Prior to this year’s opening of BFI London Film Festival’s Expanded program, dedicated to XR and immersive works, we spoke with curator Ulrich Schrauth to prepare for our in-person attendance. Schrauth offered insight on what to expect and why, but now having walked through Expanded’s vibrant, transformative and graffiti-covered entrance, tucked into the Leake Street Tunnels, and having experienced the artistic works, it’s safe to say the only way to understand pioneering virtual and augmented reality is to participate oneself. This year, organized throughout an intuitive and easy-to-navigate venue, some projects employed consumer-facing equipment from Oculus, HTC and others, but that’s where similarities with gaming cease. Every one of Expanded’s entries challenged the conventions of storytelling—and, if we could, we’d include them all in this article.
That said, the five artistic explorations below left a resounding impact and ripples of consideration. They vary from face-capturing manipulation to empathy-initiating augmented reality documentary and even a gently guided performance piece that asks the participant to reach out across worlds. Because of our dates in London, we did not have the opportunity to see one, time-specific and communal performance piece Future Rites by Alexander Whitley Dance Company, but that’s certainly on our to-do list when it ever appears again. Listed here are visionary experiences that we tried ourselves, which are unlike any others we’ve experiences before.
Oftentimes, a headset impedes as much as it encourages true immersion into virtual reality. With Eternal Returns, the profound and otherworldly 20-minute VR experience, the headset ceased to exist as we were swept into the poetic narrative. Through a real-life guide and surprisingly tactile attributes, both of which were outside of the headset and meticulously incorporated through placement and performance, time bends in an emotionally moving fashion. The vision of ScanLAB Projects (who also had the thoughtful Adult Children immersive film in Expanded) and Lundahl and Seitl, the project is one we cannot wait to revisit.
Through charming VR animation, the story of Laika—the stray dog that became the first Earth-based living creature sent into orbit, by the USSR—comes to life. Directed by the award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia, and co-written with Nick Abadzis, the 15-minute film plays with point of view and 360-degree storytelling. Viewers fall in love with the energetic, endearing Laika, and understand the role the dog plays in the historic space race in 1957.
Outside of the Leake Street Tunnels, the 35-minute Eulogy sound experience from the UK-based company Darkfield happens in a converted shipping container. Guests are asked to enter and sit within caged seats (that are not enclosed or locked) in pitch-black darkness, wearing headphones. Through certain elements of sensory deprivation and stunning heightened sound, a narrative unfolds that is both mysterious and exciting. Despite this attendee being claustrophobic, in tight quarters without light, the experience soothed and enticed.
Museum of Austerity
Through augmented reality, the Museum of Austerity populates an empty room with virtual renditions of real-life people. As one approached these figures, the story of their struggles with mental illness are told through their sound clips from their loved ones. A deeply emotional experience, the museum begins with trigger warnings and the subject matter afterward does not shy away from the darkest truths. It is beyond powerful and creators Sacha Wares and John Pring have done a service to the stories they bring back to life.
A shocking example of looking at oneself from afar, the immersive art piece Captured by artist Hanna Haaslahti begins by scanning a new participant’s face then setting it upon an avatar who joins a throng of other people (populated in the same way) on a large screen. This group of digital individuals, wearing real-life faces, then engages in surprising, unexpected and sometimes violent behavior. Altogether, it’s a study on human behavior and there’s nothing quite like begging your digital self to stop harming others for no reason.
Hero image by David Graver