Interview: BFI London Film Festival’s “Expanded” Curator, Ulrich Schrauth

Insight on curating the second-annual program dedicated to XR storytelling at the prestigious event

Through programming dedicated to virtual, augmented, mixed and modified reality, international film festivals continue to transport attendees (whether participating at home or on-site) into the future of storytelling. With their second-ever LFF Expanded program, curated by Ulrich Schrauth, the 65th BFI London Film Festival (running 6-17 October) presents an array of XR artworks that align with the prestigious event’s legacy of pioneering moving pictures. And, with an online guide on how to experience them, it’s never been easier to participate.

Courtesy of Ulrich Schrauth

This is Schrauth’s second year curating the Expanded line-up, which includes more than a dozen groundbreaking works ranging from performance pieces to a premiere of poetic audio exploration. The founder and creative director of Hamburg’s VRHAM! Virtual Reality & Arts Festival, and one of the leading voices in XR and immersive programming globally, Schrauth selected an artistic range so thoughtfully diverse that it repositions the boundaries of extended reality. To learn more about the festival, and the future of the medium, we spoke with Schrauth about storytelling, empathy, access and more.

Courtesy of Eulogy

How does this second iteration differ from last year’s debut? What did you learn from curating last year’s program and the reaction to it?

Last year’s edition was mainly delivered digitally. We built a specifically designed virtual exhibition space—The Expanse—which was globally accessible and enabled visitors to see all the artworks, engage with other attendees and watch live events remotely. In addition to that, we had a physical portal to this virtual exhibition at BFI Southbank, where guests who didn’t own a headset could experience the program. Due to the nature of the virtual exhibition space, I mainly focused on virtual reality projects and made sure all of them were accessible through The Expanse.

Courtesy of Eulogy

The reaction by the audience was overwhelming (the physical exhibition was completely sold out within a short timeframe) and very encouraging. The guests loved to experience a new form of virtual storytelling and to see how artists from all genres and backgrounds use immersive technology to share their vision. But, of course, the mainly digital edition meant a lot of restrictions in terms of format, technology and live interaction.

This year we are happy to return to our original ambitions and present a variety of different mediums, artistic voices and physical access points for our visitors. Our main exhibition will take place at 26 Leake Street, an amazing venue just below Waterloo station. We’re transforming the entire space into an immersive exhibition with many different artworks for audiences to experience. We will have interactive VR performances, screen-based live capturing installations, augmented reality exhibitions alongside linear and interactive virtual reality pieces. Our aim is to show the broad range of artistic voices that are represented in this new art form. Using cinema as a jumping-off point, we present bold, innovative creators from around the globe who are challenging our perception of the world around us and giving us new insights into urgent social, political and cultural matters.

Courtesy of Eulogy

XR—as a catchall title for virtual, mixed, extended and augmented reality—comprises fiction and documentary, live action and animated, first person or other. Can you talk about how you approached such an expansive medium that incorporates so many styles and storytelling devices?

For me, as a curator, this is the most exciting part that comes with programming in this emerging medium: there are so many different possibilities to tell a story, so many never-before-seen formats and set-ups. Each artist and creator finds their distinctive voice and a new way to present the art work to the audience. And, also, this is what makes it especially exciting for our visitors; there is something in the program for everyone. From our two wonderful immersive audio pieces—”EULOGY” by Darkfield and “Only Expansion” by Duncan Speakman—to an interactive live dance performance—”Future Rites” by Alexander Whitley Dance Company—or an augmented reality art installation like “Fauna” by Adrien M & Claire B, there are so many themes, visual styles and artistic voices to be experienced.

Courtesy of Fauna

Has XR’s ability to tap into empathy been an area of focus for you this year?

With everything going on in the world—the global pandemic, the devastating effects of global warming, racial and ethnic discrimination, just to name a few—we can see a shift in how artists use these immersive mediums. There is an urge to address current issues, to raise awareness to what’s at stake and to engage with audiences on another level. Many of the artists we showcase in the program are putting the visitors into someone else’s shoes or presenting them with the possibility to reevaluate their own perspectives by use of this empathetic medium. The difference in comparison to a conventional artwork is that the user is no longer in front of a piece of art anymore, but in the middle of it, often able to interact or actively engage with what they’re seeing. This deepens the emotional and psychological impact and widens the horizon of the viewer.

Courtesy of Fauna

With so many mainstream consumer XR products/games/stories out there, what is the role of film festivals regarding XR in 2021?

We see our LFF Expanded program as a vital addition to our well-established film festival. We want to question how filmmakers and creators from all kinds of artistic backgrounds and genres widen our perspective on how to tell stories in the 21st century. What are the new tools, what are the themes and topics they want to address? How can we incorporate those new forms and build an audience around this, always keeping our heritage, the great art of filmmaking and visual storytelling, at heart? With our LFF Expanded program we also co-commission adventurous new work—like “Laika” from BAFTA- and Academy Award-winning director, Asif Kapadia—that is pushing the boundaries of what has yet been possible. We want to empower a new generation of filmmakers to engage with immersive media and emerging technologies.

Courtesy of Laika

With Expanded debuting during the pandemic last year, safe accessibility was a primary concern. Can you talk about accessibility this year—and the best way to experience the program?

It is especially exciting that—after such a long time of physical distancing—we are able to safely give our audiences such a rich experience in terms of access points and different formats. The center of the LFF Expanded access will be our physical exhibition at 26 Leake Street. We will present 15 of the artworks there in an immersive exhibition setting, open throughout the festival from 6-17 October. We will invite visitors for time slots of two hours where they can experience the program. In addition to that, we have three more physical access points in walking distance: BFI Southbank, National Theatre and Rambert Studios. In these spaces, we showcase works that push the boundaries of presentation and immersion, so do get to see them as well if you can!

Courtesy of Laika

All the info on how to access and how to book are to be found on our website. If you are not in London or are unable to travel, you can visit our virtual exhibition space The Expanse, which is globally accessible and free of charge. You can either experience it via a dedicated VR headset or a custom-built Desktop-App on your Mac or Windows computer. As you can see, we have tried to make this program as accessible as possible for any visitor interested in exploring what immersive art is all about.

Courtesy of Only Expansion

Because XR is still in a fledgling phase, is there anything else we should know going into the festival?

This program is not about technology, it’s about the stories these amazing creators want to share with us. Stories of cultural, social and political urgency, told by the most interesting and high-profile artists working in this emerging field of art. These new mediums and formats give the viewer the opportunity to get immersed in the storyline, to change perspective and to experience a work of art from a completely new angle.

Hero image courtesy of Eulogy