Staring Out The CGI, or should new forms of documentary offer a new way of experiencing our relationship with a subject?
Yesterday I spent the afternoon after the IDFA DocLab Question Raiser diligently doing as many of the experiences as I could sign up for at this year’s meaty selection
They all have some great properties in different ways. LoVR allows you to fly around the pulse of a man’s data as he see a lady he’s got the hots for, the sound design is rich and the experience extremely pleasant. The Unknown Photographer at once strangely traditional and completely nuts allows you to visit a weird universe of giant WW1 photos and occasionally encounter a wire reindeer who seems very sad. The Enemy, which traps you in a room with a Palestinian and Israel fighter gives you a real sense of being you and being in a room with an undeniably brilliant back end system being responsive to your height, direction and movement within its imaginary walls. Witness360, is an interview with a survivor with the London bombings, Waves of Grace a first person narration from a survivor of Ebola. All – save LoVR – worthy, emotive, subjects. People are going for the jugular – these are important topics. That’s not a judgment merely an observation.
But the cumulative sensation of being in these experiences, listening to peoples’ stories, was weirdly nauseating and alienating. The nausea in part came from the disjuncture between my sense of position and vision, but there was more in it than that. Something about having been trapped in a space with these upsetting exhibits was exhausting. The filmmakers had done what they needed to do to finish off these kinds of subject matter gracefully in films – there was laughter at the end of Witness 360, there was a sense of redemption and purpose in Decontee from Waves of Grace. They took you artfully to the dark place and then led you out. Perhaps it would have been enough in a short – but in VR it felt like an empty gesture.
There’s a particular sense of fidgety boredom I began to recognize in myself in the these stories – from Clouds over Sidra to Witness 360 – a sense of aimlessly needing to move my head around to find the horizon – lolling about – sometimes just keeping my head down for minutes or just closing my eyes, to assuage it.
I think it comes from being forgotten – your presence being irrelevant – the feeling of not being held – a little like when you let a baby’s head fall backwards.
A feeling of dangling.
That physical sensation was exasperated by films that, whilst being in a palpably interactive set up, were not in any way interactive. Neither was the beckoned interactivity relevant to the subject matter.
Here a story from a woman who has lost her family to Ebola, shunned by her community for being a survivor and who only has hope to survive as someone giving consolation to those at deaths door (she can hold their hands without fear of reinfection).
If you are going to offer me one interaction that I am allowed with this woman, it would not be to see her from all angles, or the entirety of her physical horizon.
If you are talking to me as human, you might infer that, after engaging with her experience for 10 minutes, the one thing I would benefit from being allowed to do would be to say, hug her – to show my ability to be a human.
Yet again, I feel forced to read a newspaper which I can do nothing with except throw in the rubbish. I don’t want to throw the stories of people dying in the rubbish. That is the interaction I am afforded. The culmination of that repeated action begins to grate.
And here my interaction is to look and look away.
If it was a piece about looking and looking away (Assent – Oscar Raby) it would chime with what was happening in my gut.
But it was a piece about a woman who couldn’t be touched and then could. Or maybe it should have been about that – but it was a piece about how bad Ebola is and how we should do something it about. The end slide reminded us that the UN was doing something about it.
Cue, Cue China.
Ant Hampton’s piece was a glorious breath of fresh air in my Oculus-enforced isolation chamber.
In Cue China – an installation experience for two people at a time, you and your partner are seated opposite each another. There are glass panels in front of both of your faces and a mirror above them which created a projection on the glass. The image appears suspended in front of your partners face, like a real-life hologram.
You listen to the story and watch it play out on their face, or occasionally on the screen.
From the very first moment there was direct address – the voice of a woman takes me through the movement of the assistants around me who are adjusting the screen and the seat to my height.
Ah, a hand to the back of my head – helping me. I felt a warm breeze of reassurance.
The story was a fiction which encased the documentary content. In the story, you have bought some new RAM for your laptop but once you load the RAM that has been posted to you from China, and re-open your computer, an apparition appears on your screen.
It’s the face of a Chinese man wearing headphones.
He doesn’t speak to you at first, but you hear his thoughts in English. The “You” narrative has flipped into his.
You discover that this man, whose name is Jia, had been a worker in a factory that made screens shiny. The substance that he and his co-workers used to maintain the shiny screens had been toxic and he was now critically ill.
As the story progresses, the person that had bought the RAM (or – you) finds that their face and the face of Jia are merging – is it a trick of the light, the shininess of your screen, or are you becoming one person.
It’s a small but perfectly formed idea – and it feels beautifully profound.
At some point, you (the person with the new RAM – your words appear on the screen like a script that you are not saying out loud) ask Jia after you see him coughing –
“Are you sick?”
It then cuts to his voice,
“I don’t want to answer your question – if I start to talk about my sickness, the pain, the medication… I will become flat again to you, I will look like a news report.”
I don’t know whether this was Jia’s real preoccupation or Ant, as the artist, wanting to bring that idea to the fore. But, thank fuck.
Somewhere the medium was allowing a new relationship with the fictional/real subject of this documentary/ experience/conversation. A refreshing texture.
The mixture between the imaginative fiction and the context, the simple screen set up, the delicate conceit (that Jia had chosen to contact me, and not the other way around), the familiarity of a story about a person experiencing global news through a screen (the starting point we had also fallen for in our show “Now Is The Time To Say Nothing”)… all these things conspired together to inspire me to feel like Jia and I were equals.
At the end, I understand what my role to Jia is – he makes it clear – his situation is a secret even from his wife and mother. He can’t bear the shame; in telling me, he feels relief.
I feel relief too.