Venice VR: Portland Art Museum returns to the future (with mixed results)
There are two aspects to the Portland Art Museum’s second move to host the American iteration of the virtual reality component of the Venice Biennale, which runs at the museum through September 19. One is the quality and variety of VR programming, which ranges from expansive narratives of abstract experiences to journalistic immersion. The other is the logistical and technical challenges inherent in organizing the event, some of which are exacerbated by COVID protocols.
The ability to evaluate and appreciate the first is necessarily impacted by the second, in particular in the fact that a ticket for the exhibition gives a window of one hour to explore several dozen virtual realities. Most titles have run times (a sometimes nebulous concept) of between 10 and 30 minutes, and some can take several hours to fully immerse themselves in them. The people who have access to the required headsets at home are the only real audience for these epic experiences.
We each spent an hour with the Oculus and Vive headsets. The Vive headset is connected to a computer and has a folding headset for sound. The Oculus is not attached and the sound is integrated into the headphones. The event also features HP headsets, which Amy Dotson, director of the NWFC and curator of film and new media at PAM, likens to ‘driving a Ferrari’. None of us were considered Ferrari driving material.
MM: For me, the highlights were the entrances that allowed me to experience a part of the natural world that would otherwise be totally off-limits. Caves (Oculus) delivers exactly what it says, as you accompany three intrepid cavers through a network of subterranean caverns causing claustrophobia. The 360 ââdegree effect is put to good use here, as the limited light sources illuminate various geological nooks and crannies.
In the same way, Genesis (Vive) presents an even more inaccessible environment – primitive Earth, presented over a 13-minute period through the familiar trope of treating the planet’s formation as one day, with humanity only appearing in the dying seconds of his last minute. Obviously, this is a computer-generated version of the past four billion years, but it’s detailed, immersive, and awe-inspiring. The starry sand beach (Vive) uses intelligent and vivid animation to explore the folklore and science behind the phosphorescent grains that make the beaches of the East China Sea shine like starlight. And Micro-Monsters (Vive) will be a staple for fans of David Attenborough, the silver-tongued naturalist who chronicles the occasion to witness a close-quarters battle between a centipede and a scorpion, as well as other spooky antics.
LRP: I was also struck by the virtual access to things that I would never have experienced otherwise. Space Explorers: The ISS Experience was the first virtual reality project filmed inside the International Space Station and is like a âday in the lifeâ of astronauts. There are several episodes, each running at around half an hour. I watched Adapt and I was as impressed with the astronauts who roamed their home cluttered with ropes and the ingenuity required for a weightless treadmill that I was agitated as they invaded my personal space. I stepped back and berated, “You are too close to me!” more than one time.
What particularly interested me in VR was the possibility of being immersed in history. I’m an art historian, so maybe that’s normal. There were three projects in this category that I saw in the program that I wanted to check out, but only one of the three, Amsterdam Angels, was available in the ballroom.
i wanted to love Amsterdam Angels, which takes place in a 17th-century tavern in Amsterdam and tells the stories of four female characters. However, my involvement in this project was marred by technical difficulties. I couldn’t understand the dialogue and at one point even asked the attendant if they thought the overwhelming wailing was part of the experience. They opposed.
Amsterdam Angels was the only project I experienced that had some sort of interactive element. The premise was that the viewer had to make eye contact with the character, and then that character would launch into their story. The viewer is actually looking at a point near the character, so it doesn’t look as authentic as advertised. As far as I know (and I could be wrong) there was no way to use manual commands to manipulate anything.
MM: I also felt that too few titles took much, if at all, advantage of the interactive capabilities of VR. Those that do are sometimes difficult to explore in depth within the allotted time frame. The mask maker (Vive), for example, has you investigate a mysterious mask shop and try to learn its secrets. Mare (Oculus) involves a mechanical bird on a mysterious adventure. And in The consequences of the Jurassic world (Oculus), you are the passenger of a plane which crashes on the titular island populated by dinosaurs. I didn’t have time to venture far beyond the starting point of one of these tales, however, despite the promise each of them showed.
LRP: The interactive components were the ones I felt least proficient in last year, but they were also what I found most memorable about the experience. None of the projects I’ve seen this year incorporated any interaction. That’s not to say they weren’t impressive or innovative, it was just more of a cinematic experience.
A resolutely cinematographic project was Montegelato, which was a 28-minute collection of every cinematic performance of the Montegelato waterfalls in Lazio, Italy. It starts with a single frame of the waterfall, then continues to overlay additional films so that the space visually overlaps – one bush in one clip matches the bush in the next, then widens the field of view until the viewer has a 360 degree view. waterfalls. It reminded me of being in one of those IMAX planetarium style theaters.
Perhaps the familiarity with the Montegelato waterfalls and their myriad of cinematic references would have increased my commitment to this project. It was frustrating not being able to hear the sound very well. The volume on my Oculus headset was not high enough, and what I heard the most were the attendants explaining how to use the headsets and navigate the menus.
MM: I had a similar issue with the Oculus – even with the volume on full blast you still get a lot of ambient distraction. Logistically, I wish it would take less time for the viewer to orientate and settle in. Perhaps ticket buyers should receive a link to a video providing the basic information on setting up the respective headset and how to navigate the menus needed to access programming. Or a group orientation session could take place before each session. As it is, the first precious minutes of an hour window are spent getting (a little) familiar with the headsets and controllers.
LRP: While I was hypnotized by the space, the project that will accompany me is Re-educated, a journalistic project sponsored by The New Yorker that explored Chinese prison camps in Xinjiang (the autonomous region in northwest China most associated with Uyghurs). Based on the memories of three former prisoners, the project takes the viewer inside a line-drawing style animation of the camp and the dehumanizing experiences of the prisoners. The walls close in on the viewer as the narrators recount their utter misunderstanding as to why they were detained in the first place. At one point, the view was obscured to simulate the experience of hooded prisoners for the transfer: the mesh impression in the VR headset was so effective that I began to hyperventilate. The play ends with live images of each of the three prisoners.
Virtual reality excels at making stories and places that would otherwise be inaccessible seem immediate. It’s one thing to read an article about prison camps in Xinjiang, but even virtually testifying to their experience is more visceral, more touching, and therefore more effective in raising awareness of something that may seem distant.
MM: OK. Being transported in such a visceral, so virtual way, highlights the immense potential of this still nascent medium of storytelling. And this is only the second attempt by the Portland Art Museum to mount this Venetian collaboration, so if it continues these issues should probably resolve themselves to a large extent. But as it stands, the Film Center cannot count on the novelty of the VR experience to alleviate the awkwardness of part of the presentation much longer.