The adult fun house of Virtual Reality
ROCKLAND — I started my afternoon in a Fallujah “Boneyard” of destroyed Iraqi vehicles, artillery pieces and armor. Ten minutes later, I was smack in the middle of New York City crosswalk, looking up at the sky, the buildings, the construction going on to the right as some guy set down his iced coffee and went back to work. Amid all the cacophony, my world went dark. Then, I was standing in the middle of the lush Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park looking up at tremendous mossy covered Western Hemlocks, the only sound of a stream gurgling at my feet.
The Camden International Film Festival’s “Storyforms” exhibit has taken over Winter Street’s barn in what I can only describe as an adult fun house. Much like The Collective’s past interactive parties, there are stations throughout the converted barn that will transport you into another time and in the head of someone else’s story.
The main “stage” of the exhibit looks straight out of Blade Runner. A surreal sculptural installation by an artist whom I recently covered in a story Rachel Lee Zheng, layers monofilament lit by eerie green LED lights while participants sit in chairs with virtual reality headsets and earphones. From an observer’s standpoint, it’s unclear why they are moving in 360 degrees in their swivel chairs, their heads looking up, down, everywhere as if searching for something.
Then, I get in one of the chairs while a CIFF volunteer sets up a “story” for me to experience. “Do you want action or do you want meditative?” she asks.
The headset goes on; the earphones are next. And in seconds, I’m watching a documentary “Mind at War” about a soft spoken young man, Scott England, who signed up to join the military after 9/11, desperate to have some economic security. Through a series of interactive virtual reality paintings, I can now see why everybody is moving in their chairs. As England tells his story of being in Iraq, and losing his wife to another man, then coming home as a depressed veteran and his battle with PTSD and homelessness, it’s a story I can’t take my eyes away from. The scenery is all around me; I have to move my head to see the 360-degree picture. In my ears, England is talking to me and I’m hearing all of the nuances of his story in a way you just can’t get from watching a flat screen. It feels personal and I’m invested in what he has to say. That’s why this exhibit is called Cinema 360.
All of nine Storyforms in Cinema 360 immerse you in either virtual reality or augmented reality like this. The next one I watch, “Sanctuaries of Silence,” is also part of its own physical installation in the exhibit which puts you in a simulated room of a rain forest. In this one, I’m watching Emmuanuel Vaughan-Lee, while he stands holding a high fidelity microphone the height of a pool cue, first, in a busy crosswalk in NYC, before takes me to an immersive listening journey into Olympic National Park and on driftwood-littered beaches. I am listening with him to the sounds of water, the tides, the screeching bird, the trickle of a stream, the sway of wind.
I didn’t have to move more than a few feet and I traveled across the country and to a different continent in 20 minutes. This exhibit will put you in places and in the perspective of people you will likely never meet, but will feel as if you know them afterwards.
There is a scary looking white room called “Terminal 3” in this exhibit and there for 12 minutes with a “Hololens” headset on, you will experience what it is like to sit in an airport interrogation room, and through interactive, augmented reality, you’ll directly interrogate, and determine the fate of, the hologram passenger before you. These interrogations will become strikingly personal encounters that only end when the you decide if the hologram should be let into the country or not—but there is a twist.
There are a number of other installations in this exhibit, including “Fireflies: A Brownville Story,” where you will not only wear a Hololens, but you’ll be able to touch objects with hand controllers. Then, you’ll be inside a Brooklyn neighborhood which is divided by an ongoing rivalry between public housing developments. You’ll also see in “Manic VR” what it’s like to be bipolar and experience “the heightening of senses and the untamed imagination that accompanies this complex and mysterious condition.”
As I mention in my Local’s Guide To CIFF column, you don’t have to be a CIFF passholder to be able to go on these fantastic journeys. $30 will get you in on an experience you’ll never get in a small town. FMI: CIFF Storyforms
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org