Mobilising Memory through Mixed Reality (Arts Weeks 2021)

Mobilising Memory through Mixed Reality (Arts Weeks 2021)

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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.

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2021-05-22 03:55

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