A late night conversation with Casper Sonnen at the end of one of IDFA’s Doclab sessions precipitated an invitation to present on his South By South West Film Panel which took place yesterday with the title:
The starting point of the conversation was a shared sense of excitement and disappointment at the Virtual Reality scene: excitement at this new platform for expression in which artists could invite new kinds of participation and experience, and a perfect storm of hype and ignorance that could lead to funded experimentation alongside poetry and beautiful car crashes.
The sense of disappointment came from an observation that the limits most VR projects are pushing against seem bizarrely narrow – but this is a self-imposed narrowness, with cries of ‘how real can it get’ (was it really like you jumped?) and ‘mines more HD than yours’. Our feeling was that VR hadn’t fully found its edges. Even really sniffed at then.
So the provocation of the panel was as follows: if VR has, mistakenly, been recognised as a long lost brother of film and gaming, perhaps it is in fact genetically more related to traditional or immersive theatre, or the art of map making; art forms that understand space as a medium in it’s own right.
Anagram and Jan Rothuizen were thus brought on to demonstrate physical and spatial storytelling respectively; physical space and ink.
This post is a summary of the points of the panel followed by some reflections on why it went down so well with the SXSW crowd.
Fundamentally, what we presented was a guide to what we call ‘The Act of Fluffing’. Entirely different to what fluffing is colloquially understood to be, we consider the Fluff to be the pre-charade, the process before the story that opens the participant / audience / user / human being to really hearing a story. That state when you can allow a narrative to cut straight through to your bones – one that is most familiar to people just at the moment that the lights have gone down in the cinema, the popcorn is still un-crunched and the seat infinitely comfortable. This is fundamentally where you want someone to be when your story begins and without that state of being, the best content in the world could well fall on deaf ears.
Learning by Doing is the way – so we decided to show rather than tell, with a healthy dose of theatrics.
When everyone arrived there was a cardboard box under their seat. Caspar played the role of the circus ring master excellently by loudly declaring that this was a Secret Box and, if anyone saw someone else open the box, they needed to let him know and he would expel said criminal. At some point, they would open the boxes – but NOT NOW. An ordinary cardboard box immediately transformed into an object of intrigue, the starting line in a story in which you, the person who can’t – but will – open it, stars as the main character.
When the time came, after Jan’s brilliant presentation on his story maps of places he had visited (See more on that here
) people were alerted that it would soon be time to open the box – although NOT YET.
They were then asked to relocate to somewhere comfortable and different from their original spot in the room, take their shoes off and, when quiet and calm, to open the box and take the first object out – a neatly folded black soft suede ribbon. A blindfold. They would also see another object underneath the first – but they were instructed to leave it, wrapped up, in the bottom.
Once the blindfold was on, the lights dimmed, the dulcet tones of Caroline Williams resonated from the speaker – ‘You are here in the Austin Convention Centre in Texas’ it began and went on in a meditative process of sensitisation to place – to knowing where one is. This was followed by a snippet from John Hull’s interview in Door Into The Dark, where he describes losing his sight and learning how to orientate himself with his body. Finally, they were asked to reach into the box and extract the wrapped object, investigate it slowly and then do whatever they thought was appropriate once they had figured that out.
We had the pleasure of witnessing a room of many smiling faces, laughingly bite into apples or unravel oranges and very kindly finish off with a round of applause.
The fluff had done its thing.
So let’s break it down
The four parts of fluff or – as we put it yesterday – what we ask ourselves when we are starting a piece of work.
1) When and where should it be?
Time and place is completely up for grabs with this work, and that’s super exciting. We don’t need to be in theatres or cinemas. But it is important that you meet your participant where they are: what state might they be in different places at different times? What might that be if they are leaving a cemetery, browsing the celebration cake aisle of the supermarket, or opening the locker in the changing room at the swimming pool? If they were reading a story on a tablet on the London Underground, wouldn’t it sing a little more if it was about an encounter with a stranger? Resonance is what we talk about when we talk about empathy, so if you know where someone is, you are more likely to know what will really move them.
2) What will they be touching?
Here, the audience were invited to blindfold themselves with a soft suede black ribbon – sensual and evocative. The psychologist Mazlow wrote, “When you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail”, which is a great starting point to thinking about what other objects make you think of. When you are holding an iPhone, everything looks like a… ___?
3) What will they will they be doing?
The body is your number one technology. It’s also full of muscle memory that carries the stories of different physical experiences. Smiling isn’t something we just do when we are happy, it is something we can do to feel joy. So – is it possible to think of physical movement as a gateway to an empathetic experience? Some narratives hit home more profoundly if you are moving very slowly or holding someone’s hand. This is also an idea that is embedded at the heart of rituals. Prostration in prayer represents penitence towards God – but does it also create it? Fasting begets humility. We also have more mundane rituals – does brushing your teeth prepare you for bed? Can you enter the slipstream of the body’s associations by asking your participants to enact a ritual – and embody a story?
All food for thought and, judging by how the apples and oranges went down, sensorially-heightened tasty thoughts at that.