Mobilising Memory through Mixed Reality (Arts Weeks 2021)
Welcome everybody to our workshop 'Mobilizing Memory: Through Mixed Reality', which is a part of our research initiative 'Contested Histories, Challenging Memories: Immersive Encounters With The Past' which has actually been running since 2018, and has been developed by Birkbeck's interdisciplinary research in media and culture in collaboration with the Pears Institute for the study of anti-semitism. And in this context we would also like to thank Experimental Humanities for their support. Now the first two events we had in that series, and they're going back to 2018 and 2019, and the first one was around sound. That event was 'Curating Sound for Difficult Histories', in May 2018, and the second one was around images, the performativity of images in the public space in June 2019. So the third event, which we had originally called 'Staging Difficult Histories
Through Immersive Technologies', had been planned for May 2020, so one year ago, but as we all know the pandemic intervened and it was postponed and has now been split into two events. So what we have today, this workshop is actually the first event, the lead up if you like, to the second event we're going to have on the 7th of June, also in the afternoon between 2pm and 5.30pm. And for that event we also have a group of speakers invited, professor Mandy Rose, Professor Janna Chaffee, Dr Bryce Lees and Dr Cecilia Sosa, but also some practitioners from Blast Theory and from Anagram. And in that event it's less of a look back on to what VR experiences have already been produced produced, but more kind of look forward to what VR can do in the future, hopefully. So both of these events are recorded and today's event is being made available in the context of Birkbeck's Arts Week. So the question we want to put to you is, obviously one of the key
traits of many non-fiction VR experiences is that they, as we've heard, invite audiences to witness the suffering or the predicament of a particular individual that really stands in for a whole group of people affected by wars, conflicts, natural catastrophes, displacement and so on, and with the aim obviously to engender empathy. So where do you see the potentials that VR can do in that respect, and where do you see the limitations? I know this is a fairly big question but I thought given you're research and the fact that you've all kind of worked on this and published on this, I think it would be a nice way to start us off. So this is a question to all of you. I mean I guess I could start because I have a lot to probably say about this. If that's okay? Yeah I could. And I kind of will kind of say, with reference to like many of the works, mainly because of the fact in going through i've seen a lot of these before, and I think a lot of them are really key examples right. I do think, in kind of going through this, and kind of remembering, and also seeing ones I hadn't seen before, I do think something like the USC Shoah foundation ones probably should be differentiated from a lot of the other ones, in my opinion, at least. And the reason is because I do think that there's a difference between,
and this gets into the broader idea of even what empathy might even be understood as, as opposed to say compassion or sympathy, which of course all three of these terms have really massive histories, empathy being actually the one that probably has the the most recent history being a term that only came around in like 1909 right. But the whole thing that I see it as, and I think each of these do very different things that lead to different questions, one of like are you, the spectator, assumed to be the person that is being represented? Which is the case for a couple of these right, the idea of using VR to put you in the shoes of somebody else, versus are you in some way in this sort of immersive environment in which you're supposed to identify with somebody on screen, but of course these videos end up doing like, requiring to do something kind of weird, which is you're kind of this spectator from nowhere right, you're almost like this like - I kind of think it is either you are this sort of metaphysical being, like kind of god almost or, there happens to be somebody that i've co-authored things about VR with has described this, Catherine Guinness has described this as like basically, VR presents is as if you're dead and you are a ghost, and you are watching these people from this sort of position in which you can't interact with them, they can't hear you, you're embodied, but there's like no actual relation. So this question of like, what is the relationship between you and on screen, does that mean you are literally supposed to be embodying the person, therefore identifying with them? Or are you identifying with somebody on screen but can't actually interact? That's obviously different than each case of these, and so if we're thinking about like, what is empathy, what is sympathy, what is compassion, what does that require in terms of some sort of inner subjective relation? And that's why I think the USC Shoah foundation ones are different is because they kind of take this tactic of, and I mean this is part of a long-standing mission right, like the VR experiences are only one instance of them using video and things like that beforehand, of say the - I mean one interpretation i've seen of this that I like from Maria Zaluska, who was until recently a PhD student at USC, I like her interpretation which does frame this in terms of a Levanasian ethics of kinds of otherness, of how the show of foundation examples are about not reducing the otherness of the other, requiring you to recognize their irreducibility.
And I think there's something important in that, so that's kind of what i'll say at the beginning. I realize there's probably a lot there but I also don't want to talk forever for this and I probably could, so I will stop at that point, hopefully that doesn't, like isn't too all over the place. I'm happy to jump in and pick up some threads of Grant's discussion, and I particularly want to pick up on, you know, the the importance of taking into account the multiple different kinds of experiences that are on offer in various different kinds of media, and also just the different ways that people are positioned within these experiences, and the kind of logic of that. But if we go back to the kind of, you know, the starting point of
the conversation, so what is it to witness the suffering of another, right. So if we think about what is witnessing? What's the logic of witnessing, and how has the media actually been thought to facilitate an attitude of witness? And for me I very often go back with this question, to Peter's notion of spatial and temporal proximity to events as carrying a moral charge. It kind of resonates quite nicely with the documentary idea of the charge of the real, what is it, what is this kind of charge that an image might in some cases carry, that you know, it awakens in us a kind of sense of responsibility for what we see.
So if I think about this idea of the spatial and temporal proximity to events as being kind of the starting point for thinking about that, then to my mind the significance of VR and other emotive media is kind of wrapped up in this kind of the promise of both immersion and presence. So these are two terms that are very often not particularly clearly defined, but when I kind of worked through them, for me immersion is actually about trying to capture our relationship to the world of the medium, so the mediated world. So rather than thinking of a text to be consumed, emotion actually offers us a world to be explored on some level all right. So it shifts our relationship to this thing that is mediated. So this gives us the fantasy, and it's a long standing fantasy right, with the media, of stepping into the story and engaging with this kind of mediated world as though from the inside, which you know has the potential, and I always say potential because of course audiences do weird stuff with these things, but it brings about the potential to shift from modes of viewing towards kind of forms of exploration. And so then, if that's emotion then presence is really about how that makes us feel right, so the feeling of being there, you know. We could pick up on Brenda Laurel's term of 'sensory first personness',
the idea of embodied perception or haptic perception or technologies of corporate reality. So thinking about the kind of the feeling. So if we think about those two then what we get is, we get this idea of, you know, being within a world, in some of these works which are 360 video, this idea of the super abundance of information, that kind of the sense of being wrapped up in the image, of being able to see everything and to see it at least theoretically at once. It's really really quite important to an attitude of witnessing because it's an illusion
of non-mediation, it's a kind of sense of being able to be touched by the imprint of reality, making the reality, another reality concrete to some extent through imagining yourself in that environment. And you know the kind of ideal there is somehow that you have, because it's non-mediated, it's not non-mediated, but because it offers this illusion of non-mediation it also offers us the illusion of being able to escape discourse, kind of reduction of reality into a kind of discursive frame, which is, you know, obviously an illusion but it's a powerful kind of illusion, and to my mind at the heart of what we want to talk about. So yeah, I think in terms of witness, I think those important kind of dimensions of these experiences. But of course we go into these
experiences as different people with different, you know, we are addressed to different degrees. To my mind there are two kind of key positionings that are worth working through. We've already talked a little bit about this idea of being in the shoes of another and being offered a simulated experience that is meant to capture something of somebody else's experience, but there's another notion of empathy that I think is important and operative across some of these works, which is the idea of the face-to-face encounter. So you know, being able to be there and be directly addressed visually by another. And through this address to somehow kind of, you know, feel something of their experience and to kind of have that interpersonal, or the illusion again or simulation there of, that interpersonal kind of bodily effective communication if you like. So that through that kind of, that interpersonal connection we are assumed to understand something of the other person's reality. So those, I think those are two different things, two different
logics to what's going on. And you know both offer the possibility in different ways of performing attentiveness and I think performing attentiveness to me is the real promise of this work. Great, thanks. I'm happy to to come in there. I think, along with the question of what is empathy,
the question of what is VR capable of I think is really important here. And John Ellis, quite some time ago now, talked about in his book 'documentary witnessing', and suggested that witnessing was a kind of a shift in spectatorship, that we kind of had voyeurism before and now we had this new form of witnessing and documentary that made the observer ethical and complicit, but that witnessing there is this distant observer of cinema. One might feel personally in some kind of relationship with the subjects on the screen but you are still distanced from the screen. And so I think it's interesting that we're still using a lot of this language that we used with the televisual when we're talking about VR, and part of that is because of the way these VR experiences are shaped in very much the televisual or the filmic. And for me what distinguishes, at least VR's potential from some of these previous audiovisual formats, is that we can do, we are users and we're not just viewers. But also the possibility of responsive systems.
That we can have, the potential of VR is that we can do something, that the system can respond to us and we can respond to that, and we can have quite an individualized experience of a space based on these kind of constant negotiations between us and the system. Not many people do that and certainly very few of these non-fiction pieces do it, those that do it's still quite limited, it's almost like the Anne Frank one, it's like going to museum about to pick up, you know, that part of a museum for kids where you can pick up the object and touch and play with it, it's still building up on these kind of pre-digital experiences. And I actually think that seems to be a limit, when we've talked in Holocaust studies and in other formats as well about the limits of representation, they seem to be kind of - the limits of interactivity seems to be the new question. The limits of representation for the 21st century is yeah. You used to have these kind of debates about whether you should have games,
computer games and serious games on such complex, and kind of difficult histories. It seems to be this new limit that we're going to use the technology but we still want them to be quite cinematic, or we want them to be interactive stories. And i've problematized this notion of immersion in my work, and for me it's this kind of utopian idea that we've never really fulfilled. And it appears throughout media history, the panoramas were supposed to be immersive, the renaissance sala's were immersive but they weren't really, and there was always, and I think in all of them we see this in VR, that mixed reality has always been the focus of these experiences.
You were always aware the sala's were a kind of illusionary - you're looking to see if you could, you know, see where the fireplace was really there, you know, play with the scenery in the panorama, you're always shuffling, waiting for the next person in front of you to move forward, holding the banisters, you're always very aware of being situated in your real lived world as well as kind of experience the solution before you. I don't think we're ever kind of fully pulled into these experiences. And for me it's that kind of idea between the semblance and the dissemblance that we're kind of seeing these people, and again this relates to the immersion, to the empathy that we're kind of like these people, it looks like the real world, but we know it's not because we're, certainly in my oculus, I was floating above people. If you sit on your sofa you are above them, yeah, like this ghost idea that you do sort of feel like you shouldn't be there, and it's invasive. And I know VR has often been referred as this kind of empathy machine but again yeah, this is empathy, the idea of walking in someone's shoes or being in their spaces, one of them feels kind of inappropriate, that we can feel as if we are in a refugee camp, the other one feels intrusive. And I think goes back to lots of these debates in kind of humanitarianism and media about that kind of colonial white saviour invading spaces. And I
certainly felt, I think it was forgotten the names of the film, which one was it, 'Clouds Over Sidra' we were in the family bedroom. And you think you know, there are spaces that people now have that can be private, perhaps not that frequently, and we still feel like we have to invade those spaces, we still don't feel like we can and give people their their privacy. What I did find very really interesting though was how '6x9' and 'Limbo' and 'Sea Prayer' did something slightly different, and maybe this is a different idea of empathy, empathy as an affective experience which is about feeling strange in our own body. Or feeling, troubling our own sense of being embodied without making us feel like we're embodied as someone else. So see pro creates, the 360 becomes this painted canvas bit by bit. And we're not sure where, what we're looking at,
kind of always like oh something, oh I didn't notice that thing had happened. And 'Limbo' is quite sketchy, and it plays with those quite staccato aesthetics in VR, so that floating thing is mentioned in the film. Oh you feel like you're floating, oh you feel like you're invisible. It plays on this, and I think it really gets to the jist of understanding its limitations in terms of the technicalities, what they could do with the VR and making that part of the aesthetics and making that part of how VR is making you feel uncomfortable or strange. And I think that making strange for me is perhaps, in these examples, been the most powerful, and it's often in the examples that don't try to create immersion through photographic realism, it's a more kind of affective animation or kind of playfulness, technically as well.
Yeah. That's fascinating, I hope we can come back to, you know, actually looking at Chloe, more closely at the specific examples you've mentioned yeah. Kate? Okay we've kind of covered a lot so i'm like, what can I possibly add. I was kind of thinking about Frosh, and the witnessing text, I don't think that's been as brought up in some of the things that we've been saying. But also yeah, this notion of splitting yourself in two and Vicky was saying, you know, we're sometimes, well we're always simultaneously aware of the technology, we're not ever completely fooled that we're present or fully immersed into the experience. And
some of the stuff i've written is how that can be a really progressive form of witnessing that kind of borrows from the kind of Jewish context of the haggadah, and how your negotiation into those texts, particularly when the technology kind of fails itself. So I speak about, for example, when you try and touch pin cast in 'The Last Goodbye', suddenly i'm aware of the limitations and i'm drawn back to myself in the museum and it's kind of my commitment to go back into, to suspend this belief again and be in that kind of context of him taking me around. And you know, I argue that it's a familial connection, but whatever an intimate connection, a face-to-face interaction, is kind of the the commitment it asks of you, to suspend this belief to imagine, to kind of use Diana's terms, to imagine back to kind of doing Holocaust memory. And this idea that actually sometimes the limits of the technology can actually create a kind of productive way to witness, which is that splitting yourself in two, and being aware that you're in both of these spaces at once. And that can
also kind of counter that problematic notion of being in the shoes, or being completely in that personal face-to-face interaction. It's kind of a like a proper distance I think, or like a safer distance than assuming that we can be in those shoes or completely in that interaction. Yeah I mean absolutely, I think something i've taken now from all of what you've said, and I hope we can sort of hone in a little bit on that, is the question of how are we placed in these different VR experiences and as you said, it's different for each one obviously, for each example. And maybe I can suggest that we sort of do almost like a bit
of a close reading, and let's just start with 'Clouds Over Sidra' which has been mentioned. I mean for me I find it fascinating because the way it is described I assumed that I would be following Sidra, the girl, through her life, her everyday life, through the refugee camp. But what actually happens is you are introduced to Sidra, as we can see you know on the top left hand still, we are introduced to Sidra and we sit sort of opposite her and I think it's yes, what I think Victoria said about, you know, invading a space that is already very limited, a very limited private space. But you know let's be generous, we could just say we are sort of
invited in as a guest by Sidra, we're sitting opposite her. But then she seems to kind of vanish and we are a kind of, I don't know, are we are supposed to assume that we're walking in literally in her shoes, in her body through the camp? Because we don't see her anymore. But I found that experience very strange because I thought, okay first of all the perspective doesn't quite fit because i'm very high off the ground you know, it doesn't fit with the height of Sidra let's say. And then also I was thinking well the camera in this case, obviously it is the camera of 360 degree camera, and the person who's kind of operating that camera takes me to places to which Sidra wouldn't have necessarily been able to go. So I doubt that she would be able to go into the man's gym or, you know, and I doubt that the boys in the computer room, and I think it's even thematized that she says, you know, the boys don't want us there, meaning the girls, they don't want us girls there, and the way the boys interact kind of is very pretty clear that they're not interacting with a girl. So I find it kind of weird the way we are placed in that example, or in other examples, doesn't necessarily seem to be, you know, it doesn't seem to be straightforward. And i'm sort of interested in the kind of effect that has,
and I wonder you know what your thoughts in your experience was, when you looked at that example. Yes, I thought of Sidra as kind of reimagining the logic of some pretty standard humanitarian type textualities. In a sense. I saw it very much as a piece in which you were invited to imagine yourself, not so much as being Sidra, because of the the way that the voiceover is structured and the way the whole thing is structured, but that you would, you know, as though you were someone being taken around the camp. I agree with you that the visual perspective is a little bit unusual,
although I suspect that might have more to do with the kind of emerging skills around, you know, knowing how to film in this medium. Because I think that's been a really steep learning curve for folks working with it. So, but yeah the logic of a visit. So I kind of envisioned Sidra as an encounter, so it's a negotiation of difference. I totally take your point about
the kind of, you know, invasive, stroke colonial, stroke you know, white saviour kind of overtones of that, but I think that is part of humanitarian kind of works like this. If I was going to be more generous I would point to two things that I think are significant about Sidra. One is the way in which VR allows for a remediation in a broad sense, of the kind of the ideal of the encounter as, you know, sitting on the ground face to face with somebody else and listening, so performing an attentiveness to their testimony. Insofar as you know, this is not perfect and I would totally echo Victoria's kind of sentiments that the immersion is always kind of mixed and partial and all the rest of it. But if I think about the logic, what am I being asked to imagine myself doing? I'm being asked to imagine that I am there, to imagine that I am seated opposite this girl and that I am paying attention, hopefully. Although as i've written about, you know, I got kind of distracted
by the visual offer behind me and kept swirling around. But that probably just says more about me being heartless. But so paying attention to, you know, to kind of, to do that. So that's the first thing that I would say is that kind of illusion of, you know, and that opportunity to perform that attentiveness. And the other is picking up on Lilie Chouliaraki's analysis of news
and witnessing, and thinking about how it is that news texts might negotiate difference. And Kate's already mentioned, you know, proper distance. For me, proper distance is a really useful kind of framework for thinking about VR because it allows me to think through, well hang on a second, how is proximity suggested and how is distance navigated? Because you need both. So in terms of the encounter with the space of the camp, you know, picking up on Lilie Chouliaraki's language, I would say it makes the space of the camp concrete in a very particular way.
So it's not just Sidra's reality but the reality of life in this camp is rendered concrete in a way that's, you know, can be affective. I mean certainly the scale of it can be affective it can be, you know, it can help you to capture something of that reality. But yeah that's, to my mind, that's the kind of the the logic of it. I think there are all those issues around invading space, but you know it's really interesting with these technologies to be kind of thinking about where are the questions actually, genuinely new and where do they actually just kind of pick up on questions that we've been asking for a very long time about what's the logic of humanitarian communication, how do we represent the other, how do we reduce them to a stereotype, is she just a stereotype of the worthy victim? Well in my view yes, but you know what's different here is how are we encouraged to imagine ourselves.
Thanks Kate. Can I just build on what Kate was saying then, I think that's one of the really crucial things when we're thinking about a lot of the these projects, is this, I guess both immediate archaeology but kind of a broader cultural archaeology that many of the issues that they raise aren't new. And I think part of that is because there's a kind of hesitancy to really indulge in an experiment with VR technologies and what it really can do beyond being quite cinematic. And for this one sequence for me when you, I think you said about it kind of feeling like a visit, and there's a moment at the end where I think Sidra talks about the camp having more children than adults, and all the children run towards - I think it's in this one, it may be in another film actually, I might have confused two films - but the moment where the children all surround you, as the viewer, and it really feels like that kind of white saviour thing, this kind of cliche images you have in humanitarian communication, with you surrounded by all the children that you've somehow saved. And it was very uncomfortable image and it might, sorry it might be one of the other films, I apologize. But that kind of image to me, it's just a lot of repetitions of
these historical images. And, you know, there's a point in that computer games room where she says, oh I don't know what the boys do in there, yet we do and we're seeing this, and there's this moment when we detach from her narrative. And what Kate was noting there about technical issues, I think the important thing here is about the eye line as a child, and that we do look down. And one of the other films, 'Limbo' that eyeline is actually played with and there's a kind of asylum officer looking down at you and you feel that pressure. But here that the uncomfortableness of looking down at the child, so we don't get the sense that we're in the point of view visually of the child, but what is quite powerful with this and I think all of these VR experiences, is that the testimony is in quite traditional ways in the voice. And whatever we are seeing
is kind of then framed by that voice and even if it's not, we're not taking on the person, it's kind of footsteps, or we're not following, it's having them lead us like we do with Pinker, other 'In The Last Goodbye', the voice is framing the images for us. And that kind of giving us that subjective anchorage. And I think that's what's quite powerful about all of these and perhaps it's one of the things that's often sidelined when we talk about VR, because it's kind of about reality and the visual that the auditory gets sidelined in conversations. Yeah, and the auditory is of course also very different because sometimes we actually hear the voice of the people and sometimes we hear an actor. Sometimes we hear their own language and sometimes we hear a translation with an accent, and have subtitles in the VR experience, which is also of course obviously something, a device we are very used to from documentaries but might be an alienating experience in a VR experience when we are supposed to feel that we are in the space, and to see words floating across the space we see is obviously, you know, sort of works against the photorealism you've mentioned. But that's another element which I find fascinating so you know, you
were talking about the the audio testament we're hearing, but we're hearing those in very different ways in those different examples. And I find it also interesting how they relate to the images, because sometimes it is, as you say, a photorealistic representation of a space, and sometimes it is, like in 'Limbo', which you've also mentioned, or actually in '6x9', which are both made in the context of The Guardian virtual reality experiences, where we actually see, at least in parts of of those VR experiences, the inner reality of people who are confined to these spaces. And I find that very interesting because it is partly the realism of the space itself, because the obviously it says this is how an isolation cell in US prison, in a US prison looks like, it's an authentic recreation of that. But at the same time it says, this is how it feels like to be in this cell, and we're not just getting the audio testimony we're also getting visuals that kind of imagine what the psychic reality or the inner reality is of being in these spaces. So yeah I was wondering also about that, because that that seems to be a very different
way virtual reality experiences can go, even the non-fiction ones, where they are based more on a kind of imaginative encounter with the testimony rather than a strictly a photorealist one. I think '6x9' is a really interesting project for a number of reasons, and just to kind of pick up on what you were saying that the Silke about this idea of the kind of, i'm gonna use the word simulation because I think simulation is actually a really helpful way of thinking about how these works mimic something of the experience of another all right. So they don't reproduce it but they do, you know, the logic of it, is that there's something on offer here which is meant to give you some kind of insight into what it feels like to be in this space. And I think that's really interesting, and for me
that's interesting because of what it tells us about shifting regimes of truth and the way in which the kind of logic of what John Dovey is written about as first person media is extended through these immersive platforms, right. So John Dovey wrote about reality TV in the 1990s, and it's the kind of parade of talking heads, and said you know isn't it really interesting how we have come to understand truth as something that is personal, and you know particular, not these kind of grand narratives, not theme, you know, big big theories about reality, but you know concrete lived experiences of individuals. And to my mind the kind of stimulation side of this actually mimics, you know, it can be located within that overall trajectory. We are coming
to understand something of the experience of another because we are having a first person, albeit simulated, version of that experience. But what's interesting also about '6x9' is the way it does actually also bring in elements of distance right, because if you think about the simulation of another's experience, or aspects of it as proximity, all right, it gives you some kind of felt understanding, then distance is always, is also really important. How does it actually put that experience into context, how does it also enable you to understand that you're not actually experiencing what someone else experiences, but you're actually experiencing just a little fraction right? And actually '6x9' has a number of distancing strategies that I think are really important. The first one is it frames the experience as just a kind of, something of the experience, right, you know people have been in here for nine years, you're going to be in here for nine minutes, right. This is not the real thing, it's just a kind of you know, this is a fragment of. So that's the first thing. But the other thing is that what it does do is, it makes the voices of others, it uses that audio, the audio recordings from the prison, and it uses the voices and testimonies of experts of various kinds to situate this experience, and to make it clear to the person who's engaging with the experience what they're experiencing why it's important, and what it means in the kind of broader term. So you're
actually hearing, and you can see it in the screenshots that you've grabbed there, so you know solitary confinement can cause, you know, permanent psychological damage. You hear the voices of experts actually contextualizing this experience. And to my mind that's a really great example of distancing right, so here I offer you an experience, an illusion, here I actually place that in context and that to me is is really important. Could I mention a few things because there are so many ideas to kind of talk about in the past few moments. The one thing I really, because I think both Kate and Victoria in their various comments, the way I kind of think about this is, okay on one hand yeah, so many of the things that we're talking about with VR, especially here, is not particularly new. If we're talking about the capacities of media to visualize something right, that's been part of photography, has been part of cinema, throughout their entire history. The idea of immersive media, I think Victoria mentioned
even like this goes back to Italian frescoes and things like the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk is the one that I always kind of draw on, which has different points that I think could be drawn out from. But the thing that I do think, and this gets to what both Kate and Victoria were saying, is how I think about this is, these are all existing in terms of a context in which there's assume political value to public intimacy. And I think that this like, I first started thinking about this when Victoria was talking about the inappropriate seeing of private spaces, but there is something I think that you can say at least since the 80s, maybe even slightly before then, but of a specific political value towards speaking the self to be worthy of rights, which is definitely the case with a lot of these examples. The idea that to be worthy of rights, to be worthy of recognition as a human, means to speak private experience. It's not just seeing it
for yourself, it's the fact that somebody has to speak it, somebody has to say it, versus an abstraction that simply recognizes the other as a human being by default. And I think that's something that is kind of like, is pretty much, if we think about a number of these of how they visualize this necessarily private space, does come to the idea of what does it mean for a particular person to be considered, to be even like articulated or recognized as a human being. And of course this sort of, this demand to speak private truth, to speak intimate realities, is differential. It's not like everybody has to be in this position to be considered worthy of rights. So to begin with there's automatically
a kind of discursive political formation that frames particular struggles, particular bodies, as necessarily defining themselves, or necessarily making themselves visible in particular ways. Which I mean some of these play with, I think a number of people have pointed out, play with these or sort of critique these, and how the VR simulation itself is derived. But I think that's something that kind of is foundational, even for kind of the formation that is about, what does it mean for people to be recognized? Now the other thing that kind of goes back to that idea of like how does this then relate also to media history, with things like the, I mean the the critique of immersivity in the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, I mean like I always kind of end up not deferring but sort of like thinking back to like the Adorno, Wagner book which kind of argues that the immersivity, the multimedia spectacle of Wagnerian opera was only possible through a necessary exclusion of particular people. Now on that context was the labor, the orchestra, literally in the materiality of the orchestra or literally in the materiality of the theatre, but Adorno I mean fairly obviously ends up sort of making an analogy to Wagnerian anti-semitism with that as well, this kind of immersive media spectacle requires a kind of exclusion. And I think it is necessarily the case with these
that the medium has to be excluded, which again goes back to a number of Victoria's points of talking about the medium specificity of VR, and how that's oftentimes overlooked, a point that I completely agree with. But I always do wonder about like when it comes to what is represented in these, also what is excluded. What is included but also what's excluded. And what is necessary to be excluded for the simulation, for identification to work, which again is an extremely old theme. So that's some of the things that I was thinking about from this discussion. I just wanted to come back on the point about saying that there was this kind of invasiveness in the domestic space regarding Sidra, because I think for me it was at the beginning, as Silke said, she invites us into the house but then she is visually erased. And then what was previously
said about actually that, a lot of the audio is translation, that then she's also kind of orally erased if it's someone else's voice. So we were invited into a house and almost the film kind of makes her vanish. And then when we return to her domestic space she's in tears and the camera moves closer to her, and stays on her, and talks for her, and at that point in the voiceover there's a kind of commentary about her, about that she's been here for so long and that makes her upset.
And I think that that was what was particularly jarring in that film for me, in terms of our positioning in relation to her, and this kind of erasing of her. And then returning to her when she's in a kind of very vulnerable state as well. Can I just pick up on some of the issues that were raised here by Grant and Victoria, mostly related to the notion of what is included, what is excluded and presence and erasure, as Victoria mentioned earlier. And bringing those issues closer to the question of empathy. It's just, i'm just wondering to what extent you know VR as a genre with its focus really on immersion, actually allows a deeper contextualization of the subjects that we are encountering.
I mean my sense from those examples, from clouds over Sidra but also from others, is that we are plunged, we plunge into this world for very short time, usually I mean these experiences last for at most 10 minutes, and we are given very little information about the individuals that we are seeing. I mean we are given maybe a line or two of information, of contextualization, which is usually very broad and which doesn't really help us to understand their position very well. I mean, in relation to Sidra, to 'Clouds Over Sidra', I was wondering why for instance the voices of members of her family are not present? Why is she singularized in a way, being detached from, you know, her relations, her most immediate relations of the family? So just to sort of bring this to a more sort of general question related to the media in relation to whether it really offers us, does it really offer us a deeper understanding of these individuals given that we are given very little contextualization of their situation.
That's one thing. And the other thing is, can we actually empathize with these historical subjects when we are lacking a deeper understanding of their situation. I was just thinking, as you were saying that, like in a lot of these examples you know, maybe there's a privileging of the space. So when we think about the last goodbye, the camp, well obviously 'Clouds Over Sidra' as well, and I was just thinking as well, a lot of these audio talks, and particularly i'm talking more probably augmented reality, but if you think about 'Spaces of Memory' I think Victoria's written about this, how you get all these kind of fragmented narratives and sound bites of different people. And I think that's also true of the audio walk of Goosen, which is you know, understanding this space and the walk of the camp that's not there anymore, and then also i'm working on the liberation at Dachao and that's kind of a whole audio narrative of various different people. So you don't
get this contextualization of the individual, but I think in the same way you have a distance to, like we were saying earlier about kind of subsuming them in the western perspective and narcissistic identification, but maybe you get more of an understanding of space. Maybe space is contextualized rather than the individual, I don't know. Just a thought. Yes certainly.
I think Kate makes a really good point there about the space being contextualised, but I also think that even then we don't get the deeper contextualization, and like deeper than a non-VR way of doing this. Because I don't know if other people had the same experience, but I rarely felt that the VR experience was encouraging me to look in 360 at most of these things, so either there was an audio queue that I should be, you know, looking at the person who's speaking, or that you know the sound of computer games or, and so I should be looking at this thing that I can see on screen, or there was something happening automatically where I was already looking. And the only part in 'Clouds Over Sidra' were that was different, I found myself where the young boys were wrestling and I was looking at this quite uncomfortably, very close up, to this long line of young boys who are kind of either awkwardly waving at the camera or kind of trying not to look at it, and then she was talking about wrestling and I was like, where's the wrestling and then I looked and it was right behind me. And I know obviously they respond to us differently depending on how
we're, where our eyes are, and how we're adjusted to the set, but I found in, also in 'Refugees' when I looked behind me there was very little stuff going on, it was quite background stuff so I felt compelled to turn back to the kind of cinematic 2d style action. I didn't feel like they were playing in 360. So even for me, the space wasn't really utilized in that way either, and I wonder if there is a problem there, that if we were to do that too much then we become, you come back to what I think 'Refugees' does, the mass of refugees, the refugees not as individualized, and I wonder if that was a technique the filmmakers were purposely going for. So they were trying to make us concentrate on either individuals or small groups. And also the difference between the distraction, the tension between the distraction and the attention. Also what Kate's been saying about, you know, one advantage of this VR experience
seems to be that we are concentrating, you know, we feel like we're there, we are being invited in and being talked to personally, and is sitting opposite the the girl giving her testimony, but at the same time the VR seems to encourage, the VR experience seems to encourage us to be distracted, you know, and look around and kind of actually explore the fact that it is a VR experience, which means we can look in different places. Obviously if somebody was actually talking to you and you were to do that, you know, you you would be a very rude person, you wouldn't be looking around, you know, you would try to make eye contact and so on. So I think there is a tension there, as has already been said, between the VR experience and the limited kind of agency or or interactivity it seems to offer, with hat tracking you know, being able to just look around and see 360 degree environment, and the kind of attention we are supposed to give to the testimony and to the person giving the testimony. Exactly and I think that for me that came into sharp focus with 'The Last Goodbye', the recording that we we put, the link we put to the recording was actually someone else's sort of encounter with Pinchas Gutter. And I was surprised actually by how uncomfortable I felt when there were some certain points where where he is describing his experience of the showers, and also when he's looking at his, in front of the mausoleum, and singing a song in memory of his sister, and I could see that the person who was experiencing through the VR was actually moving around, and looking around the scene, and not directly at Gutter. Particularly at that very emotional, intensely emotional moment. And yes it does give
us a sense of how other people are experiencing these issues but also, as Silke mentioned, that there's, it's actually the VR itself, it invites you to do that. So I wonder whether, how one can, how let's say VR producers would be able to reconcile this tension. Is it possible? Diana I just wanted to say, yeah, how you've noticed that part where he's singing at the ashes to his sister, my theory of this actually is that that's the point where you transition actually back to being a spectator. And so just prior to arriving at the mausoleum you follow him, I don't know if people remember that you walk behind him, he'll no longer address you, so you've had his eye line pretty much the entire time and then he turns around, you follow him, and i've kind of suggested that this is your transition back from being a surrogate child or a part of the family to now actually, you need to get ready to be a spectator. And if you actually think about when
he first sings the Kadish, you kind of have that really uncomfortable moment with him anyway under the showers, so you're already in and then you kind of get it again. But I think you get it as his child and then you get it as a spectator. And then obviously straight after, I mean we don't know if this is like a technical thing, but when you're at the ashes you're actually kind of above him, hovering. And that's why I think the person looks around in that video, because it's suddenly a really weird perspective that we haven't had prior to that singing section, and then by the time you're back in the park obviously the little boy strolls up and plays with his hat on the scooter, and he's completely relieved you of that surrogate child position. So I find that there's parallels between those two different songs that he sings at different times, and they're almost as uncomfortable as each other, but I think you're invited to experience them in different ways.
Can I just, I mean because I think that's a really really important point that Kate's made there about this idea of the fluidity of your positioning within these experiences, and the fact that it isn't just a a singular kind of thing. And just picking up Diana, that question that you asked about the tension, and I think Silk also mentioned it as well, this tension between you know, how can VR producers navigate this tension between the spectacle of VR, and the inviting an exploration of a world, certain world to inhabit, if it's immersive and it's a world to inhabit, you know, that it invites your kind of visual exploration, with this idea of paying attention. And i'm going to be really really rude and kind of bring in another work that wasn't in the collection but one that I think is really really important for the way in which it invites reflection on that question, and that is Zohar Kefir's testimony. This is actually a piece about survivors of sexual assault, and there are five survivors of sexual assault within this experience and they talk about their experience in different ways. But what's really interesting about it is the way in which the experience itself actually asks you to pay attention, and it kind of, it tutors you to pay attention to the difference, just some minute little you know, the kind of the tiny detail, all right you can't you know, you really do you find yourself drawn to these individuals. So there are five individuals and you can trace their stories,
and they're kind of knitted together through themes. But what it doesn't do is it doesn't put you into a kind of rich visual spectacle, like you're in the dark with five people around you, and you are invited to pay attention to them. The thing is if you turn away from somebody, their voice dies away and they become less colourful. And so actually you know,
as you pay attention the richness of your understanding, now you know I preface all of this by saying I think VR is an incredibly thin medium and I don't think you get the same kind of depth of understanding as you do through other modes of kind of storytelling and representation, nevertheless I think this work is interesting for the way it attempts to try and get you to engage with another's experience. Kind of, you know, you have to look at them, you have to look at them in the eye, they're life-sized, they look like you know, you're there having this kind of, you're in black void with them having a face-to-face kind of moment, and the more you look at them and the more you are, you know, noticing those details, the hands, the way that they are holding themselves, the more they become coloured and real. You're like colouring them in with your attention. And I think it's an interesting experiment. You know i'm not gonna - I don't necessarily wanna proclaim any of these things you know, great or not great - but they're interesting for what they tell us right about witnessing and receiving testimony. In this sense. Can I be a little bit provocative around this idea of distraction and attention, and I really want to follow up on that VR project you just mentioned Kate, that sounds really fascinating, I've never seen it. But there's a book, and i'm trying to recall the name off my head here,
I think it's Elish Wood, she talks about dispersed attention with the digital, and she tries to move away from this idea of distraction and attention, and a lot of the discourse around the digital and distraction comes from people that just don't like the digital. And the book's called 'Digital Encounters' if I remember correctly, i'm trying to remember off my head. And I wonder if we are finding VR distracting in some of these projects, maybe it's the wrong medium for what these projects are trying to do. VR to me isn't really about looking very closely at another, it could be about the affective experience. And I think some of these films like a '6x9' do that,
where there's no person that you see on screen, it is about the space, and it's about your affective experience of the space, and playing with the kind of yeah, the feeling of that space rather than it's photorealism only. And I wonder what might might make VR useful for thinking about witnessing is if in examples where the landscape is seen as a witness, exploring landscape is witnessed rather than exploring person. And I mean, one of the way reasons that video testimonies are so powerful is that they're normally shot in medium shot, and you see the gestures of the person, you see the face, you're able to see the details of the person's way of expressing themselves. VR seems to me, if you can have a space which
you can wander around, and I think that's what makes, i'm just reminding myself of the titles, 'Sea Prayer' particularly effective, because it uses the 360 space as a canvas and it's, the picture you've got there in the middle, of the house and the the green, is it it's drawn up bit by bit. There's hardly anything on screen when we come into the space, and we look around first of all it's like, oh not another one of these films that can't be bothered with the 360, and then I sort of realized I was, my head was being, I was doing an exorcist moving with my head, and then on my knees, on the sofa, going the other way. But it was about the spatiality and VR is a spatial medium. And I think that's perhaps where some of these projects do go wrong, in being too
much about the person. Those stories need to be told, I think they're very very important, but again I think it's this clash in what is the medium good for, and there is this kind of overzealous love for, oh VR's the next best thing, we better go use it, let's make a thing. One of the upshots of this idea of the empathy machine is that people are being motivated by this idea of empathy to think about what sorts of relationships, and you know, and works like 'Testimony' I think point towards, okay well maybe there is something that you know, we can start to play around with in terms of what it might mean to to receive testimony in an immersive media.
Is there something about donning a headset and taking yourself away from distraction and actually paying attention to somebody else's story, into the nuance of their experience, is that something you know. How do these works negotiate proximity and distance in ways that might be productive. And I think, you know, what we've seen across all the works that we've looked at is that, you know, there are there are moments, there are opportunities, there are things to to be explored, and to take further. So I mean again yeah, nothing profound or new but just i'm very, i'm kind of optimistic and I think you're right that, so that this is an urgent question because, you know, yeah we have this, we have opportunities at certain points in time and I think this is one of those points in time. I guess yeah again nothing profound, but you know we haven't really thought about this as, you know, even just a preservation tool at the very minimum. You know it's something we can go back to when the
survivors aren't here, it's a form of testimony, you know, we have our video archives, we have all of these things throughout history, you know, will this be something we return to or not. Regarding even just as Pinchas Gutter as an example, you know, him in the space, we have people who have talked about the filming experience, and Stephen Smith has got all these background things, all of these are experiences that are a byproduct of VR that still might mean something that we can't really see yet. But obviously you know, the anticipation of entering like a post survivor era or you know, with hindsight, maybe it will be something that we see as preservation. I would just say that, I think when you said for the next one that people from Blast Theory are going to be talking about future ideas, I am just intrigued to hear what they would say, because I think their work is some of the most like interesting in terms of utilizing the material qualities of new technologies in really interesting and effective ways.
The thing I would probably add to this though, i'm going to be a little pessimistic I think, is in the extension of, and once we see more and more instances of VR for ostensibly social good, ostensibly humanitarian purposes, I think that also is going to create like, or we might see, things that are VR aside from gaming, for deliberately anti-social purposes as well. And i'm thinking explicitly here, I have a co-authored piece about like Jordan Wolfson's real violence art piece which is kind of the antithesis of everything that we've talked about here, and so I do kind of - but goes back to a more salacious understanding of visuality and haptics and media as creating experiences that one wouldn't be able to have otherwise and so I think that this is, maybe we could say it's like there's a kind of pharmacology to it, if you want to use that term, but if it becomes more able to create identification for humanitarian purposes it probably will also be able to create the inverse as well, I think. And so I think that's probably something to keep in mind for better or worse. Yes I have one slightly pessimistic thing about the future and perhaps more utopian and more positive and proactive. And I think this was kind of raised in your notes and the examples that you Diana and Silke that you provided for us and the structure for that, which was fantastic, and also the kind of caveat that you said, you know, you wanted to find VR experts that were accessible for everyone. But there's a big issue there that we didn't have to do this when we were studying television or film or advertising, you could just send, or you probably organized a screening, right. You wouldn't send people links
before the 90s. You set up a screening and everyone could just watch them. Even to do that with VR you'd have to have each individual do it with one headset, or you'd have to buy 10 headsets if you want 10 people there. You know, Google glasses are fine but you know, even the gear which I used to have just doesn't have the same ability to do stuff with the same functionality, and it's clunky as other headsets. And I do wonder whether it will be another kind of 3D thing, that everyone would just constantly be going, yeah we're going to make, we are going to make this next big thing, and then a few years it will kind of disappear a little bit, and kind of simmer and then come back again but never really quite be the thing. I remember buying a 3D television, I don't know probably nearly a decade ago but like, oh yes but everything's gonna be 3D! no it's not. Now it's like two things on 3D on the BBC and then it just sort of all dissipated again. And we had these 3D glasses unnecessarily
in the house. On the other side I think yeah, we've raised lots of questions around whether this is the appropriate medium, if it is how is it, yeah you know, what is particularly new about VR, which I think is so important with this idea of new media it's, you know, Grant's eloquently shown a lot of these conversations were happening about other kinds of art and other forms of culture experience. So I think a lot of people are playing and experimenting and trying to figure it out, and I wonder if actually more spaces like this, spaces that are between creatives, computer scientists, you know, tech people, designers, curators, whatever, that work in humanitarian sector, academics, and having these difficult conversations where those terms that we question, and all have different definition of that, we come to guidelines and ideas about how things should be. And I think I know from people i've spoken to in the Holocaust heritage or memory sector that has been one of the things they've said, that we don't have any guidelines for what's appropriate or even how these systems work, we are just playing, so we go get ourselves a 360 camera and we figure out how it works. But that's really limited because VR can do so much more, and that
computational side of it disappears because people are familiar with the visual cinematic elements of it and so they stay within that kind of, I guess, the rhetorical discourse of those other media that are familiar to them. And I think having those difficult debating, angry, lively, conversations between sectors and such, and it would be really important for thinking through these questions. Well thank you all so much, both from Diana and myself. Thanks for joining us today and
it was a great conversation, I hope you enjoyed it as much as certainly I did. And I very much hope that you sort of join us for this ongoing conversation and that we will be able to invite you back in one form or another to keep this going. Something we've just scratched the surface of. So thanks so much for for joining us and i'll hopefully see you soon. Thank you as well, this is great. Thanks so much everyone.
Thank you. Thank you for hosting and thank you everyone.