the fire we were asked to imagine when we began this immersive journey. A woman from Italy talked about a kitsch vase her father had given her. Even though it was somewhat tacky, she felt attached to it like no other item. A woman from France said she had a box full of memorabilia, “even old boyfriend stuff.” I thought it was smart to have something like that ready in an emergency; it was kind of like a go bag. And the young man from Milan had drawn a ceramic owl that was important to him because it memorialized his travels. The photograph I chose was of my mother in younger, carefree days before life became more difficult for her. She is smiling, but it’s not a toothy smile. It’s elegant and it reveals a happiness. But she’s not foolishly unbridled.
Despite the lack of a fuller picture of the inferno that struck this family, I felt the openness and collegiality of my fellow exhibition-goers was perhaps as important as the project we had just witnessed. We were told that not many of the viewers speak as openly as we had with each other. In these days of fragmented socialization and maddening politics, this talk we had about objects and their meaningful qualities was a small treasure. Back outside, rush hour raged and people in a hurry pushed others out of their way.
There’s something crawling-under-your-skin creepy about stop motion animation – and you notice that from the moment you see a Ray Harryhausen movie or read “The Art of Ray Harryhausen,” the coffee table book about his painstaking work. There’s a creepy puppet aspect to stop motion animation as well. It may have something to do with Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley theory: as an anthropomorphic creation gets a little closer to real life, we become freaked out by it.
Gymnasia is an Oculus Rift film that takes place in an rundown, unpopulated school gym. From nowhere, one, two, then a dozen or more basketballs suddenly thump around in the decrepit gym – around you. Ghostly blue moths with feathery antennae fly by, adding odd, gothic wonder. Then, you’re on the stage there, assumably where students attended assembly. You look down and, at your feet, one of the moths covers a baby’s eyes and much of the baby’s bald head. Below, a teacher, mainly a large, porcelain-like doll-like head, seemingly legless, rides a cart with an old school overhead projector. She gazes intensely at the stage, kind of like a conductor would stare at an orchestra. You hear someone clearing his throat. Next to you is pale dead boy dressed in a suit and tie, a greenish hue to his skin. He sings the most beautiful, plangent, haunting song as an upright piano plays by itself.
There’s something here about a precious childhood gone awry here. The reason this short film wins is in the combination of the strange, the mysterious, the gorgeous, the humorous and the lifeless. It ends abruptly and you want more. Could Gymnasia become a full-fledged feature in VR? Or is this the way it’s supposed to end, composer Patrick Watson’s music an earworm in your head that makes you wonder if there was something you missed in the film, something that would makes the ending complete? Then again, many dreams are made of this. The sudden ending. The abrupt reality. And then, all you can do is wake.
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards.